TSLX Spotlight: J.C. Price
by Will Stewart, TSL Extra #12, October 17, 2001
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Where Are They Now? J.C. Price
The dusty football practice fields behind Radford High School are only a 20-minute drive from Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium, but for former Hokie defensive tackle J.C. Price, it's worlds away from his playing days at Virginia Tech. And that's just fine with him, because he has found his calling, and he's where he wants to be.
Price, a third-team All-American defensive tackle for the Hokies in 1995, has landed here after a turbulent few years that saw him bounce around the NFL and Arena League football, get his Tech degree, and try his hand at a few jobs he didn't like.
This one he likes. He's the defensive line coach now at Radford, an A-class school of just over 400 students with a proud football tradition that includes two state championships in the early 1970's. Frank Beamer made a brief stop here early in his coaching career, when he served as an assistant coach from 1969 through 1971.
That was a long time ago, and in that funny way that things have of coming full circle, Price now serves as an assistant under the same man who was the head coach for the Radford Bobcats when Beamer was here back in 1971, Norm Lineburg.
For J.C. Price, his arrival at Radford High two years ago marked the end of one phase of his life -- his football career -- and the beginning of another -- his coaching career. Price, a solid but unspectacular defensive tackle for most of his career at Tech in the early 90's, exploded on the scene in his senior year in 1995 with a four-sack performance against the Miami Hurricanes. He never let up that year, and he eventually earned third-team All-American honors, which he used as a springboard to get drafted in the NFL in the spring of 1996.
But two years and many back problems later, Price's playing days were over, and he had to find something else to do. It took a while, but Price, who married former Tech basketball star Jenny Root along the way, has now found a place he can call home, and an occupation that he wants to make his life's career.
The transition from player to coach wasn't an easy one, but he's happy and ready to move on. And by the way, he's pretty good at coaching, too.
1995: A Breakout Performance
Price was a key player for a 1995 Hokie football team that rebounded from an 0-2 start, including an ugly home loss to Cincinnati, to win ten straight and finish 10-2, capturing Tech's first major bowl win (a 28-10 victory over Texas in the Sugar Bowl) and the Hokies' first season-ending top 10 finish.
Like most Hokie fans and players from the mid-90's, the 1995 season was special to J.C. Price. After losing at home to Boston College 20-14 in the season opener, the Hokies dropped a hideous 16-0 loss to Cincinnati the next week, also at home. With the nationally ranked powerhouse Miami Hurricanes coming to Blacksburg for game #3, the Hokies were staring down the barrel of an 0-3 start and a long season.
Those who follow Tech football know what happened next. Tech downed the Hurricanes 13-7 in what many call the most important win in Tech football history. Price played a key role in the game, dominating the line of scrimmage and racking up four sacks, including a crushing sack of Miami quarterback Ryan Clement after the Canes had driven to Tech's 24 yard line with under a minute to go and Tech leading 13-7. Price's sack resulted in a ten-yard loss for the Canes, who couldn't recover.
When the clock expired on Tech's victory, it set off a wild celebration in Lane Stadium, and it also galvanized the team into making their ten-game run to close the season.
"I remember the week between the Cincinnati game to the Miami game, where you could feel as low as low could be," Price reminisced in a recent interview with the TSL Extra. "Then we go the following week to being on the ultimate high, and then riding that high the rest of the year. It still blows my mind how we were able to turn that thing around, from the top of the coaching staff, all the way down to the equipment managers. It was everybody that turned it around, not just the players or the coaches."
The game was Price's own personal coming out party, and it started off a season that ended with him being picked as a third-team All-American by the Associated Press. His senior season was his best at Tech by far, and there's little mystery as to why. Price's back, which had bothered him throughout his entire football career (he calls the bad L5 disc in his back a "genetic gift" from his father), was pain free his entire senior season.
"Something just clicked that senior year," he says. "I had battled back problems my whole career. I only went through one spring ball. I always had problems with my back, and we always had to work on it in the spring. That spring (1995), I was going to see Cindy Henderson (a Tech trainer) every day. I didn't practice, and the best I've ever felt was that fall.
"I remember there were games my junior year where I was getting the stem treatment right before the game. Southern Miss, my junior year, I wasn't even sure I was going to be able to go out for the coin flip, my back hurt so bad. For some reason, I just never had the pains my senior year."
Playing without pain for the first time, he was awesome, and his senior stats were eye-popping for a defensive tackle: 104 tackles, 8 sacks, 15 tackles for loss, and 38 QB hurries. Previously unheralded, he came from nowhere to draw the attention of the NFL scouts, and the Miami game started it all.
"That game got me drafted more than any 40 I ever ran, or any bench press I ever lifted," Price notes. "I had four sacks, but the one play where I chased (Miami receiver) Yatil Greene all the way down the field and made a tackle 40 yards from the line of scrimmage … it's things like that that got me drafted."
That, and a little preseason help from his friend, the late Tech trainer Eddie Farrell, who died in 1998.
"The other thing that helped was Eddie Farrell," Price says. Then he pauses. "I miss Eddie. Everybody does. Me and Eddie were close, because I spent so much time in the training room for my back. When the NFL people came around before my senior year and gave him a list of players they wanted (health and injury) information on, I wasn't on the list. Eddie wrote my name on that list and said, 'You need to have this guy on your list.'"
Farrell put Price on the radar screen, and J.C. did the rest. When all was said and done, Price was drafted in April of 1996 by the Carolina Panthers, who picked him in the third round of the draft as the 88th selection overall.
It was a storybook ending to a storybook senior season … right?
Actually, that's when things started to go south for J.C. Price. He had no idea that his best playing days were already behind him.
The NFL Experience
"I was shocked to get drafted in the third round to begin with," he remembers, "because I figured I was going to the Jets in the fourth round. The whole fact that Carolina drafted me shocked me, because I didn't even work out for Carolina. I never worked out for them here at Tech."
But beyond being surprised, Price was confused, as were many observers. Carolina ran a 3-4 defensive scheme at the time, and Price, undersized for noseguard at just 270 pounds, was ill-suited for the role the Panthers wanted him to play.
"To tell the truth, I had trouble adjusting to it. The way they wanted me to play, a 3-4 scheme is based around keeping the offensive line off of the linebackers. And here I am at 270 pounds trying to take on 300 pound guards and centers. I never really had to take them on here at Tech, and I just couldn't do it.
"My whole career and style of play was based on me being able to get into you and be gone before you could get your hands on me. I'm not a very big statured person. My speed was always my greatest asset."
But as ill-suited as he was for the noseguard position, Price worked hard and did well. He even returned an interception for a touchdown in a preseason game. Carolina was sold on him and wanted to keep him. Or so Price thought. But it didn't work out that way, and Carolina released him on the final cut-down before the 1996 season started.
"What made me mad," Price recalls, "was that I did everything they asked me to. I didn't hold out, I moved everything to North Carolina, I went to all their lifting sessions that summer. They released me, and I found out a year later, after (former Tech teammate) Waverly Jackson went down there on their practice squad, that what happened was I was a salary cap casualty.
"I was the second of two third-round picks," he explains. "That was the year they signed Rocket Ismail. They basically signed Rocket for one of their third-round draft pick's salaries, so one of us two third-round draft picks had to go. The other one was Wendsell Oliver, and he was the starting punt returner, so it wasn't going to be him. So, technically, I was a salary cap casualty my first year."
Getting cut at the last instant meant that all Price could hope for was to make someone else's practice squad. Within days, he got his chance when the Arizona Cardinals called him up. Things were looking up, because Arizona ran a 4-3 that would allow Price to utilize his speed and skills.
And then his father's "genetic gift" started acting up again.
"I went there (Arizona) and was on the practice squad, but as soon as I got out to Arizona, I started having trouble with my back. I ended up spending the last 2 or 3 weeks on IR (Injured Reserve). I had shooting pains down my leg from a disc in my back, and I really couldn't do anything, so they put me on IR."
Out for the season, Price returned to Blacksburg and rehabbed, once again making himself pain free. He went back to Arizona for the 1997 season, and he was in a good position, battling it out for the top defensive tackle backup spot on the team. It was between Price and a tackle named Jerry Drake. Throughout two-a-days, Price and Drake waged a war, alternating day by day on the depth chart.
"Then one day," Price recalls, "all I did in practice was put my weight on my left leg and reach around Eric Swann to get a towel, and boom! -- shooting pains down both legs." His back was giving him trouble once more.
"As soon as that happened, I tried my best to get back on the field. I missed five days of two-a-days, and they wanted me back on the field. I sucked it up, and probably did something I shouldn't have. I went and got back on the field. I took as many aspirin as the human body can probably take, and I went on the field."
Price was just trying to make the team, but he was about to get his second dose of the business end of professional football. The Cardinals had encouraged him to get back on the field, but it wasn't because they wanted him to play. They had other plans.
"Well, little did I know, they wanted me on the field so they could tape me practicing and then release me without having to pay me. Once they had me on film (practicing after the injury), they thought that I couldn’t say that I was still injured, so they could release me without having to pay me severance pay, or pay for my rehab.
"So here I am, battling with this guy Jerry Drake, and I make it through a practice, and right after the practice, they pull me into the office and release me, saying they've got to go in another direction, or whatever. I'm just -- I'm livid. Here I am, this is my shot, and in my mind, I'm beating this guy (Drake) out for a spot on the active roster.
"So they try to slip a waiver past me, and try to get me to sign it really quick. They didn't think I would read the thing, but they were trying to get me to sign something that said I was healthy. I wouldn’t sign it. I said 'I'm not healthy, I'm not fine.'
"I came home, but they had to keep me on the roster and put me on IR, which means that my season was done. So I came back to Blacksburg and started rehabbing again."
Price rehabbed during the early months of 1998 and was picked up by the Chicago Bears in the summer of 1998. The Bears wanted him to play in the World League of American Football (now called NFL Europe), and he went to Chicago for his physical.
He failed it, and the reason why is still a mystery. "I had been rehabbing my back and had been pain free for five months, no problem. I go see the doctor, and he pokes and prods me, and he fails me. To this day, I don’t know why. They never gave my agent a clear reason why I failed the physical."
Upon hearing that he had failed the Bears' physical, the World League dropped him as well.
Three strikes, and J.C. Price was out.
"My career was over."
Life After the NFL
That was the summer of 1998, and Price decided to go back and finish his degree at Tech. But to do that, he needed some money. So when former Tech teammates Jim Baron and William Yarborough called him from Nashville, where they were playing Arena Football, and told him he should come down, Price did.
By then, his back was killing him. "Arena League practice is about as hard as a college walk-through," Price laughs. "It's that easy. But even with that, I couldn't make it through a week of practice. The NFL people wound up being right about my back, for whatever reason, because it started deteriorating so bad -- when I was in Nashville, I would play on Friday nights, and that's it. I wouldn't practice all week. The team would go and practice, and I would go sit in the hot tob or the swimming pool to rehab and work out. I would never practice, I would just play.
"I finally said to myself, 'What am I doing? I can't even make it through an Arena Football season. What am I doing to myself?' And that was that."
Arena Football cash in hand, Price headed back to Blacksburg and finished his undergraduate degree in Arts and Sciences (now called Interdisciplinary Studies) in the fall of 1998. But his journey to finding a career was just beginning, and he made a few false starts along the way.
"I tried a few jobs. I sold cars (during spring/summer 1999), but I didn't find anything I liked until one day I bumped into a guy I didn't know, and he asked me what I was doing. I told him nothing.
"He said, 'Do you want to coach high school football?'
"I said, 'Sure, I'm not doing anything.'
"That's when I went and met Norm Lineburg for the first time."
At Home With the Bobcats
Radford High head coach Norm Lineburg is an icon in this city of approximately 16,000 residents that sits along the New River and is home to Radford University. Lineburg has been the head coach at Radford High since 1970, when he and fellow assistant coach Frank Beamer applied for the job, and Lineburg won it.
In his 30-plus years of coaching, Lineburg has seen plenty of assistant coaches, and he thinks the world of J.C. Price. When asked about Price, the first words out of Lineburg's mouth are, "He's coaching at the wrong level."
Lineburg thinks that Price, who coaches the defensive line for him, could easily coach at the college level, and perhaps even in the NFL. "We certainly think it's one of the best finds we've had in coaching. He is so intelligent and well-schooled in football, and I really think that he can coach on the Division 1 level, or higher. He knows the skills and techniques of defensive line play as well as anyone I've been around, and he does a wonderful job of teaching the kids. He relates so well to kids."
But when Price arrived at Radford in the fall of 1999, he wasn't sure what he wanted to do. He quickly found out that coaching appealed to him.
"I went and started working for Norm in the fall of '99. I wanted to be around the kids all the time, so I substituted and was a teacher's aide during the day, so I could see if this is what I wanted to do. That's when I decided this is what I wanted to do. This is something I might enjoy.
Price went back to school at Tech in the fall of 2000, while still coaching at Radford, and started to work towards his second undergraduate degree, this one in Physical Education. "And right now, all I have to do is finish student teaching in the spring (of 2002), and I'll get my P.E. degree. So I'm about to get my second degree, and then I'll be able to teach P.E. and coach.
"Right now, I'm working as a teacher's aide with some special education students, some kids with Attention Deficit Disorder, and things like that. It's kind of neat, because one of the things I've learned is that each kid's home life is different, and their home life is the reason why they act the way they do at school. It (their behavior) is never really right or wrong, because you don't know what they're going through at home. It has really taught me a lot and has taught me to be understanding about different things. The first year I was here, I wasn't really understanding about a lot of things. It's been a good experience for me."
While Lineburg thinks Price could coach at the collegiate level, J.C. has a narrow set of criteria that would entice him to move up to coaching in the college ranks. Namely, he would only do it if he could start out on staff at Virginia Tech.
"To be honest, if I did it (coaching college football) I would want to do it at Tech. I mean, by starting the GA process. I probably could have gone other places, but to me, it would be kind of like giving your heart to somebody else, and I just couldn’t see myself doing that. Maybe that's the wrong point of view, but I love being a Hokie so much that I just can't fathom going somewhere else.
"If I started coaching at Tech, and the opportunity (to move up) wasn't there, then I would go get a job coaching somewhere else. I could do that, because that would be my livelihood. But to actually get started, I just couldn't fathom myself doing it anywhere else but Tech. And if it ever happens, great, if it doesn't, I'll be just as happy coaching high school every day for the rest of my life.
"I'm going to be a lifetime coach," Price says. "The level on which I coach is yet to be determined."
For now, he's happy at Radford, and Lineburg is happy to have him.
"The thing about J.C. is he's a full-speeder," Lineburg says with admiration. "The best way I can say it is that he's as highly motivated as a coach as he was as a football player.
"He demands excellence, as it was when he played. He was that kind of football player. He was going to give his best effort at all times, and he demands that out of the kids, on and off the field. He really requires that the kids are going to give it their best effort, or it's not accepted by him. With him, you do the job, and there's just not any excuses allowed. I really appreciate that, and the kids appreciate it."
In his two-plus years at Radford, Price has brought a little bit of Blacksburg to the Bobcats. Radford recently completed construction on a $1.5 million workout center at the high school called the King Center that was funded almost entirely by private donations from Radford citizens and businesses. Price raves about it, calling it a "Mini-Merryman," and he has brought some of Tech strength and conditioning coach Mike Gentry's techniques to the Bobcats and the King Center.
Not to mention his coaching of the defensive line. Lineburg says, "Virginia Tech, I respect them for everything they've done as far as football goes, but especially on the defensive side of the football. J.C. has brought so much of the (Tech) defensive scheme to our football team, plus the fundamentals of the game. Having recently played, he's able to coach and coach it well. He brings that back to us.
"There's so few people that have the drive that he has," Lineburg says. "When J.C. coaches, you can just see in his eyes what kind of football player he must have been. It's written all over him. He coaches the way he played, full speed. I love that part of it."
And now that he's ready to get started with the rest of his life, you can tell that J.C. Price loves it, too. Price admires Radford High School ("Everything Radford does is first class") and the way the community embraces the football team ("This town shuts down on Friday night"). When you listen to him talk, you can see that although college coaching interests him, he could very easily wind up spending the rest of his life here, or at another high school.
"One thing that intrigues me about college coaching," he says, "is that you get to go recruit, and you get to go test your people skills on an every day basis. It's more fulfilling for your ego: am I outcoaching this guy? Am I outrecruiting this guy? Whereas in high school, those elements are there, but it's not to the same degree. Everybody pretty much gets dealt the same hand talent-wise, but the thing that intrigues you about high school coaching is … "
He trails off for a second. "Take Norm Lineburg. Having coached all four of his sons, and being able to walk anywhere in the city of Radford and run into people that you have coached -- he's coaching kids now that are second and third-generation Bobcats -- that to me is special. To be in some place 30 years, having coached all four of your own kids, having guys you used to coach come back and see you coach their sons."
"That's what attracts me to high school coaching. Not the money. To be honest, the one time in my life I had money, I wasn't all that happy. When I was in the NFL, I was miserable. I wasn't happy. My wife had to kick me out of bed to get me to go to practice in the morning. These days, I'm coaching, my body doesn't hurt anymore, I'm up at 5:00 and 6:00 every morning, ready to go. It's just a different feeling."
(Editor's Note: since this article was written, Price has accepted a position with Virginia Tech and is now a graduate assistant coach on the Tech football coaching staff.)