Brandon Staley was simultaneously in his element and half a world removed from it.
The Chargers coach, a passionate tennis fan since childhood, spent the past two days watching Wimbledon matches in person with his wife, Amy. It’s an anniversary trip for them and their first time in Europe.
Yet football is never too far away for Staley, who used the experience as an opportunity to hone his coaching techniques. He got a special invitation to watch his favorite player, Rafael Nadal, grind through a session on the practice courts. The Staleys also sat in the players’ box for a Steve Johnson match, those prime seats courtesy of Marc Lucero, who coaches the former USC star.
“You’re just trying to see how the top players in the world practice and perform,” Staley said. “As a coach, you’re trying to take in stuff in Rafa’s practices that you kind of feel can help Justin Herbert. You’re just observing. There were just a lot of moments in that hour pocket that I know I can bring back with me for Justin and Derwin James, because Rafa’s the best of all time.”
In March, the coach brought quarterback Herbert and safety James to the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells in hopes of exposing them to the focus and dedication required to play tennis at an elite level for, in Nadal’s case, a generation.
“There’s always something you can observe if you’re willing to look and listen,” Staley said. “There’s going to be something that I can see with my own two eyes that can help me with coaching.”
Josh Rupprecht, who runs media relations for the Chargers, arranged for the Staleys to sit in friend Pete Sampras’ seats at Centre Court. Sampras was another childhood favorite of the coach.
Staley, 39, grew up playing tennis in Ohio, was a competitive youth player and briefly considered focusing on that instead of football. The lure of playing quarterback was too strong, though, and he wound up playing the position at the University of Dayton.
“I would use my athleticism to beat you when I was a kid,” he said. “I’m out there wearing basketball shoes and baggy shorts. I could use my basketball, football background to beat these rich kids in tennis.
“Beat them a different way. Beat them like Rafa does, with my mindset. Playing the game a different way. If you hit a good shot, I can go get it and I’ll get it back. Then I’ll go get another one. I’m just going to wear you down.”
Even as football took front and center in his life, his love for tennis never disappeared. It did fade, however, after he lost his mother, Linda, to cancer when he was in college. She had picked up the sport at 35 and became a relentless player in their community.
“My mom was amazing,” he said. “She was a human backstop. She’d get everything back. She was so consistent.”
Linda Staley’s dream was to see the U.S. Open in person one day, and perhaps Wimbledon. That never came to be. But now her son has spent time on these hallowed grounds, and while visiting the Tennis Channel set Saturday he had a conversation with Martina Navratilova, one of her sports idols.
“If my mom were here now, she wouldn’t believe this,” he said.
Like his mother, Staley’s wife began playing at 35, this year, and she’s showing a natural aptitude for the sport. Amy is a former Division I college volleyball player, and has to resist the urge to dive for every shot. When the youngest of their three sons starts school this fall, Amy will have even more time to work on her game.
“Brandon just doesn’t have the time for hobbies that most people do,” she said. “It’s always been a childhood love of his, reminiscing and talking about tennis. He had said for years, ‘When we stop moving, I swear, we’re going to start playing together. It’s going to be something that we can do together, we can do with our kids…’”
The Staleys have moved 11 times since 2007, including NFL stops with the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Rams before Brandon was hired as head coach of the Chargers in 2021.
Now, he has rediscovered tennis. This spring, he started taking an hour-long lesson every Friday at 6 a.m. before driving to work.
“My first lesson, it all came back for me,” he said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to do this the rest of the year, even during the regular season. I’ve got to do this at least once a week.’ It’s been like a renaissance. I remember how much I loved it and why.”
Iga Swiatek’s 37-match winning streak was halted by Alize Cornet, while Nick Kyrgios berated the chair umpire during a victory over Stefanos Tsitsipas.
He feels it also brings him closer to his mom, who was a teacher.
“I tell people I come from the Bruce and Linda Staley coaching tree,” he said. “I learned everything I know about coaching from my parents.”
As for that other dream his mom had?
Staley is sending his wife and her friends to the U.S. Open this year.
Half a world away. And never closer.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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