Trent Dilfer's journey, from Super Bowl to tragedy to Nashville high school coach
NASHVILLE — He can be talking about winning the Super Bowl in 2001 as quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, or getting dumped a few weeks later by that team, or the improbable circumstances that led him to this new job as Lipscomb Academy’s football coach, or the darkest moments of his life, and it is all the same.
Trent Dilfer looks at you as if he’s peering into your soul. The intensity of his blue eyes is matched by a voice that says each sentence as if he can’t wait to get to the next one. This is how it was as Dilfer dissected the game of football for nine years on ESPN. This is how it will be every time he addresses his team – gobs of confidence, conviction and passion, with no wavering.
Dilfer, 46, sat recently in the pristine Lipscomb Academy weight room, which is part of $8 million in recent upgrades to the high school’s athletic facilities, and talked this way about his career. About a game he has loved since breaking down 16-millimeter film – projected onto a washing machine – as a kid with his father and coach in Aptos, Calif. About his wife, Cassandra, and trio of volleyball-star daughters. About his Christian faith.
He even talked this way about Trevin, the 5-year-old son he and Cassandra lost in 2003.
“Trevin to the Rescue,” Dilfer said, smiling, as he recalled the nickname Trevin favored as he ran around the house wearing a cape. “He was our peacemaker. He wanted peace in the family between his sisters and everyone, wanted to make sure no one was arguing. He just made every day fun and exciting. He loved to snuggle when his belly was full. He was the physical-closeness kid.”
The question of why Dilfer would uproot from Austin, Texas, to move to Nashville and coach high school ball is a good one. He couldn’t have imagined trying to answer it a few weeks ago. He said he was in negotiations with another sports TV network – ESPN laid him off in 2017 – when Lipscomb Academy officials contacted him, and that he has had “multiple” assistant coaching offers from NFL and college teams.
“I have refused to believe this is my calling,” Dilfer said of coaching high school ball, “until now.”
That’s the short answer, but the long one is wrapped up in the life and death of Trevin Scott Dilfer. Every answer leads back to that, as any parents who have lost a child can understand, as anyone else can try to imagine.
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The Dilfer-Hasselbeck dynamic
Long before he came to the Tennessee Titans in 2011 for a two-season stint as a backup quarterback and mentor to Jake Locker, Matt Hasselbeck was the guy in Seattle. And Dilfer was his veteran mentor. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to be when the Seahawks acquired both of them for the 2001 season.
Problem was, Hasselbeck couldn’t stand Dilfer, who talked often of his faith while pushing Hasselbeck hard in practice.
“It was church talk,” Hasselbeck said. “I grew up kind of a punk from Boston, taking the train to school every day, and here’s this West Coast guy, involved in (Fellowship of Christian Athletes) and stuff like that. I was just very suspicious, like ‘You say you’re supporting me but you’re trying to take my job.’ I doubted he was authentic.”
His criticisms certainly were frank, but Dilfer believed he was doing it for Hasselbeck’s benefit. Hasselbeck spent his first three seasons in the NFL backing up Brett Favre in Green Bay, and this was his first chance to start. Dilfer had the edge in experience, accomplishment and football knowledge as an obsessive consumer of film.
“I told Matt the truth,” Dilfer said. “I told him, ‘You’re not very good. You think you are. You’re pretty. You throw a nice ball. You know a lot of Brett Favre-regurgitated information, but you’re not very good.’ He hated that.”
And when Hasselbeck struggled that season, Seahawks fans started to chant “Dilfer! Dilfer! Dilfer!” from the stands. Dilfer replaced an injured Hasselbeck and outplayed him. Dilfer led the Seahawks to two wins at the end of the season, nearly carrying them into the playoffs, and roles had reversed.
When Dilfer blew his Achilles tendon midway through the 2002 season – losing about $12 million in contract incentives – Hasselbeck replaced him and played well. Roles reversed again. Through all this, they had managed to become genuine friends. Close friends. It started with Cassandra and Hasselbeck’s wife, Sarah, forming a bond.
By early 2003, with Dilfer facing months more of rehabilitation and Hasselbeck in line to be the starter, these families did everything together. But no one knew what to do when Trevin got sick.
Tragedy and depression
Maddie Dilfer was 7 at the time. She’s the only one of the three Dilfer daughters to remember Trevin’s 40 days at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., battling a virus that attacked his heart. Tori had just turned 4. Delaney was 9 months old.
A family trip to Disneyland in March was cut short because Trevin didn’t feel well. Doctors back in Fresno, where the family lived, initially thought he might be suffering from bronchitis or severe allergies. He had puffy eyes. Two days later, he was in an ambulance.
“He was coding as soon as he got there,” Cassandra said, and then she was calling Trent and telling him to hurry over, and then Trevin was on life support, and then he was being transported with a police escort the 170-mile drive to Lucile Packard.
The children stayed with Trent’s parents and visited every other day. Trent and Cassandra essentially lived in the hospital, searching and praying. Whatever it was that infiltrated Trevin’s body, he needed a new heart and got on the transplant list. Then he got a systemic infection and was no longer eligible. The family had to start preparing for life without him.
“Everything was hardest on Maddie,” Cassandra said.
“We were best buds,” said Maddie, a Pepperdine beach volleyball player who previously played indoor volleyball for the Waves and Notre Dame. “I’ll never forget that moment. I knew what was going on, and my parents were walking down the hallway to me. I saw the look on my dad’s face and I knew what they were about to tell me. That’s the most vivid memory, knowing it was over, running away and screaming.”
The Dilfers had spared their son more pain and taken him off life support on April 27, 2003. Trent said he’ll never forget that scream or Cassandra’s from the same day. The memorial service, attended by the Seahawks, is more of a blur, as are the weeks that followed. This family stuck together, clung to faith, but depression engulfed Trent.
“I’m not a drinker, yet I was drinking,” he said, unwavering and matter-of-fact in his description. “I put on 30-ish pounds. I was obviously very sad. I was trying to hold on for my wife and my daughters. They were the only thing keeping me going, knowing they couldn’t see their daddy and my wife couldn’t see her husband completely ruined. But once the kids went to bed and I no longer had to put on a show, it was bad.”
The phone call and the Sega Genesis
Then came another vivid memory – the phone call from Hasselbeck. Dilfer can recall the black shorts and double-extra-large Nike shirt he was wearing, and the spot on the couch in the family’s Fresno home he was occupying. The Hasselbecks supported the Dilfers through Trevin's illness, but conversation wasn't easy. What do you say to someone who loses a child?
Hasselbeck called to talk football. He sensed Dilfer was considering leaving the game. Dilfer told Hasselbeck he had nothing more to give. Hasselbeck responded with a simple message: “Get your ass up here. We need you. Your teammates need you.”
Dilfer went to training camp. He was miserable. Veterans got their own rooms, and Hasselbeck’s was next to Dilfer’s.
“I was crying myself to sleep,” Dilfer said. “Of course, I really wasn’t sleeping. I was just laying in bed, crying. Weeping.”
Hasselbeck knocked on the door. He had a Sega Genesis video console in his hand. And so began the nightly tradition of Sega NHL ’94 marathons between these two. As they recall, some went all the way until practice the next day. Hasselbeck always played until Dilfer was ready to stop.
And this is why Dilfer, on a “Monday Night Football” broadcast in 2012, credited Hasselbeck with saving his life.
“You’ve got to put this into context: This was Matt’s first chance and his last chance,” Dilfer said of Hasselbeck proving himself as an NFL starter. “His chance to be the dude. He should be getting rest. He should be watching film. He should be integrating with his teammates. I can think of 100 things he should be doing besides what he ends up doing.”
He pulled Sega all-nighters, had a terrific camp anyway and produced a Pro Bowl, playoff season in 2003 – the first of several excellent ones at the helm before signing with the Titans in 2011.
Dilfer’s journey continued in Cleveland in 2005, then 2006 and ’07 in San Francisco, where he retired after 14 years in the NFL. TV analyst work followed, and Dilfer has been head coach of the Elite 11 camp for the top high school quarterbacks in the country since 2009. Three years ago, Trevin would have been a high school senior, and that was not lost on Dilfer and those close to him as he went through a week of intense work with future stars such as Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm.
Ribs, root beer and a 'fraternity'
The grieving never stops. That’s one common thread among families that lose children. Dilfer has told other parents in the same situation over the years that the pain is different for each person. No one can truly understand what another is going through. That doesn’t mean they can’t help one another.
Bryant Young, a teammate of Dilfer’s in San Francisco, lost his 15-year-old son, Colby, to pediatric cancer in 2016. The Dilfers were there for the Youngs as the Youngs had been there previously for the Dilfers. Kristin Young told Cassandra that she never knew what to say about Trevin.
“I said, ‘You didn’t say a lot, and that was probably the best thing,’” Cassandra recalled. “I guess it’s like this crappy little fraternity or sorority that we all never wanted to be in, but we’re in it. And there’s purpose in that.”
There’s difficulty, too, even for the faithful. Trent and Cassandra were college sweethearts who bonded over Christianity, but Trent admitted he still has fear that this could happen again.
“There are times in life when you doubt and question, and ‘What if’ and ‘Why?’” Cassandra said. “Trent doesn’t like to do the ‘Why?’ I’ve probably done that a lot more than he has. You go through periods where your faith isn’t as strong. And then you get back on track and remember God gave up his son willingly for us.”
The Dilfers discuss and celebrate Trevin often. They still have one of his blankets. They still have the kitchen table with his name carved in it – a cause for punishment then, a source of nostalgia now. They named their golden retriever Rescue. Every Nov. 10 they celebrate Trevin’s birthday with his favorite meal – ribs and root beer.
Nov. 10 was an NFL Sunday in 2013. Tim Hasselbeck, Matt’s brother and a former NFL quarterback as well, surprised Dilfer by having ribs and root beer catered for the entire ESPN crew. The Dilfers get ribs and root beer pictures from friends and family all over the world on Trevin’s birthday.
“We talk about Trevin openly as a family all the time,” Maddie said. “It might bring back tears sometimes, but we think it’s really important.”
They make decisions together, too. And that’s why, even after Dilfer decided he wanted the Lipscomb Academy job, he did not think it was going to happen.
The doors to Lipscomb open
Brent High, a former Lipscomb associate athletics director, called Matt Hasselbeck, a friend from when Hasselbeck played for the Titans, to ask for thoughts on a high school coach. Hasselbeck gave him Dilfer’s number because Dilfer has high school contacts all over the country through the Elite 11 camp.
Dilfer was driving Tori from Texas to Kentucky – she’s a college volleyball player who is transferring from TCU to Louisville – and agreed to help. It was High who first suggested to Dilfer that he might be right for the job.
Dilfer didn’t think so, but he agreed to meet with High and Lipscomb Academy head of school Greg Glenn. Glenn and High didn’t realize that the baby of the Dilfer family, Delaney, committed in October to play volleyball for Lipscomb University as part of the class of 2020.
A scheduled half-hour meeting stretched to nearly five hours. Dilfer told High and Glenn exactly what they would need in a coach.
“They’re like, ‘Yeah, but you’re the guy,’” Dilfer said. “I say, ‘No, I’m not the guy.’ When I left, I told them it was probably 20-80, and the 20 was that this is a special, special place.”
The 80 was a refusal to disrupt the life of Delaney, a high school junior in Austin. But Dilfer stayed at Tim Hasselbeck’s Nashville home that night and prayed until 3 a.m. He and Cassandra went to dinner when he got back to Texas.
He expected her to be against the idea. Instead, she told him that this was his passion, that he lives for those exhausting Elite 11 weeks, and she said: “When’s the last time we did something awesome?”
“So all the sudden, we’re doing this if Delaney gives her permission,” Dilfer said. “But there’s no way. We said we would walk through the doors until God shuts them, but we see where He will shut them. He will shut them with Delaney.”
Dilfer sat down with his youngest child and reminded her that her first memories came years after Trevin died and after Dilfer’s NFL career was finished. He told her what life was like when every day was the fulfillment of a dream.
“She stopped me,” Dilfer said, “and she said, ‘Dad, whatever you’re about to ask, the answer is yes. Just promise me that I can be part of it.’”
At that moment, as Dilfer recalled those words in the Lipscomb Academy weight room, he lowered his head and began to cry.
Reach Joe Rexrode at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @joerexrode.