Former NFL quarterback and University of Arkansas legend Ryan Mallett tragically drowned at the age of 35, but his true passion was found in coaching high school football. Despite having a promising career ahead of him, Mallett chose to make a difference in the lives of young players. Coming from a coaching family, he wanted to impact people’s lives and be a mentor. Mallett’s decision to join a struggling high school team in a small town as an assistant coach and later as a head coach showcased his dedication to shaping and molding young athletes. He found joy in building relationships and making connections, prioritizing the growth and development of his players over personal achievements. Mallett’s transition from a big-time football player to a small-town high school coach profoundly impacted those who knew him, and his loss was deeply felt by his friends, family, and the football community.
Dan Wetzel; June 28, 2023
In 2008, Casey Dick was about to begin his second season as the starting quarterback at the University of Arkansas when 6-foot-6 Ryan Mallett entered the program.
It didn’t take long for Dick to become mesmerized by Mallett’s physical skills, namely how, if he wanted to, Mallett could uncork a football 80 or more yards downfield. Size, strength and a deep interest in learning how to play the position … it was all there.
“Immediately you thought, ‘This guy is going to the NFL,’ ” Dick said Wednesday, one day after Mallett tragically drowned off a Destin, Florida, beach. Mallett was just 35 years old.
Mallett always knew his potential as a player. He also knew his real long-term future. He was certainly going to play as long as he could — in this case as a two-time All-SEC selection for some classic Razorback teams and then seven seasons in the NFL.
Eventually though, Mallett was going to get into coaching. His father, Jim, was a longtime Texas high school coach, including leading Ryan at Texarkana (Texas) High. Ryan grew up going to practices. As a toddler, he’d ride the blocking sleds for fun.
“Everyone in my family — my dad and his brothers — go by, ‘Coach,’” Ryan Mallett told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette this spring. “‘Coach Mallett.’ That’s all I’ve ever heard. I was going to be a coach.”
“He always wanted to make an impact in people’s lives,” said Dick, now the head coach at Fayetteville (Arkansas) High School. “That was Ryan. That’s how he was as a teammate. He cared about everybody on the team. And that’s why he always wanted to be a coach at some point.”
The thing is, with his accomplishments, his name (he’s a legend in Arkansas, if not across the entire South), his pedigree as a former five-star recruit and SEC record-setter, and his pro experience backing up Tom Brady and being coached by, among others, Bill Belichick and John Harbaugh, he could have found a job at nearly any level.
Major college football. The SEC. The NFL. Whatever. Mallett was someone respected across the game for his play, certainly, but more so for his work ethic, values and acumen. His future was nearly limitless.
“I will always remember the love he had for his teammates,” Harbaugh said.
“We lost a great man,” Brady added.
Ryan Mallett didn’t choose to chase a college or pro job though. Instead he decided to apply himself to the high school ranks, where he felt he could most impact his players on and off the field.
“My job is to help shape and mold young people,” Mallett told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette. “This is the time a lot of them are finding out about themselves. I hope I can help them.”
He didn’t even seem to care about where or who he was impacting. He didn’t try to join a title contending team or a school in a major city. He didn’t even demand that he was the head coach.
Instead, in 2020, he became the offensive coordinator at Mountain Home (Arkansas) High School, a small city along the Missouri border that is about as far from the NFL spotlight as you can get. And the football program? It was one the worst in the state, having posted a 1-29 record the previous three seasons.
Mallett couldn’t have been happier. Maybe no one else understood why Ryan Mallett — Ryan Mallett! — had become an assistant coach for a lousy, out-of-the-way, high school team. To him though, while those days in the SEC and NFL were great, it wasn’t because of the size of the stadiums or the national television cameras.
“It was a lot of fun, but the records and games are not what I think about most,” Mallett said. “It’s the relationships. That’s what you remember; the coaches, the teammates and everyone around the program.”
At Mountain View, he quickly helped end a 23-game losing streak. By 2021, the Bombers went 4-8 and scored a stunning upset in the state playoffs.
That was enough that in 2022, he was hired as the head coach of White Hall (Arkansas) High School in a 5,000-person town outside of Pine Bluff. It was still a long way from the spotlight, but as he hung some of his memorabilia in his office, he realized few, if any, of his current players knew much about the old days.
White Hall went 4-6 in Mallett’s first season, but when he and Casey Dick visited recently at a 7-on-7 tournament in Fayetteville, Mallett’s excitement for the job and building the program was obvious. More kids who had never played football were coming out and Mallett kept talking about the connections he was making.
“He’d found his niche,” Dick said. “It was just all about the kids, coaching kids, helping kids and making an impact with them. Sometimes your niche finds you and with Ryan it definitely found him.”
Big-time football legend. Small-town high school coach.
“It made him happy,” Dick said. “It was great to see him like that. It’s all just shocking.”
Dick and others lost a friend and teammate on Tuesday. The Mallett family lost a son and a brother. The Razorbacks lost a legend.
And potentially generations of young, small town Southern kids lost a leader, a mentor and a coach, who’d been to the top of the sport but was now far more interested in them then trying to get back.
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