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The man in the photo and the job that changed Dave Canales' life


MOBILE, Ala. —Atop a hastily-packed and shipped-to-Charlotte cardboard box, filled with trinkets and research, mementos and game plans, sits a 5x7 photo.

It's of a small portion of a young freshman and sophomore football team. They're standing in the end zone with their coach, donned in their (now, fittingly) blue and black jerseys. The photo is the first thing Dave Canales pulls out whenever he moves into a new space. It's the first thing he tacks to his bulletin board, always where he can see it, and the first thing he wants to remind himself of each day, never forgetting that coach.

The coach in the photo is Dave Canales.

He'll hang the photo again this week, settling into his new office in Bank of America Stadium and his new role as a first-time head coach.

"Second time! This is his second time as a head coach."

Okay, in deference to Kevin Nickerson, Canales' longtime friend, cousin-in-law, and coaching colleague, this is technically Canales' second head coaching job. To truly understand all Dave Canales can be as an NFL head coach, you must first understand all he was as that Carson High freshman and sophomore football coach. And to truly understand that coach, you must travel back 20 years to Carson, California, in a 1985 red BMW.

Kevin Nickerson

At the turn of the millennium, Guy Ritchie made a movie titled "Snatch." It starred Brad Pitt, Jason Statham, and Benicio del Toro, among others, and humorously navigated the London criminal underworld. Three years after it premiered, rewatching it late at night was the reward for Canales and Nickerson after reviewing game film. Nickerson, a return specialist and wide receiver for the CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders, was in his offseason that first year he and Dave met, in 2003. He went to Carson that year to follow the girl he was dating, Bebe, his now wife.

Nickerson moved into the back room at Bebe's aunt and uncle's home and met her cousin, Dave. In a family of three boys, Bebe was like a sister to the Canales trio, so it didn't take long for them to adopt Kevin.

Kevin and Dave would go out during the day. Dave, a wide receiver at Azusa Pacific, lofted passes to help keep Kevin in shape, playing quarterback where he could for the receiver. At night, they'd camp out on the couch at Dave's parents, watching game film to keep their minds sharp. Then they'd turn on the television and watch that familiar movie again.

Inevitably, they'd doze off before the dulcet tango sounds of Hernando's Hideaway would wake them, a song Kevin can still hum 20 years later, repeated playings burying it deep in his brain.

Those nights would always lead to long conversations, dreams, plans, and wondering how they could convince the Canales' father, Isaac, to let them put a gym in the back of the warehouse-turned-church that the Canales family founded in Carson.

Towards the end of 2003, Dave graduated from Azusa Pacific, his brother Josh (a former UCLA baseball standout and part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization) retired from baseball, and the auctioneering company renting the back of the church warehouse space moved out. It gave the boys and Kevin "just enough time to give us the ability to dream," remembers Josh.

They scrounged up $300 between them and purchased bargain-priced equipment. Then, Dave hit the road.

In that 1985 BMW, he'd leave home at 5 a.m. every morning. He'd make the rounds and pick up any teenager who wanted to train in the gym.

"There were probably five or six (of us)," recalls Jack Sula, a former running back and one of the first guys Canales took under his wing. "And we had a lineman that worked out with us. That's a big boy! I don't know how we did it."

The physics of jamming them into a small space aside, Canales would get them all to the gym in the back of the church by 6 a.m. each morning. He'd help train them until it was time for school. After school, he started directing cardio sessions as well. The goal was to provide community outreach through the church. Dave and Josh had both been college and then, in Josh's case, professional athletes. The gym and any subsequent training was a service they knew would build on their skill set. It was Dave's passion project, though.

Around that same time, the Canales' alma mater, Carson High School, needed a coach for their freshman and sophomore football team. Hearing that a Canales boy was already training kids who would be on the team, the athletic director called Josh. They naturally assumed it would be the former professional baseball player.

He quickly pointed them to Dave's way instead. The school was happy to adjust.

Says Josh now, "And that was the beginning of the end for Dave,"

Josh Canales

The Carson High Colts freshman and sophomore team of 2004 lost their first game, 34-13. To this day, it remains Dave Canales' favorite game in his entire coaching career. He would win a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks, make multiple playoff appearances as both a coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and coach players to career years in the NFL.

That first game, though, that first loss, was a defining moment.

The loss itself should not have been surprising. Carson's team was primarily freshman, while the team they were playing, Venice, had fielded their JV squad, which was made up of mostly juniors. When Canales looked across to the other sideline, though, he didn't focus on the bigger, faster, and stronger players. He wondered how the staff had got them to that point.

A couple of coaches on that Venice staff were friends with the Canales family, so Dave decided, why not just ask them? What is your blueprint to create a winning team? The coaches didn't gatekeep their secret; instead, they shared their philosophy.

The following year, the two teams faced off again to open the season. Carson blew them out. And, as Kevin, who was defensive coordinator for the 2005 squad, wants to note, "it was a shutout."

But back to 2004, and that first season as a head coach for Dave Canales. The team kept growing, eventually reaching a number in the 70s. They had to institute a travel squad for a freshman team simply because they couldn't take everyone. However, the priority in coaching for the Canales family was to take on any kid who wanted to play. Josh, the wide receivers and specials teams coach for his brother that first year, said the mission statement was simple: in the shadow of Los Angeles, any teenager spending their time at football practice was one less teenager off the street.

"It meant one less kid getting into trouble after school," Josh says. "Playing time wasn't our main focus."


That first season, while a labor of community love more than anything, had a lot of lessons for Dave Canales as a head coach, too. During one game, he pulled a player. The reasoning was simple: he wasn't playing hard enough. The player's father in the stands took issue. He started yelling at the coaching staff. Josh responded. Tensions escalated, and Dave jumped in, anger pulsing at the questions around his coaching decisions and the personal barbs the father was throwing at his brother.

Richard Masson was the AD for Carson High at the time. He was supervising the freshman and sophomore team game that day. As other fans got involved in the heckling, and Dave itched to respond even harsher, Masson pulled him to the side. He admittedly doesn't remember all the details of the issue that started it all, but he remembers what he taught Canales that day.

"I said, 'Stop having rabbit ears,'" Masson recalls. '"Get over there and coach your team.'"

Masson suspended Canales for the next game. The young coach sat in his car in a nearby parking lot and watched from afar. He returned the next week, smarter and more prepared for what it would take to be a head coach when your life is under a microscope and in a vacuum.

"It was kind of a defining moment in his young career as a coach," Masson reflects, "To be able to focus through distractions and do what needed to be done with his team."

A lot of what needed to be done hinged on Jack Sula.

Months of Sula waking up at 5 a.m. to pile into that old BMW and train with a few others had given Canales an up-close look at what the running back and linebacker could become.

"I was good," Sula says now, "but (Dave) coached me into a completely different player."

Canales noted where Sula's game was lacking and where it could go; mainly, Sula needed to be faster, so Canales started training him in track after football practice.

Over the next year, more and more kids on the team noticed Sula's improvement and asked to be trained as well. Canales had to upgrade from the BMW to the church bus to pick up more kids for the early morning sessions. The team started winning, even coming back in one game from three touchdowns down, to garner a win Sula still gets excited about talking to this day.

Sula would go on to lead the Carson varsity team to an LA City title game at the Coliseum behind a 1,800-plus rushing year and garner player of the year awards. He's now the offensive coordinator for the Carson High Colts.

"I tell everyone, (Dave) was the reason for my success and me developing into a great football player…(but) he did a lot more than just teach me football. He taught me how to be a man, and he coached life into me."

Nickerson can still rattle off the starting roster from those two years Canales coached the Colts, but the records from a freshman and sophomore team in 2004 and 2005 don't exist even in the farthest corners of the internet.

"The loss never was like the end result," though, interjects Nickerson. "It was like, what lesson did we learn from these little things?"

And Josh Canales, who would win a national title as a baseball player with the Florida Gators and go on to play in the Dodgers' and Astros' organization, remembers that time one way.

"In all my years of playing ball, those two years may have been the most fun that I ever had."


All those involved in those two years at Carson thought that was Dave's future. They thought that if all his dreams and career aspirations came true, he'd go on to become one of the greatest coaches Caron's varsity team, previously a perennial powerhouse, had ever seen. Frankly, it was more than Dave could have hoped for at the time. But Dave's wife, Lizzy, saw something in her husband, the coach. She sat him down and told him, I think you can take this as far as you want. So, with her encouragement, Dave went to his brother.

"And I remember him saying, 'Hey, man, I want to take this as far I can go,'" Josh recalled. "'And I think I'm going to have to step out of the high school ranks.'"

It meant the brothers weren't going to coach at Carson together any longer, but those two seasons coaching the freshman and sophomore team, instead of setting the path to becoming Carson's varsity coach, became the building blocks for the future headman for an NFL club.

Building blocks like talent evaluation and motivation. Seeing something in Jack Sula and drawing that out of him are the same traits that helped Canales identify what quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Geno Smith, and Baker Mayfield do best and helped lead them to career years.

"He'll tell you straight up, keep it raw and uncut with you, about your performance or what you can and can't (do), what he thinks you can be," explains Sula. "You want to go to bat for a guy like that, who is very genuine, who's out for your best interests."

Building blocks like not only football acumen but galvanizing energy.

"One of my philosophies is, if you win the person's heart, the people's heart, they'll play for you, they'll do anything for you," preaches Nickerson. He's now the chaplain for the Los Angeles Rams and has been since they moved to California. He's been around Sean McVay on the sidelines and as the Rams won a Super Bowl. He's seen what it takes, and now he sees that echoed in his best friend.

Russell Wilson, Dave Canales

"I believe Davey has that type of potential to have that type of influence on that organization…Sean McVay, he has a lot of swag, and it's not a show; it's just kind of like who he is. And Davey has a lot of swag," Nickerson laughs before adding, "and I'm using the term loosely."

What the "swag" comes down to, though, is "he's very confident in what he's doing."

After those two years at Carson, Canales coached at El Camino College as the special teams and tight ends coach. He spent a year at USC as an assistant strength coach, then moved north with the Seattle Seahawks and eventually east to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and now Carolina Panthers. But he still remembers that first team.

He and Kevin are still close. When Kevin was ready to propose to Bebe, it was Dave who set everything up, hanging twinkle stars, getting the music ready, and, as Kevin ribs him about, "he was crying more than I was! That's my guy."

When Jack was tearing up the field as a senior at Carson, Dave, already coaching in the college ranks by then, still trained him and helped him decide what to put in a highlight reel. When the Seahawks would travel to Los Angeles for a yearly date with the Rams, Jack would pick his former coach up, and they'd head to In-And-Out because "there are no In-and-Out's in Seattle!" and reminisce.

"He's always been destined for greatness," Sula maintains, "and it would not surprise me if he turns that organization around. And him being with Bryce Young, what better man to help him than Davey?"

The photo is out of the box now, waiting to find its spot in the head coach's office at Bank of America Stadium. It's faded and curling around the edges in a way that says it's been loved for years.

Dave Canales looks at it every day, focusing on the man standing near the edge of the scrum.

He was young, didn't know what he didn't know, and still had so much to learn.

He never wants to forget that coach.

For without that freshman and sophomore coach, there is no Dave Canales, NFL head coach.

View images of the Panthers' new head coach and President of Football Operations/General Manager as they set foot in Charlotte following the Senior Bowl.

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