Rhodes brings experience and passion to Fayetteville-Manlius football

As a player, former SU running back Damien Rhodes has witnessed football at all levels. Now, he's going back to high school, as the coach of Fayetteville-Manlius High School.

In a life in which Damien Rhodes could be anywhere after graduating from Syracuse University in 2006 and playing pro football in Germany, passion for his high school and his community led him back to Fayetteville-Manlius. There, he instills the same mentality as when he gave opposing coaches nightmares, but as the head football coach.

As at senior at Fayetteville-Manlius High School, Rhodes rushed for 2,102. At SU, he rushed 2,461 more yards over four seasons. And then he earned an NFL contract with the Houston Texans. But when he decided to end his pro career after a concussion scare, Rhodes worked as a volunteer for his former coach Paul Muench’s staff at F-M. When Muench retired after the 2012 season, Rhodes was a natural fit to succeed his friend and mentor as the head coach.

“He loves F-M and he loves football and that is the reason why he has stayed there,” said Donni Burke, Rhodes’ half-sister -- though the two are so close that they always refer to each other as brother and sister. “He has a passion for coaching and a passion for the kids that he’s teaching.”

 Damien Rhodes

Former Syracuse running back, Damien Rhodes, heads back to his old high school as the Fayetteville-Manlius head football coach. (Photo: Ziniu Chen)

Even when he was in high school, Rhodes was doing everything he could to build a successful program at F-M. Muench took over the program in 2000 and, with the help of Rhodes, found immediate success, culminating in a Class AA sectional title a year later.

“I’ll never forget the time he was able to get the end zones checkered,” said Justin Esposito, Rhodes’ best friend and high school teammate. Rhodes was good friends with the F-M groundskeeper, Judd, and convinced him to paint the end zones in order to create a better, more professional-looking field.

“Our field looked like a college field,” Esposito said. “He almost got us to run out of a tunnel with smoke like the University of Miami. He made sure that our field, our fans and the atmosphere were second to none.”

Rhodes’ passion, leadership and enthusiasm made him the best choice to lead F-M, Muench said, and his past success as a player and coach for the program lends him instant credibility. Even while he was at SU, Rhodes went back to work at F-M football camps every summer and stayed in constant contact with Muench about the state of the program.

Among all the athletes he’s coached, Muench said Rhodes was the one that stood out. “Every guy that came after him had Damien to look up to as the model,” Muench said. “He’s the one who brought a big-time football mentality to F-M.”

Standing at the F-M football field on a windy August day, Rhodes sports a green Nike T-shirt, a white Nike cap and sunglasses. The 6-foot Rhodes is slightly thinner than his playing weight of 212 pounds, but still looks like he could return a kickoff for a touchdown at a moment’s notice. 

More than a game

 Damien Rhodes

Rhodes played at SU from 2002-2005. He played in 39 games and rushed for 2461 yards and 24 touchdowns. (Photo: Courtesy of Syracuse University Athletics)

Rhodes’ definition of success is not just about wins and losses.

“Obviously we want to win games, we want to try to win championships,” Rhodes said. “But if the kids are better than they were in August and had a great time, then that’s successful.”

Rhodes’ love for his players is reflective of the support he received growing up from his parents, Dwight and Toni. Rhodes decided to attend SU, he said, because of the honesty and openness of then-coach Paul Pasqualoni. These qualities, Rhodes said, reminded him of his father. Syracuse also fit nicely because it made it easier for his parents to see their son in action. They never missed a game of his college career, which included trips to Utah and multiple treks to Florida.

“They would schedule everything around Damien’s football,” Rhodes’ half-sister, Burke, said. “Football was a way of life in my family.”

Burke’s parents even told her she couldn’t get married in the fall because of football, she said. But she will do so anyway this fall, with Damien serving as a groomsman to her fiancé, Scott Essler.

Having played at a major college program and in the professional ranks for both the Texans and NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder, Rhodes will now attempt to use what he has learned to mold F-M into a program worthy of admiration.

“I don’t want this program to be just an extracurricular activity,” Rhodes said. “I want this program to be the best it can possibly be. I want to try and get ESPN here within five years.”

Though he said that the smoke tunnel he dreamed of with Esposito may not be feasible, he said he's still “trying to get a flashy entrance because, ‘why not?’ ”

Rhodes is just as dedicated to his current players as his family was to him, fitting in marathon film sessions around his other job in business sales.

“As a coach, you’re always trying to learn and stay knowledgeable,” former F-M coach Muench said. “Damien brings passion and leadership, but it’s always backed with knowledge. There are long hours when nobody sees him, and he’s just pounding out film to give his kids the best possible advantage.”

A Natural Leader

 Damien Rhodes

Rhodes coaching his players during an evening practice to prepare for their upcoming game against Schenectady on Friday. (Photo: Ziniu Chen)

Rhodes does not like to rush into things, and when he does speak, he makes sure to judge the full impact of his words. Rhodes is always in control, similar to how he would feel on the football field in his playing career, where he said things would “just slow down” for him.

Yet when he speaks to his players, he shifts from the quiet, unassuming younger brother that Burke knows to the dynamic locker-room presence who “always found a way to get an extra ounce of energy out of everyone,” Esposito said.

Rhodes is dedicated to his athletes. He meets with a player before a conversation with a visitor and interrupts a response to check up on another player wrapping up a workout on the field.

“I love playing for him,” said F-M junior quarterback/defensive back Jake Wittig. “The greatest thing about him is that we know he cares about us.” Rhodes helped Wittig improve his defensive stances, how to read the ball and what checks to make.

Ultimately, that helpful nature is the constant that runs throughout Rhodes’ life, whether it’s on the field, at home or spending a lazy weekend on Oneida Lake.

“He has a love for family, love for friends, love for football, love for the community,” Esposito said. “He’s a very caring individual. He’s always helping out, spending so much time helping out younger athletes.”

Rhodes will have the chance to prove he can be just as successful on the sideline as he was on the field in the place where he made a name for himself: The Carrier Dome. The Hornets play Schenectady at 8:00 p.m. Friday as part of the Kickoff Classic.

“It definitely has something special to it, coaching at a place that I consider home -- it is my home,” Rhodes said. “That and it being my first game as a head coach gives something special to it without a doubt.”

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