On Saturday the Minnesota Vikings will fly to Philadelphia, where their memories aren’t so fond.
There’s January’s drubbing in the NFC Championship Game, the blowout the previous year at the hands of rookie Carson Wentz, and the longest-tenured Vikings might even recall the postponed game back in 2010 that held the Vikings in the City of Brotherly Love for two extra days.
But the memories for offensive coordinator John DeFilippo are fonder.
As his father, Gene DeFilippo, traveled from city to city serving as a coaching assistant or athletic director, the DeFilippo family rarely stayed in one place for more than a few years in a row. They moved from Youngstown State to Vanderbilt to South Carolina-Spartanburg to Kentucky all before John DeFilippo was 10 years old.
But in 1993, when Gene DeFilippo took the athletic director job at Villanova, they found Philly.
As an impressionable high school student with a passion for sports, John DeFilippo immediately took to the rabid Philadelphia sports culture. Two decades later, he returned to the city as the Eagles quarterbacks coach, helping them win a Super Bowl last February.
“To be working there was kind of surreal, to be quite honest with you,” John DeFilippo said just three days before facing his former employer. “The first time you walk into the building you’re like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s like your hometown team.”
As a recognizable figure on various college campuses, Gene DeFilippo often let his son tag along, giving him a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the sports world at an early age.
When Gene was the associate athletic director at Kentucky from 1987-93, John would ride his bike to the Wildcats’ practice several days a week just to watch. When away games were close enough to take a bus, the younger DeFilippo would hop on board.
One of Gene’s primary duties was football gameday management, which opened the door for John to be a ball boy. It also gave him an up-close look at how coaches were supposed to conduct themselves.
“He came to all of [head coach] Bill Curry’s press conference with me, and then we’d go over and say hello to the other AD and coach,” Gene DeFilippo told Zone Coverage on a recent phone call. “He was just always around.
“When you’re in it, and you’re totally involved in it, your children are most likely gonna go one way or the other. They’re gonna really, really want to get as much as they can and observe as much as they can, or they’re not gonna have a whole lot of interest. John always had a great amount of interest.”
It was around that time when 10-year-old John DeFilippo looked at his dad and made a prescient statement.
“He said, ‘Dad, one day I’m gonna coach the NFL.’ And I said, ‘You are, huh?’ And sure enough, here he is. This is what he’s wanted to do forever.”
John was 15 years old when his father got the job at Villanova. Gene, John and older sister Christine made the move early and lived in a hotel room so John could take part in two-a-day Radnor High School football practices and Christine could get ready for basketball season. Gene’s wife, Anne DeFilippo, and their other daughter, Mary, stayed behind to sell their old house.
John DeFilippo ended up becoming Radnor’s quarterback, as well as a track athlete. When he got the chance, he would often work out with Villanova athletes that were three to five years older.
He also threw himself into Philadelphia sports, attending a Phillies World Series game in 1993 and plenty of Flyers playoff games as they reached the conference semi-finals in 1995 and the conference finals in 1996. He went to the 76ers season opener in 1993 that featured 7-foot-6 and 7-foot-7 giants Shawn Bradley and Gheorghe Muresan on opposing teams.
But his favorite memory involved the local football team.
“Probably going to Eagles games,” John DeFilippo said. “I was at a lot of Monday night games, which was really, really cool.”
The next step
John went on to be the starting quarterback at James Madison University — marking the third generation of college QBs in the DeFilippo family. His father was the quarterback at Springfield College (Mass.), and his grandfather, Eugene, was the quarterback at Holy Cross.
After graduating, DeFilippo spent the next decade climbing the coaching ranks. After 15 years and eight coaching stops — four college, four pro — DeFilippo got his first NFL offensive coordinator job with the Cleveland Browns in 2015, but it ended after one season when the staff was let go.
At the same time, recently-hired Eagles head coach Doug Pederson was in the market for a quarterbacks coach. He had gotten to know DeFilippo when he was offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs and DeFilippo was the Oakland Raiders quarterbacks coach.
“It was a great fit for me,” Pederson said on a conference call. “Somebody that thinks a lot like I do and has the same temperament, and it was a great fit. He’s a guy that pays attention to detail, detail-oriented coach, gets the guys well prepared each and every week. [For] our quarterbacks, every stone was turned over each week.”
DeFilippo inherited Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick, and helped turn him into an MVP candidate by the middle of the 2017 season as Philadelphia charged toward the NFC’s top seed.
“His football knowledge for a rookie, even when he came in, I don’t want to say it was off the charts, but it was pretty close for a rookie,” DeFilippo said. “It was pretty good, really good actually.”
Most fans of the NFL know the story by now: Wentz tore his ACL in early December, veteran Nick Foles replaced him, and the Eagles won the Super Bowl nonetheless behind Foles’ MVP performance — one game after beating the Vikings 38-7 to reach the title game.
DeFilippo and Pederson’s work with Foles earned as much praise nationally as their work with Wentz.
“We really sat down and spent some time with Nick and formulated game plans based on what he felt comfortable doing,” DeFilippo said earlier this year. “And to me, that’s coaching. Why would you ask your player to do something that he’s not comfortable with?”
Within a week of the Super Bowl, DeFilippo was hired as the Vikings new offensive coordinator after Pat Shurmur left to be the New York Giants head coach.
As the Vikings return to the spot where DeFilippo celebrated the Eagles’ NFC championship triumph — and his teenage self mapped out future ambitions — his career comes full circle in many ways. The 40-year-old admitted it would get emotional.
“I have nothing but respect for everyone there in that building,” he said. “Just like this building, there’s some really phenomenal people, coaches, players, ownership, personnel in that building, and it’s a first-class place, no doubt.”
Gene DeFilippo currently lives in Boston and works at Turnkey, a talent recruitment agency that helps find landing spots for coaches and athletic directors. He won’t be attending Sunday’s game because he’s visiting his grandchildren in Akron, Ohio (it was Grandparents’ Day at school).
But he’ll still be watching intently.
“I don’t miss a play,” he said. “Either I’m there or I’m sitting on the edge of the couch.”