Some of the choices Jeff Rutledge made during his journey to become an NFL assistant coach were difficult. Some were easier.
One was all but made for him, in a split second along a Tennessee highway that nearly cost him his life.
But they were the choices Rutledge made, and he lived with them without regret. And when his one-time roommate with the Washington Redskins and longtime friend Ken Whisenhunt called to ask him if he would come to the Cardinals and coach quarterbacks, Rutledge, 50, for once didn’t really have a choice.
“The timing was finally right,” Whisenhunt said.
“Everything,” Rutledge said, “fell into place.”
After Rutledge’s NFL career — he spent 14 years as a backup quarterback, playing on Super Bowl teams with the Redskins, Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants — he, like his buddy Whisenhunt, decided to go into coaching.
Both ended up on the staff at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Eventually,
Whisenhunt moved on in his quest to reach the NFL.
Rutledge stayed put.
It wasn’t because Rutledge didn’t want to coach in the NFL. He did. But his family was too important to him, especially his three children, whom he didn’t want to uproot from school.
So when Dan Reeves offered a job on the Atlanta Falcons staff, he reluctantly turned it down. He did the same when Bill Parcells called from the New York Jets. He did take a job as Al Groh’s offensive coordinator at the University of Virginia before the 2001 season, but only for a day — changing his mind once he found out his wife and daughter were going to stay behind in Nashville so his daughter could finish high school.
“There is no question every decision I made was the right decision,” Rutledge said.
Those in the coaching profession gave Rutledge grief for passing on the opportunities, and Rutledge admits he thought his chance to go to the NFL had passed.
When he was fired along with the rest of the Vanderbilt staff at the end of the 2001 season, he stepped down a level, taking the head football coach/athletic director job at Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy.
Things were good. His family was happy — his decision to stay in Nashville in 2001 allowed him to escort his daughter on the field when she was named homecoming queen — and Rutledge thrived on teaching boys about both football and life. He won a state championship in 2002.
Then, the following May, while Rutledge was returning from the state high school tennis tournament in Memphis, life changed.
The details Rutledge recounts of his devastating car accident aren’t his own. He has no memory of the horrific crash.
He does remember not being more than 30 minutes outside Memphis when the accident occurred, but that is it. He was told that he had approached a construction zone behind a bigger car — perhaps an SUV — when that car suddenly swerved left. Rutledge’s choice was to veer right.
In the lane, either at a dead stop or moving very slowly, was an 18-wheel semi.
Rutledge was going around 70 miles an hour.
Rutledge’s Toyota Camry hit the guard rail and then shot underneath the truck’s trailer, shearing off the windshield and roof. Every bone in Rutledge’s face was broken. It took emergency crews — who assumed when they first arrived Rutledge was dead because of the overwhelming damage — 45 minutes to cut him out.
There was so much bleeding, Rutledge said, that the car’s airbags “looked like tomatoes.”
Rutledge’s wife, Laura, didn’t know if Rutledge was alive or dead when she set out driving toward Memphis when Rutledge was a few hours late. His family had a hard time recognizing him when they saw him in the Memphis hospital.
“Until you are faced with something like that,” Rutledge said, “you don’t realize how precious life is.”
Rutledge quickly lost 35 pounds with his jaw wired shut. Doctors feared brain damage.
Two months later, Laura was driving Jeff around on a golf cart at Montgomery Bell’s first summer football practice.
“I wasn’t as sharp as I should be,” Rutledge said. “But I remember calling some plays and I remembered what everybody was supposed to do and I thought, 'I’ll be OK.’ ”
Montgomery Bell Academy won its second straight state title in the fall.
When Whisenhunt contemplated calling his friend for the Cardinals’ job, he figured Rutledge’s personality would mesh well with his quarterbacks. And Whisenhunt knew Rutledge’s many years in the NFL brought him credibility.
What did make Whisenhunt hesitate was Rutledge’s many years away from the pro game, years that have seen drastic changes in the way the game is played and schemed. Besides, Rutledge had been coaching high school and not college.
“I told the quarterbacks when I got here, I am learning the system just like you are,” Rutledge said. “I don’t have all the answers. But we will get through this together.”
“I know I can relate to them,” Rutledge added. “I have been there. I have played.”
Now he is getting his chance to coach.
After six seasons at Montgomery Bell, Rutledge made another choice, mutually agreeing with the school’s administration to part ways in a strange end to his time
there. It was Jan. 10 and Rutledge didn’t know what he would do.
Then Whisenhunt was hired by the Cardinals Jan. 14, and called his friend.
Rutledge’s kids are grown and married. Other than his two grandchildren, he had no reason to remain in Nashville and pass up another — and likely a final — opportunity to coach in the NFL.
One of his former high school players called and told Rutledge, “Man, you went from coaching (MBA quarterback) Spencer Wise to Matt Leinart.”
Rutledge has reasons to think this job was supposed to happen.
Rutledge sold his house in Nashville before he could even put it on the market. His wife, who was leaving a good job as a nurse practitioner, found a new job in the Valley without having to call anyone.
A man deeply committed to his faith, Rutledge feels fortunate. He is reminded daily of his accident. He has small scars on his face and an upper lip that is always numb.
And he said he thinks that maybe his choices weren’t his choices after all.
“We believe God has a plan,” Rutledge said. “And this was his plan for us.”