Rams practice is over, but not for John Fassel. The angular special teams coach is running with knees high from one end zone to the other, then dropping to the turf for crunches as the grandstands empty at UC Irvine.
Typically, there’s still plenty of fuel to burn for Fassel, 42, who has the energy of someone half his age, and a nickname — “Bones” — that accurately describes his roughly 0.0% body fat.
Special teams are a point of pride for the Rams, and Fassel, meticulously focused and relentlessly upbeat, is the tip of that spear. He’s a triathlete who played receiver at Pacific and Weber State, and the son of longtime NFL coach Jim Fassel.
“Coach Bones is one of my best coaches ever,” said returner Tavon Austin, who has run a punt back for a touchdown in each of the last three seasons. “Just his energy level. He just shows us what we’ve got to do, and lets us play.”
Sometimes, though, Fassel feels the need to intervene — and last summer that almost certainly saved a life. It was on a July evening in Manhattan Beach, where his parents have a house five blocks from the sand. Fassel, a strong swimmer, was bobbing alone on a Boogie board in the fading light when he noticed a middle-aged man flailing in the water about 50 yards to his left.
“I’m keeping my eye on him for about 30 seconds, and it was just weird,” Fassel recalled. “I don’t know if he’s swimming, but then he’s going under, then he starts splashing. I could see him close enough to see he was struggling.”
A surfer nearby also was watching the frightening situation unfold, and he and Fassel made the decision to paddle over to the man as quickly as they could.
“We got there fast,” Fassel said. “We got him and he was a breath or two away. He had no equipment, no fins, no board, couldn’t swim. He got caught in a riptide. We grabbed him, and he was almost dead weight.”
Fassel and the surfer, Jim Burton, pulled the man onto Burton’s surfboard so his head and torso were out of the water, but he was largely unresponsive and slid back into the water. They hoisted him back onto the board, kicked their way out of the riptide and got back to shore, where they were met by a team of Manhattan Beach lifeguards.
On the shore, the lifeguards and the Manhattan Beach Fire Department set up a quarantine while paramedics stabilized the man with intravenous fluids, EKG exams and medication. After working on him for about an hour, the paramedics transported him to a local hospital for further evaluation.
Fassel never got the man’s name, only that he survived.
“I think about it all the time,” said Fassel, a father of two young daughters. “I think about, if I got there too late, or nobody saw him. When I get in the ocean now, sometimes if it’s a strong current I kind of look around. Are there kids in the water? It just happened so fast.”
Of course, he doesn’t have much time these days for relaxing on the beach. He’s in his fifth season overseeing special teams for the Rams, who have largely excelled in that aspect of the game.
Two years ago, the Rams upset the Seattle Seahawks with help from a successful fake punt and a tricky punt return that led every highlight package. On the return, the Rams fooled the Seahawks into thinking the ball was heading toward Austin, who had fallen down on one side of the field. Instead, though, it was sailing on the other side of the field toward Stedman Bailey, who fielded the punt over his shoulder and raced 90 yards for a touchdown. It was Fassel who was responsible for preparing the Rams units for those plays.
Rams punter Johnny Hekker has made two of the last three Pro Bowls and led the NFL last season in gross average at 47.9 yards, net average at 43.7 and punts downed inside the 20-yard line with 41. He’s the first player to lead the NFL in all three categories since the league started tracking punts inside the 20 in 1976.
Austin finished fifth in punt-return average at 11.2 yards and Benny Cunningham was fifth in kick-return average at 27.5.
Fassel was special teams coordinator for the Oakland Raiders from 2008-11, working with perennial Pro Bowl kicker Sebastian Janikowski and punter Shane Lechler. From 2005-07, he was an assistant special teams coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
Early in his career, Fassel coached wide receivers at Bucknell, was a strength and conditioning coach for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe and was head coach at New Mexico Highlands.
“When I was growing up,” recalled Fassel, whose father has a long history coaching in college and the pros but perhaps is best remembered as coach of the New York Giants from 1997-2003, “I was always hanging around the meeting rooms, the players’ locker room, the practice field, on the sideline on game day.
“I just grew up in that environment. It’s in my blood.”
Fassel began his college playing career in Stockton, but transferred to Weber State when Pacific dropped its football program after the 1995 season. He started his college career as a reserve quarterback but found his way onto the field after the team’s punter was sidelined because of a broken foot.
“We had no backup punter,” Fassel said, “so Coach [Chuck] Shelton said, ‘Anybody who thinks they can punt, we’re going to have a punt-off.’ I’d never punted in my life, and luckily I hit two bombs. He named me the starting punter for that Saturday, and I punted for the rest of the season.”
The rail-thin Fassel, far more comfortable on the offensive side of the ball, still laughs about tackling a Louisiana-Lafayette player who had returned one of his punts.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “It was awesome.”
That kind of unbridled enthusiasm has made Fassel among the most beloved members of the Rams staff.
“Bones should be cloned,” General Manager Les Snead said, “so he could coach and teach every kid from Little League to middle school to high school and on up. … We’d be a better country because of it. He’s that special.”
The coach they call Bones is long and thin as an exclamation point. Somehow, that seems just about right.