It was a valuable experience for all involved when decorated NFL alum Chris McAlister was embedded in the tight-knit Bills defensive backs room at Bills Training Camp 2014.
McAlister, one of three Bill Walsh Minority Coaching Fellows on the Bills Camp coaching squad, got the chance to learn from his former coach, current Bills defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson.
Likewise, the members of a talented defensive backs squad - but one with few players tallying more than five years of experience in the league - got to learn from a ten year NFL veteran with multiple Pro Bowls and a Super Bowl Championship under his belt.
"It's been amazing," said McAlister. "Learning how to coach, it was a lot different than I thought it would be. I have a lot of knowledge in my head about how to play the game, but then coming here with Coach Henderson, he showed me how to get what I have in my head and relate that to the players."
Henderson taught him to be succinct in his technique, or as he put it, "paint the picture, don't write an essay," which was hard for the aspiring coach in McAlister at first. What McAlister found even harder was turning his player-coach relationship with Henderson into a professional coaching relationship in order to soak in all the lessons Henderson had to offer.
"I was a player, he was a coach, so it was a lot more joking around," McAlister said with a smile. "I'm just a happy guy naturally, but coaches seem so serious sometimes. When I want to laugh and smile, in this professional world sometimes it's not appropriate. You kind of have to hold it in. The players can go up and down, but as a coach, you want to be neutral, like Switzerland."
Despite working towards the understandably difficult neutrality that comes with the territory as a former player – especially when working alongside a former coach – McAlister formed an on- and off-the-field bond with the tight-knit Bills defensive backs.
"It's big, having him here and working with us," said CB Stephon Gilmore. "He knows what I'm going through. We talk about stuff that me and a coach couldn't talk about because he played in this league and knows what I'm going through so it's a good experience to have."
"It's great to have him. Our secondary always looks out for each other, inside and outside of football," said S Aaron Williams. "He's part of the group now, so it's been very fun to have him along for the ride. Anytime you have questions about anything, just life in general or any kind of tips on how to be a pro outside of football, he's there and he's been through a lot so we can learn from his success and his mistakes."
McAlister plans to return home to California to volunteer as a coach at Mt. San Antonio College, the junior college he played at before attending the University of Arizona. From there, he hopes to break into the NFL, whether through another fellowship next season or a more permanent position somewhere around the league.
And though the driving force behind McAlister's desire to spend his fellowship in Buffalo was to learn skills from Henderson to soon join him in the coaching ranks, he said he knew he was walking into a great group of young, talented players – and they didn't let him down.
"After watching all of them this training camp and having a chance to study them on tape, they've done a great job of coming together as a unit," he said on the John Murphy Show. "These guys could do something special."
Joining McAlister this season as the Bills Bill Walsh Minority Fellows were: Siriki Diabate, a former Syracuse Orange linebacker during Coach Marrone's tenure there who worked with the Bills linebackers; and Myles Russ, a current coach and former player at Robert Morris University, who worked with the running backs.