They've been in the coaching game for decades and their paths have crossed multiple times both as colleagues and as adversaries. So it seems only fitting that Bills new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman has a fellow defensive backs expert in Donnie Henderson on his coaching staff.
"Donnie and I have known each other since we were 17 years old," said Thurman of Henderson.
Henderson and Thurman both grew up in California about a half hour drive on the 405 away from one another. Thurman grew up in Santa Monica and Henderson was raised in Watts, an inner ring suburb of Los Angeles.
Both were accomplished high school football players. Thurman, who earned a scholarship to USC in 1974 was part of a national championship team as a freshman. Henderson meanwhile went the junior college route at Santa Monica junior college before transferring to Utah State.
Even though they did face one another in college games, Henderson and Thurman did square off in the offseason.
"I went to Santa Monica junior college while he was still at USC. We used to have 7-on-7 games in the summer time," said Henderson. "We would have our junior college team and Dennis would bring his team of Division I guys and we would compete every Thursday night 7-on-7."
Thurman was a two-time consensus All-American at USC and went on to a nine-year NFL career spending his first eight seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.
Henderson led his Utah State Aggies team in interceptions in 1978 and 1979 before embarking on a coaching career. He began right at his alma mater in 1983 as a graduate assistant before becoming a position coach three years later.
A half dozen years later Henderson got a job as a safeties coach at Arizona State (1992) under head coach Bruce Snyder. The following year Thurman returned to his alma mater to be the secondary coach for the Trojans under his college head coach, John Robinson, who returned to USC for a second coaching stint.
"I coached against him when we were in college," said Thurman. 'He was at Arizona State and I was at USC."
Henderson's Sun Devils squad posted a 2-1 record in the three meetings with Thurman's Trojans.
The two assistant coaches would eventually coach together in Baltimore. Henderson had been coaching for the Ravens since 1999 as the defensive backs coach, while Rex Ryan was serving as defensive line coach. Thurman joined the Baltimore staff as a defensive assistant in 2002.
Henderson and Thurman worked together for two years before Henderson accepted a defensive coordinator position with the New York Jets under Herm Edwards. Ironically, Thurman would be the Jets secondary coach come 2008 and then remained on staff after Eric Mangini was fired and Rex Ryan was hired as head coach in New York. Thurman served as defensive coordinator for the Jets the past two seasons.
When Ryan was hired in Buffalo, Henderson was hopeful he'd be given an opportunity to survive the head coaching change. Ryan, who has great respect for Henderson himself, offered him the chance to stay on the staff.
"I'm happy to be here and stick around with the coaching change," Henderson said. "Fortunately for me I've worked with a few of these guys before. Rex and I worked together and started in this business together in 1999 in Baltimore. When the transition went down I was still on vacation. I didn't speak to Rex until the Thursday I came back from vacation. I found out that if I wanted to stay I had an opportunity to."
Henderson will work under Thurman and his role will remain the same as secondary coach. The only change is Henderson will have another secondary coach working alongside him in Tim McDonald. A six-time Pro Bowl safety, McDonald and Henderson sound like they have things figured out when it comes to handling the Bills defensive backs.
"Tim and I are going to work the secondary together," Henderson said. "I might take a lead on certain things, but I believe I'm going to learn from Tim because he played in this league a long time and played the safety position so he can help us there with some of the young safeties.
"We're going to coach. Some days I'll coach the safeties and some days I'll coach the corners. We're going to coach the group as a whole because we want to deliver them all the same message."
The collective experience on the defensive side of the ball offers a bounty of football knowledge to the men in Buffalo's secondary. Thurman is just glad that Henderson will be standing on the same sideline as him again.
"We've been friends for a long time and I'm glad he's here," said Thurman. "He's one of the best in the business."