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September 12, 2011

Back in the game

By: Jimmy Robertson

After playing at Tech and having a seven-year career in the NFL, former cornerback Tyronne Drakeford is coaching in the high school ranks

After an injury-plagued senior season at Tech, Tyronne Drakeford enjoyed a slightly better year as a rookie in the NFL.

He helped the San Francisco 49ers win a Super Bowl.

Tyronne Drakeford

“I was looking forward to a big senior year [at Tech], but I broke my ankle and the injury held me back,” Drakeford said. “Then to go to the 49ers and win a Super Bowl in my first year, that was unbelievable.”

Drakeford, a South Carolina native who played at Tech from 1990-93 following a year at Fork Union Military Academy, missed nearly five games his senior year with a broken ankle, but he managed to come back and play in the Independence Bowl game, recording an interception and helping start the Hokies’ current 18-game bowl streak. After that season, he departed as one of the greatest Tech defensive backs ever, having intercepted 16 passes in his career – a number that ranks second on the school’s all-time list.

In the 1994 NFL Draft, San Francisco selected him in the second round, and Drakeford ended up spending more than seven years in the NFL with three different teams. He played with some great players, notably Deion Sanders, and he also played for some great coaches.

After four years with the 49ers, where he played for legendary George Seifert, he landed in New Orleans and played for two seasons under Hall of Famer Mike Ditka. Ditka, who won a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears in the mid-1980s, coached the Saints for three disastrous seasons (1997-99), amassing just a 15-33 record.

“Coach Ditka was a great coach, but he was still in the era of the ’84-85 Bears,” Drakeford said. “The game had evolved, and you have to be able to change with it. He was still trying to do things like they did during his Bears days, and the players didn’t really buy into it.”

The Saints fired Ditka after the 1999 season and hired Jim Haslett to restructure the team. Haslett wanted Drakeford to take a pay cut, but Drakeford refused, and the team released him. He ultimately signed with Washington in 2000 to play for head coach Norv Turner. Following the season, Drakeford contemplated retirement because of constant pain from a second reconstruction on his shoulder.

“My shoulder wasn’t right, but then Jim Mora [who was an assistant coach in San Francisco when Drakeford was there] called me and wanted me to come back to San Francisco,” Drakeford said. “We worked it out, and they signed me. So I held off on turning in my [retirement] papers.

“But I only played in one game, got hurt again and they released me. I didn’t want to wait around for another team, so I just sent in my papers [in 2001].”

Drakeford, who finished his NFL career with 248 tackles and 16 interceptions, said he spent his first two or three years post-retirement not doing much of anything. He moved back to Ashburn, Va., to be with his wife and three sons and dabbled in some small business ventures, including one with a telecommunications company. He also ran a non-profit organization for a spell.

But he eventually got back into football.

“I did some volunteer coaching at a local Boys and Girls Club here,” Drakeford said. “Then I became the athletics director and did that for three and a half years.

“I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel like I was giving my sons the attention they deserved. I was working in real estate and was the AD at the Boys and Girls Club from 1-9 [p.m.] during the day and didn’t get to see them much, so I decided to devote more time to my kids.”

Drakeford resigned his position as the AD and worked solely as a realtor. But he wasn’t out of football for long. He ended up taking an assistant coaching position at Kettle Run High School in Nokesville, Va., a relatively new high school where his oldest son plays. Now, he not only gets to see his son every day, but also gets to teach his son some of the tricks that made him a great player.

“It’s been great,” Drakeford said. “I really enjoy it and look forward to it every day. It keeps me busy and keeps me involved with athletics.”

Drakeford keeps up with the Hokies, traveling to Blacksburg with wife Cindi – who is also a Virginia Tech graduate – and his three sons, ages 17, 15 and 12, at least once or twice a year. He also encourages high school kids to consider Tech when making their college choice, citing the school’s many positives.

“It was the best four years of my life,” he said. “I enjoyed being at Tech and always encourage kids to go to Tech. When you look at the school and what it has to offer, I’m not sure why you wouldn’t go there.”

Drakeford serves as a great role model, not just for high school athletes, but also for current Tech student-athletes. When he departed Tech in 1994, he was two classes short of his degree. Being around his sons and the kids at the Boys and Girls Club made him realize that he needed to finish his coursework if he wanted to preach about the value of a degree.

So he took the two classes at George Mason and transferred them to Tech.

“I felt like a hypocrite when I was talking to those kids,” Drakeford said. “I knew what I had to do. I wanted to say I graduated.”