A father playing catch with his son is one of the great and lasting joys of childhood – and fatherhood.
Unless your father happens to be a former offensive lineman.
While the other kids were tossing the ball or riding their bikes with their dads at Mountain Gate Park in Corona, Calif., Frank Kalil had his two sons doing offensive line drills – pulling, slide-stepping and learning the intricacies of blitz pickup.
If Frank brought a ball to the two-hour, weekend sessions, it was only so his boys could snap it.
“Other dads are playing catch with their kids, and we’re not doing that,” Frank said. “I’m sure Archie (Manning) was doing his deal with his sons throwing the ball. But I’m sure Peyton and his other sons can’t pull or kick-step.”
Frank was a lineman at Arkansas and Arizona who was drafted by the Buffalo Bills and played three seasons in the USFL in the 1980s. He was Jim Kelly’s center with the Houston Gamblers in 1984.
Frank’s skill set was run-blocking and pass-blocking, so that’s what he taught his boys.
He obviously knew what he was doing: Both of his sons are highly regarded NFL offensive linemen.
Ryan, the Panthers’ seventh-year center, is a three-time Pro Bowler considered to be among the best centers in the league. After undergoing season-ending foot surgery last year, Ryan is back playing at his pre-injury form, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
Matt, the Vikings’ starting left tackle, was the No. 4 overall pick last year out of Southern Cal. He made the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement and was on the NFL’s all-rookie team, despite developing pneumonia the last two weeks of the season and losing nearly 20 pounds.
The Kalil brothers will be on opposing sidelines Sunday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, the first time they’ve faced each other in an organized game.
It will be a family affair inside the Dome: Their sister Danielle, a model and singer/songwriter, is singing the national anthem.
Frank will be with the rest of the family in the stands, watching his sons use the blocking techniques they first learned in a neighborhood park all those Sundays ago.
“My part in this whole thing was just leading them to it,” Frank said. “They put in the hard work. I was just kind of like the book they could go back to if they needed some help.”
Growing up linemen
Frank Kalil was not the football-obsessed father who had his kids in a three-point stance when they were 2. Despite their dad’s background, the Kalil brothers were encouraged to play a variety of sports.
It’s just that Ryan wasn’t very good at the other ones.
“For whatever reason, the only athletic talents I have involve all center skills,” Ryan said. “I get teased quite frequently about that. If you want a good laugh you can throw me the ball or have me throw it back to you.”
In addition to his shipping business, Frank has served as the volunteer president of the Corona Chargers Junior All-Americans for the past 26 years.
“I came from a football family. But my dad was never real gung-ho about me playing football,” Ryan said. “He was always real adamant that I had to play a sport. He didn’t care what sport I played,” Ryan said. “But he coached football, so I always felt like I had to play football. If I didn’t I felt like I’d be letting him down a little bit. But he never forced it on me.”
Before starting high school, Ryan approached his dad about helping him with football, saying he wanted to be a quarterback. Frank said if Ryan wanted his help, he’d have to play center.
“I told him, ‘I’ll give you the next-best thing. You can touch the ball as much as (the quarterback) does,’” Frank said.
And so began a unique family tradition pass-blocking in the park.
“They probably looked at us like we were weirdos,” Frank said.
Frank instructed Ryan on the fundamentals of life in the trenches – slide-steps, kick-steps, starts and reach blocks. The workouts weren’t every weekend, but often enough for Ryan to get aggravated.
“He always said, ‘I’m going to help you out. But if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it my way.’ And his way wasn’t always the most ideal way,” Ryan said. “It’s hard to be a coach and dad at the same time. So there were times we’d butt heads. I used to get irritated at some of the techniques I didn’t think were effective or that great.
“Then I’d find those tapes (of his dad’s games) in the garage and I’d put them on. He was a pretty good player. He was a smaller guy like me. Smaller guys usually need to rely more on techniques. And that’s what we did a ton of.”
Ryan is 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds. But he weighed 230 pounds as a high school junior, when his dad started making him protein shakes. This was before advances in nutritional drinks made them tolerable.
“I probably made him some pretty sick ones that looked like pancake batter,” Frank said.
Unbeknownst to Frank, Ryan would take the shakes to his bedroom and dump them out the window. But they weren’t going to waste.
Matt was outside one day and saw Nisa, the family’s white German Shepherd, lapping up a shake from the side of the house.
“(Ryan) made our dog super-ripped,” Matt said.
And a little sick.
“They kept taking our dog in (to the vet) because she wasn’t eating any of her food,” Ryan said. “She was eating my protein shakes.”
When Matt was in grade school, he and his friend Chris Galippo, who also would go on to USC, occasionally joined Frank and Ryan at the park. Their role was to serve as human blocking dummies.
Matt, who is 6-7 and 308 pounds, was about 6-feet, 180, at the time.
“They used to just get pummeled,” Frank said. “But no one saw them in the park, so it was OK.”
All the protein shakes and park sessions paid off for Ryan. At a Southern Cal camp before his senior year in high school, Ryan squared off against some of the top defensive linemen in the country 10 times in 1-on-1 drills.
“And he won every one of them,” Frank said. “Now, he had a bloody face and his T-shirt was torn, but he was 10-for-10.”
Twenty minutes later, Ryan was sitting in the office of then-USC coach Pete Carroll. Carroll, who was a graduate assistant at Arkansas when Frank played there, offered Ryan a scholarship.
Ryan was a part of two national championship teams at USC and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation’s top center.
While Ryan was off at school, Matt was wearing out a path in the grass at Mountain Gate Park doing offensive line drills just like his brother.
Big brother is watching
Matt grew up and filled out while Ryan was at USC, and was no longer the pushover who held the blocking bags for his brother.
“He was kind of tall and gangly and really uncoordinated. Then when he got to high school, he finally kind of filled in,” Ryan said. “He was extremely athletic. He played basketball and could dunk and do all that stuff.”
At football signups his freshman year at Servite, the Catholic boys school where his dad and brother also played, Matt told the coach he wanted to play tight end.
He could have guessed his dad’s response: He’d play the less glamorous spot next to the tight end.
Frank told him as a tackle, Matt could “imagine yourself as a tight end, but you won’t touch the ball.”
Frank said Matt didn’t argue with him about getting up early or drinking protein shakes, whose taste and consistency had improved, as much as Ryan.
“It wasn’t easier for Matt,” Frank said. “Matt just saw the reward that his brother got. Eli Manning probably did the same thing.”
From Servite, where he was five years behind Ryan, Matt followed his brother to Southern Cal, and now, the NFL.
Every Monday before going over the Panthers’ game tape, Ryan watches the replay of the Vikings’ game, keeping an eye on No. 75 in purple. Then he’ll call Matt with a few pointers.
“Sometimes he’s appreciative,” Ryan said. “And sometimes he doesn’t want to hear from older brother.”
Older brother’s friend and teammate chimes in, as well.
“(Ryan) is always watching. And (Panthers tackle Jordan) Gross is always watching, as well,” Matt said. “They’re always helping me out.”
Matt needed a boost after the Vikings’ season-opening loss at Detroit, where he struggled trying to keep Lions rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah out of the backfield. Ryan told him to stay positive and not to dwell on the bad plays.
“I’ve done this even this year. You get beat, then you play not to get beat because you’re worried. You get out of sync and get off the technique you’re taught,” Matt said. “If guys get in your head, it’s going to be a long game.”
Gross, the Panthers’ veteran left tackle, remembers working with Matt on his stance in Gross’ backyard.
“He’s turned into a really good player,” Gross said. “You try to warn him. After your first year, I told him and I told Ryan, ‘Guys have more film on you. The more film they have on you, the harder it is to block guys because they study you.’ I think he struggled a little bit at the beginning of this year. But he’s an incredible talent and he’s a really good tackle.”
Matt started all 16 games as a rookie during Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s MVP season. Peterson rushed for 2,097 yards, falling 9 yards short of Eric Dickerson’s single-season record.
Peterson called Matt a dependable blocker and a good guy.
“A guy you know is going to go out there and give you his all. Very athletic,” Peterson said. “And then off the field, I share a locker with him – he’s right next to me. He’s a cool guy, laid-back, chill, just an easy-going big guy. He’s good people.”
Gross said the whole family is nice. They’re talented, too.
Cheryl Kalil, Frank’s wife, is a former Miss California who owns a drive-through coffee shop in Corona, a city of 158,000 about 50 miles southwest of Los Angeles.
Danielle began singing when she was 8, has performed the national anthem at previous Vikings and Panthers games, and has appeared in ads for Teen magazine, Guess, and Union Bay.
After Danielle, 26, sings the final notes Sunday, her brothers will take center stage. There will no Roman numerals accompanying the matchup as when the Manning brothers play.
But it will be a special day for the brothers, as well as the 15 family members attending the game.
Ryan said the Panthers’ early-season struggles occupied most of this thoughts this week.
“It’s sort of a rare opportunity,” Ryan said of facing his brother. “But given the last few games, it’s been tough for me to focus on it. Because myself and all these guys around me, we’re busting our butts so much to try to get this next win and get this thing rolling. It’s hard to take a break and focus on that.”
But he plans to give his brother a bear hug and take a picture with him on the field after the game. While Ryan is returning to Charlotte on the team charter, the rest of the family will go out to dinner in Minneapolis.
The group will include Ryan’s wife, Natalie, and their two young daughters. The couple is expecting another child – a boy – in March.
And as long as he’s able, Frank plans to find a patch of grass at Mountain Gate Park and teach his grandson those same offensive line drills when he’s old enough.
“(Ryan) will try to make him anything but a lineman. But if I have any say in it ...,” Frank said. “We’ve got a center and a tackle. We need a guard.”
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