Mizzou coach Haley draws strength from son with autism
St. Louis Post-Dispatch - 6/20/2018
June 20--COLUMBIA, Mo. -- When Brick Haley left Austin, Texas, for his next football coaching job, there was one part of the moving process he couldn't forget. Before packing boxes to head for Missouri, Haley snapped at least 20 photos of his teenage son's bedroom.
When the Haleys settled into their new home in Columbia, A.J.'s room had to be exactly the same.
"Everything has to be in place," Haley said. "Everything has to be aligned."
A career in coaching means change, and when Haley became Mizzou's defensive line coach after the 2016 season, it was his 13th coaching job since he graduated from college in 1989.
Change can be excruciating for a child with autism, such as A.J., Tina and Brick Haley's 18-year-old son.
"That is the biggest challenge," Haley said.
Learning how to sort through and rise above those challenges has made Mizzou's 52-year-old coach more than a parent of a son with autism. He's an advocate -- with an audience and a platform.
Anyone who follows Haley on Twitter knows he's vigilant when it comes to sharing articles and events that promote autism awareness.
On Friday, Haley will host his fifth annual Brick Road to Success golf tournament in his hometown of Gadsden, Ala.
Proceeds will go toward Autism Speaks, an organization that supports autism research and raises awareness for the developmental disability that's identified in one in 59 children in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Haley's last four tournaments have raised more than $40,000.
"People need to be informed and educated because autism can be so misconstrued," Haley said in his office last week. "For us, it was why? There were so many questions that we couldn't answer. Once you dig deeper you get a little more understanding, then a little more, now you know why kids do these things or why they react to things a certain way."
A.J., the middle of the three Haley sons, was diagnosed when he was 8 years old. Before then, the Haleys couldn't tackle why A.J. struggled to express himself around others.
"It was driving me nuts why I couldn't really communicate and understand him," Haley said. "Once we started getting more in depth with research we found out more and more. That was such a pleasure for me, to realize why these things were happening. It wasn't just me or (Tina) or him. It was something that was there inside him."
Haley describes A.J. as high functioning, intelligent and big hearted. He's interested in certain subjects, not so much football but especially movies. He attends Rock Bridge High School and splits time between mainstream classes and ones for students with special needs.
"His rote memory is unbelievable," Haley said. "You can ask him a question about any movie and he can tell you the year it came out, the stars, the rating, what it made at the box office. He just rattles it all off like it's no big deal."
Haley believes those earlier challenges made him a better coach. Over the last three decades Haley has been a defensive assistant at Clemson, Baylor, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State, Louisiana State and most recently Texas, with a three-year stint in the NFL coaching under Lovie Smith with the Chicago Bears.
As Barry Odom heads into a third and pivotal season at Mizzou, the head coach will convince you he hasn't made a more important hire than Haley.
Haley doubles as MU's senior associate head coach. In April, Odom bumped Haley's salary from $400,000 to $477,000 and extended his original two-year contract two more seasons, through 2020.
"We wouldn't be where we are today without Brick," Odom said . "There's a reason he's been successful over his career. He's been a coordinator. Should be a head coach. He's a tremendous football Xs and Os guy, but he knocks it out of the park better than I've ever seen with his care for kids, his interaction with them and his ability to relate to anybody, no matter who they are, where they're from."
Mizzou defensive coordinator Ryan Walters also is impressed.
"I've said it before but I think he's the best defensive line coach in the country," Walters said. "Not only because of what he does as a technician and motivator but being able to develop real relationships with everybody in the building. He's a great role model, a great example for his group and for the kids on the team."
When Haley joined the Mizzou staff he became the team's fourth defensive line coach in 13 months. When Odom took over for Gary Pinkel after the 2015 season, he didn't retain longtime assistant Craig Kuligowski, now at Alabama.
Chris Wilson, Odom's first choice for the job, lasted six weeks before leaving for the NFL.
Replacement Jackie Shipp was fired late in the 2016 season after an argument with a player before a road game.
Then came Andrea "Brick" Haley, the youngest of 10 siblings in Gadsden -- "the little runt always gets picked on," he said -- who became a middle linebacker at Alabama A&M, then a coach with a sharp tongue, a wicked glare but, colleagues and players insist, a soft heart.
Haley arrived knowing Mizzou's veteran linemen would be suspicious of a fourth position coach.
"I'm not asking you to trust me right now," he recalled telling his charges in their first meeting. "I want to prove to you that I'm the guy that needs to be coaching you. I want to earn your respect. That way we'll get this going the right way."
But it took time.
"I didn't like him," Mizzou sophomore defensive end Tre Williams said. "I thought he was short and just yelling all the time. Sometimes I couldn't hear him because he's so short. The thing is, now our relationship has grown. I'm so glad he's here. He's so patient with me."
Patience, Haley says, is an unexpected gift from A.J. Raising a son with autism, he said, "has changed my whole philosophy on coaching."
"It's taught me to be more patient," he said. "I'm more mature in that I can't have a microwaveable world. I can't have things instantly. ... But there's no doubt this experience with (A.J.) has made me understand what the world is really about. That's loving and caring for each other."
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