September 09, 2012

The neighbors across the street had a huge backyard, with nothing planted. No trees, no shrubs, no garden — nothing but green grass. For young Les Snead and his buddies in Eufaula, Ala., it became a field of dreams.

Growing up, they didn't just play pickup football there, they had uniforms, treehouse locker rooms, even a name for their gridiron get-togethers, not to mention a publicity machine.

"We called it the Backyard League," said Jack Smith, a Backyard League alum who grew up a block from Snead in the southeast Alabama town of 13,000. "Back in those days, we played football, basketball, baseball — every sport every day after school. We rode our bikes everywhere. That's kind of how we grew up."

But growing up in the middle of SEC country, football was king.

"Football's in our blood, OK?" said Snead's mother, Pam. "It is in our blood."

The Backyard League was so much in the blood of Snead and his pack of friends that you could keep up with it in the newspaper. The nearest paper of any size was the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, and as Smith recalled, "At one point in time, Frank Mixon would phone in bogus Backyard League stats to the Ledger-Enquirer, and they would publish it."

Smith is now director of strategic communications for the Auburn University athletic department. Frank Mixon became an economics professor. Another Backyard League alum, Archie Grubb, is an attorney. Snead grew up to be general manager of the St. Louis Rams.

"I think Les was predestined to be the general manager of the Rams," Smith said. "I think Les is a great story. Dreams do come true, even dreams that may seem out of reach."


At the time, Snead didn't know what a general manager was, but he sure put a lot of time into football growing up in the late 1970s and early '80s. As a middle schooler, he'd scrape together loose change and head downtown to the drug store or the local Kmart and buy football cards. At home, he studied the cards, spread them out on the floor, and held a football "draft" with his friends.

Invariably they'd grab a football and head out to that backyard field across the street. One of them might be Dan Marino or Eric Dickerson or Anthony Munoz, or any one of the NFL stars of the day.

"It was almost like fantasy football before fantasy football," Snead said. "We would make up little games. Once you drafted your players or you built your team, you may go throw the football. If you hit that tree, it's however many points. And you'd keep stats with the players."

Snead, now 41, went beyond merely watching the NFL draft on television in those days. At a time when the draft was held during the day on weekdays, he began skipping school to do so. It was Snead's version of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," but everyone knew about it. His friends. His mother. Even his football coach.

"He was such a good kid, and a good student," Pam Snead said. "I never had to worry. He only skipped one day (a year), and I always let him do that."

As the NFL draft unfolded, Snead charted it on the wall in his room. During the 1984 draft, Snead received a call from another member of the Backyard League gang — Paul Mixon, a die-hard Pittsburgh fan and Frank Mixon's brother.

"Paul would not spend the night with us unless his Steelers 'PJs' were clean," Pam explained.

"Who'd the Steelers draft?" asked Paul Mixon, who unlike Snead, was in school that day.

"(Wide receiver) Louis Lipps, No. 23 overall," Snead replied.


Snead clearly had a passion for football, the seeds of which were sown on the green grass of the Backyard League. But at the time, the dream only extended as far as college football. In high school, he was team captain and an all-state offensive guard for the Eufaula High Tigers, a strong program that recently sent linebacker Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore Ravens) and wide receiver Jerrell Jernigan (New York Giants) to the NFL.

"He was a lot bigger then than he is now," Smith said. "Back then he was a big, strong guy. He was one of the most intense competitors I have ever seen. He was a very emotional guy. He was a very excitable guy. He had a lot of pride in playing for his high school."

Snead's high school coach, Wayne Woodham, remembers a game where that competitiveness and passion boiled over after a penalty against Snead wiped out a Eufaula touchdown.

"Les just jerked his helmet off right there out on the field, and his face was as red as one of these southern tomatoes," Woodham said. "Les really didn't think that he was downfield (illegally). He was mad at the official, and then he was mad because it cost a touchdown for the team. It just showed how determined he was. That's always stuck with me about Les, just wanting to be the best at whatever he did."

Snead got a scholarship to play college football at Troy University (then called Troy State) but stayed only two seasons before transferring to nearby Auburn as a walk-on and a blocking tight end. He had grown up a huge Auburn fan.

"He called one day and said, 'Mom, my heart is not here. I just need to be at Auburn,' " Pam said. "So I said, 'Get your things and have them out on the sidewalk, and I'll be there in about an hour and 15 minutes.' I really thought I'd have to go pack (for him). But when I got there — in an hour and 15 minutes — he was sitting on his luggage on the sidewalk."

Even in transferring, Snead had made such an impression on Troy coach Larry Blakeney that Blakeney told Pam if it didn't work out at Auburn he wanted Snead back.

"How 'bout that?" Pam said.


For a while, Snead strongly considered going to medical school after college. But after a stint as a graduate assistant for the Auburn football team, he decided to pursue a career in scouting. Pam Snead remembers a visit to Auburn just before her son received his master's degree in education.

"One of the receptionists told me, 'Oh goodness, every child that comes through is going to be a scout. Please discourage him,' " Pam recalled. "(The receptionist) was so afraid that he'd be disappointed. One week later he was offered a job.

"How 'bout that?"

Part of his GA duties at Auburn was hosting NFL scouts, coaches and front office executives when they came in to check out prospects, and young Snead obviously made a good impression. He had job interviews set up with Bobby Beathard of the San Diego Chargers and Phil Savage of the Baltimore Ravens. But his first interview was with the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars and their director of pro personnel, Ron Hill. (This was 1995; 17 years later Hill interviewed for the Rams GM job that went to Snead.)

But in '95, Hill offered valuable advice that helped launch Snead's career.

"Ron told me, 'Hey, you're about to go interview with Tom (Coughlin),' " Snead said. " 'He's gonna offer you the job. My only advice is don't tell him you're going to sleep on it. If you want the job, take it.' "

Sure enough, Coughlin offered Snead a job in the Jaguars' scouting department. Snead took it and never looked back. He spent three years with the Jaguars, before joining Atlanta in 1998.

He survived three head-coaching changes in Atlanta, moving up to director of player personnel by the time the Rams came calling in February. Working for Coughlin in Jacksonville, Snead learned the importance of preparation and saw that the discipline and consistency of Coughlin's approach minimized mistakes.

When Bill Belichick protιgι Thomas Dimitroff arrived in Atlanta in 2008 as Falcons general manager, Snead learned about the Patriot way.

"Under Thomas when he made me director of player personnel, it was probably my first time as a lieutenant, where your advice is really weighed," Snead said. "That element also gave me the ability to do both pro and college work. And obviously, learning all the philosophy of what Belichick does in New England and bringing it to Atlanta. You wouldn't have enough print for me to tell you what Thomas has meant to me as a mentor."

Atlanta had never before experienced back-to-back winning seasons prior to Dimitroff's arrival. Since '08, the Falcons have experienced four consecutive winning seasons, earning three playoff berths. Over that four-season span, only four NFL teams have more regular-season victories than the Falcons (with 43).

"Hey, let's be honest," Snead said. "Being a part of that is the major reason why I'm here."


Snead's also here because under his predecessor, Billy Devaney, the Rams ranked last in the NFL with just 12 victories from '08 through '11.

In his first five months in St. Louis, Snead hasn't just stuck his toes in the water; he's jumped in head first.

From the outset, Snead let it be known that in concert with head coach Jeff Fisher and executive vice president Kevin Demoff, the Rams were going to be aggressive. So far, he has lived up to that billing.

First came the blockbuster trade that sent the Rams' No. 2 overall pick to Washington in exchange for three first-rounders and a second-rounder. During the first few days of free agency, the team invested a potential $98 million on three free agents: cornerback Cortland Finnegan, defensive tackle Kendall Langford and center Scott Wells.

He revamped the personnel department, and the roster moves and trades continued. One of the NFL's oldest rosters in 2011 has been reshaped into one of its youngest. All along, one of Snead's mantras has been: We're not one player away.

Who knows what the future holds, but Snead doesn't plan on simply waiting around to find out.

"Hey, it's not just going to happen," he said. "We've got to do this rapidly and tenaciously. You've got to go get it. You can't be scared. You can't just say, 'OK, we're the Rams, and over the last four years we're the worst team in football, so woe is us, it's always going to be that way.' "

His second-floor office at Rams Park reflects that approach. At the top of a greaseboard are the words: "persistence, explore, generate, and implement."

Across the room, at the top of a power-point screen are these words: "Understand how to, and then go build, plus develop, plus coach to thrive."

That screen also includes a photo from The Lion King movie. Comparing that photo to the young Rams roster, Snead says, "We've got a lot of those little Simbas." He wants everyone at Rams Park, "to be cutting edge at our jobs to get those little guys to be lions."

And as Eufaula High's Coach Woodham relates, there's a little bit of Snead's hometown in the office — a loose interpretation of part of Proverbs 23:7 that reads: "As a man thinks, he becomes."

Nearly a quarter-century ago, Woodham put those words on T-shirts that the Eufaula team wore under their shoulder pads.

"Not too long ago, Les was speaking here in Eufaula and he mentioned that he kept that on his desk," Woodham said.

The words — not the T-shirt.

"I think Les exemplifies that about as much as anybody," Woodham said. "He always thought that he could. And he did."

And as Pam Snead would say: How 'bout that?