It’s just after 11:00 a.m. on a typical Wednesday when I make my way down to the practice fields at the University of North Texas. UNT’s assistant athletic director of communications Jordan Stepp greets me, as we wait for former Cowboys running back Tashard Choice. Choice is in his first year as a quality control coach with the Mean Green, so I reached out to the school to see if I could get a few minutes to speak with him about it.
“Coach Choice is the easiest one to pick out,” Stepp says, scanning the crowd of 150 or so people. “He’s always wearing a hoodie.”
This isn’t the warmest September day the DFW Metroplex has seen, but it’s still hovering around 90 degrees. “A hoodie,” I begin thinking to myself. “He’s going to be hot and exhausted. Last thing he’ll want to do is talk for another 10 minutes under the sun.”
I should have known better. If there is one thing that always stood out to Cowboys fans about Choice it was his love of life, football culture, and the game itself.
“I have a joy. I’m not happy. It’s not a happiness I have, it’s straight joy,” Choice exclaims, clenching a toothpick between his 100-watt grin that Cowboys fans became so accustomed to. “I’m joyful because I actually get to come to work and I get to coach football.”
Coaching wasn’t always the path Choice had envisioned for himself. Following his 2011 release from the Cowboys after a little more than 3 years with the team, Choice bounced around a bit. He would make stops in Washington, Buffalo, and Indianapolis before finally hanging it up at the end of 2013. Choice thought broadcasting was in his future until he got a phone call from former Cowboys quarterback Jon Kitna. Kitna had just been hired as the head coach of Waxahachie High School, roughly 30 miles south of Dallas. Choice agreed to come work with Kitna’s running backs in a volunteer role, not knowing what to expect.
“The first time I went out to a 7-on-7 to work with the kids, it’s sort of like a light went off. Something was burning in my heart to see a kid succeed, and see them get better.”
Looking back on his time in the league, the makings of a football coach were always there.
“I was always a third down back and had to understand the game,” Choice says. “Working with [Tony] Romo, working with [Jason] Witten, I always kept all of my playbooks and understood the whole, not just my part.”
Once the flame was lit, Choice couldn’t snuff it out. Following his year of work with Kitna, Choice scored a training camp internship with the Cowboys in 2016, giving him the chance to work with Dallas’ talented group of runners.
Choice with the Cowboys in 2016
After his internship ended, Choice scoped out his next opportunity and saw a fit with UNT. He volunteered for the 2016 season as a sort of brand ambassador for the football program, just to be certain this was the career path he wanted to take. Now in his third year coaching, Choice views his job as something that goes beyond the field of play.
“It’s more about me building men than just making football players. I understand the aspect of football, but it’s such a microcosm of life.”
“Because color doesn’t matter, race doesn’t matter, where you come from doesn’t matter; it’s all about how you play once you get on the football field. I’ve got a lot of admiration for the great coaches that build men more than just win football games, because not everybody is going to make it to the NFL. You just want to make sure they understand the discipline of football and learn how to benefit from that.”
While Choice embraces his role as a mentor, he still loves strategic aspects of the game and wants to influence it.
“I’m sort of letting it come to me,” Choice says. “I want to learn my part first. So coming in and [coaching] the running backs, you have to learn other parts of the game.”
“[I want to] one day get to where I’m calling plays, but it’s not a rush for me. I want to make sure I understand the game and I want to understand every aspect of it. The better you are at knowing the defensive players, coverages, gap schemes, and what you have to run offensively and defensively, [the better you’ll be] as a coach.”
One area where Choice may be uniquely equipped to assist a team is in training players to block out distractions. Choice saw quite a bit of turmoil first-hand during his tenure with the Cowboys, from Terrell Owens’ departure, to the firing of Wade Phillips.
“No matter what’s going on outside, when you get into the facility, it’s all about work. Everybody’s going to have distractions every day; family, somebody’s dying, you’re going to have tragedy. So as a football player you’ve got to learn how to go to work, and when you leave, you handle your business.”
So what about his former team? How are they handling distractions?
“Coach Garrett is one of the guys who is going to tell them to ‘block the noise.’ They don’t really [pay attention to] the noise. They’re always making sure they’re focused on what they’ve got to do.”
“They’re going to be awesome this year. Coach Marinelli don’t play. He’s all about focus, he’s all about understanding what you’ve got to do, doing your job, and hustling on every play. Scott Linehan is a genius. He knows how to get the ball into people’s hands and he knows how to call plays. And with Rich Bisaccia on the special teams part, he’s going to bust their tail. He’s a hell of a coach. He’s going to make sure they know what they’re doing, so they’re going to be sound in all three phases of the game.”
If the early returns are any indication, Choice should have a successful coaching career. North Texas is averaging over 200 yards rushing per game and are currently ranked No. 13 in the nation in yards per attempt.