Dan Land, center, is surrounded by his famliy, from left to right, daughter Mimi; wife, Theresa; daughter Monique Land-Banks, and son, Dan Land Jr., as they sit in front of their home. Dan, who played in the NFL for 12 years, has always put his family first and called Albany home since his playing days at Albany State, where he was a star running back. He came back to ASU after his days as an NFL player and has been the AD, and serving the last 13 years as the Rams’ secondary coach.
Albany — There wasn’t much traffic on the road that morning. It was cold and pitch black, before dawn or daylight, when Sam Smith made the drive from Albany to Donalsonville. And as Smith drove south in the darkness, Dan Land was sleeping, not knowing how much his life was about to change.
It’s a change that has lasted forever.
If there’s any man who loves the Good Life City, it’s Land, who found a wife, a home, a family and a lifetime in Albany, where he planted roots so deep even the lights and glitter and riches of the NFL couldn’t tear him away.
“I’m blessed in so many ways,” Land said this Christmas season.
He has always loved spending Christmas at home in Albany, and this year is no different. He’s always appreciated what it means, and his family and friends here have always been priceless.
It’s ironic that a man who spent more than a decade backpedaling in the NFL, always knew exactly where he was going.
Everything always led back to Albany, where Land, who was a defensive back for the Raiders, is a longtime secondary coach at Albany State,
“Dan always said: ‘It’s nice to be in L.A. for a while, but there’s no place like Albany,’ ” said Land’s wife, Theresa. “He always said: ‘You can be yourself in Albany, because you’re with family and friends, and the people who know you.’ He’s never changed.”
Land, who spent a dozen years in the NFL, could have landed anywhere, but whether it was fate or good fortune or just life playing itself out, he ended up in Albany — and never wanted to leave.
That’s what that predawn drive by Smith set in motion 30 years ago. It was one of those fork-in-the-road moments in life, and Land had no idea it was coming.
Golden Rams star
Land, who was a superstar at Seminole County High School — where he played football, basketball and baseball — knew he was going to play college football somewhere. He was a tremendous running back and defensive back and made every all-star list, including being named to the All-State team.
He was big, strong and lightning-quick, and a long list of colleges were courting him.
“The bigger schools like Florida State wanted me as a defensive back, and the smaller schools wanted to recruit me as a running back,” Land said. “You know, I was a high school kid and all the limelight was on the running back, so I wanted to play running back in college.”
But where to go?
His coach at Seminole had graduated from Troy State in Alabama, and that seemed to be the likely choice, but as every high school recruit knows, turmoil comes with talent because the more schools that want you, the more difficult the choice.
Land never had to wrestle with a decision.
“I was living with my grandmother,’’ Land said. “And back in those days, the schools could come to you and sign you in person. My grandmother told me to sign with the first school that showed up. She said, ‘An education is an education’ and told me the first school that comes is the one I should sign with because the important thing was my education.’’
Sam Smith, who was the offensive line coach and the main recruiter for Albany State, knocked on Land’s door at 6 a.m. Land’s grandmother was sitting there that morning when her grandson took her advice and signed with ASU.
Land bleeds blue and gold to this day and has made Albany State his home, first as one of the best running backs in the school’s history, and later — after his NFL career was over — he came back home to become ASU’s athletic director.
He left that job after three years (he said he hated all the politics), but didn’t leave the school. He has been the defensive backs coach for the Rams for the past 13 years— and he also teaches at Albany State. He was always a teacher and believes he always will be one. He’s the only coach on the football team that teaches full-time at ASU.
“Making the decision to go to Albany State changed my life,’’ Land said. “Because that’s where I met my wife.”
Theresa was the homecoming queen at Monroe High School and a cheerleader at ASU. Her heart has always been in Albany, where she grew up in a close family, loving Christ and walking and living the Christian life. When Land met her, it wasn’t about going out on Saturday nights — it was all about Sunday mornings.
“She was different from other girls at Albany State,” Land said. “When I met her, she would come by every Sunday morning and take me to church with her. It wasn’t just me. She would pick up other football players on Sunday morning and take us to church.
“We were friends for six or seven months before we started dating. She was so different. Everybody in college wants to be wild and party. It was so odd for her to have the same morals as my grandmother. I was thinking, ‘This is someone you want to marry.’ She knew before I did. Meeting her changed my life. She was grounded.’’
Land wasn’t just a football player at ASU. He was a superstar.
“He broke records while he was there,” said Westover Principal William Chunn, who was a senior safety when Land was a sophomore running back for the Rams. ASU. “He was a great running back. He was big and strong and so fast. Once he got in the open no one could catch him. You could just see him breaking away and running for a touchdown. He was just a tremendous running back. He was the running back on the team that won the first conference title for Albany State. That’s the team that changed everything for Albany State.”
NFL life not all glamour
Land gained more than 2,400 yards in his final two years at ASU, and was the Offensive player of the Year in the conference. He was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who wanted him as a tailback.
When Land signed, he knew just what to do with the money.
“I asked my grandmother what she wanted, but she didn’t want a house or a car,’’ Land said. “All she wanted was a bedroom set. I signed for $27,000, so after taxes and everything I had about $20,000. I gave her half of it.’’
Land spent one year with the Buccaneers, where he rarely had a chance to run the ball, and then went to the Atlanta Falcons in the same backup role. He felt he was as good as the running backs in front of him and started to become frustrated with life in the NFL. Atlanta was moving players and money around, and after the fourth game of the season Land was told he would be released and then re-signed.
“They told me to just stay in the hotel for three days in Atlanta, and they would sign me again,” Land said. “But I started thinking about my future and decided to go back to Albany State and get my degree. I needed 15 hours. I called Theresa, who was my girlfriend but not my wife yet, and had her come to Atlanta and bring me back to Albany. I went back to school. I lived on campus in a dorm and finished my degree that year.’’
But something else happened after Atlanta released Land: A lot of teams started calling and offered to sign him — at least 12 called, including Green Bay, where Land thought he would sign. One of those teams was the Los Angeles Raiders.
The Raiders offered Land a deal that made sense.
“They were going to give me a $29,000 signing bonus, which is about what I would have made playing the rest of the year,” Land said. “But they didn’t want me to come to the team until the following year. That meant I could go back to school, and I had a team to go to the next season.”
Everything seemed to fit, except the Raiders were loaded with running backs, including Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson and Napoleon McCallum, who they had just drafted from the Naval Academy.
Then Land met Raiders owner Al Davis, who passed away last year.
When he arrived in Los Angeles in 1989, Land was picked up at the airport and driven to a golf course, where Davis was playing golf with some friends. Land was a little too loud while Davis was lining up a putt, and Davis called him over. Davis asked, Do you play golf?”
“No sir, I don’t,’’ Land answered with a nervous tone in his voice.
“Do you know who I am?’’ Davis asked.
“No, not really,” Land said. And then Davis let him know: “I can be your biggest nightmare.”
Turns out, Davis was the light at the end of the tunnel. But instead of running to daylight, Land moved to the secondary and found a home for more than a decade.
After his first workout in mini-camp, where Land ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, Davis called him in his office, and told Land he didn’t want to sign him as a running back, but wanted Land to play defensive back. He told Land, “You have long arms, great speed. I know you can play defensive back, because you played in high school.’’
Land turned around and couldn’t believe what he saw — it was a film of him as a defensive back at Seminole County. Davis told him he would sign him to a three-year deal as a defensive back, and Land was never the same. He spent the next 10 years in the secondary, and cherishes his relationship with Davis to this day.
If there is one game that lives in Land’s memory, it’s his first start against Buffalo in 1992.
“I was the nickel back and was playing on third-down plays,” Land said. “But we played Buffalo, and two of our cornerbacks were hurt and I had to start. The Raiders always played man-to-man coverage, and I had James Lofton all day. You were on an island, and Jim Kelly threw that ball all day. There was so much pressure on me, and I had a great game. And afterward all my teammates were congratulating me. I’ll never forget that game.”
The ultimate team
Playing a dozen years in the NFL is a rare feat, but Land said he never would have had a long and productive career without his wife.
“I’ve seen guys drafted in the first round and they don’t last two, three years in the NFL,” Land said. “I was there for 12. When I met Theresa in college, it changed me. You know, in college you’re wild and want to party. She made me mature a lot quicker. There’s more to life than partying. If I had been (single and wasn’t married to her), I would have never made it 12 years in the NFL.”
They were the ultimate team, Dan and Theresa, and she was even his personal assistant, handling everything away from the game.
“Guys hire personal assistants and (the assistants) steal from them,” Land said. “But Theresa took care of everything a personal assistant would do. I didn’t have any stress, and I didn’t need a personal assistant. I had my wife. I knew everything would be taken care of, and I could concentrate on football.’’
And Land valued his wife and his marriage above everything.
“It was unbelievable in the NFL,’’ Land said. “You would go out of town and 1,000 fans would be at the airport. When you got to the hotel, there would be 200 females there, just waiting for the players. I stayed grounded and never got caught up in that. My teammates would call me in the hotel and say,: ‘Come over to my room, we’ve got four call girls in here.’ I would say, ‘No, no, no, my wife would kill me.’
“My first six years in L.A. were unbelievable. We would be at dinner and women would come up to the table and try to give me their phone number right in front of my wife, just like my wife was invisible. Theresa would just tell the woman that she couldn’t get my autograph and that we were having dinner and tell the woman to leave.”
The Lands never got caught up in the ostentatious life of the NFL.
“When Dan got his first bonus, he bought a car,” Theresa said. “Everybody thought he was going to buy a BMW or something like that. He bought a Honda Prelude. That’s just Dan.
“We never really got caught up in all that stuff. I would go shopping with some of the players’ wives in these expensive stores. I could hang, and I would buy a little something here and there, but not the way they spent money.”
Their marriage even affected other players. When a couple had a problem, they would go to Dan and Theresa.
“We were kind of like the rock,’’ Theresa said. “They would come to us, and we went through a lot with some of the players. I remember being at Tim Brown’s wedding and thinking of all the girlfriends we went through with Tim before he got married.”
Home was always at the heart of everything.
“In December you would know if you were making the playoffs or not, and every December Theresa would leave and come to Albany to get the house ready for Christmas,’’ Dan said. “We love being home for Christmas.”
On Thanksgiving, Georgia came to L.A.
“My mother and my sisters would come out for Thanksgiving, and they would bring chitlins, and collard greens and sweet potato pie,’’ Theresa said.
Land says to this day that, “I’m just a country boy. I like to fish, and I like to hunt.”
Still, he enjoyed every minute of being a Raider.
“I loved being a Raider and am a Raider for life,’’ he said. “The thing that I remember and cherish the most from the NFL is the camaraderie with my teammates.
“Theresa took a lot of pictures, and I see those pictures and remember spending time with Marcus Allen, fishing with Bo Jackson, playing golf and having those friendships with all those players, some of them in the Hall of Fame. That’s what you remember the most, the friendships.’’
A new career
Land said he knew when it was time to leave, and in 1997 he told Davis.
“I did know,” he said. “I had a year left on my contract and (former ASU president Portia Shields) at Albany State told me, ‘We would like to have you as a part of Albany State.’ And she offered me the job as the athletic director. I told Mr. Davis, and he talked to Theresa. Mr. Davis loved Theresa. He always wanted to know what Theresa thought about everything.
“I told Mr. Davis this is what I wanted to do. After I left the Raiders, Mr. Davis called me every year offering me a job with the Raiders.”
Land took the job at ASU in 1998 and was the A.D. for three years. He also taught physical education and health, but he asked to leave the position because he didn’t like the politics or being “micro-managed,’’ and he even helped find his replacement.
Land moved over and became the defensive backs coach for the Rams in 2001 and loves his job to this day.
“He’s a great guy,’’ ASU head football coach Mike White said. “He will do anything for anybody.
“He does so many things for so many people. He coaches, he teaches. Whenever we have anything, he’s always the first to volunteer. He’s full of energy.’’
White admires Land’s life on and off the field.
“He does a lot of things off campus for his church.’’ White said. “It just seems whatever people need, he will help them. That’s who he is. He has a very big heart.’’
Everyone who knows Land knows he appreciates his career in the NFL and his time with the Raiders, but they also see how humble he is about his success.
“He is,” said White, who also played in the NFL. “I don’t think it got to him when he was in the NFL. He had a great career, a long career. He’s a Raider for life. I know he loved Al Davis.”
Chunn now coaches the linebackers at ASU, and raves about the way Land handles Albany State’s secondary.
“He brings his NFL expertise to the job,’’ Chunn said. “He’s a professional in every way, and he doesn’t just tell them what to do, he shows them.
“He’s a hands-on coach who loves what he does. He’s the best defensive backs coach in all of Division II, and could be coaching in Division I. I know he’s turned down jobs, and I know he’s turned down jobs with the Raiders. He’s here because he wants to be at Albany State.”
Land couldn’t be happier. “I love it, I really love it,’’ said Land, who added that he learned humility as a coach from former Raiders coach Art Shell.
“He taught me a lot, and I owe a lot to Art Shell. I love coaching. I’ve got the best of both worlds, being in the classroom and being on the football field,’’ he said. “We’ve got some great students at Albany State.”
Land, who is 47, loves to teach. He said he when he was a student at Albany State, that he admired ASU track & field coach Robert Cross, who always taught as well as coached, and aspired to be a teacher.
His oldest daughter, Monique, teaches seventh grade at Merry Acres Middle School. She taught his son, Dan Land Jr., math this year.
Land’s other daughter, Mimi, is an All-American track & field star who led Monroe to four consecutive team state titles and won nine individual state titles at Monroe.
She also won several national track meets in the high jump, triple jump and long jump, and like her parents, and great grandmother, always understood the importance of education. She has always been an honor student.
Still, every step she took, she took with humility and always praised her team first — traits and character she was blessed with from both her parents.
Mimi, a three time Herald Player of the Year, was one of the most sought-after track athletes in the country, and she is now a freshman at Clemson on a track & field scholarship. She wants to become a teacher.
Every member of the family is in Albany this week for Christmas.
“I’m blessed,’’ Land said. “I tell Theresa all the time how blessed we are.
“There’s nothing better to have than a family and a home and to spend time with friends and family. We are truly blessed.”