By Eric Chang, AAJA JCamp 2019 — Atlanta
In 1960, Vasudeo Chaudhari made a decision that would influence his family for generations. He had spent his entire life in a small village in India, and his sudden pronouncement to start over in a foreign land was met with outrage and confusion by those surrounding him.
“His whole family said you’re crazy, you can’t do that, don’t do that,” said Mayur when reflecting upon the situation.
Despite the disapproval of his family, Vasudeo remained firm in his decision. That year, he traveled overseas with the hope of going to college in America. While there, he attended graduate school, and his formal education allowed him to kickstart a career in electrical engineering and begin to build a family.
Vasudeo’s much questioned decision to pursue an unknown path gave rise to an equally unlikely scenario: His son Mayur has now become an NFL trailblazer as an Indian American coach with the Falcons.
“It’s been really fun to bring who I am, what my culture is to players, because a lot of guys that I coach have never been around Indian people of Indian culture,” Chaudhari said following the Falcons’ preseason practice Monday. “So I think it’s an awesome thing to be different, to open their minds and help them see something different.”
Chaudhari’s parents would eventually settle in northern California, where they could focus their attention on Mayur’s education. At an early age, Chaudhari, whose first name means “peacock” in Sanskrit, was taught the principles of hard work and dedication, and his parents made it clear that the two professions available to him were engineering and doctoring. As such, Chaudhari’s experiences were not nearly as colorful as his name had suggested, and studying for school was his sole priority for the majority of his early school years.
“We grew up in a culture where education was the most important thing ever, and you didn’t do things for your passion, you did it for survival,” Chaudhari said.
However, unlike his parents, he was growing up in America, and the overwhelming appeal of sports was one that was difficult to control and harder to resist.
He began to watch football, marveling at how childhood favorites like Mike Singletary and Reggie White dominated offensive schemes and carried their teams to victory. By the time he reached high school, he was a full-blown player, and against his parents’ wishes, he tried out for the varsity team in his junior year.
His aspirations of playing football took an unexpected turn that season, as he suffered an injury while he was visiting his family in India. While overseas, he lost more than 30 pounds, and when he returned, he was a skinny high school teenager whose hopes of playing varsity had virtually disappeared. However, by suffering an injury while returning home, he had inadvertently discovered the roots of his career. This unexpected failure would give birth to the path that he would dedicate the rest of his life to.
“I ended up coaching that year (as a student assistant), and that’s how I got into it,” Chaudhari said. “I loved it so much, and I knew that was what I wanted to do.”
While he had resisted for years, Vasudeo could no longer disregard his son’s rebelliousness, the same that he had shown in his own youth. He grudgingly accepted Mayur’s decision with one final piece of advice that would stick with him forever.
“Whatever you do, try to be the best at it,” Mayur recalled his father saying.
Flash forward to the present, and it’s a hot summer day at the Falcons headquarters in Flowery Branch, an Atlanta suburb north of downtown. Players are running, coaches are screaming, and in the midst of it, a bearded man floats gracefully across the field. To most fans, he’s practically invisible, but the players feel his presence, and they understand. When asked about Chaudhari, even the most loyal of fans respond with blank stares.
“I don’t know, this is the first time I’ve seen him,” one fan said.
His relative anonymity in the football sphere is expected for a new coach, but here in the NFL, his standing is unusual. As one of only two Indian American coaches in the entire league, he is a pioneer in a field that has lacked ethnic diversity since its conception.
However, rather than criticize the NFL’s lack of diversity as a systemic issue, Chadhauri appreciates the platform that he has been given and uses this opportunity to break cultural barriers and show others a path to success.
“I don’t see it as the NFL doesn’t want Indian people, it doesn’t want Asians,” Chaudhari said. “I think it’s just our job to break those barriers and show them that we can do these things.”
Obviously, Chaudhari was not chosen by the Falcons for just his unlikely story. His 17 years of coaching before signing with the Falcons helped him develop into a respected and well-accomplished coach. Among other accomplishments, he helped University of Hawaii kicker Rigoberto Sanchez develop into an NFL-caliber player after a successful career in college.
Chaudhari said he tries to coach his players with the family-centered mindset that he grew up in, one that helped smooth his transition to Falcons coach Dan Quinn, whose “In Brotherhood” mantra reflects a similar approach.
“And that’s the culture that I grew up in, where you open your arms and your doors to all different types of people,” Chaudhari said. “And to me, that’s what Coach Quinn and this organization is really about, just trying to help people be their very best.”
Chadhauri loves telling his story, but his primary focus is on getting the Falcons’ special teams ready for the upcoming season. More than stats or numbers, his only goal is to “make the team the best they can be and putting the offense and defense in an excellent situation.”
“I can tell he’s very sharp, he’s been around the block, he has great passion, and he’s pretty one of a kind when he’s on the field,” said kicker Giorgio Tavecchio. “He’s definitely got a lot of the guys’ respect here in the organization.”
Two thousand miles away, on the same day that Mayur is sharing his story, another member of the Chaudhari family boards a plane. Vasudeo is on his way to the East Coast to see his son coach an Atlanta Falcons team that is on its quest for its first championship. He has grown to enjoy the game, and although he still doesn’t know what a kick-off is, he cheers loudly when Julio Jones and Deion Jones enter the field. While both father and son chose to devote their careers to an unlikely path, their careers have slowly but surely come to be realized.
Nowadays, while Mayur Chaudhari spends the majority of his time coaching football, he loves helping anyone who needs someone to speak to in his free time. He recognizes the opportunity that was given to him, and he’s made it a priority to give his honest advice to those who seek it.
“I’ve had a lot of help along the way, but the story is you follow your passion, you work hard at it, and I think you really try to learn your craft,” Chaudhari said.