“I know my voice sounds like (crap),” he said in a raspy effort.
But he soon found some real balm when the conversation turned to Ohio.
“I’m proud of my roots there,” he said.
He talked about being born in Kettering Hospital, how he went with his mom and dad (Tim and Cindy) to Dayton Flyers games and his days as a receiver and kick returner when he played at Miami University.
“And my grandpa (John McVay Sr.) was actually the (football) coach at Dayton at one point,” he said.
Soon though he was ready to juke the Ohio talk and get back to the task at hand:
“Yeah, I’m proud of my roots, but I’m gonna try to get after the Bengals this week, that’s for sure.”
And let’s just say he has he genes for it.
After his grandfather began his coaching career at Franklin High School, then guided Central Catholic in Canton and was an assistant on Duffy Daugherty’s staff at Michigan State, he took over the University of Dayton program in 1965 and coached the Flyers for eight years.
During that time, 10 of his assistants went on to coach in the NFL and two – Dennis Green and Wayne Fontes – became NFL head coaches.
After UD, he became a head coach in the pros, first with the Memphis Southmen in the upstart USFL and then with the New York Giants.
His real claim to fame, though, came as the vice president and general manager of the San Francisco 49ers. In 1998, he was named the NFL Executive of the Year.
Working with coach Bill Walsh, he built an NFL dynasty that won five Super Bowls, including two – Super Bowl XVI at the Pontiac Silverdome in 1982 and Super Bowl XXII in Miami in 1989 – against the Cincinnati Bengals. Until now, those were the Bengals only trips to the NFL title game
This time they’ll face McVay’s celebrated grandson, whose accomplishments are just as impressive.
After three injury-plagued years playing at Miami, he made the unlikely jump to the NFL as a 22-year-old wide receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were coached by former Dayton Flyers quarterback Jon Gruden.
The Gruden and McVay families have long been intertwined. Jon’s dad, Jim, was on John McVay’s staff at UD.
When he joined Tampa Bay, Sean was younger than every wide receiver he coached.
He soon ended up on the staff of Jay Gruden – Jon’s brother – who was the head coach of the Washington Redskins. He moved up the ranks quickly, became the offensive coordinator, and in January of 2017, the Los Angeles Rams hired him as their head coach.
Just 30, he became the youngest head coach in NFL history.
And he immediately turned the franchise around.
The Rams had had 13 straight losing seasons and were 4-12 the previous year. He led them to an 11-6 record that first season and was named the NFL Coach of the Year.
Two years later he became the youngest head coach in NFL history to take a team to the Super Bowl. He’d just turned 33 when he went up against Bill Belichick – who was over twice his age – and the New England Patriots.
Tom Brady, then the Pats’ quarterback, was 8 ½ years older than him.
Although the Rams lost the game, they haven’t faltered much under McVay.
In five seasons, his teams have gone 61-29 and are 6-3 in the postseason.
They’re favored by 4 ½ points against the Bengals on Sunday.
Football in the family
When he coached at UD, John McVay and his wife Gloria lived in Malone Avenue in Kettering.
Their three sons, -- John Jr., Jim and Tim, who is Sean’s dad – all played football at Alter High and then went on to college careers.
John Jr. played on the Miami University teams of the 1970s that beat Florida and Georgia in back-to-back Tangerine Bowls.
Jim was a quarterback at UD and has run he Outback Bowl in Tampa for over three decades.
Tim was a standout safety at Indiana and then had a long career with Cox Media, including 13 years with WHIO-TV in Dayton.
His job took him to Atlanta when Sean, who had started school at Ascension, was 6.
It was in Georgia – at Marist High in Marietta – that Sean became a standout prep player. An option quarterback, he ran and passed for 5,100 yards and 58 touchdowns in his career.
Although recruited by programs like Georgia Tech, Rice, Duke, Tulane, Ohio University and the U.S. Naval Academy, he chose Miami because of his family’s deep ties to the school.
John Sr. – who came there out of Massillon High to play for Woody Hayes when he coached the Redskins – became an all-Mid-American Conference center.
Today, he’s in the school’s Hall of Fame and a large portrait of him hangs in the lobby of Millett Hall.
John Jr. was a celebrated player as well and had two interceptions in one Tangerine Bowl.
When Sean played at Miami, he had a pair of teammates with similar big-name football pedigree.
Chris Shula – the son of former Bengals coach David Shula and grandson of Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Don Shula – was a linebacker and is now a Rams assistant coach.
And Nathan Parseghian, the great nephew of former Miami and Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian, was on team.
I remember talking to the three of them in Oxford one afternoon during the 2005 season.
Sean shared tales of growing up around the NFL – specifically the 49ers – thanks to his grandad.
He would go to walk-throughs before games, visit the team hotel and told of a time he rode the team bus and sat with center Jessi Sapulo, who befriended him.
He spoke about what a thrill it was to have stars like Steve Young and Jerry Rice acknowledge him when he was a kid.
In three seasons at Miami, he had 39 receptions for 312 yards and added 29 rushing yards.
He said his time at Miami was “great.”
“You become the company you keep,” he said. “Whether it was Coach (Shane) Montgomery or Coach (Terry) Hoeppner when I first got there, I was around a lot of great coaches and players. Guys I’m still really close friends with today.
“A lot of them got into the coaching profession and we positively pushed one another in the right direction.
“I loved my time there, but I went through some adversity – some injuries.
“But that gives you perspective and an appreciation for just how precious the game is.
“It also gave me an understanding that that’s not where all your self-worth lies. And fortunately, I got into coaching.”
Writing his own story
John McVay Sr. is now 91 and lives in retirement in Granite Bay, Calif., outside Sacramento. His former wife, Gloria – Sean’s grandmother – lived in Xenia in recent years.
A couple of years ago I talked to John about his grandson, and he told me that, some years prior, he had given him a copy of Bill Walsh’s book about leadership: “The Score Takes Care of Itself.”
“Bill was absolutely a brilliant guy,” John said. “He could have been a leading surgeon, a leading politician, an astronaut. He was really, really intelligent.
“If someone said, ‘I want to be a coach,’ I’d tell them, ‘Get that book and memorize it!’
“It’s filled with wisdom. It’s right down to the speeches he gave the maintenance people and the secretarial pool. He covered every base.”
Sean said during his formative years, he’d read two pages of the book every night before he went to bed. And he admits he still looks at it on occasion now.
But he’s also writing his own new chapters.
And if the Rams win Sunday, his story again will return to Ohio.