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More Than Just a Name

November 29, 2009  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Chris Rocco finished his career as part of the winningest senior class in program history with a four-year 32-13 record.

Chris Rocco finished his career as part of the winningest senior class in program history with a four-year 32-13 record.

Editorial Note: This feature on Chris Rocco ran in the fourth edition of Flames Illustrated, serving as the senior feature for Liberty's Homecoming game against Coastal Carolina on Oct. 17. Rocco started the final 23 games of his career and finished the 2009 season as Liberty's active career leader in tackles (163). As a senior, Rocco was the only non-linebacker among the Flames top five tacklers, as the Big South second-team all-conference honoree finished the year third on the team with 57 stops.

The stereotypical coach's son is the one who starts at quarterback over the player who truly has the skills to execute game-winning plays. Naturally, when folks see a player with the same last name as the head coach, it becomes easy to assume the student-athlete is there because of his family tree.

However, Flames safety and team captain Chris Rocco is an exception to that rule, ignoring the theory that coach's kids hold a prominent place thanks to bloodlines and politics. After all, having a recognizable last name does not equate to being the third leading tackler on the Flames defense.

As the nephew of Liberty Football Head Coach Danny Rocco, Chris Rocco received a few strange looks from some of his teammates when he first arrived at Liberty in 2006. While, Rocco had experienced the pressures of playing for his dad and Danny's brother, Frank Rocco, Jr., at Liberty Christian Academy, the transition to collegiate football brought with it a whole new set of obstacles.

"It was a little awkward because nobody knew me," Rocco recalled. "My uncle [was hired at Liberty] and I came six months later, and the obvious assumption was ‘he's here because his uncle is here.' Deep down, it just served as motivation to prove that I did belong."

During the recruiting process, Danny Rocco experienced a degree of apprehension as he debated on whether or not to offer his nephew a scholarship at Liberty.

"I wasn't positive that I was going to recruit him," Danny Rocco stated. "As I started to communicate to our staff, Pete Sundheim, Tom Clark and Marshall Roberts were saying, ‘Hey Danny, this is a guy that's going to be a really good player for us.' They allowed me to remove the relational element away from the decision."

The definitive moment Danny Rocco knew he would give his nephew a recruiting phone call came during one of Rocco's high school basketball games at LCA. As members of Liberty's coaching staff observed the young Rocco's speed and agility on the hardwood, they realized these same skills would easily translate to the gridiron.

To a certain degree, those who believed Rocco became a member Flames' roster because of his uncle were right. When the safety first began looking at his collegiate options, Liberty was not on his radar. Shortly after his high school football career ended, Rocco was offered a scholarship to play at Liberty.

However, with the school coming off a 1-10 season and in search of a head coach, wearing the LU red, white and blue did not appeal to the Forest, Va., native. On Dec. 2, 2005, Rocco's plans to look elsewhere for a four-year venue changed when Liberty announced "Uncle Danny" as its new head coach.

As the Flames' skipper began his first recruiting campaign at Liberty, the day finally came when he would make that important phone call. This time, the student-athlete on the other end was not a complete stranger. It was the kid he remembered coaching in backyard football — the one who ran around with a homemade Stanley Cup wrapped in tin foil after the Rocco family hockey game.

"He had never been Coach to me; he had always been my uncle," Rocco said. "When I got the first phone call to confirm the offer, it was weird because he was Coach now."

With a shortage at the safety position, Rocco was called into action early in his freshman year. Fortunately for Rocco, he was familiar with the Flames 3-4 defense, having ran the same defensive schemes under the tutelage of his father in high school. He finished the year with six tackles and one interception. The following season, Rocco upped his numbers, recording 22 total tackles.

Heading into 2008 with only 28 tackles in his first two seasons, Rocco dissolved any doubts as to whether or not he could live up to expectations. The safety proved to everyone he belonged on the Flames roster, ranking second on the team in total tackles with 78.

During the 2009 spring game, Rocco's breakout performance in 2008 did not go unnoticed as his peers voted him defensive team captain. At that moment, Rocco knew he had earned the respect of his teammates, who saw him not as the coach's nephew, but as a true leader.

"The most evident thing on this team is that Chris has earned everything he's got," Danny Rocco said. "It's so black and white in terms of how hard he has worked; I don't think you can find anybody who doesn't consider Chris Rocco to be one of the strong leaders on this team. He is the true classic role model here for Liberty student athletes."

After his playing days are done, Rocco hopes to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and uncle and relocate to the sidelines. Like the two generations before him, it is possible that he too could one day coach a son or nephew of his own. If that day does come, Rocco hopes he can lead by example — regardless of the name on the jersey.
Eric Brown is an assistant athletics communications director for Liberty University