Whether your father is a Hall of Famer like Kurt Warner or your grandfather is a Green Bay Packers legend like Bob Skoronski, following in the footsteps of family members who came before you can be tricky for some, and blazing one’s own path can be a lot to shoulder. But the lessons learned can be endless.
What advice on and off the field is shared? How much pressure comes with carrying on the family name? How will they adapt to life as a professional?
This Father’s Day, ESPN took a look at the stories of five NFL rookies and how their family members have helped them as they embark on their own professional journeys.
Still taking advice from his first coach
Josh Downs, WR, Indianapolis Colts
Colts third-round pick Josh Downs’ first football coach was his father, former NFL player Gary Downs. And while Gary hasn’t coached his now-NFL rookie son since the seventh grade, the younger Downs still turns to his original coach for advice at critical moments.
“There’s been times when I’ve called my dad at halftime during a game to ask, ‘What do you see?'” Josh said. “I know that his point of view is going to be the hardest point of view besides my own.”
A few of those calls came during Josh’s three-year college career at North Carolina.
Gary helps guide Josh using his perspective as a former player — he was an NFL running back from 1994 to 2000 — and a current coach — as he now serves as East Tennessee State’s running backs coach.
“I would ask, ‘Hey, what do you see out there? What do I need to fix? How is it looking with the defense? What [coverage] are they playing? I can see it as a player, but what do you see?'” Josh said. “And he’ll say, ‘You need to do this with your breaks, or you need to do that. They’re doubling you every single play. But just keep your head on straight.'”
Josh was the fourth-leading receiver in Tar Heels’ history with 2,483 career receiving yards, and he recorded the program’s second-most career touchdown receptions (22).
“It’s just that little [comfort],” Josh said. “It lets me chill.”
But, really, some of the most critical advice he has received from his father is about his actions off the field. Gary leans on lessons learned from his six-year pro career to impart knowledge to Josh about the pitfalls of NFL life.
“He always told me to keep the main thing, the main thing,” Josh said. “There’s just a lot of things that can distract you.”
Gary learned this when he was drafted by the New York Giants in the third round in 1994.
“He was in New York City as a rookie,” Josh said. “He told me that’s not a good place to be as a rookie because there’s too much stuff going on. … [My dad] didn’t have a lot of those same [advantages] and tips that he’s given me.”
Among those tips: Be smart with your money. Josh, who signed a four-year, $5.5 million rookie contract in May, is leaning on that advice.
“A lot of guys, they get that first signing bonus and they’re like, ‘Oh snap, I’m about to go get a Lamborghini!'” Josh said. “Not me. … I know a $500,000 signing bonus is not going to last me 50 years.”— Stephen Holder
Following the path of a Hall of Famer
Kade Warner, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
While some might assume it was inevitable that Kade Warner, son of Pro Football Hall of Famer and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Kurt Warner, would follow in his father’s footsteps to the NFL, it almost didn’t happen.
Kade remembers one morning getting ready for a youth football game, and telling his mother, Brenda, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Kurt was on the road, so it was Brenda helping him put on his shoulder pads.
Her response? “You don’t have to. [You] can create your own path.”
“That kind of opened [things] up and gave me that freedom,” Kade recalled. “I kept playing and playing, and I grew to love it.”
He discovered the game on his own terms and study sessions not only bonded Kade and Kurt, but taught Kade how to see the game like a quarterback, an invaluable tool as a slot receiver.
“We’re the same person in so many ways. And one of those ways is that work ethic,” Kade said. “There’s also sometimes where neither of us can just chill out and have a normal moment and talk about a day-to-day or talk about how school was today. It’s always football, football, football. But at the same point, that’s all we love to talk about.”
Their football journeys have taken a similar path — undrafted and overlooked.
After going undrafted in 1994, Kurt spent his first four seasons unable to land on an NFL roster. He took a job stocking groceries in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and also went back to his alma mater, Northern Iowa, to serve as a graduate assistant and played for the Iowa Barnstormers for three years in the AFL. His big break came in 1998 when he earned a backup job with the St. Louis Rams, and in 2000, he would become the only undrafted player to be named Super Bowl MVP and to win a Super Bowl in his first season as a starter.
The younger Warner began his college career as a walk-on at Nebraska. He didn’t earn a scholarship until 2020, and it wasn’t until his second and final year at Kansas State in 2022 that he caught his first collegiate touchdown (he had five en route to a career-best 456 receiving yards). Despite not hearing his name called during the draft, it was an emotional moment when he received a phone call from the Buccaneers once the draft was over. He signed with Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent.
“It’s great to have somebody that’s been in a situation very similar to mine,” Kade said. “My dad, he didn’t get those chances that he thought he earned or deserved through his work ethic. And I felt the same way for a long time. And it’s tough, but you got to have that patience and that faith in what you’re doing. … And so that’s what he preaches to me.” — Jenna Laine
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree
Kyu Blu Kelly, CB, Baltimore Ravens
Kyu Blu Kelly didn’t know if he would even play the same sport as his father, Brian Kelly, much less the same position.
Kyu didn’t start playing football until he was 10 because, as he put it, his mother didn’t want him “banging and knocking ’round too young.” Instead, his parents put him in soccer, basketball and baseball — with not much success.
When Kyu was 3 years old, he was sitting in the outfield during one of his baseball games, more interested in picking at the blades of grass than what was happening at the plate. Then, in the middle of the game, Kyu walked off the field, went to his parents in the stands and asked if he could leave.
“They threw me in different sports just to see where I landed, but the apple didn’t fall [far] from the tree,” Kyu said.
His father spent 11 seasons in the NFL from 1998 to 2008, primarily playing for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Brian finished his career with 413 tackles, 104 passes defended and 22 interceptions. In 2002, he won a Super Bowl with the Buccaneers and tied for the league lead with eight interceptions.
Kyu was 7 when his father retired and doesn’t remember much about his father’s playing days beyond eating ice cream at Raymond James Stadium. But he realized his father’s impact much later when he watched tape.
“I’d say everybody knew I was BK’s son growing up, especially the more I started to make a name for myself,” Kyu said. “I embraced it. It was not too much pressure. I was glad I had such a role model in my life.”
Initially choosing a different path from his father, Kyu was a wide receiver until his junior year at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas before switching to cornerback.
“We know your dad played so we know you can pick it up,” his high school coach told him.
With the help of his father, Kyu quickly picked up the position and eventually became a four-year starter at Stanford. After a productive college career, he was selected by the Ravens in the fifth round of the draft.
“As I got older, [my dad] was just like, ‘If you want to do this thing and get to the level I got to, let’s do it. If not, I won’t push you as hard,’ Kyu said. “I made that choice. And from then on, he pretty much gave me the keys to get here.”
Kyu is competing for a top backup spot at cornerback, a position that lacks experience in Baltimore outside of starters Marlon Humphrey and Rock Ya-Sin.
As he starts his own NFL journey, Kyu continues to lean on his father’s guidance, recalling the best advice he has given him: “Good play, bad play, next play.”
“He was my toughest critic and also my biggest supporter at the same time,” Kyu said. “He would never let me get too high and never let me get too low and just tell me how it is.” — Jamison Hensley
Practice makes perfect
Dante Stills, DT, Arizona Cardinals
Dante Stills, the Cardinals’ sixth-round pick out of West Virginia, knew he had a unique resource coming out of college. His father, Gary Stills, played 10 years as an NFL edge rusher for three different teams. He knew the ins and outs of rushing the passer — and life in the NFL — as well as anyone. But Dante also knew that while both liked to get at the quarterback, they were two different players.
Dante was 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds coming out of college. Gary was 6-2, 225.
“I was able to really talk to him about certain pass-rush moves, but I had to realize that I wasn’t him,” Dante said. “So, it was kind of hard for me to watch film on him ’cause he’s a lot faster.”
That didn’t stop them from watching Dante’s tape, however.
In college, whenever Gary would go to a WVU home game, they’d end up back at Dante’s place to watch the game on DVR. It didn’t matter if he played great or awful, the two would sit together and Gary would fix minor mistakes to his son’s technique.
“It’s definitely awesome,” Dante said.
Dante leaned on his dad’s experience throughout the draft process, especially while he prepared for interviews with teams. Gary shared advice on communicating with scouts and understanding the types of questions they’d ask. He talked Dante through identifying splits and where the running backs and tight ends were — basically, how to talk football.
When Dante wasn’t talking enough football during phone or video calls, Gary would stop him.
“He was like, ‘No, I need you to talk football and be able to use the right terminology,'” Dante remembered his dad saying.
Gary continually stressed the importance of the opportunity awaiting Dante.
“It helped me a lot because I was already prepared for the questions that I asked,” Dante said. “I feel like, overall, it was just a blessing and great help because I felt like I wasn’t too anxious or too nervous because I was already prepared mentally.”
It took Dante, who was born toward the end of Gary’s rookie year in 1999, until high school to fully appreciate his dad’s longevity. Now he will look to fight for a spot on Arizona’s roster in hopes of following his dad’s footsteps.
“I feel like I’m following it right now,” Dante said. “…He spent 10 years in [the] NFL, so it’s really just the longevity, and I have [number] 55 just like he had 55 at Kansas City, where he got drafted.
“So, it was definitely a great feeling for sure.” — Josh Weinfuss
Striving to emulate in a different landscape
Peter Skoronski, G, Tennessee Titans
Football, specifically offensive line play, runs in the family for Peter Skoronski — who was the Titans’ No. 11 overall selection in April’s draft. His grandfather, Bob Skoronski Sr., was an offensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers in 1956 and served two years in the U.S. Air Force before returning to play for the Packers from 1959 to 1968.
The elder Skoronski had an 11-year career — nine played under legendary coach Vince Lombardi — that led him to be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame. Primarily playing left tackle, he won five NFL championships, two Super Bowls and was named All-Pro in 1966. Peter hopes to emulate a career similar to his grandfather’s.
“You know, it’s just wanting to follow in his footsteps,” Peter said. “So it’s been a goal of mine since I knew what football was. I’m super happy to carry on his legacy.”
Skoronksi played left tackle from youth league in Park Ridge, Illinois, to college at Northwestern.
Before his grandfather’s death in 2018, the two used to bond over their shared and differing experiences from football. For example, practices were tougher in his grandfather’s day because there was no collective bargaining agreement to regulate what the players went through. Peter also said his grandfather had to work in the offseason because the salaries hadn’t exploded to the levels now. That put things in perspective for Peter, who signed a four-year, $19.7 million contract last month.
“His mentality of just grinding and doing your job resonated,” Peter said of his grandfather. “You have to just keep working.”
Peter’s father, Bob Skoronski Jr., was a defensive lineman at Yale, where he was coached by David Kelley, the grandfather of fellow 2023 Titans draft pick quarterback Will Levis. Peter will now be charged with protecting Levis.
Despite the elder Skoronski’s legacy with the Packers, it won’t stop the family from switching their allegiance to the Titans.
“Having my grandfather play there will always be a part of our family history and a part of me,” Peter said, “but definitely all Titans now!” –– Turron Davenport