Don Coryell drew up the plays that helped him become the only coach in football to win 100 games on both the college and pro levels. But 60 years ago, standing at a blackboard in his Seattle junior high school, Coryell couldn't diagram a sentence if his life depended on it. In an emotional Aug. 13 speech in South Bend during his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, Coryell revealed that he suffers from dyslexia—a learning disorder that made him stutter and have difficulty reading and spelling as a schoolboy. Coryell, age 74, credits sports with allowing him to live a productive life.
"I was always this dumb kid who talked funny," says Coryell, who fine-tuned his Air Coryell passing attack as head coach of San Diego State from 1961 to 72, where he went 104-19-2 with three undefeated seasons before taking his show to the NFL. "Then as a sophomore in high school I learned that I could play football. It gave me confidence." After decades of doubting his own intelligence, he also learned that his deficiency has a name. That happened when a young man approached him at a banquet in '86, the year Coryell retired as the San Diego Chargers' coach, to discuss a program for dyslexics. "It all became clear-why I had trouble reading street signs while driving, why my wife had to help me spell words," says Coryell.
"It was embarrassing for me to talk about an imperfection," Coryell says of his Hall of Fame speech to a crowd that included fellow '99 enshrinees Bo Jackson and Tom Osborne. "I was scared. But we were supposed to talk about how the sport has affected our lives, and football was the one thing that gave me the self-esteem to pick up my grades, go to college and become a coach. Maybe someone with a disability will look at me and say, 'If that guy did it, why can't I?' "