Meet Mercer Island Football’s New Coaching Staff

Mims+and+Valdez+during+practice

Tiffany Zhang

Mims and Valdez during practice

Tiffany Zhang, Sports and Features Team

On a hot Tuesday afternoon, DJ Mims strides down the stairs in the stadium, extends a welcome (and an apology, presumably for the difficulty tracking him down), and takes a seat on the steel bleachers. The sun beats down on us and his football team, who run drills on the field ahead of us.

Mims, who was hired in late March, replaces former five-year coach Ed Slezinger in the head coaching position.

“I played football all my life,” Mims explains, missing the almost signature straw hat that he more often than not dons. “When I got done playing the game it was more like, I gotta stay a part of it somehow by coaching.”

Mims played wide receiver at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, on an athletic scholarship. Prior to coming to Mercer Island, he coached high school football for nine years at various different high schools in the Tacoma area.

“I came to Mercer Island because I have a friend that connected me to this area and I saw that it was kind of a program that needed a jump start and a change of culture,” Mims said.

Mims’ tenure as head coach has barely taken off from the ground. Despite spending less than three months with his new team, he insists that the team chemistry is good and continues to improve with team bonding events, like bowling and dinners.

“Obviously we don’t have much experience together on the field, we only had one game, but I think there’s a lot to take from that game,” Mims said.

The season opener for the Islanders against Seattle Prep occurred just the past weekend. The Islanders took the field at Seattle Prep’s stadium for a 7 pm kickoff; the results of which ended in a loss, 28-17.

Diving into the defeat questions, and not to rub salt into a wound, I prefaced, Mims insists that the loss doesn’t make him concerned for the future of the season. His response is a quick (and casual) Nah

“Everybody wants to win,” he said. “You’re not gonna win every game. It’s just how you lose. There’s a good way to lose and a bad way to lose. If we went down battlin’ and fighting and competing then I’m gonna hold my head high.”

In addition to Mims, he also brings along with him an almost entirely new coaching staff. 

“Mostly all of them,” he says with a laugh. “Of the 14 coaches, 12 of ‘em are new.”

“Me and the coaches I have with me are kind of younger, we’re all in our 20s, 29s, 30s range and so we kinda bring new flavor, new swagger, and we relate to the kids a lot more,” Mims says. “A lot of these guys are former professional players or played college at a high level so they can share that experience with the players.”

That new flavor, or swagger, is on full display on a decidedly less hot September day, as Mo Drayton sits to the side of me on the cool bleachers. 

Players lingered about stretching and preparing for practice (many of them joking about a recently crashed moped — He’s an idiot! One exclaimed).

One of the few returning coaches from last season is Drayton (the man who assisted in tracking down Mims in the first place — just make sure you write that Coach Drayton is very handsome — he said with a chuckle while dialing Mims on the phone). Drayton played college football at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he was an inside linebacker. Drayton (or Coach Mo as his team calls him) now serves as the Islanders’ Varsity and JVC Offensive and Defensive Line coach.

“There’s definitely a different energy. I don’t know if it’s better or worse, it’s different,” Drayton said of the new coaching staff. “[The players are] definitely responding better, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better, if that makes sense. It’s just sort of different, it’s a different younger vibe. Which is, for them, I think is good.”

When asked his opinion personally of his new colleagues, Drayton laughed. “It’s great! A lot of energy. They’re young guys, which I find fun.”

Among the new coaches brought on this season is Darryl Valdez (DV — Drayton called him as he waved him over from the field ahead. This lovely young lady wants to ask you a few questions, Drayton says while descending the stairs toward the field. Be nice! Drayton adds. She’s a very nice young lady).

(Hurry up DV! Drayton shoots me a look while heading off to the right side of the field. He’s usually tired, he got a little kid running around at home! Drayton calls out as he departs).

Meanwhile, Valdez approaches, offers a firm handshake, and plops down on the steel bleacher behind us.

Valdez played college football at Illinois State on a full scholarship before transferring to Western Oregon University to play out his senior year. He played in the Arena Football League after college (even playing in Switzerland for a bit) before rupturing his Achilles, effectively ending his football career.

Valdez serves as the Islanders’ Strength and Conditioning coach this year. He graduated from college with a degree in Sports Medicine.

“To me, strength conditioning is primarily about injury prevention,” Valdez said. “We’re trying to prevent injuries with the things we do every day in there. But sometimes, things are just gonna happen.”

“You know, it’s football. After week two or three, no one’s fully healthy. That’s just the nature of this sport,” Drayton said.

Injury prevention supports the Islanders’ main goal this season: to win football games.

“We’re going into every game, especially as a coaching staff, trying to win,” Valdez says finally as a loud whistle goes off and the team rushes up to the side of the stadium for a water break. “We have enough talent, we have a great coaching staff. So, we’re going to prepare these guys as much as possible to win.”

With any new coaching staff comes new traditions and new expectations, and Mercer Island is no different.

“We’ve had 6 am workouts [this year]. We never had 6 am workouts, at least since I’ve lived on the Island. So that takes an adjustment,” Drayton said. “There’s no question that was hard and you know, there were days when we’d only have six or seven guys in the weight room and the guys who were there were basically yelling like this is not acceptable.”

“I honestly think [the players] prefer a strict, disciplinary [environment] then sort of a loosey-goosey atmosphere,” Drayton said. “I just think it’s the coach’s personality — the kids get it real quick if they think that you’re not true to yourself or who you are. So, [the coaches are] pretty strict about it and pretty disciplinary about it but they’re true to themselves so I think the kids respond to that and [think] like, ‘Okay at least I know they’re real. Whether I like it or not.’”

Many players on the team seem to agree with Drayton’s sentiment.

“I think the team is adapting well to the new coaching, the practices are very intense but those practices help our team be the best that it can be,” junior captain Griffin King said. “Absolutely the intense coaching style has made the team more disciplined, although our record doesn’t show it we’re already a better team from last year.”

“It’s my job as a coach to believe in my players [and] develop players,” Mims said in the final minutes of our interview. The whistles and shuffles of his team can still be heard below. “I also believe in the staff I have, so I think everythings gonna come together.”

“Most of our team comes back next year,” Mims continues. “We only have, I think, maybe 10 seniors? So it’s a small senior class. We bring back mainly everybody. It’s just building this momentum going into next year [which is] when I feel like we’ll really be competing at a high level.”

A whistle sounds off below. He turns his head towards his team. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, you know, it’s hard to change a program right away. You just have to instill a culture and a winning mindset.”

“It’s not gonna be right away like maybe fans or people are expecting but you’ll see a team that’s gonna gradually get better week in and week out.”