When Jemal Singleton tells his players that football isn’t rocket science, he’s uniquely qualified to do so.
He would know. He took a course at the Air Force Academy.
“Football is a lot easier than trying to do this stuff,” the Eagles assistant head coach and running backs coach said.
The influence of Singleton’s Air Force background, both as a player and second-generation service member, is palpable in his coaching methods and leadership style. And it goes far beyond the unorthodox ball-safety drills he’s employed since training camp, some of which date back to service academy coaches.
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In the individual portion of Eagles workouts, Singleton used a handful of unusual equipment. Sometimes it’s a football attached to a chain. Other times it might be boxing gloves attached to a stick or a soccer ball filled with water.
“A Navy guy invented that one,” he said of the waterball.
Even as the son of a retired Air Force sergeant, Singleton enrolling in the Air Force Academy was never a foregone conclusion. As a stocky linebacker at Taft High School in San Antonio, he focused mostly on Division I and could eventually switch to running back when the recruiting letters started rolling in.
He had good enough grades to attract interest from a few Ivy League schools, but when he received a letter from the Air Force Academy, he was surprised.
“I didn’t even know the Air Force Academy had a football team,” Singleton said. “It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school, when I started getting Air Force recruit letters, that I really learned this. I just remember my first letter, I was like, ‘Air Force?’
Singleton also learned of the service requirements that Air Force students are required to fulfill after graduation, but that did not deter him.
“There are guys who would be kind of discouraged about having to serve in the military,” he said. “For me, it wasn’t something I was afraid of. It was a great college school, a chance to play Division I football, and I knew after that I could serve in the United States Air Force. It seemed like a lot.
His father, Gary, spent 20 years in the Air Force, and Jemal has the childhood to show for it.
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He was born in Turkey, lived in England, Germany and Italy before moving in time to become an outstanding high school footballer. His parents met in England, but bouncing around was the norm.
“I definitely lived the life of a military kid,” Singleton said. “I think that’s one of the hardest questions you can ask a military kid, ‘Where are you from?’ You mean where I was born, where I lived the longest?
If you spend years logging in one area, Colorado Springs, the campus of the Air Force Academy and about an hour from the home of the Denver Broncos, Empower Field at Mile High, ranks near the top of the list. Singleton houses.
He was running back for three years for the Falcons and became one of six players in program history to be named team captain twice. After graduating, he spent about two years as an Air Force Media Relations Officer and returned to the Academy for his first coaching job.
“He was just a natural leader,” former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said. “I think that’s what the academy often does. It teaches you to lead. It produces leaders, and that’s basically what the academy is supposed to do, it produces leadership for our Air Force.
In 2000, DeBerry gave Singleton his first coaching job as an academy prep assistant. He thinks Singleton will soon be a head coach.
Boston Eagles running back Scott expressed a similar sentiment last week.
“I have a lot of respect for this guy,” Scott said. “He was a great coach, a great friend, a great mentor, a motivator. It was really cool getting to know him from the short time we’ve been together. I’m excited for him, he has a lot of great qualities as a coach.
“I know he has aspirations to go [the head coaching] road, I hope that one day he will be able to have this chance.
Singleton’s military upbringing proved to be a harbinger of what was to come. He spent the first 10 years of his coaching career in the Air Force, but spent the last decade on the staff of six teams.
He coached running backs at Oklahoma State and Arkansas before taking the same role with the Indianapolis Colts in 2016. He also made saves with the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals before that Nick Sirianni feathered him when building his team last offseason.
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“I always joke that my wife must be a saint because she married an Air Force officer turned football coach,” Singleton said. “There are certainly similarities in that aspect, the moving part. I probably moved around a bit more than most, which is kind of crazy because I started my career in one place for a long time… but for me, that wasn’t a bad thing. I learned a long time ago that it was “Dive in. Dive in where you are”.
Singleton replaced Duce Staley, who was on the Eagles staff from 2011-2020, and holds the same title as assistant head coach.
“He has a lot of things he can give me insight into,” Sirianni said. “I really appreciate that. First of all, he’s a great running coach. And that’s his first job, being our running coach and preparing the guys. He’s done a great job. I don’t Can’t say enough good things about Jemal, how good he is as a football coach Good person So I am able to give him his thoughts on schedule.
Singleton trained in near-exclusive systems like the triple option used by the Air Force while there, but he also trained in systems rooted in the Air Raid and West Coast offense.
Singleton found a common thread between the vastly different patterns, in part because of his Air Force experience.
“It’s very similar to the Air Force Academy, it’s about finding this systematic approach, this process,” he said. “I don’t care what games you play, but the approach to installing these things, how you do it, do you have the staff to do it? All that. That’s probably what I understood the most about the triple option is, “Hey, these are the answers to the problems you have and in this system, this is what you find.”
He also has the perspective, whether it’s rocket science classes versus offensive installations or tough summer training versus the grueling experience of basic training.
“I’m climbing through this tube going through the dirt, wearing this rubber M16, and I’m literally stuck in this tunnel,” Singleton said. “I think I’m going to die. I think it’s over, I’m about to die in this tunnel. But being able to get through that, to dig myself out of that hole, was one of the first serious tests I’d ever been in. Then I did some water training, I thought I was going to die doing that too.
“I jumped out of a plane solo with my own jump rope. The things in which the academy tested me academically, physically and mentally, it built me, it helped me grow. I think one of the hardest things to do is lead peers, when you can do it, just the lessons and how you figure out how to approach guys… my time at the academy is why I am here. That’s why I’m here today.