Roller coasters, football and babysitting: How Dallas Cowboys' Mike McCarthy bonded with Denver Broncos' Nathaniel Hackett

NFL coaching circles are relatively tight. For Mike McCarthy and Nathaniel Hackett, the coaches of the Dallas Cowboys and Denver Broncos, respectively, it’s something like the favorite uncle and nephew.

“It’s Coach McCarthy, it’s like family,” Hackett said. “It will always be like family.”

Over the next few days in Denver, McCarthy and the Hacketts will be together when the Cowboys and Broncos practice against each other once and prepare for their first preseason game on Saturday (9 p.m. ET, NFL Network).

In 1989, McCarthy was a graduate assistant at Pittsburgh, working on Paul Hackett’s staff that included future NFL head coaches Jon Gruden and Marvin Lewis. It's a relationship that helped shape McCarthy as a coach and beyond.

Nathaniel, the head coach’s kid, was 9. As the graduate assistant, no task was too small for a coach trying to break into the business. And that included babysitting Nathaniel at times.

“He even took me on my first roller coaster -- the Laser Loop at Kennywood -- I had never experienced anything like it and it was awesome,” Nathaniel said.

McCarthy called Kennywood, located in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, about 25 minutes from Pittsburgh, the “roller coaster capital of the world” back in that time.

“Wooden ones,” McCarthy said. “Real ones.”

“He was scared s---less,” the Cowboys coach said, smiling at the memory.

McCarthy counts Paul Hackett as one of his mentors. He was on the Pitt staff for four years, and when Hackett joined Marty Schottenheimer’s Kansas City Chiefs staff as offensive coordinator, he brought McCarthy with him as a quality control coach. (Schottenheimer’s son, Brian, is now a consultant for the Cowboys.)

That started a path that took McCarthy from a six-year stint in Kansas City to a year with the Green Bay Packers as quarterbacks coach, five seasons with the New Orleans Saints as offensive coordinator and one in the same role with the San Francisco 49ers.

In 2006, he was named the Packers' head coach, a job he held until 2018, and he is about to enter his third season as the Cowboys coach.

“[Paul Hackett] made a huge impact on my professional career and even personal, so I have a tremendous amount of love for the Hackett family,” McCarthy said.

It wasn’t always easy.

“I know my dad made it hard on him,” Nathaniel said, “but I know Mike says to this day it always made him better.”

McCarthy’s career started at Fort Hays State in 1987 as a graduate assistant. Nathaniel started his as an assistant linebackers coach at UC Davis in 2003. In 2006, Gruden brought him to the NFL as a quality control coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which started a journey with four NFL teams (plus three years at Syracuse), including a three-year run as the Packers' offensive coordinator after McCarthy was let go.

The success with the Packers led to him earning the Broncos’ job.

“I think both Mike and my father really wanted me to make it on my own first. There are coaches’ kids, and there’s some good ones and some bad ones, like anything, and I think they wanted to be sure when I was first starting out that I made it my own way, that I fought through the hard times, that I got it on my own,” Nathaniel said. “And I think both my dad and Mike had a lot of pride in that, that I earned it.”

The Cowboys had committed to two training camp practices with the Los Angeles Chargers before McCarthy and Hackett discussed the possibility of their teams working together. Ultimately, they agreed to one practice and have had multiple discussions about how much and what type of work they want to get done, especially with the first-teamers.

“We’re going up there [to Denver] for high-quality work. We want the speed; we want the competitiveness. We want all that,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got a big day in front of us Thursday, particularly with the altitude and the heat. This will be a great experience for us.”

It will be a great experience for McCarthy and the Hacketts too. Before and after practice, there will be some time to reminisce. Maybe they will even get in some roller-coaster talk.

“He's a phenomenal football coach,” McCarthy said of Nathaniel. “I think his energy and intelligence, just the amount of work he's put into it. Obviously, I think the world of Paul. I can't tell you how excited Paul is for Nathaniel's opportunity.”