Hero’s welcome for Tom Cable

MONROE — Dave Salvadalena was a care-free college student, with a roof over his head and about $100 in his bank account, when his best friend called, desperate and humbled by his chosen profession.

Tom Cable, whom Salvadalena had known since they were ninth-graders in Snohomish, hated to show weakness but desperately needed some help. In his first year as an unpaid graduate assistant coach for the San Diego State football team, Cable had run out of money and had no place to stay. When he wasn’t sleeping at the Aztecs’ football offices, he was living at the beach. He was eating bagel dogs for almost every meal.

And so Salvadalena did the only thing he knew. He took the $100 out of his own account and shipped it south.

That was 20 years ago. Twenty years before Cable was officially hired as head coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.

“I had a house and food. I didn’t have any bills to pay,” said Salvadalena, who still lives in Snohomish and is a fire captain for the City of Everett. “So I mailed the money to him.”

Anyone who thinks that working for renegade owner Al Davis is the most difficult part of Cable’s professional life doesn’t know Tom Cable.

So when the former Snohomish High School football star and longtime assistant coach stood in front of almost 250 onlookers Friday afternoon at the Monroe Boys &Girls Club — his first local appearance as the Raiders’ head coach — the standing ovation that followed seemed well-deserved.

His climb to the highest level of his profession was certainly one of struggle.

“Everyone goes through something tough,” Cable said of the four homeless months he spent in San Diego. “I didn’t have anything, and (Salvadalena) helped me out. That’s what friends are for.”

The latest success story in Snohomish County coaches was back in the area Friday, to impressive fanfare.

Boys &Girls Club program director Jacob Marsh expected 100, maybe 200, people to attend the fund-raiser, but was pleasantly surprised to see the turnout. Raiders fans dressed in silver, black and crossbones stood in line to pose for photographs and get Cable’s signature.

It was a hero’s welcome … only this hero has rarely felt like one.

Cable’s career has included stops at seven different college programs and two NFL cities. He was fired by his alma mater, the University of Idaho, after winning just 11 games over three seasons in his only previous tenure as a head coach at any level.

Along the way, Cable, now 44, learned a lot and refused to give up on his dream.

“He’s a risk-taker,” Salvadalena said. “Normal people like to have security, to know what’s going to happen and when. That’s not Tom.

“I asked him a couple of years ago, when we were having burgers at the Hub Drive-In (in Snohomish), whether he would like that kind of security. And he said: ‘I like that stuff; it’s just not me.’ He was going to get where he wanted to go. It was his priority.”

To find the source of Cable’s drive, one need dig no deeper than his hometown.

A late bloomer who didn’t fill out until his junior year at Snohomish High, Cable learned to respect his elders while living in the house of a giant. His father, Tom Sr., stood about 6-foot-5 and carried an even bigger presence.

“He had big hands, thick wrists and forearms,” Salvadalena said of a man who spent most of his life as a mechanic before losing a battle with cancer two months ago. “You looked at him, and you thought: drill sergeant.”

As a Snohomish High football player, Cable met a man with just as big a presence. Panthers coach Dick Armstrong had a my-way-or-the-highway style that scared off plenty of high schoolers but brought out the best in guys like Cable.

“Tom had a strict upbringing, so he knew what it was to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and to mean it,” Salvadalena said. “Armstrong was old school, and Tom took all that to heart and used it to his advantage.”

Former Raider Curt Marsh, who also played football at Snohomish and still lives in the area, said that Armstrong’s demanding approach prepared Cable for whatever his coaching career could possibly throw at him.

“If you could play for Dick Armstrong for three years,” Marsh said, “you can coach for Al Davis. (Armstrong) makes you a man pretty quick.”

Suffice to say, the adult Cable — he himself stands well above 6-feet tall and still carries the frame of a 300-plus-pound offensive lineman — will not be intimidated by his 79-year-old owner. In fact, he welcomes the opportunity to continue working with Davis after the Raiders removed his “interim” tag and officially named him head coach in February.

“They have no idea,” Cable said of those critics who find it unlikely that any coach could ever co-exist with Davis. “It’s really been an honor to work with the guy rather than work against someone. We really do have a lot of the same philosophies and ideas. We work very well together. It’s been great.”

Not that outsiders would see it that way. Davis has long had a reputation as a meddler, and his much-publicized fallout with former head coach Lane Kiffin last fall left an impression that the aging owner — he turns 80 on July 4 — is an impossible boss.

Curt Marsh, who knows what it’s like to work under Davis, called Cable’s current post “one of the two hardest coaching jobs in football. He and the Dallas coach are under so much scrutiny from their owners.”

But it’s a position Cable wouldn’t trade for anything.

“It’s a blessing,” he said. “I knew I’d get another chance (to be a head coach).”

Besides, he’s worked too hard to get this far — and overcome too many setbacks.

“He could be eating bagel dogs on the beach next week, and that doesn’t scare him,” Salvadalena said. “He’s been without, and it doesn’t bother him. He’s been on top, and he’d go back.

“Every fiber in his body loves football. I couldn’t be happier for him now. He earned everything he got. I’m really proud of him.”

And by the reception Cable got Friday afternoon, so is most of Snohomish County.

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