Meet Dom DiSandro, the Eagles head of safety and thriller man with a coronary heart of gold

Dom DiSandro sat in an SUV outside the home of Evan Mathis while his then-wife was in labor. Mathis, the Eagles’ All-Pro left guard, had a flight to catch on Nov. 15, 2014, ahead of the team’s game the following day. But he wanted to be present for the birth of his second daughter.

Coach Chip Kelly and his team, meanwhile, were waiting in a chartered plane on the tarmac as the delivery stretched closer to wheels up. The coach’s cell phone rang. It was DiSandro. He told Kelly what he often tells many in the Eagles organization when they either need his assistance or his paternal instincts take over.

I got this.

“Let’s just cut to the chase: I didn’t allow Dom to do anything,” Kelly said. “Dom just said, ‘Hey, we got to do this.’ And I was like, ‘OK, do yourself, brother.’ He didn’t need my vote. When Dom said something to me, I was like, ‘Yeah, you go do that’ because I trusted him implicitly.

“I don’t know how it happens. I was like, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.’ But that’s just Dom.”

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Minutes kept ticking off and past the departure time. Philadelphia International wasn’t far from Mathis’ home, though, and if there was anyone who could navigate the roads and the obstacles at the airport, it was the enterprising DiSandro.

“The baby comes out and I catch the baby,” Mathis said. “I meet her. Her name’s ‘Aven’ if you switch the ‘a’ and ‘e’ in my name. I think Chip had to hold the plane close to an hour. But Dom’s outside and he gets me over there and we go to Green Bay.”

While DiSandro’s actions might have put the Eagles in a momentary predicament, it was indicative of the sway he has within the organization. There may not be an employee that owner Jeffrey Lurie entrusts with his franchise’s delicate matters more than the boxcar-built chief security officer.

“He should be head of psychology.”

Chip Kelly on Dom DiSandro

That title — formally preceded by “senior adviser to the general manager” — is hardly representative of the many hats DiSandro wears. Yes, he is responsible for security measures, for maintaining a relationship with local authorities, and for educating players on the NFL’s personal conduct policies.

But DiSandro’s most important role with the Eagles after nearly a quarter century — according to many coaches, players, and team personnel, past and present — is as chief resident of the psyche.

“He should be,” Kelly said, “head of psychology.”

Even that title doesn’t do justice to how he juggles the various factions at the NovaCare Complex. He’s a confidant to players. He’s an adviser to coaches. He’s the front office’s off-field eyes and ears and reports directly to Lurie. And he somehow manages to toe the line of trustworthiness between each division without feelings of betrayal.

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“He has the pulse of not just the team but the entire franchise and understands the dynamics,” Kelly said in recent interview. “He doesn’t lean one way or another. He listens to you and understands what you’re going through and kind of helps you get through it all the time.

“He’s got a unique gift. His loyalty to individuals, to everybody — sometimes it’s hard because there’s different sides and there’s different factions. Dom’s sort of like Switzerland because he’s neutral in everything.”

That ability and genuineness he wears on his sleeve — like the crest of the Italian flag he has embroidered on one of his Eagles-issued pullovers — are prominent reasons why so many, when they described their relationship with DiSandro, call him “family.”

“[Dom] can talk players off of ledges or he can encourage guys, motivate guys. And if he has to bring out the discipline, he can do that, as well.”

Doug Pederson

Family is actually his word, many said, for the life-lasting bonds that he’s formed with the countless who’ve come and gone over the last 24 years. Both Kelly and his successor Doug Pederson said DiSandro remains the member of the Eagles organization they each talk to most.

For former players like Brent Celek or current veterans like right tackle Lane Johnson, he’s a stand-in big brother. For younger ones such as left guard Landon Dickerson or wide receiver A.J. Brown, he’s a father figure. Center Jason Kelce called him the “Papa Bear” of the organization.

DiSandro’s immersion in the lives of many with the Eagles has helped foster a familial environment that allows for anything from one player being present for his daughter’s birth to another confiding in him about his struggles at home.

“A lot of times a player’s not going to come to the head coach, they’re not going to come to their position coach. They need someone in the building that they trust,” Pederson said. “They know that Dom has their back and that he’ll do anything for them and their families. He can talk players off of ledges or he can encourage guys, motivate guys.

“And if he has to bring out the discipline, he can do that, as well.”

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Like most families, the Eagles can have dysfunction. DiSandro is often responsible for handling that department, as well. From the relatively minor, like parking or speeding tickets, to the more significant, like arrests and criminal charges, he uses his connections to serve the best interests of the franchise.

But as Pederson said, DiSandro can’t always be a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”

He remains a shadowy figure, though, because of his occasional dealings in such matters. DiSandro, who has never spoken publicly, declined to be interviewed for this story through a team spokesperson. The Eagles organization did not actively participate in the reporting.

GM Howie Roseman has lauded DiSandro’s investigative work in scouting players a few times. And current coach Nick Sirianni, along with his predecessors, dating back to Andy Reid, have mentioned their quasi-bodyguard on occasion. But little is known about him.

“Really any bind that I’ve ever been in, [Dom’s] the first guy to be there. I vent everything to him. He’s been there for the highs and the lows.

Lane Johnson

Many former and current players and coaches relished the opportunity, though, to fill in some of the blanks on the invaluable behind-the-scenes resource as the top-seeded Eagles prepare for yet another postseason run next weekend.

“He’s a guy that sits back knowing that he runs everything and he’ll let you think that you’re learning something, but knowing that it got to come to him,” Brown said. “That’s a weird way of putting it, but he does what a boss do.”

Ultimately, DiSandro’s commitment is to the Eagles and his job is to help keep players on the field and for them to maximize their talents. A former offensive lineman, he strikes an imposing appearance.

But underneath the XXL tracksuits, there is a giant heart that understands the human element more than anyone else at NovaCare, his admirers said. Johnson had confided in him for years about his mental health struggles, and when he left the team last season, it was DiSandro who brought him back to Philly.

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“My whole deal last year — he flew down there to Oklahoma within two days,” Johnson said. “Really any bind that I’ve ever been in, he’s the first guy to be there. I vent everything to him. He’s been there for the highs and the lows.

“Everybody upstairs knows about what’s going on in the players’ lives. It’s a big investment. You have guys that want to perform well on the field. A lot of that goes with handling [problems] off the field. That’s why I think everybody loves Dom. He cares so much.

“He’s a big reason why we have a lot of success around here.”

A softer side

For years, DiSandro wasn’t in the Eagles’ media guide. Only recently was he added, his name listed below Roseman and the team’s two assistant GMs. His bio is a less-than-75-word blurb of generalities about his position.

But after more than two dozen interviews were conducted for this story, and nearly 15 years on the beat, it’s possible to sketch out the essentials. A first-generation Italian-American, DiSandro was born in South Philly. His family eventually moved to the Northeast section of the city and he attended George Washington High School.

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He played football for legendary coach Ron Cohen, and was pretty good, but it was his strength in the weight room that landed him a scholarship to Penn State.

“He once told me he was real strong back in high school,” Dickerson said. “He could powerlift.”

DiSandro never played a down for the Nittany Lions. He was removed from the team for an unspecified reason, but the experience influenced his career path and has allowed him to have empathy for players, often the troubled ones, several said.

“We talk about his past, like, ‘Aw, I was getting in trouble up at Penn State. That was dumb,’” Celek said. “But he learned. And I think that’s the thing with him, he sees so many guys out there that could go down a path that’s wrong, because he could have done the same thing himself, and now he’s out there helping them.”

With his sports management degree, he had hoped to become an agent or scout. A chance meeting with then-Eagles GM Tom Modrak led to an entry-level position recruiting the Big East in 1997. But when the team needed a contact with connections in South Philly, it turned to DiSandro.

Butch Buchanico, an ex-Philly cop who had been Mayor Ed Rendell’s bodyguard, was the Eagles’ director of security at that time. DiSandro started assisting with small jobs and organically became the players’ liaison, while Buchanico handled Reid and high-level projects.

He was officially hired in 1999 and that dynamic remained, with DiSandro essentially under the radar until Buchanico retired in 2011. The Eagles replaced him with a retired state police officer, but he lasted less than a year and DiSandro stepped in.

“[N]ine times out of 10 he’s got some dessert or cake or some sandwich from some place in South Philly and you can kind of get away from everything else going on in your life.”

Jason Kelce on DiSandro’s office

Reid blankly announced his promotion during a team meeting, several who were there said, and that was it.

“‘Tiny’ is the new chief of security,” the coach said, using his pet name for DiSandro.

The Eagles gave him an office upstairs, but he retained his small workroom that is located outside the auditorium in between the cafeteria and the football wing. There’s only space for a couple of chairs, but it is often a refuge for players.

“You can go in there no matter what’s going on in the building or on the field. You can just let loose,” Kelce said. “Down years, season’s not going well. Even when the season’s going well, you go in there, nine times out of 10 he’s got some dessert or cake or some sandwich from some place in South Philly and you can kind of get away from everything else going on in your life.”

His door is usually open, but when it’s closed the room may be crammed with bodies and some dilemma is being hashed out.

It was where Darius Slay and other veteran defensive backs brought C.J. Gardner-Johnson when he arrived just before the season, cocky and sure that he would take over the group. It was where Johnson first went when he returned from Oklahoma and he unloaded his problems with Sirianni and Kelce joining them.

“The first time he came back in the building, and that was the first guy he talked to,” Celek said. “That’s got to mean something.”

Most of the open-door conversations are more casual. Players may just be looking for a laugh or some advice. DiSandro is currently helping tackle Jordan Mailata plan his wedding in Napa Valley this summer.

“Anytime I’m having a down day, I’ll stick [my head] in his office and talk to him,” Mailata said. “He always knows how to put a smile on your face. There’s a softer side to him. Everybody sees this big guy or the position he’s in, but he’s so easy to talk to. You can talk to him about anything, about your worries.

“He’ll keep it to himself or if he has somebody who can help you, he’ll help you.”

“[Dom’s] door is always open to me. He’s still my therapist.”

Brent Celek

Players trust him with intimate details about their lives because he has built a level of trust. He answers almost all their calls immediately, and if he can’t, he’ll dial back as soon as possible. He gets to know their families and, for example, if a father is going through cancer treatments, or a wife had a miscarriage.

Mostly, he’s a sounding board for players to express their innermost thoughts about their performance on the field. But they have to be willing to accept his sometimes brutal input. The ones who are honest with themselves are often the ones with whom he has forged lifelong relationships.

“His door is always open to me,” said Celek, who works part-time for the Eagles as a coach-scout. “He’s still my therapist.”

Keeping everybody safe

For the players to trust DiSandro, they also have to know that he won’t leak their sensitive information to the bosses. According to Kelly and Pederson, he knew what not to share and how to share when necessary.

“We never really talked like, ‘Hey, this player told me this,’ or ‘What do you think of this, Chip?’ That’s not a Dom conversation,” Kelly said. “The Dom conversation is, ‘How are we doing, boss?’ … ‘We’re good.’

“And if you notice something, he may go, ‘This player — something may be bothering him, something may be off.’”

And then the coaches or Roseman may go have a conversation. But DiSandro often acts as a buffer who prevents minor crises from getting to the desks of those in charge.

“I know if a player gets in trouble, whether it be with the police or something of that nature, he’s always going to help and protect and do what he can,” Pederson said. “That’s his instinct. That’s who he is. As an organization or as a head coach if we have to deal with it, maybe it gets to that point.

“But Dom does a great job of building relationships in the city and just knowing where everybody’s going to be and keeping everybody safe.”

His connections are myriad, from politicians to beat cops, from TSA agents to Department of Motor Vehicles managers, from maître d’s to bouncers. He’s the “I got a guy” of the Eagles. Most of the requests are benign and tedious.

Slay recalled a flat tire he needed replaced while he was at practice. Boston Scott said his rental car recently got towed from his apartment complex, and DiSandro handled getting it out of a lot while the running back was busy in-season.

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Johnson said he has lost more wallets than he can remember. DiSandro can jump players to the front of the line at the DMV, expedite acquiring passports, and in Mailata’s case — after the Australian was drafted by the Eagles — get him his Social Security card.

“He picks me up in his big, black SUV,” Mailata said. “Next thing I know, he pulls up and parks in this no-parking zone, puts this sign up — I don’t know what it was, like he’s a member of the police force — and he leaves the car there. We go in, we cut ahead of everyone.

“It didn’t feel right to me. So I’m standing in the back of the line and he’s like, ‘What are you doing? Come on. I already have my person here.’”

Kelly said it took less than a few weeks after he was hired in 2013 for him to realize that DiSandro was someone who could say, “Yeah, we can do that,” and would always deliver. When the coach interviewed Pat Shurmur for the offensive coordinator job, their meeting ran long until 11 a.m. and Shurmur had an 11:25 a.m. flight back to Ohio to catch. DiSandro took over.

“I remember Shurm texted me at like 11:22, ‘I’m on the plane. I have no idea how that just happened. But I’m on the plane,’” Kelly said.

DiSandro is often the first member of the organization to greet new Eagles when they arrive in Philly. And one of his first discussions with them is about his role and how he’s there to protect the players, but that one of the fastest ways out of the NFL is to do dumb stuff off the field.

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For gun owners, he informs them of different laws for carrying weapons in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Brown, who was traded to the Eagles last offseason, said he didn’t realize his Tennessee driver’s license was suspended — “for unpaid parking tickets,” he said — until DiSandro told him.

Helping with parking and speeding tickets — how to fight, minimize, or expunge — may be part of the job. A current player who spoke on the condition of anonymity said he has been pulled over a few times, most recently while he drove home late following a road game.

“I’ll roll the window down or whatever. And I’ll be like, ‘I play for the Eagles,’” the player said. “They’ll look and then I guess they call it in or talk to Dom. And then they’ll come back and be like, ‘All right, you’re good. Keep winning.’”

When he walked by DiSandro’s office not long after, the player said he heard him say, “Hey, man, slow down crossing that bridge.”

The Eagles declined to comment on the incident.

Most players, by and large, avoid transgressions and stay out of DiSandro’s doghouse. But there are some who need to be reprogrammed. He gets many to buy in.

“He’s willing to do anything for the organization. He’s been that way his whole career … that’s what makes [Dom] so special.”

Jason Kelce

The Eagles, like most NFL franchises, have had their share of criminal arrests. In the last four years, they’ve managed to avoid infractions that resulted in public offenses. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been scrapes with the law.

In 2020, Pederson felt that some players were taking advantage of DiSandro’s connections and he blistered them during a team meeting.

“Players can be knuckleheads and sometimes they try to get away with too much. They’re going to make mistakes. We understand that,” said Pederson, who now coaches the Jacksonville Jaguars. “But for me with Dom, I want the players and the families to respect him, not abuse him … and the privilege of knowing him and what he can do and how he can help.

“You definitely have conversations with your team that way, especially if it gets a little bit sideways, otherwise it can get out of hand.”

Celek saw it from a different angle and how players — many of them young — come from complicated backgrounds, or become targets because they’re public figures or have money, or just aren’t yet mature enough to deal with the pressures of playing in the NFL.

“Society would say, ‘Are you helping them or are you enabling them?’ That’s the problem that I have with all of this,” Celek said. “Once you show that I’m going above and beyond to help somebody, it’s like, ‘Oh, are you abusing your privilege?’ Instead of saying, ‘Damn, it’s good that these guys have somebody in their corner.’”

Kelce may be one of players who has gotten the closest to DiSandro over the years. They’ve been to each other’s weddings. They’ve been through a lot in the last 12 years. Kelce can see the argument from both sides.

“He’s willing to do anything for the organization. He’s been that way his whole career,” Kelce said. “In some ways I feel like it’s bad. He’s always available. But that’s what makes him so special.”

Dom as family

DiSandro isn’t a traditional scout. He doesn’t watch film. He doesn’t analyze a prospect’s measurables. But his abilities as an investigator and getting inside the minds of football players, particularly the ones who have been red-flagged, are invaluable to the Eagles.

Roseman made the claim not long ago that DiSandro was the best at it in the league.

“I don’t know when he’s given feedback on someone and he hasn’t been spot-on … like, ‘I never thought about it from that perspective, Dom, but you’re 100 percent right.’”

Chip Kelly

“He gets information that other people don’t get,” Kelly said. “And I was like, ‘How did you know that?’ And he goes, ‘They told me.’ I’m like, ‘Wow, OK.’ He knows how kids learn. He knows how much they love playing the game.

“You may have had a negative thing in a report and then he reads everything and then goes out on the road and meets these kids.”

One Eagles staffer told a story of watching DiSandro at work on the road. He may show up at a prospect’s apartment and in a matter of minutes put him at ease. But as he’s doing so, he’s finding out where he may eat regularly or where he gets his laundry done, and then later he’ll circle back and talk to employees at those places to find out how he treats them.

But his greatest attribute may be his talent for reading people, Kelly, Pederson, and others said. DiSandro knows the mindsets that will grind it out, the characters that will fit within the Eagles’ culture, and the personalities that can handle playing in one of the toughest sports towns in America.

“I don’t know when he’s given feedback on someone and he hasn’t been spot-on,” Kelly said. “And then you kind of open your eyes like, ‘I never thought about it from that perspective, Dom, but you’re 100 percent right.’

“That is the key. If we bring him in, we need to provide this for him, and if we do, the kid is going to be great. Almost everything single time it’s like, ‘That’s what Dom said. Yep.’”

“[Dom] introduced himself as the head of security, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s what the head of security looks like.’”

Chip Kelly

Several current Eagles recalled first meeting DiSandro and how they were intimidated, not only by his size but by how he carried himself. Defensive end Josh Sweat and receiver Quez Watkins said they still tread softly around the barrel-chested warden.

Kelly, now the coach at UCLA, thought back to the first time DiSandro picked him up at the airport.

“He introduced himself as the head of security,” Kelly said, “and I was like, ‘Well, that’s what the head of security looks like.’”

On certain days during the season, or at appearances away from NovaCare, DiSandro may sport a patented tracksuit, or as he calls it, his “South Philly tuxedo.” He likes to wear Kangol caps and pinky rings.

“And he always smells good. He’s always clean-cut,” Johnson said. “He steps on the scales and says, ‘The scale’s [bleeping] lying.’”

He’s got a wicked sense of humor. The jokes are often at his own expense. But DiSandro will often call it like he sees it, whether it’s the team’s or a player’s performance, or even decisions made by his bosses. And his veracious delivery is razor-sharp.

“He definitely speaks his mind,” Pederson said. “He’ll tell you right to your face: ‘Why did you get your hair cut like that? That’s stupid.’”

“[Dom] knows a lot of us are messed up in some ways. He says, ‘Hey, I’m [messed] up, too.’ That’s a good thing. That’s why we bond.’”

Lane Johnson

But DiSandro has a long leash with everyone from Lurie to the last player on the roster because he’d laid the bricks and backed up his words. And more than anything, it’s because he has established kindred connections across the spectrum, from introverted walk-the-liners to the more colorfully afflicted.

“He knows a lot of us are messed up in some ways,” Johnson said. “He says, ‘Hey, I’m [messed] up, too.’ That’s a good thing. That’s why we bond.’”

Pederson’s relationship with DiSandro stretches back to almost the beginning, as he went from player to coach. On the day of his interview, Dec. 23, Pederson sent DiSandro a Happy Birthday text message, and recalled the one year he sent him a box of his favorite Ashton cigars and Termini Bros. cannolis.

DiSandro has been a central figure for the Eagles’ last four coaches, at some point putting each, from Reid to Sirianni, in contact with one another, Pederson and Kelly said. The coaches said they talk to him several times a month and text regularly.

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Kelly said his early-morning drive from his Manhattan Beach, Calif., home to campus is often spent just catching up with the man who was often by his side during his three years in Philly.

“We don’t even talk football,” Kelly said. “It’s more about how’s his son doing? What’s going on with his life? What’s going on with my life? How’s [Kelly’s wife] Jill doing? Dom will always be a lifelong friend. … There’s a bunch of us who have been through the NovaCare Center who think of Dom as family.

“And I’m a lot better person because Dom’s in my life, I can tell you that.”

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