Ryan Mallett, a well-decorated quarterback at the University of Arkansas who took over a White Hall High School football program fresh off a state championship appearance after the 2021 season, drowned in Destin, Fla., on Tuesday. He was 35.
The Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office and White Hall School District Superintendent Gary Williams confirmed Mallett's drowning. The sheriff's office updated a Facebook post Tuesday that it was "investigating an apparent drowning that claimed the life of a tourist in the Gulf of Mexico," identifying the victim as Mallett following next-of-kin notification.
"We send our heartfelt sympathies to his family, friends and loved ones in his tragic passing," the sheriff's office posted.
The reported drowning occurred off a beach behind 775 Gulf Shore Drive in Destin at around 2:12 p.m. Central, according to the post.
Williams said Mallett was transported to a hospital and it was later announced that he did not make it.
"Just terribly sad for Ryan and his family and his coworkers, players and coaches and all that knew him," Williams said. "I appreciated who he was and what he did. It's just sad."
The White Hall School District announced Mallett's death on its Facebook page at 6:08 p.m.
"We ask that you remember his family, team, students, fellow coaches, and the White Hall School District staff in your prayers," it said in part.
Mallett's hiring at White Hall in February 2022 drew much attention across the state as the school district landed a high-profile former NFL quarterback two months after the Bulldogs reached the 5A state championship game against Pulaski Academy. Mallett was previously offensive coordinator at Mountain Home for two seasons.
Mallett said when he was hired he was looking to advance in his career.
"First, I know they've got kids who can play," Mallett said in a Feb. 25 article. "I always knew I was going to do it [become a head coach]. It's a good school and a good opportunity, and the facilities are amazing."
Doug Dorris, the now-retired superintendent who hired Mallett to White Hall, called him a "super-nice guy" who was very personable from the first time they met.
"Anytime you're around someone as long as we were, even though it wasn't a long time, he was like family," Dorris said. "He was like family to us. The more you were around Ryan, the better you liked him."
Mallett sold Dorris and the search committee on wanting to be a head coach, the former superintendent revealed.
"I remember we always asked one question during the interview process, 'Fourth down and one, what play are you going to run?' And it stumped him for a second on that one question, but then he come back, and he said, 'I know exactly what I'm going to run,'" Dorris said. "And I started to think, well, he hadn't answered that question. I said, 'That's the craziest answer I've ever heard in my life.' But you know, he was absolutely correct on it, because I never would have thought about it that way."
White Hall went 4-6 in Mallett's only season at the helm, with 3 of its losses decided by 7 or fewer points. The Bulldogs won their last game, 21-14 at Watson Chapel, on Nov. 4.
White Hall, Watson Chapel and Pine Bluff all compete in the 5A-Central Conference. Last season was the first time White Hall and Pine Bluff faced off on the football field.
"It's just an unfortunate situation," Pine Bluff Coach Micheal Williams said. "This one really hurts me, because Coach Mallett was a major competitor. He definitely knew and wanted to win, and he set himself up to be in the position where he's trying to win. His first impression that I got from him is, 'I don't have time for the shaking hands and the glitz and glamour and sit down with coaches. I need to get back to my team,' and that's what he always was trying to do. Even some of the luncheons that we had, he'd come in late, because he's like, 'Man, I like luncheons, but I need to stay with my team, make sure my team is right.' That's the impression I got with him, and I loved that part about him.'"
Mallett was a high school standout quarterback at Texas High School in Texarkana, Texas, although he grew up in Texarkana, Ark. He threw for 7,879 yards and 72 touchdowns with 19 interceptions for the Tigers.
He was recruited to the University of Michigan for the 2007 season and transferred to Arkansas, sitting out the 2008 season due to NCAA transfer rules at the time before guiding the Razorbacks to a 2009 Liberty Bowl win over East Carolina University and a 10-win season in 2010. He had 8,385 career passing yards and 69 touchdowns with 24 picks with the Wolverines and Razorbacks.
Mallett's play earned him a third-round draft pick by the New England Patriots in 2011. He backed up Tom Brady for three seasons, making it to the Super Bowl as a rookie.
He then was traded to the Houston Texans and spent 1½ seasons there before finishing his career with the Baltimore Ravens, retiring after the 2017 season with 1,835 career yards and 9 touchdowns with 10 interceptions.
Retired defensive end J.J. Watt, who played with Mallett in Houston, tweeted: "Horrible news to read about Ryan Mallett. Gone way too soon. Rest in Peace brother."
Mallett and White Hall hosted a team camp with five other high school teams last week. Monday was the start of the Arkansas Activities Association's dead period, meaning no athletic programs can conduct training for two weeks.
"Kids really had a lot of respect for him," Dorris said. "I know he had a great offseason this year, and that he'd have had a great season."
The Bulldogs' Twitter account announced a voluntary team meeting at the field house at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
"This meeting is voluntary. Love you all," it read in part. "If you are in summer school, you are excused for [Wednesday]."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the time zone for Destin, Fla.