Locked Out: Swept up by the NFL labor crisis

Locked Out: Former Redskins assistant Chris Meidt is called down another aisle in life

Katie N. Gardner/For the Washington Post - Chris Meidt, in Walmart with Adam Zastrow, was not retained by Mike Shanahan and he couldn’t land another NFL job despite rave reviews. Though he’s now in retail, the specter of the NFL is always in the background.

The football coach parks his car around 7:30 a.m., and reaches for his dark suit jacket. He slips it on, covering up the Washington Redskins logo stitched on one wrist of his blue dress shirt, a remnant from his previous job. He pulls a leather bag from the back seat, which also features the emblem of his former team, and walks briskly to work.

When Chris Meidt was dismissed from his position as a Redskins offensive assistant coach in 2010, he entered an impenetrable workforce. The NFL lockout was more than a year away, but Meidt felt owners were already preparing last spring for a work stoppage. There didn’t seem to be as many coaching positions available, and when Meidt couldn’t find a new team, he felt he had to look elsewhere for employment.

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Football owners and players had been bracing for a lockout for more than a year. When owners finally chose to lock out players this month, more than 32 owners and 2,000-plus players were left hurt in the wake. While the sides continue to negotiate, bickering over how to divide one of the richest pies in all of professional sports, there are some, like Meidt, stuck on the sidelines, waiting for the labor standoff to thaw and for work to become available again.

On a routine workday on a cold Wisconsin morning — Meidt has a game plan, and like every other morning, he’s eager to get started. He’s been in his new position for less than a year and has been drawing rave reviews from his new bosses.

“I got a feeling this will be a good, productive day,” Meidt says, as he walks under the giant Wal-Mart sign, ready for work.

A shrinking market

When Meidt was last in the NFL in the 2009 season, there were around 600 coaching jobs in the NFL — about 19 per team — according to Larry Kennan, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association. The following season, a full year before the lockout, teams contracted a total of 30 positions, which left some coaches without jobs.

“Teams, like a lot of people in the business world, panicked when the economy tanked,” Kennan said, “and many began preparing for this period early.”

With a wife and three children, Meidt, 41, didn’t have the luxury of waiting for coaching jobs to reappear. He knew he had to get to get back to work, even if that meant relocating his family to Wisconsin and entering the foreign world of retail.

In his new position, Meidt still very much considers himself a coach, as well as a leader, an educator and a motivator. While he says he enjoys the work, Meidt is eager to return to football. He concedes, though, he’s not sure when that might happen.

Store No. 1276 in Region 14 is a 24-hour Wal-Mart SuperCenter that serves Sheboygan, an hour north of Milwaukee. It’s one of seven stores in the area that Meidt oversees as one of the company’s market managers, and on this day, he’s scheduled to perform a quarterly review before visiting another Wal-Mart property.

Meidt walks with purpose as he moves through the store. He greets customers, chats with employees and straightens the bagels when he spots some askew. In his new position, Meidt says he earns more money than he ever did as a football coach and is in charge of many more people. With the Redskins, he essentially had three people — the team’s quarterbacks — working under him; at Wal-Mart, he’s in charge of more than 2,300 employees.

The 8 a.m. meeting that kicks off the day runs on Vince Lombardi time, which means it actually begins 10 minutes early. It’s in a no-frills room that features a photo of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton hanging beneath a clock on one wall. Meidt has a youthful face and shortly cropped hair, and he packs enthusiasm into the most mundane of sentences. He likes these daily meetings because they remind him of coaching, and he tries to tailor them so they mimic a football team’s game-planning meeting.

Meidt had hoped to stick with the Redskins. Team owner Daniel Snyder fired Jim Zorn the day after the 2009 season concluded. He quickly hired Mike Shanahan and allowed the new head coach to decide which of Zorn’s assistants he’d retain.

Shanahan was impressed with Meidt but opted to replace all of the offensive assistants. Meidt spent the next several weeks working the telephones. Though he had only two years of NFL experience — Meidt spent the previous 18 years coaching at the collegiate level — most of the Redskins’ staff figured he’d have no problem finding a coaching job.

“Honestly, he may be the most intelligent football coach I’ve been around,” says Sherman Smith, the Redskins’ former offensive coordinator. “He’s amazing.”

Meidt had brief talks with a couple of teams, but ultimately, his lack of contacts in the NFL hurt him more than his lack of experience. Plus, Meidt’s preferred position — quarterbacks coach — is a spot some teams eliminated, opting for the head coach or offensive coordinator to work with quarterbacks.

“I understand how the business works. It’s about who you know and the relationships you have,” Meidt says.

The weeks passed and the phone stopped ringing. Soon, there were no more NFL positions to be had and Meidt had to weigh his options. He loved his six years coaching at St. Olaf College, a Division III school in Northfield, Minn., but he decided he didn’t want to return to college football. Meanwhile, he’d been talking with a friend named Joel Anderson, a St. Olaf alum who began working with Wal-Mart a couple of years earlier. Anderson was convinced Meidt would be a perfect fit.

Meidt had been in football his entire life. He likes to joke that the extent of his retail experience was shopping for fishing lures at Gander Mountain in Winchester.

“Everything he has is exactly what we’re looking for at Wal-Mart,” says Anderson, a senior vice president. “We need leaders who lead people.”

Back in the morning meeting, Meidt takes detailed notes, just as he had in every meeting during his 20-year coaching career. At one point, an associate mentions a catastrophe the previous day in the lawn and garden department. “This is just a setback,” Meidt says. “Third and long. That’s all. You still have a chance to move the chains. It might not be easy, but you have a chance.”

Comfortable in charge

Meidt moves and talks like he was born in a Wal-Mart store, having already mastered the lingo of retail. In truth, the transition wasn’t always simple.

“When he first took the job and we started telling people, a lot of close friends said, ‘I’m so, so sorry,’ ” recalls Meidt’s wife, Allison. “ ‘What do you mean? This is a great opportunity.’ ”

“He told me and I started laughing,” says Jason Campbell, the Oakland Raiders quarterback who worked with Meidt for two seasons in Washington. “I didn’t know what to think. ‘Are you joking? What do you mean?’ ”

The Meidts sold their home in Loudoun County last spring, and the former coach reported to Bentonville, Ark., for two weeks of training. When he got to Wisconsin, he was assigned a mentor and began soaking up everything about the culture of Wal-Mart and the logistics of running a store.

“I had no clue. Those first couple weeks, I was going home with a throbbing headache every day,” he says. “To be honest, it’s way more complex than football.”

Dan Clark, his assigned mentor, admits to some initial concerns about Meidt’s ability to make the jump, but it didn’t take long before he knew Wal-Mart had stumbled onto a good find.

“I finally asked him: Now, if you can come and do my job and I’ve been with the company for 22 years, should I expect to the Redskins to call me to be on their coaching staff?” Clark says.

Each Wal-Mart is its own complex city with different departments, needs and moving parts. For a football coach, the skill sets aren’t especially different, Meidt says. In a sense, he feels he’s doing something that he’s prepared for his entire life. Only the stage has changed.

Meidt grew up in Minnesota and says he’s felt like a coach since grade school.

“I was a pain in the butt on the playground,” he says, “but we had to get our offense ready in fifth grade.”

He played at Minneota High School in Minneota, Minn., where his father, Gerhard, had a hall of fame career as head football coach. Meidt set state and even national records as a star quarterback and twice led his team to the state championship. He played at Bethel University in nearby St. Paul, and though his bachelors degree was in mathematics, and his masters in business administration, Meidt followed his father into the coaching profession. His life became a Lombardi maxim: faith, family and football.

“I never thought a time would come when I wasn’t coaching,” he says.

Communications specialist

Meidt cuts through the bitter cold Wisconsin air before climbing into his black Ford Fusion, a company car with 40,000 miles on it and fresh road salt stains beneath it. This serves as his office most days.

Twenty miles up the road, he arrives at another Wal-Mart store. He barely gets both feet through the front door before a customer spots his name badge. She’d had a bad experience trying to return a $5 bracelet.

“He just said, ‘Nope,’ to me. That really pissed me off,” Rebecca Johnson, from nearby Fredonia, Wis., tells him.

“I’m glad you shared that with me,” Meidt says. “I will follow up on that for you and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Football isn’t simply Xs and Os to Meidt. He loves numbers, and to him, a patch of grass is a three-dimensional grid where everything is based on timing. But those who were around Meidt as a coach say his biggest strengths can’t be found in a playbook or spotted on film.

“He’s a coach who knows how to communicate,” says Campbell. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that he’s a family guy, and he’s very spiritual. Working with him, it wasn’t always football. You talk about family, life, he wants to know how you’re doing.”

That emphasis on family is also what made being a coach difficult at times. Meidt had met Zorn when both were college assistants in Minnesota. When Zorn finally got his break with the Redskins in 2008, Meidt got a call he’d never expected. The Meidts packed up their lives in Minnesota and relocated to the NFL.

While he loved the new challenge, Meidt also learned the tough demands of coaching in the NFL: out the door by 6 a.m. and not returning home until the kids are already asleep. Their neighbors joked that Meidt didn’t exist or that he only actually lived there during the spring.

Perhaps the best part of his new life at Wal-Mart: regular hours, family dinners, weekends free. Maddie is 16 now and the twins, Alex and Evelyn, are 13. All three are involved in a variety of activities — volleyball, cross-country, basketball, piano — and Meidt finally gets to be a part of it all.

Meidt looks back on his Washington tenure as a great learning experience and says he never second-guessed his decision to leave the comforts and security of the college ranks for an NFL job that lasted only two seasons.

“All the people I got to spend time with, the things I learned, the experiences I had — it was just incredible,” he says. “No regrets.”

‘What I’ve been called to do’

When he arrived in Wisconsin and the 2010 NFL season was on the verge of beginning without him, Meidt and his wife decided it might be too painful to watch games on television. They agreed to avoid football for the year, a decision that lasted only until the second week of preseason, when the Meidts ordered DirecTV and the full package of NFL games.

Every Sunday, Meidt would watch Campbell and the Raiders, the Vikings — his childhood love — and the Redskins. He found himself studying the games more than he was watching them, trying to stay on top of any new trends or wrinkles.

There’s no escaping football in Wisconsin, and Meidt quickly gave up trying. Standing in Wal-Mart’s electronics department, he chats with a store manager and doesn’t seem to notice that all of the televisions are playing Green Bay highlights, years-old Packers games or a Lombardi documentary.

While he doesn’t feel too detached from his previous life, he has no idea how far removed he is from the next. By design, Meidt is not actively seeking any specific coaching position.

“I’m going to spend no time thinking about what’s next,” he says.

Meidt says he’s content. The winter is cold in Wisconsin, but the only horns that honk in his neighborhood are friendly hellos. In Washington, he earned the equivalent of a quality-control coach’s salary, typically less than six figures. With bonuses and benefits, he’s earning significantly more with Wal-Mart. And he loves his job.

“I think coaching is a calling, but I think leading is really my ultimate calling, and impacting people and creating a vision for success that they might not otherwise have,” he says. “I really feel that’s what I’ve been called to do.”

Before leaving the store and heading home for the day, Meidt chats with Martha Pflughoeft, 87, a Wal-Mart greeter for nine years, and checks out a clothing display near the front of the store. It’s a clearance rack featuring Miley Cyrus’s line of clothes.

“Dollar jeans? Is this for real?” he asks. “Gosh, we’re giving this stuff away, Martha.”

“Yep, too bad it doesn’t fit us,” she says.

 
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