NFL coaching may be hazardous to one’s health


Houston Texans Coach Gary Kubiak is taken off the field on a stretcher during the second quarter of last Sunday night’s game against the Indianapolis Colts (David J. Phillip/AP)
November 8, 2013

After the Washington Redskins beat the San Diego Chargers in dramatic fashion in overtime last Sunday at FedEx Field, defensive coordinator Jim Haslett’s form of celebration included a trip to Redskins Park in the wee hours of Monday morning to begin a roughly 201 / 2-hour workday. With the Redskins set to play again Thursday night at Minnesota, there was much to be done and no time to waste.

“You do spend a lot of hours, especially this week,” Haslett said at midweek, standing outside the team’s indoor practice facility at Redskins Park. “With the Thursday night game, I think Monday I came in at like 2:30 [in the morning] and went home at 11 [that night]. So it catches up to you after a while.”

Those in the NFL’s coaching fraternity were dismayed but not overly surprised when two of their own, head coaches John Fox of the Denver Broncos and Gary Kubiak of the Houston Texans, suffered recent health scares. Among NFL coaches, putting work ahead of health issues isn’t just commonplace; it’s practically part of the job description.

“You always do that,” said Haslett, the former head coach of the New Orleans Saints. “That happens. Guys get sick, and there’s no days off. It’s not like you take a day off. I’ve never been around a coach that said he’s got the flu, he’s not coming in. They all come in.”

Kubiak, 52, collapsed on the sideline as he began to leave the field at halftime of the Texans’ loss last Sunday night to the Indianapolis Colts. He was taken to a hospital by ambulance, and the team later announced he had suffered a transient ischemic attack, “also called a ministroke” according to the Mayo Clinic’s Web site. It also “means there’s likely a partially blocked or narrowed artery leading to your brain, putting you at a greater risk of a full-blown stroke that could cause permanent damage later.”

By Thursday, Kubiak visited the Texans’ practice. The Houston Chronicle reported he could coach the team next weekend barring a setback.

Fox, 58, underwent heart surgery Monday to replace his aortic valve. He reportedly had been hoping to put off the procedure until after the season but was told by his doctor he couldn’t wait that long after he felt light-headed while playing golf last weekend in Charlotte. Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has taken over as the team’s interim coach.

Fellow coaches have no way of knowing to what extent, if any, the demands of their jobs contributed to the health issues of Fox and Kubiak. But they do know that health concerns regularly take a back seat to the football-related tasks at hand.

“What you’re dealing with is a very high-risk, very rewarding business,” former longtime NFL coach Dan Henning said in a telephone interview this week. “And it happens to be something we like to do. You get almost addicted to the fact that you can’t wait until Sunday for a chance to compete.”

The coaching stakes are perhaps higher than ever, with some NFL coaches’ salaries topping $7 million annually. Job security and longevity are fading memories, and the head coaching ranks league-wide turn over almost completely every few years. Scrutiny has intensified with the 24-hour news cycle, and praise and blame are handed out nonstop by experts and non-experts alike.

But tales of the long work hours and obsessive work habits are nothing new. Joe Gibbs was known for sleeping in his office as much as for his offensive wizardry on the sideline when he was coaching the Redskins to three Super Bowl triumphs in the 1980s and early ’90s. He listened to tapes made by his wife to keep up with family events.

“I don’t think you consciously think about [any potential health hazards] day to day,” Henning said. “But when things like [the Fox and Kubiak incidents] happen, it brings it up in your mind. The last few years I was coaching, at the end of the year, December, I would get a chest cold, and I just couldn’t shake it. I think it’s because of the way you would do this, the demands and the losing sleep.”

Henning tells of being a first-year head coach of the Atlanta Falcons in 1983 and sending home his ill secondary coach, Jack Christiansen, who had had a Hall of Fame playing career as a defensive back for the Detroit Lions and was a former head coach for the San Francisco 49ers and in college at Stanford.

“Jack was a smoker,” Henning said. “He was very competitive, too. I went down to the locker room one day and found him getting sick, so I sent him home. Later on I caught him getting sick again. He went to the doctor and found out he had cancer and only had a period of time to live. He’d been a head coach. He had a family. That’s what makes it hit home with you.”

Christiansen died in 1986 at age 57.

Not everyone allows the job to get to them. Marv Levy, who coached the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances — all losses — in the early ’90s, said he didn’t allow it to happen.

“I never felt a moment of stress in my life,” Levy said by phone this week. “I felt adrenaline. I felt excitement. I felt exultation. I felt anger. It was fun. There are long, long hours. But you have to factor in time to exercise, be careful about what you’re eating. . . . If they’re feeling stress, I think they’re in the wrong field.”

Haslett said the Redskins’ current coaches do what they can to be healthy.

“I think we do a good job here because a lot of the coaches get a little time during the day to find a workout, try to take care of themselves,” he said.

But Haslett also said he doesn’t think the Fox and Kubiak episodes will drastically alter the habits of current NFL coaches.

“I don’t think you change,” Haslett said. “It’s not gonna change. Coaches want to coach, want to get to this level. They want to be successful at this level. And it takes a lot of hard work and time.”

Mark Maske covers the NFL for The Washington Post.
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