By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, February 2, 2006
DETROIT Ray Rhodes responded to the stroke he was suffering just the way anybody who knows him would expect. He was in denial. Even though he couldn't walk and his vision was so blurred he was seeing seven anchor heads on the TV news, Rhodes didn't believe he was having a stroke. After he'd crawled out of the bedroom and down the stairs into the family room because he had no balance, Rhodes's daughter, a nurse, told him, "Dad, you've had a stroke." And Rhodes, true to who he'd always been, said in essence, "Leave me alone. It's going to go away." He'd been bullet-proof for so long, always physically and emotionally the toughest man in the room, whether that be a bar or a coaches' meeting room, tough like a character in a Richard Pryor routine.
At 55, Rhodes didn't have time for a stroke. How could he get the Seattle Seahawks defense to play in his image -- "I've always had that John Wayne mentality," he said -- if he's laid up in the hospital, unable to be on the sideline, having to watch what he eats, having to get a reasonable night's sleep, having to turn his duties over to a lieutenant?
Strokes were for somebody else -- weaklings, lesser men, certainly not him. When the hospital required him to use a wheelchair, it was degrading.
Two weeks after suffering a stroke Sept. 4, Rhodes was back at work. His vision had returned and quickly he had relearned to walk. Still, only two weeks had passed. He felt miserable and knew he was deteriorating. "I thought," he said Wednesday, "I was invincible. But with that stroke, reality set in. And the reality was, either you change or you die."
And since October, Rhodes appears to have changed enough to live and to coach -- at least on a limited basis. He'll be in the coaches' booth Sunday for the Super Bowl, though John Marshall has coordinated the defense with Rhodes assisting for the most part in recent weeks. But, make no mistake, it's a Ray Rhodes defense. You can see it in the way the Seahawks, rather small by today's NFL standards, use speed and quickness to beat opponents. Seattle led the league in sacks and hasn't worn down the way it did last year despite key injuries. Throughout Rhodes's recuperation and limited return, Marshall has regularly called for his input. Before and after meetings, before and after games, anytime really. And Rhodes says he is grateful that Marshall "kept me involved, kept me in it."
But his assistants say they needed to keep him in the loop, they needed the expertise, the instincts, the know-how Rhodes has acquired over the years. Rhodes's name has to appear on the short list of best defensive coaches of the last 25 years and this is his sixth time coaching a Super Bowl defense (his teams have won all five times). As a coordinator, only two of his nine defensive units have finished outside the top 10. And everywhere Rhodes has gone, from San Francisco to Green Bay to Philly back to Green Bay to the Redskins (2001-02) to Denver to Seattle (since 2003), the defense has almost always carried a big stick.
It's a threat now, even as Rhodes's role in Seattle has been reduced. The defensive assistants threaten to throw him out of team headquarters if he tries to stay too late, badgering him with the question, "What time is it, Ray?" With a huge lead over Carolina two weeks ago -- he believes the score was 34-7 at the time -- Rhodes lost it over an insignificant play, the way he'd lost it hundreds of times over 24 years of coaching. "I erupted," he said. "I was cursing . . . John Marshall said, 'Ray, calm down or leave the booth. You can't do that anymore. Ray, you've got to settle down.' "
And he has. Wednesday, he described how his life is evolving. He said he feels relatively fine, but admits there is more sitting and note-taking than there is demonstrating and exhorting right now. "As a young coach," he said, "I felt sleep was not a requirement. If I could close my eyes for a little bit, fine. If not, it's not like I wasn't going to function. Two, three hours of sleep, maybe one on some nights. . . . I went through a lot of years like that, but [that's] not going to cut it now. Sleep is a requirement.
"Before the stroke, the only time I ever missed work was back in San Francisco. My appendix burst before a big Monday night game with the Giants. Happened on a Friday. I missed the game, but I was back at practice on Wednesday. That was minor. I did bust the stitches, but it was no big thing. It was only a little blood."
His words may worry some, making him sound like a man whose toughness will lead him to a relapse. But Rhodes had to be this tough. He couldn't miss practices and become one of the first black coaches in the modern NFL, which he did (at Philly from 1995 to '98 and in Green Bay in 1999). He had to be that tough to endure, to keep at arms' length the frustration of being passed over for lesser candidates.
And on top of that, tough is just who Rhodes happens to be. He has always coached hard and lived hard. Late nights, fast cars, good times. The left lane was the only one Rhodes liked. Fans don't know much about him because he doesn't do many interviews, but that's sometimes because his Pryor-esque fondness for colorful language can't be edited for a family newspaper and certainly doesn't work in sound bites. Yet there's no NFL coach you'd rather listen to.
When a young reporter asked Rhodes on Wednesday if he could describe his lifestyle, Rhodes gave a knowing nod to the reporters who have known him over the years and said, "You already know my lifestyle. We're not going to get into that." And there was an admission of sorts. "I like to dip snuff. Every once in a while, I fell off the horse and dipped a little snuff; I ain't going to lie."
There was a twinkle when he said the words, a look that suggested Ray Rhodes knows he had some fine times and knows those kinds of times are in the past. "I had trauma," he said. "A stroke affects your brain. This is my life. I'd like to live to see my wife and kids a long time and enjoy them. I had to come to grips with the fact that I couldn't walk, that I couldn't see. It's going to all boil down to me making a wise decision about what I can and cannot do. This is serious. I'm sure over the last 15, 20 years I had lots of warning. But it's gotten my attention this time. I've got to slow my roll down."