By Mike Wise
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Before he resigned as White House press secretary, the late Tony Snow visited Joe Gibbs's office last year and spoke with Joe Bugel, Gibbs's longtime assistant.
"I heard Holly has cancer," Snow said to Bugel, whose second of three daughters has a rare, aggressive form of bone cancer, diagnosed the year before. "I just want to say, 'We're in this together.' "
"He was a perfect gentleman," Bugel said of Snow, who died earlier this month after his own battle with cancer. "It meant a lot after the year we'd been through as a family and the year we ended up going through as a team. . . .
"You get to meet some pretty important people here in Washington."
For instance, there's Buges -- the man who is coaching full-throttle at 68 years old, driving NFL offensive linemen like he drove "the Hogs" 25 years ago because at this moment that's the best way for him and his family to cope with Holly Bugel's fight.
Earlier this month, for the first time since his daughter's left arm was amputated last December as a result of the bone cancer, her father saw her in a bathing suit during a family vacation in Coronado, Calif.
"She was sitting in the hot tub, waving her feet. Holly said, 'I bet you can't do that,' " Bugel said. "That's the kind of person and fighter she is."
The aging coach trudged off the field after his 31st NFL training camp began last week, his cleats clickety-clacking against the asphalt, his cobalt-blue eyes squinting in the searing July sun.
Deep crevices canvassed his forehead. Occasionally a jowl or two protruded above his shirt collar. His mug is weathered, craggy. But his hair is thick and plentiful -- "My father still had all his when he died at age 97," he said -- and his smile and plain-spoken nature are as familiar as old leather, like the cowhide with his signature encased among the Lombardi trophies in Ashburn.
Jim Zorn, Gibbs's replacement and 13 years Bugel's junior, treats his new assistant as a human heirloom.
"I was talking to him about how many players he's influenced and impacted," Zorn said. "To be a part of his life on a coaching staff is a treat for me.
He added, "I didn't even know how old he is, but he's young, whatever he is."
"Some older guys, they just don't act their age," said Bugel's wife, Brenda. "I mean, John McCain is running for president, and he's older than Joe."
That Bugel remains, seven months after Gibbs re-retired, is a mild upset.
Gibbs and much of his staff reunited in 2004 after their heyday in the 1980s. All pushing or past 60, they were remaking either "Space Cowboys" or "Cocoon," staving off time and dentures with one more moon shot.
But Gibbs returned to his family and a NASCAR garage in Charlotte in January, Jack Burns resigned soon after and Don Breaux's doctor told him to step down three days before the start of training camp to take care of a heart ailment.
Just like that, there is no one else on the coaching staff who once worked for late owner Jack Kent Cooke except Rennie Simmons, the Redskins' tight end coach. Oh, and 36-year employee Bubba Tyer. Bubba never left, having worked as the team's director of sports medicine since sometime before tourniquets.
"I love him," Tyer said of Bugel, whose house Tyer showed up to at 2 a.m. last season, 10 minutes after Bugel called him to complain of a kidney stone. "He's going through such a tough time with his daughter. He's an emotional guy, but yet he knows best he can do for his family is to be working as hard as he can be working now."
Bugel met with Gibbs, he said, two days before Gibbs announced his second retirement from coaching. They went to breakfast at Landsdowne Resort in Leesburg, where Gibbs told him of his plans.
"He said, 'You're not going to talk me out of it,' " Bugel said. "We shared a few tears."
Gibbs then told Bugel: "You're going to stay a Redskin the rest of your life. Mr. Snyder has an affection for you. You should stay on."
The family felt the same way, including Holly.
"We had a family meeting and the consensus was, 'Keep workin', Dad,' " Bugel said.
"Joe just basically said, 'I'm good at working, making money and you're good at taking care of the family,' " said Brenda, by telephone from Houston. "He's right. That's sort of how it's been for 39 years."
They met in 1969, in the sports information office of Western Kentucky University, where Bugel coached and Brenda worked as a secretary.
"He had the bluest eyes I had ever seen in my life," she said, adding that her future husband didn't mince words.
"The first thing he said to me was, 'Are you married?' "
The wedding came three months later. "We didn't even know each other," Brenda said. "We kind of grew up together."
They had three girls: Angie, 38, Holly, 35, and Jennifer, 31. But nothing in four decades -- not the life changes or the pressures of the itinerant coaching world -- prepared them for the news that rocked their family two years ago, when Bugel was pulled off the practice field and took Brenda's call in Gibbs's office.
Osteosarcoma was the diagnosis. Nearly 1,000 people had a similar form of bone cancer in 2007, according to the American Cancer Society. But the strain Holly is infected with is so rare, just five cases had been diagnosed last year, the Bugels said.
"It's a strong one," Brenda said. "We do need to sit down with the doctor and ask about the future. At some point, you run out of options and can't treat it anymore. But right now, we're fighting it with all we got."
The family, which lives near Phoenix, rented Holly an apartment in Houston, near the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, among the country's most prominent and aggressive treatment centers.
She has taken part in several clinical trials, but after periods of improvement, the medication always needs to be changed. Holly can no longer undergo chemotherapy and constantly deals with anemia, a side effect from the medication.
She spent this past Monday night in an emergency room, where she had to wait for two blood transfusions, which took four hours.
"There's really nothing Joe can do here right now," Brenda said. "He'd just pile up extra expenses, flying back and forth. I think [continuing to coach] is good for him because it keeps him busy."
Bugel has found much comfort in Ashburn, a place where grief and sadness took up residence for most of 2007.
In January of last year, Gibbs's grandson Taylor, now 3 years old, was discovered to have leukemia -- though Taylor is gradually getting better. Last fall, Shawn Springs's father, the former NFL player Ron Springs, slipped into a coma and is still on life support. Sean Taylor's killing during a botched robbery attempt last November precipitated the most sorrowful days in franchise history.
"You talk about bringin' people together," Bugel said. "That's what happened out here."
Barring any setbacks, Brenda, Angie and Jennifer are planning to take Holly to Las Vegas for her birthday next month, a sign that "nobody's surrendered. We're all pushing hard," Bugel said.
The coach will stay with the team, unless the disease worsens for Holly, who shares the M.D. Anderson center with many children coping with similar diseases.
"She realizes she can't feel for herself because you see little kids walking around with their heads shaved," Bugel said. "She said to me: 'Hey Dad, don't feel sorry. Somebody has my future ahead of me.' "