By Jason La Canfora and Jason Reid
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 22, 2008
In a 30-minute span yesterday morning, the Washington Redskins interrupted preparatory meetings for Saturday's preseason game at Carolina to digest two pieces of sad news. Holly Bugel, 36, the daughter of longtime offensive line coach Joe Bugel, had died after a battle with bone cancer, and Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, had died suddenly from pancreatic cancer at 63.
The deaths were the latest stark reminders that, regardless of how glamorous an NFL career may be, real life has a way of intruding. The Redskins have coped with a litany of deaths and illnesses in their extended family in the past two years -- the fatal shooting of safety Sean Taylor in his Florida home last November the most shocking -- and were again bound by grief over Bugel's loss.
"We try to do what it is that he'd want us to do, which is prepare and play," said guard Pete Kendall, one of Bugel's charges. "I don't think there's anything you can say to anybody to make the loss of a child any easier. They've known she's been sick for some time, but my guess is that you can think you're prepared mentally for something like this to happen, and then find out you're totally not.
"My heart breaks for him. It's got to be the most unnatural thing in the world to bury your child. You just wish him peace of mind, and that he gets together with his family and that their hearts heal quickly, because there's really nothing else you can do."
Bugel spent last week with his family in Arizona, and upon returning told the players and coaches that he knew the end was near. Bugel's pride in his daughter -- for her courage and the way she cherished each day -- and his love for his wife, Brenda, was evident, they said. "He has great admiration in both of them, and that's what came through these last couple of weeks," Coach Jim Zorn said.
Zorn received word that Brenda Bugel had phoned from Arizona yesterday morning, and pulled her husband out of a meeting with the linemen. The team gathered for a long prayer for the Bugels and Upshaw before practice, and afterward owner Daniel Snyder again gave Bugel use of his plane to be with his family. Zorn said he would not be shocked if Bugel, 68, was back with the team for Saturday's game -- private ceremonies for Holly Bugel were to take place quickly, Zorn said -- given how football has become an escape for the longtime coach.
"It was surprising that he would come out and be on the football field," Zorn said. "But the way he explained it was that this was where he needed to be in order to lose himself a little bit in the familiar surroundings. That was one of the things that he touched on when he came out here. These were very familiar surroundings to him, and this is where he felt most comfortable."
Joe Gibbs, Zorn's predecessor and one of Bugel's closest friends, reached out to Bugel's family today from his NASCAR operation in North Carolina. Gibbs's 3-year-old grandson, Taylor, has had leukemia, which is in remission, and they have relied on each other for support.
"Everybody is so close," Gibbs said. "At this time of the year, Coach Bugel is probably spending more time with the football team than he does with his own family, and so it's like family, you have two families . . . . The thing that you have there is that you get real comfort from all that are around you who care about you."
For the Redskins, days like this have become all too familiar.
In April 2007, former linebacker Kevin Mitchell, 36, who remained close to many players and lived near Redskins Park, died of a heart attack in his home. The following month team nutritionist Ann Litt died suddenly at 54 from a ruptured bowel.
The 24-year-old Taylor's death rocked the sports world last season; at the time Taylor Gibbs and Holly Bugel were receiving treatment as well. Early last season, cornerback Shawn Springs's father, Ron, slipped into a coma after going to the hospital for a routine cyst removal (there remains little medical hope of a recovery), and Springs's stepmother, Adriane, had breast cancer diagnosed this winter. Snyder's wife, Tanya, is battling breast cancer and longtime scout Mike Faulkiner, 60, died in January after a 10-month fight with pancreatic cancer.
"I don't know what to say," wide receiver Santana Moss said. "As an organization, yeah, there's been a lot of stuff we've gone through, a lot of stuff we've had to deal with, that you just can't" prepare for.
Just this month, tight end Todd Yoder left the team to attend his grandmother's funeral -- they were very close -- and safety Vernon Fox did the same after one of his best friends died. When it comes to off-the-field losses, conversation is Zorn's coping mechanism.
"I'm not one to try to shy away from that and not talk about it," Zorn said, "because it's a lot easier to deal with it if you try to get an essence of it."
Upshaw's death touched all corridors of the game. Zorn, a former star quarterback with the Seattle Seahawks, played against Upshaw's Oakland Raiders during the height of that rivalry, and was represented by Upshaw in the union, too.
"We didn't like each other when we played against each other, but he was a tremendous athlete and a tremendous leader," Zorn said. "Not only a tremendous inspiration for the Raiders. . . . But just his leadership in the NFLPA and the amount of history that he was involved in changing in the NFL was dramatic to say the least. . . . He was very vocal and very staunch in the stand that the players took early in the '82 strike and the '87 strike, and then to kind of find a working relationship with the NFL owners as well, was, I think, very dramatic as well. So he made a very deep mark in the history of the NFL, and he'll be greatly missed."
With the weekend approaching, and the regular season just two weeks away, Zorn quickly found himself taking questions about Saturday's game, injured players, and rookies on the cusp of making the team. The Redskins will try to comfort Bugel as best they can when he returns, but must tend to football matters as well.
"As bad as we feel today for Buges and Brenda, and you hug 'em and your emotions get the best of you for a moment," said director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer, in his 37th year with the Redskins. "Then you turn around and you've got a meeting. You're going over the injuries and we're preparing for the game. So you just find a way to do it. We're all in the same boat and we all grieve in different ways, but we all find a way to go on because there's a game on Sunday."