By Mike Wise
Sunday, October 12, 2008
The door down the hall from Joe Bugel's office in Ashburn almost never opens when the Washington Redskins' offensive linemen convene. The meeting room is their sanctuary, a place where the largest of NFL players learn, bond and grow.
So when Jim Zorn poked his head in on the morning of Aug. 21, they feared the worst.
"Buges, your wife is on the phone -- and it is serious," the head coach said.
For two years Bugel knew this day would come, since he learned he and his wife's second of three daughters had been stricken with an aggressive and rare form of bone cancer -- osteosarcoma -- in the summer of 2006. But he still wasn't ready to hear Holly was gone, less than two weeks after her 36th birthday.
"Brenda was more prepared," the offensive line coach said this past week in his office. "She saw her when she went in and from when she got the shoulder and arm amputated. When the doctor let us know she'd run out of all kind of care, and it's in [the] hospice's hands right now, you just don't ever see that day comin', you know."
After getting off the phone with Brenda that morning, he went back, red-eyed, to a room full of 6-foot-6, 300-plus-pound men, who did the only humanly thing possible.
"We sat together," center Casey Rabach said. "We cried. We hugged. We were there for him."
"At that point, everybody rallied around him, said, 'We love ya, do what you gotta do, and we'll see you when you're ready,' " tackle Jon Jansen said.
He added: "I tried to think what I would do in a situation like that or how I would handle it, and I can't even make myself think about it. Because how can you think about or talk about one of your children passing?"
When we think of big in pro football, we think of strong. Strong enough to pile-drive a defender backward, strong enough to withstand incredible amounts of physical pain.
But sometimes being big and strong in the NFL means cradling a 68-year-old man in those large arms, sobbing just as hard as him, because Buges is family, meaning his daughter was family.
"The friends I have in life are the players I've coached," Bugel said. "I'm not afraid to tell the guys I love them."
From the days of Russ Grimm and Joe Jacoby, Bugel always has been close with his players. In fact, Bugel's one coaching knock has been his inability to see slippage in veterans. For Bugel, loyalty born in game-day battle always will transcend age and athleticism. Once a Hog always a Hog.
A benefit of having one man care so deeply for his players is they often reciprocate with a will and skill belying their bodies and years.
It's no coincidence Bugel's personal tragedy has bisected with the professional resurrection of an offensive line thought to be too old-fangled and rickety to mow down the Cowboys and Eagles on the road in successive weeks. Suddenly, that 30-something, injury-prone line of Chris Samuels, Jansen, Rabach, Randy Thomas and Pete Kendall is being called gritty and seasoned, creating crevices big enough for Clinton Portis to run toward the Pro Bowl.
"Even when Buges was gone, we didn't miss a day of practice the whole year because we felt we couldn't let him down with what he was going through," Thomas said. "A lot of what we're doing right now is about him."
In the midst of the most trying year of his life, Bugel has dealt with grief the only way he knows how: teaching behemoth men to bump bodies and move the chains until the other team grows tired or quits.
"This football team was built to be a running team," Bugel said. "We got sluggos. We got dirtbags. Snot coming out of their nose when you're trying to talk to 'em. All the good stuff. The tough guys."
Zorn has incorporated Bugel's new-millennium Hogs into a quick-strike, multiple-read, passing offense the way former Redskins offensive coordinator Al Saunders never fully could in his two years under Joe Gibbs. Saunders comes back to FedEx Field today with winless St. Louis, which opposes a team he might have liked to coach.
No longer are the offensive linemen used as pawns in an NFL power struggle between old (Gibbs) and new (Saunders); they know who they are, their value and, mostly, who and what makes them go.
"Loyalty is a big thing, especially in a business where it's here one year and gone another," Jansen said. "To have a guy that preaches that and believes it, when it happens you're going to stick with him."
Added Jason Fabini, one of the team's backup linemen: "What he went through is an inspiration to us. It's got be satisfying for [Buges] to see the position we're in right now."
Bugel had left the team in early August, spending his final week with Holly during training camp as owner Daniel Snyder's plane waited at a Houston airport until he was ready to fly back.
Every day was a 24-hour vigil because of the sedation Holly was under. Still, she awoke every morning to say, "Hey, Dad, I love you." Bugel said she hated seeing sadness in her father, "so she would try to make me feel better about things."
"I told her I loved her about 1,000 times," he added. "My first day out there was her birthday. The balloons were as big as this room right here. I could've flew away."
Holly died four days later, spending her final moments with her mother.
"She said, 'I love you, Mom,' " Bugel said. "And she took her last gasp, and that was it."
Each family member was given a small urn with a portion of her cremated ashes, which Bugel keeps on his mantel at home. Another portion was scattered next to a small lake in Las Vegas, where Holly often vacationed.
On Wednesdays and Thursdays, Bugel walks around the team complex, talking to Holly about last week's games, reminding her what he said 1,000 times the week before she passed.
"I say, 'I know you were cheerin'.' Or, 'Hope you're up there with grandfather, havin' your martini at night,' " Bugel said, trying to laugh. "She loved my daddy, who was 97 when he died. He's up there with her and my mom, so she's in good company."
Bugel has to have those conversations, he knows. Since August, coping and coaching now go hand in hand.
"That's a beautiful kid, you know," he said. "The Lord took her away, so we got to live with it."