By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
RICHMOND -- In an alley, on the south side of town, Mike London is sure he is about to die.
It is the late 1980s, and for three years, London has been a detective on the Richmond Police Department's street crimes unit, hunting the Southside Strangler and chasing drug dealers. At a time when the city's murder rate climbed as high as third in the nation, the former University of Richmond defensive back has proven particularly adept at running down criminals in neighborhoods of broken lives and sputtering gunfire. His sergeant has noted that he has a brilliant future with the police.
But on this night something is wrong. The van he is pursuing -- containing suspects in the robbery of a fast food restaurant -- has whipped into an alley that London does not recognize. After trapping the van with his car, London climbs out holding his badge aloft. Suddenly the van's driver attempts to break away, sending the van lurching toward London. Instinctively, he runs to the van's window and reaches in to turn off the ignition.
This is when London sees the gun in the driver's hand. It is pointed at his head.
He hears the unmistakable click of a finger pulling a trigger.
So what do you do when you get another chance at your life? When the gun that was supposed to kill you never fires? Twenty years later, Mike London sits in his office, the head football coach at the University of Richmond, telling this story, wondering what it was that saved him that night. Did the gun malfunction? Was it empty all along? He will never know. By the time the van was finally stopped and its occupants arrested, the gun had been thrown away. The workers in the fast food restaurant were too terrified to testify. And the people in the van were minors. Without a gun or witnesses, prosecutors had little to work with.
And that's when London realized he didn't want to be a police officer anymore.
"I was going to catch bad guys," London says. "Then here I was the victim and nothing was going to happen to them."
Given a second chance at life, Mike London decided to become a football coach. He called Dal Shealy, his former coach at Richmond, who helped get him a job coaching outside linebackers at his alma mater. Thus began a two-decade expedition that took him from Richmond to William & Mary, back to Richmond, then the New York Jets, Boston College, Virginia, the Houston Texans and back to Virginia. Until, finally, last year, he returned to Richmond, a head coach for the first time.
In a small lobby outside London's office door sits the division I-AA national championship trophy his team won last season. Beside it rests one of three national coach of the year awards he received after one of the greatest head coaching debut seasons ever.
In a matter of months, London went from being a largely anonymous assistant coach to one of those names raised every time a head coaching job opens at one of the big schools. At 48, he has the right mix of youth and experience that alumni and athletic directors crave. The black coaches' association has him on a short list of candidates to consider, and with just seven African American coaches among the 120 division I-A schools, it seems only a matter of time before London makes it eight.
And yet in the face of this, London laughs. Maybe because he has never seen himself as a football coach in the mold of so many others he has known, designers of great schemes who deal with their players on only a formal basis.
London freely admits he is no master of college football's hottest new trend, the spread offense. He chuckles at the thought of becoming a mastermind of great schemes. He can't stand any distance between him and his team, constantly calling his players and their parents to check on grades, inviting them into his office to sit in the two high-backed leather chairs across from his desk to talk about their lives, their dreams, their fears, their hopes.
"People don't care about how much you know until they know how much you care," he says.
He is certain he has something to give beyond football. If three years on the front lines during one of the city's worst crime periods can't provide inspirational material, what can? If telling the story of the trigger going "click" doesn't lock a young man's gaze on the man talking, what will?
"It's like having a big brother or a mentor for your football coach," says Patrick Weldon, a junior linebacker. "He's the most emotional person out here."
London's pregame speeches are like nothing his players have ever experienced. A self-described "faithful person," he has a preacher-like cadence that can fill a room: his voice normal at first, then rising higher until it grows into a bellow, his eyes on fire and his words rattling off lockers, a tide pulling the players with him until the whole room is alive with the howls of frenzied football players.
"When you get a coach who matches your intensity and emotion, you can just look at that person and know that at some level that coach is going to be with you through the thick and the thin," said St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, who played under London when he was a defensive line coach and defensive coordinator at Virginia. "When he got that job at Richmond, all I could think was, 'What a steal for them.' "'I Can Call It a Miracle'
Mike London loves to tell stories.
He tells how he was raised in Hampton and played on some of the worst teams in Richmond history. He tells how he married his girlfriend in college and how they had their first child while he was still in school. And he tells of how he joined the police after being released by the Dallas Cowboys in 1983 in part because he wanted to be in the Secret Service and in part because he and his wife had three children at that point and he needed to work. He tells too of how he was divorced a few years later, meaning he was a single father for a time. And he tells of how he remarried and now has four more children, a family almost as big as a football team.
"I think I know about people," he says. "I do know about being a parent. I know about being a police officer. I do know about being young and married. I know about being divorced.
"There isn't much [his players] will face that I haven't experienced in some way."
One of his favorite stories comes from when he was a detective and was sent to a house to serve an arrest warrant on a man. The home was filled with the man's relatives, all of them angry, suspicious. Sensing a riot about to break out, he resisted the urge to drag the man from the door and instead calmly talked him into walking outside with him and invited the family to follow along to provide their support. When the man agreed, London was stunned.
And the lesson stuck: There is always another way through a dire situation.
"What it boils down to is this is a people-oriented business," he says.
But there is one more story he tells, and it is the hardest one, one that always leaves his voice hoarse and quavering.
It begins in 2000, while he was working at Boston College and doctors discovered his 4-year-old daughter Ticynn had Fanconi anemia, an inherited blood disorder that eventually leads to bone marrow failure and often leukemia. The doctors said she needed a bone marrow transplant soon or she would likely die. But a match was impossible to find. They tested relatives. They scoured the national registry. Nothing.
London took a job at Virginia as a defensive line coach, hoping that being closer to home would offer inspiration. He worked in Charlottesville during the week, rushing out of his office on Friday afternoons to drive five hours to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where Ticynn was undergoing radiation. Her body was weakening. She needed the bone marrow.
Finally, with nothing left to try, a doctor decided to test London's blood. It was a futile pursuit, the doctor said. Parents almost never make good bone marrow matches. Then the results came back: London was an excellent match.
Quickly, the doctors drained Ticynn of all her white blood cells. Then they hooked London to a machine that pulled blood from one arm, separated out the white blood cells and placed the rest of the blood back in his other arm. When he had given enough, he sat with the rest of his family in Ticynn's room as the IV with his healthy white blood cells dripped slowly into her body.
Each hour a nurse came in to examine Ticynn's white blood cell count, reading the results aloud. If the numbers went up, it meant her body was accepting her father's blood. If they didn't, it meant her body was rejecting the transfusion, and she could become gravely ill.
As the counts came slowly, the Londons waited.
The first hour: 60.
Then the next hour: 120.
And the hour after that: 600.
The transplant was working.
"It was almost like a game," London says. "'He's at the 5, the 15, the 20, 25 . . . he's going to go. All. The. Way.' It sounds like a silly analogy, but that's really what it was like. You're so euphoric that it's taking. But you're still on pins and needles. What you don't want to hear is: 'It's at 600, now it's at 200 -- oh, danger.' "
"Doctors don't want to say 'miracle'; they all say 'rare' or 'very rare.' But I can call it a miracle. You go through that registry from all over the world, and the only marrow that can match is mine, and then it works? And I can save my daughter's life?"
He shakes his head and looks away.
"I can tear up in a heartbeat," he says. His voice trembles. He turns in his chair and pulls a photograph off a bulletin board. It is a picture of him and Ticynn in the middle of her chemotherapy, a hat covers her head. It is in the middle of the worst time, and yet they are smiling.
"One day she was coloring while my wife was combing her hair, and the hair was coming out in globs," he says. "My wife was crying, and finally Ticynn looked up at her and said: 'Just tell the nurse to cut it all off,' and she went back to coloring. That was it: 'Just cut it all off.' "
London dabs at his eyes and sighs.
"So when a player comes in and says, 'I got a sore ankle,' I'm like, 'You're barking up the wrong tree.' "'How Does It Feel?'
Last season did not start well for Richmond. After seven weeks, the Spiders were 4-3, the third loss coming to James Madison on a punt return in the final seconds. Then a strange thing happened: Richmond started to win, beating Massachusetts, Georgetown and Hofstra. The playoffs, which seemed impossible three weeks before, suddenly appeared realistic. And that's where the Spiders were when London received a call from Harry Lee Daniel, a redshirt freshman wide receiver from Richmond. Daniel's mother was dead.
After a victory over Delaware, the team presented the game ball to Daniel, each player signing it before it was placed in his hands -- a group of men he was still getting to know, offering to become his new family. Days later, at the funeral, with many of the players and coaches filling seats in the church, Daniel walked slowly toward his mother's open casket, clutching the ball the team had given him, and placed it in the casket beside her.
London was overwhelmed. Here he had spent months telling his players the narrative of his own life, pulling meaning from his stories, certain he had something to relate to any problem a player brought. Then a redshirt freshman gave them a lesson in selflessness none of them could have imagined.
"To witness the power of relationships to people is an amazing thing," London says, his voice suddenly soft. "To see what he gave up, to see him make the ultimate sacrifice, I will never forget it. The team will never forget it.
"That's something that galvanizes a team. And they left that funeral like they were brothers."
When the playoffs came, the Spiders kept winning. They scored twice in the second half of a first-round game to beat Eastern Kentucky, then blew out Appalachian State on the road in the second round. Then, in the semifinals, they drove the field with no timeouts in the last two minutes at Northern Iowa to score the winning touchdown with 18 seconds left to reach the championship game in Chattanooga, Tenn., where they faced heavily favored Montana.
On the night of that final game, broadcast live on ESPN, Richmond ran for 208 yards to Montana's 39. The final score was 24-7, and it wasn't even that close. And as the Richmond students poured across the field in a jubilant sea of red and blue, ESPN's commentator for the game, Brock Huard, grabbed London for the traditional interview of the winning coach and asked the most obvious question: "How does it feel?"
How does it feel when the gun never goes off and you live to save your daughter's life and then you win a national championship in your first year coaching at the school where you played?
London tried to answer. His mouth moved. His voice gurgled.
Then right there, live on national television, on the night of his greatest victory, his biggest moment, Mike London buried his head in a towel and cried.