Bobby Ross was talking Wednesday about the successful kidney and pancreas transplant Son-Ja Jones, the wife of Detroit Lions defensive tackle James Jones, had undergone the night before.
Ross has always had the reputation of being a no-nonsense, driven perfectionist who demands the most of his players. But on this day, Ross choked up as he spoke about the ordeal Jones and his wife, a diabetic, had endured while waiting for a suitable organ donor.
About nine years ago, Ross, his wife, Alice, and their family went through a similar wait, for a heart that might prolong the life of a grandchild. It did, for a while, until her body rejected the heart and she died.
"I remember the relief when we got the news they had found a heart," Ross recalled, tears welling up in his eyes. "It's quite a feeling, a great experience getting that heart, something you really can't understand unless you've gone through it."
This season, Ross has gone through what he now will admit has been one of the toughest years of his career. It started with talk at the end of the '98 season that he would be fired. It escalated with Pro Bowl running back Barry Sanders's retirement two days before training camp and continued with a rash of injuries to key personnel and six losses in the Lions' past eight games. Starting quarterback Charlie Batch fractured a thumb, forcing him to miss six starts and significant portions of two other games.
It is going to get even tougher on Saturday, when Ross will bring his battered Detroit Lions to FedEx Field to play a first-round NFC playoff game against the favored Washington Redskins. The Lions have lost their past four games, and they have never won in 19 games in Washington, a curse Ross has been constantly reminded of this week.
There have been other crises. The wife of assistant Denny Murphy died during the season. Heart problems were diagnosed in the son of another coach. Just last weekend, Ross's offensive coordinator, Sylvester Crooms, was hospitalized with chest pains, apparently stress-related, the night before the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings. Crooms's father had suffered a stroke on Christmas in Alabama, and died on Sunday at age 73. Crooms helped prepare the game plan for the Redskins, but left for the funeral Thursday and will meet the team in Washington.
Last Sunday, Batch reinjured his fractured thumb and won't play this weekend. Jones says he will play only if he feels his wife's condition is stable. Kick returner Desmond Howard is wearing a neck brace after a scary hit against the Vikings and will not play.
Yet Ross's enthusiasm has never diminished. It's been that way for the Richmond native since his days as an undersized, scrappy player at VMI, through the years coaching at The Citadel, Maryland, Georgia Tech, the San Diego Chargers and, now, the Lions.
"I still enjoy being out on that field and working," said Ross, who won a national championship at Georgia Tech and guided an overachieving Chargers team to the Super Bowl. "I still love the game, maybe more than ever. Last Sunday [before a 24-17 loss to Minnesota], I felt a fire in my belly. I felt like I could have put the headgear on myself and gone out and played. It's still there. I feel the same way right now getting ready for Washington."
So, once again this week, he has plunged into his typically meticulous preparations. It's a grueling regimen that includes hours of tape study, endless meetings with his staff and players and lively practices.
"Bobby is a very, very focused football coach," said Lions defensive coordinator Larry Peccatiello. "During the season, he nearly becomes one-dimensional. He does nothing but football. He's very competitive and he's consumed with competing and winning. He works endless hours to produce a team we can be proud of.
"He's also a very moral person, a very compassionate guy. You read about people being born again. He's a guy who's never flaunted that, never tried to influence anyone. He's as Christian an individual as I've ever seen. He's not concerned with material things, not with the TV shows, the appearances, everything that goes with being in that position. He's really the guy next door, but with a lot of responsibility. He never lets it go beyond that."
But football is always on his mind. When the rest of the sports world was abuzz with news of Bill Parcells's resignation from the Jets and Mike Ditka's firing by the Saints, Ross found out only when the media asked him to comment.
Ross says he does not read the newspapers, and that is probably a good thing. He was criticized this season for twice going for (and failing on) two-point conversions in a game against Arizona. Consequently, his team, down 23-19, had to go for a touchdown as time ran down. The game ended with the Lions at the 10-yard line.
Ross was excoriated in the local media and the butt of criticism and ridicule on talk shows nationwide. When he said he had done it because he thought it gave the Lions their best chance to win the football game, he took more heat.
Still, while Ross often has been accused of tunnel vision, he was circumspect enough after going 5-11 in '98--his only losing NFL season in seven years--to sit down with a pad and a pencil and re-evaluate every aspect of his operation, including a difficult self-analysis. He considered retiring.
What he realized was that the struggles of the previous year, all the losses, all the criticism, had pushed him away from his players.
"I became so immersed in preparation that I forgot what was even more important," Ross said. "That was the communication with the players and being sensitive to what their thoughts were. I got away from that a little bit last year. I want them to feel like they can come in and talk to me, and last year I don't think they felt they could. Or at least they didn't want to. I made some mistakes. Even at 62 you can learn."
This year, Ross has made a concerted effort to make himself more accessible, to walk through the training room after practice and stop to talk to the troops, to encourage his players to visit him in his office. The Lions responded to the new Bobby Ross, at least in the first half of the season, when they won six of eight games. Then came all the injuries, and the reality of the Lions is that they are not a very good team right now.
The defense has given up too many big plays, especially in the past few weeks. Without Sanders, there is no running game, though Ross stubbornly insisted this week that he's still trying to fix it, and took some of the blame for occasionally abandoning the run prematurely in an effort to play catch-up too soon. The offensive line has been shuffled virtually every week. The secondary has been riddled by injuries. Yet, Ross firmly believes his team has as good a chance as the Redskins to move on in the playoffs, even though the oddsmakers are making the Lions six-point underdogs.
"This team has overcome so much," Ross said. "They've worked hard all year. There will be people who say we don't belong in there, but I don't believe that. This has been a very hard season. We've played hard and we've played reasonably well.
"I've just tried to keep my focus on what needs to be done. It's something I've always been able to do. In this business, you can't lose sight of that."
CAPTION: Bobby Ross, on his 8-8 team: "This team has overcome so much. . . . There will be people who say we don't belong in there, but I don't believe that."