On a Monday afternoon nearly two years ago, a woman in her mid-forties settled into a long Metro ride, Dupont Circle to Landover, bound eventually for FedEx Field. ¶ Jennifer Jenkins hadn’t been to an NFL game since she was a little girl, football making so much noise during one part of her life that for a long time she tuned it out. But this day in September 2013 was different: Chip Kelly was coaching his first NFL game, his Philadelphia Eagles playing the Washington Redskins. ¶ Kelly, 51, coaches football in a way that calls attention to himself, but he keeps much of his life off-limits. Even the profiles that have been written give little sense of him away from the field, apart from the occasional mention of how he is a lifelong bachelor, seemingly married to the game.¶ Wearing neither team’s colors, Jenkins reached the stadium that afternoon and an old friend from her native New Hampshire pushed a ticket into her hand. She found her seat near the 50-yard line, behind the Philadelphia bench, surrounded by the hopeful, the jeering and the curious. ¶ A while before the game, she pulled out her cellphone and sent a text message to the Eagles’ rookie head coach, the man who had been her husband for seven years.
The most interesting man in football walks through the doors at Eagles headquarters, toward an outdoor lectern. It is late May, and more than 100 reporters have gathered under a tent.
During the next 13 or so minutes, Kelly will be asked about the action-packed way he spent his offseason: engaging (and prevailing over) former general manager Howie Roseman in a front-office power struggle, trading away quarterback Nick Foles (who passed for 40 touchdowns the past two seasons) and acquiring Sam Bradford and Tim Tebow (who appeared in a total of seven games the past two years), and dealing with former Eagles running back LeSean McCoy’s suggestion that Kelly has spent the past two years pruning “all the good black players” from Philadelphia’s roster.
“I’m not governed by the fear of what other people say,” Kelly says, and his first 30 months as an NFL coach have shown even more proof of that. Since that debut game at FedEx Field in 2013, the Eagles have parted ways with more than half of the players who suited up — including McCoy, wide receiver DeSean Jackson and guard Evan Mathis, with their combined eight Pro Bowls.
Kelly is sarcastic and dismissive of reporters; he declines most every interview request, including one for this story, and refuses in any forum to answer questions about his personal life. His family has been ordered to keep quiet in public about Kelly, and Mike Zamarchi, the coach’s longtime buddy, says Kelly’s friends are “sworn to silence.” Players, too, are kept at a distance, and so are fellow coaches: Mike Bellotti, the former Oregon coach and athletic director who was Kelly’s boss for three years, knows little more about Kelly than that he hates green vegetables and loves beer. “I’m not sure I would consider that I know Chip,” Bellotti says.
There are holes in the Kelly story, unanswered questions and mystery that have grown his legend as much as anything. His middle name is absent from many public records, and even Mark Saltveit, who has written two biographies of Kelly, has had trouble accounting for a six-year period of Kelly’s life, between his final game as a college player at New Hampshire and his graduation from the school.
After one of his four seasons as Oregon’s head coach, Kelly spent part of one summer by running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain; later a story circulated that his 6,300-square-foot house in Eugene contained little more than a couch and a television. It was bizarre, but because it was Kelly, it was also believable.
When he took over the Eagles, players saw his quirks and emphases up close. Kelly asked them to supply daily urine samples, to document their sleep and heart rates, to practice while a network of speakers blared drill cadences and favorites from Ricky Martin or “The Lion King.” “There’s plenty of weirdos in the NFL,” one of Kelly’s former players says. “He’s just a different kind of weirdo.”
Who, it should be pointed out, led Philadelphia to the NFC East title that first year. In the time since, Kelly has been called a genius and an innovator, a narcissist and a cowboy, a revolutionary and a racist. It’s possible his act will get him fired, but because it’s Kelly, it’s just as believable he’ll win multiple championships. “Every time I’m talking to him,” the former player says, “I’m standing there wondering what the hell he’s thinking.”
Jenkins was a senior at New Hampshire when a friend introduced her to Kelly on Thanksgiving day in 1989. The Manchester city football championship was that day, a reason to celebrate no matter the winner, and so she and Kelly, four years older than Jenkins, talked for a long time.
He was 25 and shy, but when he spoke his words were thoughtful and energetic; football was more than a passion — even then, as Jenkins put it in a recent telephone conversation, the game was a “way of life” for Kelly. He was ambitious and bright, the son of a trial lawyer who believed in challenging the establishment, one of four brothers, a young man determined to leave his mark on the world.
“I don’t know when he became inquisitive, but I know he likes to ask why, and I know he likes to understand why things are happening,” says Bob Leonard, who coached Kelly as a high school player. “Even as a kid he was like that.”
Jenkins and Kelly kept seeing each other, she learning that he was a reader but had no patience for fiction; he read self-improvement books before it was trendy, and his impatient intellect led some people to mistake him for aloof. Jenkins stayed in New Hampshire when Kelly took his first college coaching job in 1990, working with the defense and special teams at Columbia University, but after two seasons he was back home.
A few weeks before Kelly’s first game as New Hampshire’s running backs coach, his name spelled “Chip Kelley” in the school’s 1992 media guide, he and Jenkins stood in front of about 250 guests and married. “A great party,” Jenkins says now, and it is around this time that she wonders if she should continue. She figures Kelly wouldn’t like her sharing all this.
At Oregon the coaches learned that a good way to kill a conversation with Chip Kelly — in the football offices, on the golf course, over burgers and beers — was to expand the discussion.
“In terms of football, he’s awesome; he’s willing to talk about anything,” Bellotti says. “But beyond that, he does play things very close to the vest.”
Nick Aliotti, who spent six years alongside and under Kelly as the Ducks’ defensive coordinator, can’t remember one conversation in which the men talked about family. When Bellotti elevated Kelly from offensive coordinator to head coach in 2009, Kelly asked Bellotti, who became Oregon’s AD, to continue making public appearances and meeting with boosters because Kelly didn’t like making small talk. Bellotti, who has spent all his life on the West Coast, figured that’s just how people from the Northeast must be; Aliotti assumed the disconnect was because he’s nine years older than Kelly — and that Kelly is acerbic and unyielding. “I like the guy a lot,” Aliotti says, “but he can piss you off.”
There was no doubt, though, that the man knew how to coach, keeping players motivated and challenged. At New Hampshire, he might run the single-wing offense one game and the spread the next; to mix it up, one week the Wildcats attempted six passes, former New Hampshire quarterback Ryan Day says, and the next they threw it 65 times.
Kelly relied on efficiency — more offensive plays means more potential for points — and thought about ways to simplify a complex game. One way was abandoning long and nonsensical play calls; one season at New Hampshire, he nicknamed deep routes after long-distance phone companies: “AT&T” meant the pass was going to the A receiver, “Nextel” bound for the X.
He experimented with concepts and plays, took an interest in sports science, and refused to change. Aliotti once confronted Kelly about running practices too fast; the Ducks’ defensive staff had little opportunity to coach players and make adjustments. Kelly didn’t care. Now Aliotti admits Kelly’s attitude and increased tempo forced the defense to adjust, helping shape Oregon into one of the nation’s most feared all-around programs.
“He was never afraid of what people thought or afraid to fail,” says Day, who’s now the Eagles’ quarterbacks coach.
Players on Kelly’s first Eagles team saw their new coach as a look into the NFL’s future — but also as something of a curiosity. He had seemingly come out of nowhere, having never been a head coach before 2009 and spending most of his career in the relative anonymity of the Atlantic 10 conference.
Kelly’s first impressions showed a coach who spoke often about being quick and efficient, but also a man unafraid to spend hours cycling through PowerPoint slides about the effects of alcohol, marijuana, sleep and water on an NFL player’s body. It seemed Kelly valued each morning’s urine test — plastic specimen cups waiting in locker stalls, jersey numbers written in black ink — as much as how a player performed during practice or a game.
“He wants guys who care about that stuff,” Eagles tight end Brent Celek said, “because that stuff does matter. A lot of the guys who are in our facility think the same way.”
Kelly backed up his methods with science and commitment, but what some saw as a revolution, others saw as misguided. One NFL player compared Kelly with Elon Musk; another referred to the coach’s methods as “Orwellian.” Regardless, each day players were greeted at the team facility by screens revealing who had completed the morning routine — an iPad soreness and mood survey, the results of a heart-rate monitor, and of course the urine test — showing players’ head shots and a background that turned green when the daily assessment was completed.
“Most people were very receptive to it, [but] some guys were like: ‘What are we doing; why are we doing this?’ ” a former Eagles player says, adding that as quickly as players learned how to cheat the hydration test, adding a splash of water from the urinal, Kelly ordered the system revamped to discourage diluters.
Kelly was approachable and, many times, jovial. But like at Oregon, his emotions and background story were largely out of bounds. Players pondered Internet rumors about their coach and wondered aloud about his psychological chemistry. “I don’t know if he was always the underdog or something or if his parents were always hard on him,” the former player says. “But it’s always like he’s got a chip on his shoulder.”
It had become common to wonder about the truths in Kelly’s life, and when he made those unavailable, the convenient response for anyone in his orbit was to accept legend as fact.
In 2011, Jenkins read an article in the New York Times that described bachelor coaches and how, even in the image-conscious and political world of college football, Kelly had never been married.
“Why does everything say that you weren’t married?” Jenkins said a friend recently asked her. “I just roll my eyes.”
It used to hurt, she says, as if seven years of her life had been washed away. But now she finds the humor in it. Jenkins’s former co-workers knew the real story, and a friend joked about calling a sports radio show to reveal that the friend had been in Kelly’s wedding party. After enough strangers told Jenkins they didn’t believe her, she began carrying a wedding photograph on her iPhone. “Nobody talks about it,” she said. “But everybody knows.”
Why, Jenkins sometimes asked herself, was this considered a secret? It didn’t seem like one to her, and if it was, the artificial intrigue was either the most NFL thing ever or the most boring secret of all time. The truth was no more scandalous than Kelly’s middle name (Edward) or how he spent those six years between playing at New Hampshire and graduating (coaching junior varsity football, Jenkins said, and working as a gym teacher as he slowly completed his degree requirements).
As for the marriage, the years had simply come and gone in New Hampshire, Kelly an assistant on his mentor Bill Bowes’s staff and Jenkins working at the university. They lived in Durham for a while, and then Kelly took a coaching job at Johns Hopkins, moving to Baltimore for one year while Jenkins remained in New Hampshire.
Kelly rejoined Bowes’s staff yet again in 1994, and four years later he and Jenkins had begun to drift apart. They were no longer living together, and in 1999 they divorced.
Football, as the most important thing in Kelly’s life, was a strain, Jenkins admits. But the game cannot be blamed for the demise of their marriage. Like many other things in Kelly’s seemingly complicated life, reality was simple: For a long time they were happy, and then after a while, they weren’t.
“It wasn’t his fault because he was focused on football,” she said. “That’s just not the way we’ve ever — that’s not it. That’s not what happened.”
She took a breath.
“We were just young,” she said, preferring to keep the details to herself.
A few days from now, a quiet patch of land near the corner of South Broad Street and Pattison Avenue will come to life. Ninety players will file into the Eagles’ training complex, equipment will be moved onto the practice fields, and the results of a dramatic offseason — led mostly by the actions of a private man and daring coach — will soon begin to reveal themselves.
Will Foles and McCoy be remembered as foundation blocks or expendable pawns? Was it wise or foolish to cut ties with Mathis, the guard named to the last two Pro Bowls, and sign John Moffitt, who spent the past two years retired from the NFL and facing criminal charges? Has Kelly, who now possesses full control over Philadelphia’s football operation, taken on too much responsibility?
“You start chasing perception,” Kelly said during that standing-room-only news conference in late May, “and you’ve got a long life ahead of you, son.”
For a few weeks, Kelly disappeared into the silence, returning to New Hampshire and his summer home — a football man passing the days until it was time to return to work. One day in July, a text message popped into Kelly’s phone. Jenkins does this sometimes, a joke she thought Kelly might like or, because she’s superstitious, the same note of encouragement she sent the last time the Eagles won. Even at the end of their marriage, she said, they have remained friends.
Jenkins is 47 now, living most of the year in Washington; she started a care package business called MommaLu Remedies, and like Kelly, she has never remarried. These last two years or so, Jenkins has, for one identifiable reason, found herself supporting the Eagles.
“I want him to win. I want him to be successful,” she says. “It’s everything that he has worked for.”
Sometimes Kelly texts back immediately; other times days or weeks come and go. Jenkins knows he’s a busy and complicated man, probably off somewhere trying to answer the most glaring question: Can he make the leap from football’s most interesting man to one of its most successful?
Next Sunday, after seven months of intermittent noise, hopeful and curious players will push through the doors and flood the practice fields. Kelly will jog onto the turf behind them. Then the speakers will fire up, the football season beginning, music and instructions so loud nothing else can be heard.