The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In tragedies’ wake, Andy Reid and the Chiefs found success through second chances

Andy Reid is trying to coach the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl since 1970. (Ed Zurga/Associated Press)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They stepped out of the cold and into the warmth and uncertainty of a private airport in Philadelphia. Failure was not an option.

In early January 2013, five members of the Kansas City Chiefs organization had traveled east, and when the big man with the familiar mustache walked in to join them, he could smell soft pretzels and — considering the crowd — feel the day’s importance.

“That must’ve been a big plane,” Andy Reid would remember thinking.

Earlier that week, Reid had been fired as the Philadelphia Eagles’ head coach after 14 seasons, most of them good, none of them quite good enough. The last two, for reasons personal and professional, had been downright terrible. But here he was, a man without a franchise for four whole days — Reid had never been out of work this long, and it was excruciating — and ready for a clean slate, a fresh challenge, an escape from the disappointment, and the tragedy, of the previous months. That and another shot at the one thing that had eluded him: a Super Bowl championship.

As it happened, the Chiefs officials were there for largely the same reasons.

Back then, they hardly could imagine this 2018 season: the NFL’s most exciting offense led by star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, a dozen regular season victories and the first home playoff win since 1994. All of it — thanks to a roster that has drawn both admiration and scrutiny for its players with supreme gifts and checkered histories — has Kansas City a win away from its first Super Bowl in a half-century.

Six years ago, the organization Clark Hunt’s father founded hadn’t just fallen on hard times; it had hit rock bottom: five losing seasons in six years, the most recent tying a franchise worst with 14 losses, during which a soft-spoken linebacker had shot his girlfriend to death before killing himself in front of the team’s coach and general manager.

On this frigid morning in eastern Pennsylvania, with the Arizona Cardinals’ plane visible through the drawn shades, two ambitious but restless men had come here for the same purposes. They walked into a conference room and took their seats.

Sleepless in Green Bay

More than two decades ago, Mike Holmgren kept telling his ambitious young assistants to get lost. Sleep, he told them, was important. Family, too.

So why were they in the Green Bay Packers’ offices again at midnight? Why had they been there for 20 hours?

“If we have to do that, then we’re not being very efficient,” Holmgren told them probably a dozen times or more, but when Andy Reid walked into his office at 5 a.m. and found Jon Gruden already there, he started coming in at 4. When Steve Mariucci stayed until night turned to morning, he figured he’d better do the same.

“This is crazy,” Holmgren decided, writing his underlings off as obsessives, yes, but important cogs in the 1990s Green Bay machine: six consecutive postseasons, two straight Super Bowl appearances, one glorious Sunday of Holmgren lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Reid, like all coaches, wanted his own moment like that, and that pursuit and his continued rise inflamed that passion. Used to be, Holmgren got a kick out of “Cheeseburger Mountain,” or what he’d call Reid’s bulging plate at lunchtime. Then the young coach wasn’t so young anymore, and Holmgren couldn’t help but notice the worsening limp in Reid’s gait and the wheeze in his windpipe. Brad Childress, the longtime former NFL coach, once laughed about their morning routine — their 5 a.m. carpool included a daily stop for Childress to grab a coffee and Reid to buy his two liters of Diet Coke — until his old friend’s weight spiked in Philadelphia and Childress began worrying about what happens when obesity meets stress and age.

Louis Riddick, the former ­Eagles scout and executive who’s now an ESPN analyst, can’t remember a single time he arrived at or departed the team facility and Reid’s Lincoln Navigator wasn’t parked in the back. Marty Mornhinweg, Reid’s longtime assistant, used to walk past his boss’s office at all hours and see Reid still at his desk. Joe Banner, the Eagles’ former president, says that when the team was designing its new practice facility before construction began in 2001, one point of emphasis was that Reid’s office be ­spacious enough for a bed.

“His passion and competitiveness is a strength,” Banner says now. “But at the same time, if it becomes too much, it can become a weakness.”

Reid spent three or four nights at the facility each week. Back in Green Bay, he’d work a few hours in the morning before driving home to make breakfast for his sons and then returning to the office. But with the Eagles, there was too much to do, so he gave that up, too. Philadelphians tell stories about Reid slipping out to high school football stadiums, sitting in his parked car on Friday nights to watch his boys run a few plays. Then he’d return to work for last-minute film study or game prep or draft research or free agent scouting or practice-squad maneuvering or whatever remained on a herculean to-do list.

The years kept passing, and though Philadelphia made the playoffs five straight years and reached the Super Bowl after the 2004 season, Reid kept watching other coaches — sometimes his peers and former proteges — win it all: Gruden with Tampa Bay, John Harbaugh in Baltimore, eventually Doug Pederson in Reid’s old job. And so, year after year, Reid would recommit. He’d evaluate his routine and his schedule, vowing to work harder, scout smarter, make more sacrifices.

“He needs to — and I beg of him — not find less time, necessarily, but just try to be more efficient to where you can also take care of the truly important things,” says David Akers, who spent a dozen seasons as Reid’s kicker. “If you go to the grave and it just says ­‘Fantastic Coach . . .’ ”

Akers trails off.

“I just think there’s more to life.”

His other life

Then there was Reid’s other job, wedged in among the rest. A few years after the coach took over in Philadelphia, his son Garrett began using prescription drugs, cocaine and heroin. Around the same time, younger son Britt suffered a football injury and became addicted to painkillers.

Andy Reid told almost nobody, though occasionally a colleague would overhear him on the phone with another parent or specialist, attempting to game-plan for an opponent as formidable as addiction.

“He was really struggling to research what you do,” Banner says. “ ‘What did you try? What didn’t work? What did? Where did you send them? Is tough love an option?’ ”

Reid tried filling his sons’ hours by naming them ballboys during Eagles games. He attempted to inspire them by arranging discussions with exemplary players. He took them on scouting trips. He pulled them into celebratory locker rooms and important meetings. Sometimes it worked, at least for a while. But when his efforts ultimately failed, he drove Garrett to one detox facility, then another, then another. He offered shelter when Garrett lost 100 pounds and was living in his car. He offered an open mind when Garrett refused to speak to his parents and an open ear when he could no longer take the silence.

“He did everything possible to help,” says one of the handful of former Eagles assistants who knew the Reid family’s secret.

When the ordeal boiled over, Reid tried one thing he never had: He took a day off. In 2007, his two eldest sons — Andy and Tammy Reid had five children — were arrested six hours apart: Garrett on drug charges, Britt for pointing a gun at someone and having drugs in his car. Reid, who had never so much as missed an Eagles practice, requested a five-week leave of absence. Months later, when his boys were sentenced, Reid sat in the front row and listened, his face turning red, as a county judge issued a nearly two-year jail sentence for Garrett — Britt would be sentenced to a similar term — and likened the family’s home to a “drug emporium.”

“This,” the judge said in remarks that turned Reid’s secret into a national headline, “is a family in crisis.”

Afterward, Reid returned to work. On Thursdays, he slipped out of the team facility and drove an hour, to where his sons were serving jail time. And because Reid was comfortable in routine, his weekly treks just became part of the schedule. He called friends, constantly in search of guidance, and periodically dialed Tony Dungy. The former Indianapolis Colts coach had won a Super Bowl, but he also had lost a son in 2005 to suicide. They debated topics as light as football theory, as heavy as being able to control everything in one universe but nothing in another. Sometimes they talked about work-life balance, the way Dungy always made it a point of emphasis, the way Reid seemingly never could. Occasionally they talked about guilt.

Football, Dungy had long believed, was simply a profession. A high-profile and rewarding profession, sure, but “if you make it your life,” Dungy had learned, “you’re going to regret it.”

One day the two men talked about Michael Vick, the former NFL star who, a month after Garrett Reid had begun his jail term, received his own two-year sentence for his role in an illegal dogfighting ring. Dungy had been mentoring the former quarterback through his release in May 2009, and Reid had an idea. Again in game-planning mode, Reid asked Dungy questions: Was Vick truly contrite? Had the experience or prison changed him? Was he capable of flipping a negative into a positive?

“He understands from his family,” Dungy says, “that everybody who has a problem is not a bad person. The lesson that he learned, that I learned.”

In August 2009, the Eagles signed Vick to a contract. At a time when Vick’s name was radioactive in the image-conscious NFL, Reid thought he could help him. And five years after Reid’s only Super Bowl appearance, maybe Vick could help him, too.

“Andy sees life for what it is,” Vick said recently, and as the months and seasons came and went, the coach sometimes invited his quarterback into meetings. He set up calls with John Madden and Chris Berman so Vick could discuss broadcasting. He later offered Vick an internship on his coaching staff. And if the complicated quarterback just wanted to talk, Reid would indulge that, too.

“A father figure,” Vick said.

Tragedy strikes

The calls came early; that’s all most anyone can remember now. It was early August 2012, and during the Eagles’ training camp at Lehigh University, Garrett Reid had been assisting the Eagles’ strength and conditioning staff.

But as emergency vehicles surrounded Building C of Sayre Park Village, the coaches’ dormitories, the voices delivering the news were strained: Garrett had been found that morning, surrounded by a syringe, heroin and a spoon. A nearby gym bag contained anabolic steroids, 19 vials of liquid and more syringes and needles. A team doctor had attempted to revive him, but it was too late. Andy Reid’s 29-year-old son was gone.

So, for the moment, was the coach himself.

The next time Philadelphia staffers saw him was at Garrett’s funeral, where NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Patriots Coach Bill Belichick were among the 900 people in attendance. What struck some of Reid’s friends and co-workers was his strength: The man who’d lost a child was comforting them, explaining that addiction was a heavyweight bout with a grizzly bear.

“He didn’t flinch,” Riddick would recall. “You knew he was broken inside. It’s his son. It’s as simple as that. I couldn’t have handled that the same way he did. There were people who were crushed. Devastated. Devastated over it. And the strength that he showed was not of this world.”

The next morning, Reid was back at Eagles practice. He said being there was the right thing to do. A day later, he coached Philadelphia’s preseason opener against Pittsburgh. Reid said ­Garrett would’ve wanted that.

“We didn’t ask questions. We just wanted to make that season right,” Vick said, and players and staffers knew not to ask Reid why on earth he was there. Football, as they understood it, was more than just the coach’s job. Work was, and maybe always had been, his sanctuary.

“That’s not an easy thing on anybody,” said Reid, who took two days off after his son’s death. “It’s hard for people, but I love doing what I’m doing.”

A moment later, he continues.

“Anyways, that’s how I feel.”

A franchise in peril

Four months after Garrett Reid’s funeral, Kansas City police woke a 25-year-old man who had fallen asleep in his Bentley. Jovan Belcher, a Chiefs linebacker, drove home and argued with his girlfriend. He shot her nine times and, according to an investigation by the Kansas City Star, leaned down to kiss her forehead. He then told her he was sorry.

Belcher kissed his infant daughter before returning to his Bentley and drove toward Arrowhead Stadium, where he parked in the players’ lot and stepped out of the vehicle with the pistol pressed into his temple. Coach Romeo Crennel walked outside, followed by General Manager Scott Pioli. They pleaded with Belcher to lower the pistol as the sound of police sirens approached the Truman Sports Complex.

“I got to go,” the Star reported Belcher said, and he knelt on the pavement, made the sign of the cross and fired a .40-caliber bullet into the side of his head. An autopsy would show that his blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit, and a separate post-mortem examination would reveal evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease.

That same morning in Dallas, his franchise in crisis, Clark Hunt told an associate he was departing immediately for Kansas City. Six years earlier, Lamar Hunt had died and left the Chiefs to his four children, though primary oversight of the franchise was left to Clark, an intense but publicly reserved former Goldman Sachs investment banker. The team had experience in crisis management: the deaths of beloved running back Joe Delaney and star linebacker Derrick Thomas; six head coaches and nine losing seasons in the previous 15 years; a fan-led movement in 2012 that saw airplanes pulling signs above Arrowhead Stadium that called for firings following a 1-10 start and for someone to “SAVE OUR CHIEFS.” But nothing like this.

“Every year has challenges,” Hunt wrote, replying to emailed questions from The Washington Post, “and certainly we faced some difficult ones in 2012.”

After Kansas City finished that season 2-14, Crennel was fired and Hunt made a call.

Reid was highly qualified, but after Garrett’s death, was he ready for a project as imposing as Kansas City’s? Was he emotionally prepared to be any franchise’s rock, let alone one still recovering from Belcher’s murder-suicide?

Hunt says he pressed Reid, and over roughly nine hours in and around that conference room, he decided to move forward.

“It was clear early,” Hunt wrote, “that not only was he ready, he was excited about the opportunity in Kansas City.”

Still, some of Reid’s most trusted allies were unconvinced. Holmgren and Banner urged the coach to take a year off. But after two decades of extreme structure and routine, Reid told Holmgren he was incapable of stepping away.

“This,” Holmgren said, “is who he is.”

A place for second chances

A few months after Reid’s introduction, the Chiefs selected tight end Travis Kelce in the third round of the draft. There was no question Kelce was talented and explosive and charismatic, but a positive marijuana test had led the University of Cincinnati to revoke his scholarship and suspend him for the 2010 season.

But he had answered for his mistake, remaining in school and paying his way with a side job collecting survey data, and besides the kid could play. Now, a steal in the third round, he was heading to Kansas City.

“Coach Reid looks at everybody’s situation,” Kelce would say much later. “He bases it off the character he sees in front of him.”

Two years later, the Chiefs ­selected cornerback Marcus ­Peters, who had been kicked off the University of Washington football team for a pattern of explosive behavior and confrontations with his own coaches. But Peters’s instincts were sharp, his passion for the game acute, his value at the 18th selection impossible to ignore. A year later, Kansas City selected defensive back KeiVarae Russell, who had been suspended at Notre Dame for academic misconduct, and wide receiver DeMarcus Robinson, who had been suspended four times at the University of Florida.

Russell apologized and attended classes at a community college. Robinson checked himself into a drug recovery program.

“If you go about the right steps to right the wrong,” Reid would say much later, “then I think you deserve another shot.”

Then in the fifth round in 2016, the Chiefs selected Tyreek Hill, who had been dismissed at Oklahoma State following an arrest for punching and choking his pregnant girlfriend. Kansas City, a franchise still recovering after the Belcher ordeal in a league still coming to terms with how to handle domestic violence, was now taking on a player who had pleaded guilty to assaulting a woman. But Hill sure was fast, maybe the most explosive wide receiver in the league.

“I’m just really happy for the chance,” Hill told reporters after the Chiefs drafted him, and indeed people throughout the NFL wondered why Kansas City, of all places, seemed to be collecting players with questions — if not worse — about their character.

Some of Reid’s friends wondered if this was part of a desperate plunge, for franchise and coach, toward a Super Bowl. Others wondered if Reid, who had helped restore Vick’s good name, was looking for a few more souls to save. Both things can be true.

“He’s always had a few of those guys,” Banner says. “He’s never had a lot of those guys.”

But now he did, and it made Reid’s contemporaries curious. The coach had tried for years to use football as his own antidote to and escape from chaos. If it had ultimately failed with Garrett, it at least had worked with Vick. Now Reid’s friends saw him trying it again, and again, and again.

“Knowing that you had young boys who made mistakes,” Dungy says, “you’d want to see them get second chances. Because you believe in them.”

Occasionally the strategy has backfired: Kansas City traded ­Peters last offseason, and it released running back Kareem Hunt in November after TMZ published video of Hunt shoving and kicking a woman. But, more often, it has worked: Kelce, who has been fined several times for on-field outbursts, was recently named to his fourth Pro Bowl. Hill, who largely has been a model citizen since the Chiefs drafted him, finished fourth in receiving yards this season and is perhaps the NFL’s most dangerous downfield threat. Damien Williams, dismissed from the University of Oklahoma in 2013 for violating team rules, replaced Hunt at ­running back.

Then there is Reid’s coaching staff. The Chiefs’ defensive line coach, who has worked his way up from an entry-level position since 2013, once was addicted to painkillers and sentenced to nearly two years in jail for pointing a gun at someone. His name is Britt Reid.

The missing piece

Andy Reid is in an office now, discussing the possibility that Kansas City has reached this point not because of what Reid has done but because of what he has not.

When he took the job six years ago, Reid largely stepped away from personnel and scouting. He hired some old friends and allowed them (mostly) to do their jobs. He relinquished final roster approval to the Chiefs’ general manager, allowed the scouts to scout and let the salary cap ­specialists massage the numbers.

“I’m not getting any younger,” he says, and at almost 61, he’s thinner now than he was a decade ago, having slowed down on his beloved cheeseburgers and Diet Cokes.

Reid bursts into the locker room after victories like the Kool-Aid Man and has been more willing to reveal a goofy sense of humor he kept hidden in Philadelphia. He even steps away periodically to attend a basketball game, wrestling match or recital with one of his eight grandchildren. He would like to step away more often, he admits, but he still loves this — all of it, even the losses.

“There’s something you can learn,” he says, and as he stands here, Reid’s life seems almost complete.

There’s that one thing missing, though, and it’s why he can never fully dial back the intensity and ambition. It’s why he’s still far more “Coach” than “Grandpa,” why he designs and calls Kansas City’s offensive plays, why — though he might well be as detached as he’s ever been — Andy Reid can’t go home. At least not yet.

“I just want him to get that ring,” Vick says, and after all this — the hours, the sacrifices, the maneuvering, the regrets — only one thing can justify all the things he still does. Reid has to finish it.

Last Saturday, after Kansas City beat Indianapolis, Reid walked into the media room. He saw Clark Hunt sitting with his family.

“Two more,” Reid said, holding up his fingers, and that’s how many wins coach and franchise need to lift the Lombardi Trophy, the ultimate way to validate that meeting years ago in Philadelphia — and, as much as possible, erase what came before it.

Two seasons ago, he deputized Childress and Matt Nagy — two trusted allies and talented coaches — to be Kansas City’s co-offensive coordinators. It was an unusual setup, though the jobs came with unchecked freedom — so long as Reid approved their plans in a daily 7 a.m. meeting. The assistants would spend hours toiling, turning ideas into what would eventually become a plan, and when the bleary-eyed men ended their days somewhere around midnight, they’d walk through the sliding doors and into the parking lot, where almost always they’d see Reid’s truck still there.