When I think of Bethlehem, I think of winding my way through lush hillsides on the campus of Lehigh University, one of my favorite NFL training-camp sites. I think of peanut-butter balls at Deja Brew and honey-whiskey shots at Starters, where last summer I celebrated my birthday with several Philadelphia Eagles players by making prank phone calls to Washington Redskins tight end Chris Cooley, who briefly believed he was being traded to the New York Giants.
And I think of the flimsy, beige folding chairs that Philly public relations director Derek Boyko typically sets up long after practice so that Andy Reid and I can have a conversation.
I'm always a little worried at first that the folding chair will be conspicuously overmatched by Reid, who is not a small man. And I'm inevitably heartened that the interview, at some point or another, turns semi-casual, and Reid and I will exchange stories or talk about our shared L.A. upbringings or discuss that which is more important than football: In a word, family.
As someone who has heard Reid talk about the challenges of fatherhood – and as someone who has experienced that great joy and responsibility for the past 16 years – I was deeply saddened to learn that the coach's eldest son, Garrett, was found dead in his Lehigh dorm room Sunday morning. Garrett, 29, had been working with the Eagles as an unofficial camp assistant to the team's strength and conditioning coach, and the cause of death has yet to be determined.
Garrett, like his younger brother Britt, has struggled with substance abuse in recent years, with incarceration among the legal consequences. Reid took a 39-day leave of absence five offseasons ago so that he could join his wife, Tammy, in coping with their sons' struggles. In a profession in which men are typically tethered to their respective team facilities for most of their waking hours (and, in some cases, their non-waking ones), this was somewhat of an extraordinary gesture.
That Reid was able to return to work and perform his job at a high level is a testament to his ability to compartmentalize, and a display of the steely mental focus he demands from his players. Undoubtedly, it was difficult. As my mother and father have often told me, parenting doesn't end when children become adults, move out of the house or hit any other type of arbitrary milestone.
Reid expressed a similar sentiment two summers ago as we sat in those folding chairs on a rainy Bethlehem morning. We'd been discussing Michael Vick's return to football, and it was clear that much about the fallen star's journey resonated with the caring coach.
Vick, like Reid's sons, had served time in prison. Having lived through Garrett's and Britt's darkest moments and seen their continued struggles, Reid understood that turnarounds were never as abrupt and redemptive as outsiders might portray them to be. Yet, in the coach's mind, watching Vick reclaim his name and strive to be a better person, one day at a time, was a source of great inspiration.
Reid shared some specifics about his sons which suggested that they, too, were on a path toward recovery and away from trouble. And as he did so, he displayed an emotion that caught me off guard: Pride.
For all the public humiliation to which the family had been subjected, from the car crashes and the heroin busts, to the pills Garrett Reid had tried to smuggle into prison in a bodily cavity, to the Montgomery County judge who publicly rebuked Andy and Tammy for a lack of parental oversight while describing their home as a "drug emporium," there was no shame in this father's voice.
Surely, he wished his sons weren't struggling with the demons of addiction, but the coach understood the magnitude of their situations and how deeply and continuously they had to fight to keep from slipping once more.
Having Garrett close to him during training camp likely was a source of comfort. Then, on Sunday morning, every parent's worst nightmare struck. An Eagles security official discovered Garrett's body in a dorm room and had the brutal task of breaking the news to the coach. Players learned of the tragedy as they prepared for practice, and Reid's extended family began to grieve.
"We're all in a state of shock," Eagles tight end Brent Celek said Sunday night. "It's just terrible. I feel so bad for coach. He's the strongest [expletive] I know."
I expect the Eagles' organization to close ranks around their longtime coach, and perhaps Philly's notoriously combative fans will cut the man some slack in the months to come. The larger NFL community certainly feels his pain.
"It buckles you," said Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, whose former offensive coordinator, current Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin, lost a son last January. "I just can't even imagine what he's going through."
Sadly, some NFL coaches can, Philbin and St. Louis Rams receivers coach Ray Sherman among them. Ex-Indianapolis Colts and Bucs coach Tony Dungy endured a similar tragedy seven years ago when his son, James, committed suicide.
In each of those cases, the personal loss experienced by the coaches in question rocked their respective teams, and touched so many others associated with pro football. Yet theirs is a business that stops only in the rarest of instances, especially between late July and early February, and Reid will undoubtedly ask and expect his players to suck it up and soldier on, as he will try to do by example.
I don't presume to offer him, or his family members, any advice in dealing with this tragedy. I will, however, remember to try to cherish every moment that I have with my kids and, whenever possible, to project pride and supportiveness as they deal with whatever challenges come their way.
And I'll think about this: While NFL coaches throw themselves into their jobs to an extreme degree, all of us associated with this sport tend to get a bit too caught up in our insular realities at times. We all descend into the bubble and try to block out distractions and doggedly grind away in the pursuit of personal victories.
On Saturday night, a few hours before the early morning wakeup call that would precipitate a flight to Green Bay and the start of my heavy travel season, I climbed in bed with my youngest child and held him close. Out of nowhere, he started sobbing; the intensity of his emotion caught me off guard.
"Why do you have to go?" he asked.
On a rational level, I know he understands. When one is able to bring home the bacon by traversing the country in search of spicy quotes and peanut-butter balls, life is grand, and any complaints our family might enunciate are relatively minor.
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I'm ready to dive into the 2012 season, because that's what I do. Something tells me, however, that six months from now, when I'm living it up in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, a part of me will still be thinking about Bethlehem, and wishing I could cling to my kids long after they leave the house.
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