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Wake-up call

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"Sure, you can get by in coaching working half-days. Do you want to work the first half or the second half?"
– Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Don Shula

A New England Patriots assistant coach was caught in traffic one Friday evening in January three years ago when he called a friend to chat.

The friends exchanged pleasantries before the coach turned sarcastic.

"Everybody in charge around here talks about how the sacrifice is so worth it," the coach said, alluding to the Patriots' three Super Bowl victories this decade. "All they say around here is, 'Your children will get a chance to see things other kids will never see.' Look, my kid would just like to see me once in awhile to play a little catch."

As the NFL prepares for the 6½-month grind that is training camp, the regular season and the playoffs, it is time for coaches to bid farewell to their families.

Increasingly, that's a dangerous goodbye. Over the past two years, head coaches such as Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts, Bill Belichick of New England and Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles have dealt with varying degrees of tragedy or trouble with their sons.

Dungy's son James committed suicide in December 2005, a shocker because it happened to a coach who had prioritized family more than most.

Last October, Belichick's teenage son Stephen was arrested for marijuana possession.

In January, Reid's two sons were charged with drug and weapons possession in separate incidents on the same day. Police say Garrett Reid, 24, admitted to using heroin before running a red light and striking another car on Jan. 30. Most chilling of all, he told police he didn't know what color the light was when he sped through it.

In other words, the NFL coaching fraternity was lucky it didn't have to bury a second son in 14 months.

"Your heart goes out when you see stuff like that because you know how hard the life is and you know how those guys must feel," New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "It could be any of us and we'd all feel the same way, 'Why didn't we do this or do that? Maybe that would have made the difference.'"

So far, New York Jets coach Eric Mangini has managed to find time for his kids despite his schedule. Mangini regularly has his older son Jake, 3, come to the office. In addition, Mangini calls home constantly and often takes an hour off to drive home and read Jake a story. Last year, Mangini and two Jets players took part in an episode of Sesame Street and Jake came along.

"I don't think you have to be a bad father to be a good coach," Mangini said.

But sacrifices have to be made. The days when Paul Brown used to leave the office at 6 p.m. during the season were over back in the 1970s when Shula became the original workaholic.

However, circumstances have called for some coaches to take a step back. Reid, who is also the vice president of football operations and retains final say over all personnel moves, took five weeks off during February and March. That's when most coaches are in the midst of free agency and draft preparation.

"I didn't get to that point where I was ready to walk away (from football)," Reid said upon returning in March. "I needed time to situate some things and spend time with the family. I just needed time to make sure that I focused on the things that I think are the most important. Family, obviously, is the most important thing in my life."

While it would be hard to find any coach didn't say that about his family, the demands of football often obscure family life. Former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson went so far as to tell his first wife shortly after going to the Cowboys that he needed to give all his focus to the job.

In his book "Turning the Thing Around," Johnson recounted his feelings at the time.

"I did what I had to do. You get to the point where you've had children that you love, had your family, and they grow up," Johnson wrote. "They can take care of themselves and you say to yourself, 'Hey, I've done my deal and now I'm going to do what I want to do. Yes, I'm at the age where I ought to be able to do what the hell I want to do.' "

Other times, the situation is comical. Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden once remarked that it was his son's birthday. When asked which son, the hard-driving and often profane Gruden hesitated for a moment and said "the medium one."

Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs of Washington has often recounted how the demands of coaching made fatherhood a secondary issue. In March, Gibbs recounted how he took his son Coy to training camp one year during the '80s.

"I just forgot he was even there," Gibbs said.

After years of sleeping in the office – reporters used to pick out Gibbs' car in the parking lot of Redskins Park because it was the one still covered in snow in the morning – Gibbs recalled how he once went to tuck in his sons and they had stubble on their face.

"You miss so much of your kids growing up in this job," Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel said. "That's why you put so much into the offseason."

That's when the job becomes "merely" a normal 9-to-5. And a period in which the coaches need to make sacrifices.

"It's about giving them support, especially your wife because she's really the one who's doing all the parenting," San Diego Chargers coach Norv Turner. "The things you may like to do, like playing golf or whatever, you have to put that stuff aside."

That can be tough, particularly the parenting aspect. Particularly for a person like a coach who is in the role of calling the shots at work.

"When you're not around most of the time and making the rules, your kids see right through that," Turner said. "You can't all of a sudden come in like you're totally in charge."

When Turner was head coach of Washington in the mid-1990s, he and his family bought a home on a lake in New Hampshire. Every June after mini-camps, he and the family head there, even now when he works on the other side of the country.

"There's no TV, no radio, just all the outdoors and family stuff that you want to do," Turner said.

It sounds idyllic, even at a time when other news about NFL families is far from it.

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