Justin Houston bounces a basketball in the Chiefs’ airy locker room, a wide grin creasing his lips. Dressed in shorts and a cutoff T-shirt, he jaws with teammates as he flips free throws toward a basketball rim positioned over a doorway.
“There you go!” Houston yells, his booming voice filling the room as his shot rims out, drawing more criticism.
All around the room, Chiefs players are talking, laughing and joking. It’s 1:48 p.m. Practice is over. Players are free to go home, yet many linger at their stalls, a hot plate of food in their hands, paid for by the team’s defensive linemen.
Scenes like this are why the Chiefs have won 11 games in a row and are two victories away from the Super Bowl, starting with Saturday’s AFC Divisional Playoff in New England. Every NFL team talks about being a family, and much of it is just that — talk. But there’s more at play here in Kansas City.
These Chiefs say they rebounded from one of the most miserable starts in franchise history by caring about one another.
“We’re a family, man, that’s what we say,” said Houston, the Chiefs’ Pro Bowl outside linebacker. “No matter what goes on, we’re just going to ride for one another.”
Before the Chiefs overcame a five-game losing streak marked by a season-ending injury to their best offensive player, running back Jamaal Charles, they witnessed the most important comeback of all. Safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in November 2014 but beat the disease by the start of training camp last summer, arriving at St. Joseph in almost better physical condition than before his illness.
“They’ve seen Eric Berry overcome cancer,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I think that strength that Eric brought to the team is an important one.”
While Reid said general manager John Dorsey has collected a locker room full of “good souls,” the Chiefs have helped cultivate their family culture in ways big and small.
They break their huddles shouting, “One, two, three, FAM!” On every gameday, they hang a sign in the locker room that reads, “Come in as TEAMMATES, leave as a FAMILY.” The sign has traveled with them to games at Oakland on the West Coast to London in Western Europe.
“Family” might sound cliche, but it’s a truly uncommon trait in an increasingly ruthless game. It’s also a trait that the Chiefs’ players and coaches alike believe they share with NFL teams that have won big in the past.
“They love to play the game,” Reid said. “They love coming to work, and when I tell you I like the team, that’s what I’m talking about. These guys come to work, and they take care of each other. The old guys teach the young guys — they’re not hiding things from them. … They’re egoless that way.
“I feel very blessed to have these guys, man. It’s awesome.”
Before there was a regulation basketball goal in the locker room at the Chiefs’ practice facility, there was a trash can in St. Joseph.
Back when the Chiefs were suffering through the heat of August training camp, guys found relief during downtime by aiming soccer balls and Gatorade bottles toward a particular bin in the locker room at Missouri Western.
“It was like this one,” outside linebacker Dezman Moses said, pointing to a large red trash can. “There was literally a line of like 40 guys playing this game. … I mean, we were having intense games during camp, playing this thing.”
When the Chiefs broke camp, a few of the players paid to erect a backboard and rim above one of the two doors leading to the showers and bathrooms in their practice facility, near Arrowhead Stadium. Reid was fine with it, as long as no one got hurt. That meant no full-fledged games, just light shooting — and sessions of P-I-G and H-O-R-S-E.
“We can always break away and shoot a couple jump shots and not think about what we’ve got to do for a second, so it’s therapeutic,” wide receiver Jason Avant said. “Everyone in the National Football League thinks they can play basketball.”
But the rim was never really about finding the best shooter on the team. It’s about having a little fun and bringing players together.
“We don’t talk to people from the defense,” offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said, “just because we don’t have them in our meeting room. But when you’re out there shooting, you have people you can talk to.”
There are other ways the Chiefs bond off the field, too. A handful of the Chiefs’ defensive backs have taken to playing head-to-head games against each other.
“We all have Mario Kart, and the game just kind of switches,” safety Husain Abdullah said. “Dominoes, it could be anything … anywhere. It could be on the bus, it could be right here in the locker room.”
Receiver Albert Wilson says some players in his position group — Jeremy Maclin, Chris Conley and Da’Ron Brown — are into video games, too. And the ones who aren’t, like himself, Fred Williams and Frankie Hammond, watch movies.
“Every time we have a chance to be around each other, we don’t mind it at all,” Wilson said.
And every Monday, a group of players bring their significant others to team Bible-study sessions. “We probably have eight or 10 couples that are there,” long snapper James Winchester said. “It’s good fellowship with each other.”
Then there’s basketball. On a recent weekday, running back Charcandrick West and tight end Travis Kelce took turns attempting 20-foot jump shots with an exposed beam in the way. Neither put the ball through the hoop, but that didn’t keep them from playfully chastising each other.
Can a bond exemplified around a basketball hoop really help explain the Chiefs’ unprecedented rise from a 1-5 start to one of the NFL’s most dangerous teams?
Some of the team’s most veteran players think so.
“We made our mind up two months ago that we were a better team than what the record was stating,” outside linebacker Tamba Hali said, “and we just play our hearts out.”
At more than 320 pounds, Jaye Howard has a big appetite, not unlike the fellow defensive linemen who flank his locker. To his left sit Dontari Poe and Allen Bailey, to his right Nick Williams. All are in their mid-20s. All weigh at least 300 pounds.
By the time practices come to a close each week, these large young men don’t hop into their cars and go their separate ways. The Chiefs’ defensive linemen cater in large portions of food. Soul food. Every Friday, enough to feed the whole team.
The smell of the grub — which almost always comes from one of their four favorite local establishments — fills the air quickly and attracts a crowd. Chicken wings, catfish, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese — you name it, they’ve had it.
“These boys are like my brothers, man,” Howard said. “This is a good group of guys we’ve got here, man, and we’ve got to try to spread it around the locker room. I feel like we’re one of the closest groups on this team. … We bring food in here every Friday so everybody can just sit, talk and eat, you know?
“We all pitch in, get it paid for, and make sure it’s enough food in here for everybody to enjoy. It’s important to us.”
Their teammates have come to appreciate the weekly meals. Offensive linemen, defensive backs, receivers — they all make their way to the defensive line’s corner of the locker room each Friday, leaving with plates filled to overflowing.
“Food always brings people together,” said center Zach Fulton, who is part of an offensive-line group that has dinner at a restaurant every Thursday.
Howard says their teammates have even come to expect these Soul Food Fridays.
“The few times we didn’t have it because of the holidays, everybody was like, ‘Dang, where the food at?’ ” Howard said with a hearty laugh. “It’s the kind of thing where everybody is expecting it, so I hope it continues.”
Howard will be a free agent in March.
“Regardless of where I’m at next year, these guys, I’ll still be in contact with them,” he said. “My kids have been around these guys, they’ve seen my kids grow right in front of them. … I know it’s football, I know it’s a business, but I’m still going to have these guys as friends.”
Once practice comes to a close Thursday — the meal was moved up a day because the Chiefs face the Patriots on a Saturday — the players file into the locker room and make their usual trek toward the D-line’s corner.
Berry has a plate in his hand and a smile on his face. His friend Houston, who moved his locker next to Berry’s this season, is standing nearby.
Houston was one of Berry’s biggest admirers as Berry fast-tracked his chemotherapy treatments in order to return to the team by the start of camp. Houston quietly flew to Atlanta every Monday during the offseason to support his teammate, who sometimes struggled to complete just five pushups a day but continued to push himself physically despite the energy-sapping cancer treatments. Berry was declared cancer-free June 22.
“Anytime you get a family environment like this with a football team,” Houston said, “the sky’s the limit.”
It was Berry who addressed the team before they played the Chargers on Nov. 22 in San Diego, a 33-3 victory that restored the Chiefs’ record to .500. They’ve won seven more games in a row.
Berry believes the Chiefs are a Super Bowl team — and he believes the Chiefs’ family approach is a reason why they can get there. So he told his teammates why he worked so hard during chemotherapy.
“I put my life on the line to be here with you all, and you helped me get here to this point,” Berry said. “To me, it’s not a game. It’s bigger than that.”