Hours after he’d been diagnosed with brain cancer in December 2004, Doug Hembrough was resting on a heavy dose of pain relief at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago when he was suddenly awakened by a cell phone.
He shot straight up in bed, brother-in-law Kyle Myers recalled, and immediately said, “You need to call Coach Reid.”
Meaning Andy Reid, the Chiefs coach who had worked with Hembrough during Reid’s relatively brief stint as an assistant coach at the University of Missouri from 1989-91. Considering it was around 10 p.m. in a time zone an hour behind where Reid then was coaching the Philadelphia Eagles, Myers resisted before Hembrough’s insistence finally persuaded him to proceed.
With Myers holding the phone to the ear of Hembrough, whose father had died when Hembrough was a child, the two spoke for some time before Myers took back the phone and Reid asked to be kept informed. Weeks later, when Hembrough’s health remained manageable and his perspective optimistic, he and his brothers were Reid’s guests at the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, where Reid’s Eagles would play the New England Patriots.
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The day before the game, Reid spent hours with Hembrough in his hotel suite. While Reid wanted to talk about Hembrough’s family and his battle with glioblastoma, Hembrough wanted to talk about the game.
“I was like, ‘What are you doing (in this game situation)?’ He was like, ‘Will you shut up — how’s your head?’” the ever-engaging Hembrough recalled over lunch in the summer of 2005 in his hometown of Springfield, Ill. “I said, ‘Shut up — what are you going to do to stop that guy?’“
A few months later, alas, the insidious disease took over. Days before Hembrough died that September, Reid spoke with him on the phone for some 15 minutes even as Hembrough was unable to respond.
You hear people talk all the time about Reid being a player’s coach, and that has any number of contexts … though few more telling than this powerful snapshot of what that actually means behind the scenes in ways that matter a lot more than football.
And it’s a point that can be further illustrated simply through the ongoing relationships Reid enjoys with many former Mizzou linemen and the appreciation he still has for them.
“Absolutely, you’re not here without those guys,” said Reid, who left MU for a role with the Green Bay Packers after the 1991 season. “They did a heck of a job for me, and for the university, too. And then they’ve been good examples since then and done a nice job in life, which is the most important thing.”
So is staying engaged with them. A couple years ago, Reid and Chiefs special teams coordinator Dave Toub, also a former MU assistant, attended a reunion in Waldo at the Summit Grill — owned in part by Andy Lock, the father of MU quarterback Drew Lock, who played for Reid in 1989.
“We only had about a year’s relationship at Missouri, but it’s funny how when you carry that relationship over and years go by and by and by but you still feel like he’s a great friend and mentor who would do anything in the world for you,” Lock said. “I know for a fact that if I ever needed anything, or if he did, we’d be there for each other. That’s a neat thing and a powerful thing.”
And something you can track just about all over the country. When the Chiefs played in Atlanta in 2016, former Tiger Mike Bedosky checked in with Reid and Toub to see if they could get together the night before.
“Oh, my gosh, the graciousness,” said Bedosky, now a school principal and assistant football and wrestling coach, who along with son Trey became Reid’s guest at the game the next day. “Those are things he doesn’t have to do. He made it big. He doesn’t have to remember us.”
To the contrary, that time and the people were unforgettable to Reid, who was on Bob Stull’s staff that produced two other future NFL head coaches, his longtime friend and colleague Dirk Koetter and Marty Mornhinweg … but unfortunately couldn’t break through at Mizzou.
“One thing I’ll always regret is not winning more games,” said Matt Burgess, now an associate general counsel for Walmart who just won a second term on the Bentonville (Ark.) School Board. “But I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else.”
A major part of that was Reid, whose terrific sense of humor was much more publicly on display then than he allows it be now as an NFL head coach.
“But it wasn’t just pointless banter,” said Chris Harrison, now an actor, among other endeavors, in California. “There was always a practical angle to his humor.”
Almost always, anyway. Scrolling back through old stories about Reid that I worked on for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one of the first I came across was about his linemen pulling pranks on him.
“They still try too,” Reid said, laughing, referring to goofy phone calls that occasionally come in. “I’m just older and wiser.”
Back then, when he’d start to enter a meeting room, he might find the doorknob slimed with training-room gel. Or pull open a projection screen to find an off-color poster affixed.
“I think Coach Reid invited that on himself a little bit,” Harrison said, laughing.
Once, when the remote control for his projection screen was smeared in goo, Burgess recalled, Reid grabbed a rickety old chair that might as well have been there just as a prop and smashed it over a table. A roomful of suddenly scared players was relieved when Reid laughed.
One Halloween, Bedosky was dressed as a Ninja Turtle when he and linemates Burgess and Tim Alvarado and perhaps others showed up at Reid’s house for trick-or-treat.
Reid told them it was against NCAA rules to give them candy, something he remembered fondly the other day while adding his side of the story: “They were going to take the whole plastic bucketful.”
But Reid, who had a humorous nickname for about everybody in a true cast of characters that included future WWE sensation Gene Snisky, resonated with his protégé’s on multiple levels. Reid was meticulous, they all remember, with Bedosky citing his ability to explain why a one-inch step difference can be crucial.
“Where Coach Reid is now, I’m not surprised,” Bedosky said. “Everything was in order. Everything had a purpose. Everything had a meaning.”
Lock remembers Reid being “extremely polished” and having a remarkable feel for the individuality of his players and how to reach each — in his case instilling in him how to be a man and be accountable.
Speaking of which, Burgess recalls feeling he had played really well in a scrimmage … only to get graded at 32 percent. That was because for each play for each lineman, Reid had five boxes of evaluation of everything from effort to technique.
“If you got a minus on any one of them, you got a minus for the whole play,” Burgess said, reflecting on how having his hand in the wrong place would be a downgrade even with a successful block.
Meanwhile, a jovial nature didn’t preclude Reid from being intense. Back in the day, center Brad Funk said there were times Reid became so ‘‘red in the face that he looked like his head was going to blow off.” In a frigid 1991 game against Iowa State, then-third string Burgess recalled being suddenly sent into the game but inadvertently losing his chin strap when he ripped off the cape to run in.
MU ended up having to call timeout, and Reid was livid — perhaps all the more so because the ear holes on Burgess’ helmet were so thickly taped over that Reid couldn’t poke his fingers through to be at full blast.
It’s a hilarious tale to hear from Burgess, a gifted storyteller, but it’s mostly still funny because of what underscored everything with Reid: how much he cared about his players.
Burgess remembers how, in a fracas at Iowa State, Reid ended up across at the bottom of a pile on top of quarterback Phil Johnson to protect him, for instance. And that every Tuesday Reid would meet with each lineman individually and spend 15-20 minutes talking about life and school more than football.
He was “always like a Dad,” said Harrison, who said when speaking with one of his teammates on the phone you can almost hear their faces light up at the mention of Reid’s name.
Certainly, that remains true in the family of Hembrough, whom Reid still watches over. His widow, Stacey, a Kansas City native, and all three of his children (Brooke, Ryan and Cole) have received handwritten letters from Reid over the years and have attended games here. With help from Reid’s wife, Tammy, Brooke and Ryan met up with Reid after the Oct. 28 game against Denver.
“Most people say, ‘What can I do? Call me,’ and a year later it is forgotten,” said Myers, a senior vice-president at PNC Bank who is forever grateful for Reid’s care for his sister, niece and nephews. “This is a man who didn’t have to be there but was. He’s just a different guy.”
It’s only a microcosm of his career, but that’s something you can be sure of from a relatively brief stay in Columbia many years ago that still has deep and enduring meaning.