I’m going to tell you about a person not many of you know, but I’m hoping you humor me and read on. With the current atmosphere of inept leadership, questionable ethics in regards to player safety and the almighty dollar driving every single decision, the NFL is at a crossroads. And the future of the league is cloudy at best when the truly good people in it are no longer around to be the game’s stewards.
The NFL lost one of its biggest champions Tuesday when Bryan Wiedmeier, a long-time executive with the Dolphins and the Browns, died after a four-year battle with brain cancer at the age of 57.
Many of you might not recognize his name, but the entire NFL world does. And trust me when I tell you this: The league is worse off without Bryan Wiedmeier in its universe.
That’s part of the reason why I’m so saddened by the loss of Wiedmeier. Of course, our foremost thoughts are with his wife, Mary, and their five children. They were the center of his life. We’d often share proud-dad moments when we came across each other at various league functions, even though he was the one who did most of the asking. That was Bryan, always wanting to know more about the other person, and how he could help them. Sometimes he did.
I’ll never forget being in the Indianapolis airport early on the morning of Feb. 25, 2007, waiting to return to South Florida after covering the scouting combine as Dolphins beat writer for the Palm Beach Post. My wife called my cell, which was unusual since it was just after 6 a.m. Then she said the words that would change our lives forever: “I think my water broke.” That wasn’t supposed to happen. She was still nine weeks from the due date for our twins. She had just been to the neonatologist two days earlier, and the pregnancy was going so well the doctor told my wife he was bored with her. Needless to say, I was freaking out, 1,000 miles away with a layover in Atlanta on deck. Who do I call? What do I do? Will I make it in time? Are they ready to come out? Will they survive? What is happening?!
Bryan was in the boarding area with me, along with then Dolphins (and current Seahawks) executive Matt Thomas. I’m guessing I was white as a ghost because Bryan quickly asked me what was wrong, and I told him. He put a hand on my shoulder and told me to take a breath. He told me everything was going to be O.K. Just take things one step at a time, and hopefully everything will turn out for the best. Bryan told me some of the stories about his kids being born, and it helped. But I was still very upset, and afraid. Bryan put his arm around me and told me it was going to be O.K. When we deplaned in Atlanta and headed to different flights, he told me, “Good luck. I’ll be praying for all of you. If you need anything, please call.”
That’s the type of man Bryan was. Anybody who has come across him will tell you that. People don’t come any better than Bryan Wiedmeier. They just don’t. (And in case you were wondering, yes, everything did turn out just fine. We’re the proud parents of two perfectly crazy nine-year olds.)
So I’m sad about that. I’m also disheartened, and have been since Bryan suffered a grand mal seizure and learned he had Stage 4 brain cancer in October 2012, because Bryan is exactly the type of man of conscience and integrity that is in dwindling supply in today’s NFL.
What you have to understand about Bryan is that nothing was ever about him. It also wasn’t just about preserving his paycheck. He helped many a young journalist covering his team, not to further his career or make his boss look good, but purely because he wanted reporters to have a thorough understanding of the game so they could report on it fairly and the fans would be well-informed.
Bryan was the same way when he dealt with agents on player contracts. A player never had a cross word about Bryan because he was up front and he was fair. He also had roles in three stadium projects: the construction of Joe Robbie Stadium, the first renovation there and the recent renovations to FirstEnergy Stadium. You haven’t or won’t hear any complaining about the public being fleeced for those projects. You know why? Bryan would never do that to a community where he lived. Ever. He wasn’t a figurative an Eagle Scout—he was one as a teenager.
Most notably as the Dolphins’ team president and chief operating officer, Bryan ran his franchises in the kind of old-school, family-style way that was widespread as the NFL rose in prominence during the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. That’s who he was and how he came up. He started in the Dolphins’ equipment room 35 years ago without a silver spoon in his mouth. It never took people long to realize how smart Bryan was, and he quickly rose through the ranks. Knowing that he needed to further his education if he really wanted to ascend with the Dolphins, Bryan earned his law degree by taking night classes.
Bryan knew the business and the people of the NFL, literally, from the bottom up. That’s the way it used to be around the league. Even the children of owners, who knew the value of hard work, were sent to do the worst jobs on the team so they had a complete worldview when they eventually ascended to or approached the throne.
With each passing year, the NFL is increasingly dominated by billionaire families who made their money elsewhere but think because they were successful in one realm, it will translate easily into another. How quickly they are humbled.
What else do you expect in a league whose current commissioner entered as a public relations intern straight out of college, barely stepping foot in a locker room before landing on Park Avenue as an errand boy, where he quickly learned the best way to advance was to take care of the right owners? His predecessors worked for years in public relations (Pete Rozelle) or as high-powered lawyers after being brilliant student-athletes (Paul Tagliabue). They knew what it was like to look an athlete, and the fans, in the eye.
Sadly, the NFL has become a place where the most powerful people involved never got their hands dirty in the game. If you’re looking for a reason why league executives and owners are seeing a growing disconnect with the players and the fans, that would be a good place to start.
And that makes the death of someone like Bryan disheartening for those of us who respect the game and understand that the amount of gross revenue the league takes in is not any sort of indicator of the sport’s health.
For the good of the game, the NFL needs many more Bryan Wiedmeiers. Unfortunately for all of us, they don’t make them like him anymore.