UPDATED: The Baffling Death of Rob Bironas
The Tennessean reported on Friday that former Titans kicker Rob Bironas had a blood alcohol level of .218 when he engaged in two acts of alleged road rage before dying in a single-vehicle crash on Sept. 20. A small amount of Valium was also present in Bironas’ system, though the medical examiner said its effects were negligible. Bironas’ father, Larry, released the following statement: “We appreciate the hard work of the local authorities to help us begin to answer the many questions we have had surrounding the death of our son. Today we learned that Rob had been drinking, and got behind the wheel. This is something he didn't do as a rule. We don't know why he made that choice this time. Rob made a mistake, and he paid the ultimate price. We appreciate the outpouring of support, care and concern showed to us by Rob's friends, the NFL, and the Nashville community. We appreciate your respect for his mother and me, his siblings, his son, and his wife as we grieve.”
NASHVILLE — Patrick Martin woke up to a torrent of text messages and phone calls at 5:30 a.m. Word had spread that one of his friends was in a single-car accident overnight, perhaps the one Martin, the owner of a barbecue restaurant chain, had glimpsed on his way home from the Music City Food and Wine Festival. Police cordoned off the scene, preventing him from seeing the white SUV that had pulverized a line of torso-thick trees before landing upside down in a culvert across the street from his home. They wouldn’t say who, if anybody, had died.
Well before dawn, Martin jumped into his shoes and sprinted down his driveway. His 7-year-old daughter, Daisy, chased after him. They found remnants of the wreck scattered across the road, personal belongings that spilled from the vehicle and had been overlooked in the darkness: a battered pair of sunglasses, a NAPA baseball cap, debit cards and gun-range earplugs. The trail of debris continued down a steep six-foot embankment and into a drainage basin: Buffalo Wild Wings wet wipes, numbing dental cream, scratched-up country music CDs floating in an oil slick, and an ID card issued by the NFL Players Association.
These were the personal effects of Rob Bironas, the former Tennessee Titans kicker who died, at 36, after crashing late at night on Sept. 20.
He’s being portrayed as some kind of madman and he was the opposite,” former Titans punter Craig Hentrich says of Bironas. “That’s why it’s all so frustrating.
“I spent an hour cleaning up his stuff,” says Martin, a heavyset goateed man whose eyes watered as he spoke in a cramped office just off his restaurant’s kitchen. “It was so surreal. We had texted on the 18th. It’s just weird.”
Martin is among the many friends and family members who are struggling to reconcile the memory of the man they knew with the final hour of his life. According to a missing person report filed by his wife, Bironas told her “good night” and slipped out of the house without anyone noticing. There appeared to be no telltale symptoms of distress, but reports quickly surfaced that Bironas had threatened other motorists and even tried running a truck full of college kids off the road. On Battery Lane, where Bironas died less than a mile from his home, there were no apparent skid marks.
“Everybody is trying to make sense of why he acted the way he acted, because it’s unbelievable,” Martin says. “And it’s not just one of those things where a buddy dies and you don’t want to believe that’s what he was. We’re not trying to save face for him. That just was absolutely not him.”
* * *
Game day with Rob Bironas was always an adventure.
“If you looked up ADD in the dictionary,” former Titans punter Craig Hentrich says, “his picture was in there.”
The energy drinks only made him more frenetic.
“He’d drink those things as if he was going to go hit somebody,” says Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, likening Bironas to the 10 other hyped-up players on the kickoff team. “Rob’s personality didn’t allow him to be your normal kicker. He was a guy who was talking to everybody.”
One of the Titans’ chiropractors, McCourty says, was assigned to occupy Bironas when he wasn’t kicking so he wouldn’t bother everyone else.
“There would be times in the game when he would come ask me about specifics on defense,” McCourty says. “He would have the team photographer take pictures of different people in the crowd for you. After one game he texted me a picture of my wife and daughter in the stands that he asked the photographer to take.
“He was just very confident in himself. The offense would be out there at the end of the half at the 50 and he’s in the coach’s ear like, ‘Let me kick it.’ ”
Bironas had a pregame routine he stuck to every week; he had to visit the field a certain amount of times before kickoff, see a list of specific people, and kick for a certain number of minutes.
“He was OCD for sure,” says Titans punter Brett Kern, who remembers irking Bironas on one road trip.
“I’d go in and brush my teeth,” Kern says, “and he’d be like, ‘You know you only brushed your teeth for 1:25?’ ”
“Rob, are you serious?”
“You’re supposed to brush your teeth for two minutes.”
“Well do you want me to brush my teeth for another 35 seconds?”
“You don’t have to,” Bironas replied. “I’m just saying.”
“He was like that in a lot of areas,” Kern says. “It was stuff that made you laugh.”
As rigorous as he was about routine, he enjoyed throwing off the schedules of others. “He was such a free spirit,” says Hentrich, who was teammates with Bironas for five seasons. “Sometimes I’d be screaming for him to come kick and he’d be off talking to somebody.”
“I’d be looking for him for kickoff,” Titans special teams coach Nate Kaczor says. “He’d just do that to mess with me.”
But when it mattered, Bironas rarely missed an opportunity. Accuracy was his calling card—he was a career 85.7% field goal kicker, the fourth-highest percentage in NFL history. His talent landed him a job in Arena football in 2003 upon leaving Georgia Southern, and the narrow goal posts in the indoor game allowed him to showcase a pro-ready leg. He bounced around lower-level leagues and worked day jobs, including at a Best Buy in New York, until signing with the Titans in ’05. There, he stuck. Bironas played nine seasons with Tennessee, until general manager Ruston Webster and new coach Ken Whisenhunt let him go last spring despite his having made 25 of 29 field goal attempts in 2013.
“If he missed he was like, ‘Oh well, next kick,’ ” Hentrich says. “Pressure didn’t bother him, misses didn’t bother him. That’s what made him great, and that’s why it’s all so frustrating. He’s being portrayed as some kind of madman, and he was the opposite.”
* * *
According to the missing person report filed by Bironas’ wife, Rachel Bradshaw—the country singer and daughter of Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw—she was at home watching a movie with a friend when Bironas wished her good night. She thought he went to bed, according to reports, but later searched the house and couldn’t find him. She called his cell phone several times, but he didn’t answer. She called friends, but no one had heard from him. She told police he wasn’t under the influence of any substances, though she’d seen him drink a beer earlier in the evening. Conflicting details have emerged about the timeline. In a 911 call placed at 11:40 p.m., a weeping Bradshaw said Bironas went to bed at 9:40. She later told police 10:30. At 11:01, Bironas wrecked his Denali.
Connor Fraley, a student at nearby Belmont University, told the Tennessean he was in a Ford truck with three friends when they rolled up alongside the white Denali to inform the driver there was a strange smell coming from his exhaust. Contacted by The MMQB, Fraley said he had received more than 30 media requests and wouldn’t be granting any more interviews until the police investigation into Bironas’ death was closed. According to Fraley’s account in the Tennessean, Bironas told him, “I’m going to kill everybody in your [expletive] vehicle.”
“It was so random, so bizarre. I was like, ‘What?’ And he said the exact same thing again,” Fraley told the newspaper. According to the same account, Bironas then chased the truck through a Nashville neighborhood and tried to sideswipe it off the road.
According to Fraley’s account in the Tennessean, Bironas told him, ‘I’m going to kill everybody in your [expletive] vehicle.’
Some of Bironas’ friends have trouble believing Fraley’s story, or believing it’s possible for him to accurately finger Bironas as the driver who threatened him and his friends, given how dark the night was. “Rob was driving a 6.2 liter Denali,” says Joe Grenvicz, Bironas’ best friend and financial manager. “If he wanted to run those kids off the road, he would’ve.”
But another 911 call was made shortly after Bironas crashed, and a woman explained that she and her husband had just experienced a road-rage encounter with the driver. “He is dangerous, he is drunk or something,” the caller said. “He tried to start a fight with us. My husband ran down there to see what is going on. I just want to tell the police there is something wrong with him. He is dangerous, he is drunk or he is on drugs. He gave us a mean look. We don’t even know him, and he tried to run us off the road.”
These accounts baffle Bironas’ family and friends, who have taken comfort in the words of Rob’s father. At the Nashville funeral for his son, Larry Bironas said, “Your friends and family will, over time, cleanse and heal this small snapshot that has tried to overshadow who you are.”
* * *
Rob Bironas was known as a source of comic relief during training camps, each year picking out a day to submerge the clothes of rookies in a cold tub while the team was still out practicing. Beyond that, teammates couldn’t recall a time when anyone was ever angry with him. “He would always welcome new guys in,” says Kern, the Titans’ punter since ’09. “He would make them feel welcome, and I think it was more or less to relax them so he could prank them later on. He tried to put a smile on your face regardless of how he had to do it.”
On Monday nights during the season, Bironas would often get together to watch Monday Night Football in his basement with a Vanderbilt doctor, a financier, a recording artist, a pizza storeowner and two or three Titans players. “Rob was so electric that when he was in the room you knew it. And when he was gone you knew it,” Grenvicz says. “He was the glue that kept our group together.”
In 2008 he launched The Rob Bironas Fund, a charity to promote music education in Tennessee schools. He loved music and hanging out with local musicians, always talking up their work to anyone who would listen. When friends were going out of town and needed someone to tend to their house, Rob would raise his hand. One morning a vacationing couple got a call from an incredulous neighbor: Is that Rob Bironas watering your garden?
This is so out of left field,” says Joe Grenvicz, Bironas’ friend and financial manager, “so out of the universe we all lived in with Rob.
The Titans released Bironas in March after nine seasons. His field goal numbers passed the eye test, but he missed a few kicks the team thought he would have made in previous years. Whisenhunt’s new coaching staff also wanted to infuse the roster with new blood and, according to a team source, Bironas’ salary cap hit was too high to stomach—though he was never given the option of taking a pay cut.
By chance, McCourty ran into Bironas at a training facility in nearby Franklin late this summer. Bironas had lost about 15 pounds and was still his confident self. “He was saying it’s just crazy how the business works,” McCourty recalls. “He went down a mental list of all his stats compared to all the other kickers and where he ranked. I had no idea what he was talking about but he was passionate.”
Friends say being released bothered Bironas, who was cut 28 points shy of Al Greco’s team scoring record. “It was tough for him. He was struggling a little bit,” Kern says. “He was a goal-setter, and he wouldn’t let anything get in the way of his goals ... it wasn’t like his life goal, but it was important.”
Bironas might’ve been on his way back to the NFL. Growing weary of struggling rookie kicker Nate Freese, the Lions called Bironas’ agent, Camron Hahn, and brought the veteran in for a workout on Sept. 16. Bironas told friends he had a great audition and expected to get the job. Hahn had yet to hear either way from Detroit when Bironas died.
“I knew he felt like he could still kick,” Kern says. “He was struggling, but he had a support group—he kept training hard, he lost weight, he put a turf patch in his back yard and a net to kick in. He had bounced back and was ready for an opportunity.”
As much as Bironas had a support group to lean on, he was also there for his 8-year-old son from a previous relationship. The boy lives in New Jersey with his mother, and Bironas was trying to arrange for the child to spend more time in Louisville, a three-hour drive from Nashville, where the rest of Bironas’ family lives. “Rob was always showing us his [son’s] soccer and MMA videos,” Martin says. “He was stupid proud of him.”
Bironas flew his son out to Nashville when their schedules allowed, and he’d sometimes fly back to New Jersey with him so he didn’t have to travel alone. At the funeral, the boy went down the front row and hugged each of Bironas’ family members. Martin gave the boy’s mother the NFLPA card from the side of the road so he could have it when he grows up.
But will time yield any answers?
* * *
The missing person report says there had been no argument between Bironas and Rachel Bradshaw, an account that rings true to those who knew them. The couple met in 2012 on a Saturday night before a Titans home game. Beaming, Bironas returned to the team hotel and breathlessly told Kern, “I just met the woman I’m going to marry.” He and Rachel dated for two years before tying the knot in June. At least one of the oil-slicked CDs that Patrick Martin found the morning after the crash featured the music of Rachel Bradshaw.
Matt Hasselbeck, the former Titans quarterback and current backup in Indianapolis, immediately thought of alcohol when he heard of Bironas’ death. Then he started talking around and realized Bironas wasn’t the “weekend warrior” he had been in 2011.
“When I was there, Rob liked to have a good time,” Hasselbeck says. “Alcohol was part of his regular weekend routine, and that can be a dangerous thing. But I heard through mutual friends that he really cleaned up that part of his life. He got married. This is a guy who I knew to live on the edge, was over-caffeinated all the time, pushed the limit on weekends. But all of a sudden when he cleans up, this tragedy happens.”
Bironas rarely drank in excess and always used a designated driver. ‘He was very anti-drugs, stimulants, that kind of thing,’ his father says. But friends wonder if Ambien could have played a role.
None of the 10 friends interviewed by The MMQB suggested that Bironas had an alcohol problem. He drank, they said, but rarely in excess and always used a designated driver. Bironas’ father told the Tennessean on Tuesday that his son didn’t do drugs. “He was very anti-drugs, stimulants, that kind of thing,” Larry Bironas said. “It almost comes across as a psychotic problem; if there was a problem, of course we’re interested in it. If he got in that car and drove inebriated, of course I have a problem with that. But in his normal state of mind he would not get in a car and drive. He was good at that.”
“Rob didn’t do drugs,” Grenvicz says. “Unless he’s been hiding secrets from me for 11 years—I won’t even go there. Rob didn’t do drugs. This is so out of left field, so out of the universe we all lived in with Rob.”
Police said there was no evidence of drugs or alcohol at the scene of the crash, but a toxicology report is expected to be completed within a week. If it turns out Bironas had been drinking, his friends will still have a difficult time understanding the alleged road-rage incidents. “Even if he got pile-driven drunk, you’ve got your buddies who are happy drunk and aggressive drunk,” Martin says. “Rob was the happy drunk. Never was aggressive.”
Two of Bironas’ close friends confirmed that he had a prescription for Ambien, given by doctors to insomnia sufferers. A short-acting hypnotic drug, Ambien’s adverse side effects can include dysphoria, delusions and hallucinations.
“I think some people think Ambien as a matter of deduction,” Martin says. “Ambien’s got such a history. This buddy of ours toured Europe and they were on a train, took Ambien, and the next morning they didn’t remember playing cards or getting arrested ... Obviously, everybody is just trying to make sense of why he acted the way he acted.”
Grenvicz isn’t sure the toxicology report will necessarily tell the whole story. He wonders if the cause of the crash might be something simple and undetectable: What if he was texting? What if he had a stroke? What if he just fell asleep? Bironas’ friend would prefer to think about all the good times, about watching his friend realize his dream of kicking footballs on Sunday afternoons and then hurrying over to the Grenwicz house because they were fixing spaghetti.
“I lost my best friend and I don’t necessarily know why,” Grenvicz says. “But I do know that I’ll see him again and be able to ask him what happened, but at that point it probably won’t even matter.”