When the Game Moves On Without You
BURIEN, WASH. — The Browns had just received a 20-7 drubbing at the hands of the rival Steelers. It was a seventh straight loss to wrap up a 4–12 season, head coach Rob Chudzinski and his staff’s first in Cleveland.
Ken Flajole, the inside linebackers coach, sat quietly during the solemn two-hour ride back to Berea, Ohio. His 16th season as an NFL coach had just ended. He was already thinking about grading the film the next day, ranking the players for the season and getting ready to tackle free agency. Push forward. Make the Browns better.
A coach seated in front of him turned around and said, “My wife just called and said [the media is] reporting that they’re going to fire Chud.”
Flajole had seen a lot during 37 years coaching on the college and pro levels. But this, word leaking that the coach would be fired before the team bus had even returned home, was unprecedented.
“Get out of here,” Flajole shot back. “No way.”
A few hours later Chudzinski learned that he was indeed out. Word was passed along to Flajole that night. At a Monday morning staff meeting, Chudzinski let them know it was official.
That was Ken Flajole’s last day as an NFL coach.
* * *
There are worse places to spend NFL purgatory than Burien, Wash. It’s a Thursday morning in early September, and Flajole (pronounced FLAY-juhl) sets down two Adirondack chairs on his perfectly manicured backyard lawn. The rest of it? Well, that’s Puget Sound, in all its postcard beauty. About 20 yards out, the coho (silver) salmon swim by in the sun-drenched water. Flajole’s going to drop a line in a little later. But for now he’s taking it all in, the spectacular view and the thick ocean smell.
On this Thursday night, about 12 miles up the coast, the Packers and Seahawks will kick off the 2014 NFL season. It’s the first time since 1997 that Flajole hasn’t been on an NFL sideline. When he talks about the new season, there’s a tinge of longing in his voice.
“I’ll probably miss it, I think that's being honest,” he says. “I'll probably go through a little bit of the, ‘Geez, I should be coaching somewhere, getting ready for a Sunday opener.’ I'm going to miss it. I don’t know how I wouldn’t, because I’ve done it for so long.”
Three years ago, Flajole was the St. Louis Rams’ defensive coordinator, the apex of his NFL coaching career. Today, he is unemployed.
“I felt bad for Chud; he never got a chance there,” Flajole says. “I'd been fired before, and I knew we’d go look for another job. I don't like it, but it wasn't an unfamiliar place for me. I felt bad for him, because I think that was his dream job being an Ohio native. For him not to really get a chance, I kind of ached for Chud. Chud’s a good man.”
Last winter Flajole called around to some of his coaching buddies to let them know he was available. A few follow-up calls were exchanged, but nothing developed. Soon, the phone stopped ringing. All the coaching vacancies were filled.
Flajole had a new reality. After 37 years in coaching, and another eight playing high school and college football, he was no longer part of a team. That’s how fast you can go from the penthouse to outhouse in the cold realm of high-level football.
“When you finally get to that point, you go, ‘Oh gosh, what am I going to do now?’ ” Flajole, 59, says. “And then you start worry that, well, now that I’m out of it for a year, am I going to be able to get back in? Is it out-of-sight, out-of-mind? Am I going to have a hard time getting a job in 2015? So, yeah, there's a low point there.”
* * *
Football coaches are a curious species. They all start with one thing: a love for the game. They don’t know where it’s going to take them or for how long. Most don’t enter the profession with the goal of one day working on an NFL staff. For most of their careers they make little money and work ungodly hours. They’re hired and fired countless times, with each regime change meaning another move for their families, another town of unfamiliar faces. Their kids start at another new school; their wives spend another day locating the closest supermarket.
Flajole was like most. A Seattle native, he was a standout linebacker in high school, junior college and then Pacific Lutheran University, where he played for one of the Northwest’s legendary coaches, Frosty Westering. Flajole started his coaching career under Westering in 1977 (the same year he met his future wife, Teri), and two years later he joined Don James’ University of Washington staff as a grad assistant.
Working under those two men spurred Flajole’s passions for the game: the strategy and the players. He was a natural. Flajole doesn’t fit the gruff, coaching-lifer archetype. He’s easygoing, patient, professional, even kind. At Pacific Lutheran he earned a bachelor’s degree in education; he’s a teacher at heart. “That's really what coaching is,” he says. “I'm not in the classroom teaching math, I'm teaching football.”
He spent six years at the University of Montana in Missoula, where his two daughters, Kelly and Kori, were born. Then three years at the University of Texas at El Paso, during which Flajole found his career at a crossroads. He was thinking about getting out. He sought advice from his father during a visit home to Seattle.
“If I stay in this coaching thing, there’s a real possibility I’m going to get fired at some point,” Flajole told his father. “It’s Teri and me, the girls are young, I don’t know if I want to have to move them every few years. It’s not fair to them.”
Flajole was thinking about getting out of coaching. “Ken, if you think football’s exciting,” the FBI field agent told him, “wait until you’re on a bust and you rack your shotgun and throw a shell in the chamber.”
Flajole’s father connected him with an old friend who was in the FBI. Flajole was serious about exploring a the new path. He was deep into the application process, to the point that he was being prepped for a trip Quantico, Va., home of the FBI Academy.
“Ken, if you think football’s exciting, wait until you’re on a bust and you rack your shotgun and throw a shell in the chamber,” an FBI field agent told Flajole during a visit with Ken and Teri. “That’s exciting.”
At that moment, Flajole looked across the room at Teri, who mouthed two words: “No. Way.”
Suddenly, the vagabond life of a football coach looked fairly tame.
Columbia, Mo., for five years. Richmond, Va., for one. Honolulu, for one. Reno, Nev., for two.
That’s when Flajole got his break. Andy Reid, with whom Flajole had coached at UTEP and Missouri, convinced Mike Holmgren to bring Flajole to the Green Bay Packers as a defensive quality control coach for the 1998 season. A year later Holmgren took Flajole with him to the Seahawks. Flajole wasn’t just in the NFL—he was going home.
Well, Seattle was home for Flajole and Teri, but it was the eighth place their children had lived. One day, Kelly, in high school by this point, was playing with a cousin who said she was going to visit a grade-school friend. That’s when it hit Flajole.
Neither of my girls have friends from grade school that they even remember.
Guilt was setting in when Flajole pulled his daughter aside.
“Kelly, I’m really sorry that dad hasn’t ever been able to give you that because we’ve had to move so often,” he said.
Kelly didn’t want to hear it.
“Dad, I wouldn't have had it any other way,” she told him. “You know what? We've seen places in the country that I never would have seen had you just been in one place and one job all your life.”
Seattle. Charlotte. St. Louis. New Orleans. Cleveland.
Not that Flajole needs to be reminded, but coaches’ wives are the true MVPs of their families. Women like Teri Flajole, who has seemingly limitless positivity and enthusiasm, bear all the responsibility for running the home.
“I've got a great relationship with my children,” Ken says, “but when they were young and they needed discipline and needed order in a chaotic world, my wife was the one who gave it to them. I wasn't around long enough to do it. When you're gone as long as you’re gone, and during the season you're leaving before they’re up, and you're coming home when they’re already in bed, everything goes to the mom. And the mom has to buy into it.
“You always have that angst as a parent. What’s this profession going to do to my kids? Kids will weather. Moving out of a high school, I'm not saying they liked that, but at the end of the day they get over it and they move on. But my kids are squared away because of Teri, not because of me.”
The children flew the coop some time ago. Kelly lives in Chicago with her husband and two sons. Kori stayed in the Seattle area, and she is pregnant with her first child, a son. She’s married to a high school football coach.
Teri’s strength is now there for Ken. His time away from the game has been tough. When Ken started wondering if he’d ever be able to get back in, Teri put together a list of about 10 coaches who found work in the NFL after an extended absence. Guys like 49ers quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, who directed the Cardinals’ quarterbacks in 2003 and then resurfaced as tight ends/quality control coach for the Panthers in ’06.
“It was tough,” says Teri. “He was in a little bit more of a funk. But we've known each other since I was 19. Ken bounces back really well. And you have to, right? Things happen and you just go forward. Even when you don't feel like going forward, you just choose to and it gets better.”
Ken has almost run out of projects to do around their house. He’s painted it, stained the deck and put down new concrete. It looks pristine. Teri has taken her husband on a few trips: to Idaho in late August, for an annual family gathering they could never get to because of football, and to Chicago to see Kelly and her family. But having Ken around the house has been an adjustment for Teri as well.
When Ken was coaching, there was really only one family dinner, Friday nights. “Now that you’re out of a job, you mean I have to cook every night? You better go find yourself a job,” Teri joked.
“Having him around 24 hours is kicking my heinie,” she tells their visitor, with a laugh. “I’m not kidding, you can put that in there.”
* * *
When it became clear he wouldn’t have a job this fall, he sought advice. Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who lost his job as Vikings head coach last winter, told Flajole to do something he normally wouldn’t be able to do because of football getting in the way.
“It buoyed me a little bit,” says Flajole, who is still getting paid under his Browns contract. “I talked to enough people who had been out a year and had gotten back in. It gives you a ray of hope that when this thing’s all done, maybe I'll have a chance to go back into it in 2015.”
Flajole took a training camp trip to the University of Pittsburgh to visit coach Paul Chryst (Geep’s brother) and defensive coordinator Matt House. He took a side trip to visit longtime friend Steve Spagnuolo, now with the Ravens, who hired Flajole with the Rams and Saints.
“Of the guys I've been around, he is—and I'm just talking scheme now—as intelligent a guy [when it comes to] attacking protections as I've ever been around,” Flajole says. “I've learned a ton from him. He’s a good football coach and a good man.”
Spagnuolo is another penthouse-to-outhouse guy. He was defensive coordinator for a Giants team that won Super Bowl XLII—the one that overwhelmed the undefeated Patriots—and later head coach of the Rams for three seasons. Now he coaches the secondary in Baltimore.
“You get to a point where you think you know enough people that you’ll never be without a job,” Flajole says. “Well, I learned a hard lesson this year: That’s not true.”
Flajole stays involved with the game by making a Sunday morning trip to the University of Washington, where coach Chris Peterson welcomes him to give his perspective on the Huskies’ last game and their next opponent, and to view NFL film. “I can’t coach anybody, I'm not getting paid, I'm just volunteering my services,” he says. “It gives me a little bit of a break and my one-day football fix.” Flajole has spent time boning up on the read-option and the spread to prepare for his re-entry.
Will he get a chance to get back into the game during the NFL’s next hiring spree, come January and February? That remains to be seen. He didn’t think he’d be in this position in the first place.
“You get to a point in the NFL where you think you know enough people, and if people respect what you do, that you’ll never be without a job,” Flajole says. “Well, I learned a hard lesson this year: That’s not true. The right guys have to get the job, the right things have to be open. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing right now. But it wasn’t my choice.”
The conversation turns to the players he’s coached, particularly veteran linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, a team captain during Flajole’s one season in Cleveland.
“How can you not love coming to work and seeing guys like D’Qwell Jackson?” Flajole says. “You’d think he was a rookie with the way he takes notes and wants to be coached. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we live this crazy life and put our families through the moves and crazy hours: the game, and the players.
“It probably doesn’t make sense to a lot of people. But that’s the life we chose. And, yeah, I miss it.”