ATLANTA — Brian Flores prefers not to say how long his hours are. In his job, and on this team, you don’t take pride in how late you stay at the office—everyone else is staying late, too.
But no matter what time of night the Patriots’ defensive play-caller has left Gillette Stadium this winter—10 p.m., 11 p.m., or even later—he never goes straight home. His first stop is always at a condominium in North Attleborough, Mass., a few minutes from his house.
If his mother, Maria, is still awake when he arrives, they talk about football. She has come to love the players her son has coached during his 15 years in New England: the young linebackers he’s developed, like Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts; safety Devin McCourty, who was part of the first NFL meeting room Flores ever ran; Matthew Slater, the special teams ace who was a rookie struggling with his confidence a decade ago when he and Flores, then a special-teams assistant, first met. She also gave him advice before his recent round of job interviews: Be yourself, and if they don’t like you, it’s their problem.
Sometimes, Maria is already asleep by the time Flores gets there, worn out from the fight her body has been waging for the past three years. On those nights, Flores gives her a kiss, then heads home to his wife, Jenny, and their three kids, his early-morning wake-up following soon after. “I stop in every night,” Flores says, “even if it’s just for two minutes.”
It has been a memorable month for Flores. This Sunday, he will call the defensive plays in a Super Bowl for the first time, and shortly thereafter he is expected to be hired as the head coach of the Miami Dolphins. He’s 37 years old, and his career is cresting in a way that few others will ever experience. But what he’ll remember most about this time in his life is the minutes he’s stolen at the end of each day, by his mother’s side.
Maria’s favorite stories are the ones in which her second-oldest son is tough on his players. Flores will tell her he yelled at a linebacker during practice, and she’ll ask, “How did he respond?” This is how she raised her five sons, willing to pull an ear every once in a while to make sure they obeyed her rules. “She knows there’s a little piece of her in those moments,” Flores says, “and I know that, too.”
Maria was 18 years old when she and her husband, Raul, left Honduras to emigrate to Brooklyn. Raul, Sr., worked as a merchant marine, away at sea 8 to 10 months a year, while Maria ran a tight ship at home for her boys—Raul, Jr.; Brian; twins Danny and Luis; and Christopher, who has autism. The family’s apartment was on the 20th floor of a public housing building in the Brownsville neighborhood, across from the elementary school the Flores boys attended. Maria would look out the window to see when school was dismissed, knowing down to the minute when her sons should return home. They were required to walk in the door on time, and immediately begin their homework.
Maria’s vigilance was necessary to protect her sons in a neighborhood with one of New York’s highest crime rates. Danny says he had middle-school classmates who were members of gangs; he once got mugged at a nearby video game store by a man with a knife who came up behind him, telling him to hand over his money or he’d kill him. “It wasn’t an ideal place to grow up,” Danny says, “but it gave us the strength we needed to be able to overcome any situation that we faced.”
Brian earned a scholarship to Poly Prep through a program for promising student-athletes from lower-income areas, making the daily hour-long commute from Brownsville. When the family attended Brian’s football games at Poly’s well-manicured 25-acre campus, Maria told Danny and Luis, four years younger, that if they kept working hard in school they could have the same opportunity as their older brother. The twins followed him to Poly Prep while Brian moved on to Boston College, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees and playing safety and linebacker for the football team.
His head coach at BC, Tom O’Brien, had played under Bill Belichick’s father, Steve, at the Naval Academy, and he recommended Flores for a job as a Patriots scouting assistant in 2004. Scott Pioli, then New England’s vice president of player personnel, says he rarely hired people straight out of college for that role—he preferred they had a year or two of experience in the game beyond just playing. But when he met with Flores, “he was older than his years,” Pioli says. “He had all the tools, all the skills, but there was also something about him that I couldn’t put into words. He was extremely likeable.”
Flores’s job was one of the Patriots’ famous 20/20 gigs: 20 hours a day, for $20,000 a year (though his salary was actually a bit less than that). His current players have heard him tell the story about how he slept on an air mattress in a friend’s attic. What they haven’t heard: Despite his meager wages, Flores was regularly sending money home to Brooklyn. “We didn’t roll with much,” he says, “so I felt rich at $20,000.”
His job responsibilities ran the gamut: Picking tryout players up at the airport, taking free agents for physicals before they were signed, running copies, making cut-up reels. Pioli often called Flores the union leader, or Jimmy Hoffa, because if any of the scouting assistants had an issue to bring up with their boss, Flores would be the one to make the ask. One of Flores’s most important tasks was keeping the pro board updated in Pioli’s office. The board had a magnet for each player across all 32 rosters in the NFL, and when the waiver wire came through at 4 p.m., it was Flores’s job to switch out the magnets corresponding to every roster move. Pioli had a painstaking rule: One wrong, all wrong. “By the time he got into coaching,” Pioli says, “he knew the league better than anyone other than Bill and Ernie Adams.”
Flores moved to the coaching staff in 2008, as an assistant to the team’s special teams coordinator at the time, Brad Seely. He was coaching the gunners, specifically, including a rookie named Matthew Slater. Today, Slater is a team captain and one of the great special teams players of his era, but back then Flores was urging him to play more aggressively and confidently. “He was the first one who said to me, openly, I think you could be a Pro Bowl player in this league,” Slater says. “And at the time, I was like, ‘He’s crazy.’ But he believed in me at times when I didn’t even believe in myself.”
Flores followed a typical Patriots cross-training career arc—he worked as an offensive and a defensive assistant before taking over the safeties position group in 2012. He didn’t know it at the time, but that promotion was more than just the next step in his career. It gave him the financial means to make one of the most important purchases of his life—the second condo for his family.
Flores keeps time, like most football coaches, according to the calendar of the season. He remembers, it was about a month before the Patriots lost to Denver in the AFC championship game—December 2015—when Maria found a lump in her breast.
She was diagnosed with breast cancer. With the assistance of the Patriots, Flores put his mom in the care of a team of oncologists at Massachusetts General Hospital. She was still living in Brooklyn when she began her chemotherapy regimen in January 2016, and she would stay at Flores’s house for weeks at a time. That summer, he bought the condo in North Attleborough so his parents and his brother, Christopher, could move to Massachusetts full time.
While Maria continued chemotherapy and radiation, Christopher found a second home at the Hockomock Area YMCA, where he competes in sports leagues and takes day trips through a program for individuals with special needs and their families. Luis says Brian is the one in their family who brings everyone together, so his home has become their hub for holidays. They hosted McCourty for Thanksgiving one year. What he remembers—as much as Maria’s cooking—is that Flores had Biggie Smalls tracks playing all evening long. “Because Chris loves it,” McCourty says. “That let me know a lot about him.”
In mid-2017, 18 months into her treatment, Maria’s cancer was deemed to be in remission. She traveled back to Honduras that summer to visit her family. But during Thanksgiving that year, she complained of a bad headache and fatigue. At first they thought it was a sinus infection or a cold, but medication wasn’t helping. A CAT Scan at Mass General revealed what was really going on: The cancer was back, and it had spread to her brain.
“She said, ‘I’ve been fighting my whole life, so what’s the difference now,’” Flores says. “We talk about mental toughness in football all the time, and that’s football, but from a life standpoint, she’s as mentally tough and, really, as physically tough as anybody I’ve ever been around.”
The tumor was rooted in a portion of her brain that made it inoperable, so Maria resumed the taxing routine of chemo, radiation, MRIs, CAT scans and doctor’s appointments. It took a larger toll the second time around.
In early November, Flores was presented with the Legends Award from the Hockomock YMCA, at a fundraiser for the Integration Initiative, the program in which Christopher participates. Some of his players were there to introduce him. First, former Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich, who said when he arrived in New England in 2009, a street free agent whose main value was special teams, he wouldn’t have made the roster without Flores’s help. Then there was McCourty, who described how Flores talked him through free agency in 2015, even though Flores knew McCourty might leave the team. Then Slater, who told the room that anyone who has played for Flores feels like they’re a better person for having been around him.
When Flores took the podium, he talked about his love for Christopher, and how grateful he is for the opportunities his brother has had and the friends he’s made through the YMCA. His brother’s future is something he and his mom have talked a lot about lately, he explained. Three weeks earlier, in mid-October, Maria made the decision to stop her treatment.
As happens all too often with cancer, there wasn’t much more the doctors could do—though they still check in with her once a week. By Thanksgiving Maria was in a wheelchair, having lost mobility on her right side. Still, she was intent on her family preparing Thanksgiving dinner the way she’d always made it, shooing Danny off the couch and into the kitchen to help chop the onions.
Luis, who had been a fourth-grade teacher in the South Bronx, took a new job this school year at an elementary school in Dorchester, Mass., to be closer to their mom. When Danny completed his master’s degree in American studies at Columbia University during the fall semester, he promised to have his diploma mailed straight to her. And as Maria began hospice care, Flores started making his late-night visits. As he talks about this, he hopes it might be a beacon for someone else going through a similar situation, a reminder that the heartbreak of losing a loved one touches many, even the person you’ll see sending in play calls on the grandest stage in sports on Sunday night.
“She wouldn’t want this to hinder anything I am doing, and she would be pissed off at me if it did,” Flores says. “When I talk about her, it makes me want to fight more. It makes me want to work harder. I kind of use it as fuel, for me, to make her proud. And to make the people in our family proud. Because that’s what she wants.”
This week, Flores will have to make his nightly check-ins over the phone. The day after the Patriots defeated the Chiefs in the AFC championship game, Maria pleaded her case to make the trip to Atlanta. Her sons vetoed the plan.
A few weeks ago, during the Patriots’ first-round playoff bye, they had a scare. Maria hadn’t yet woken up by lunchtime, and her temperature spiked to 103 degrees. Danny, an equipment manager at Columbia, took the first bus up from New York. They were worried they were losing her—but then her fever finally broke, and she pointed to the TV, gesturing for her sons to put on her favorite 70s tunes. That was on a Thursday; on Friday and Saturday, Flores interviewed for four different head coach openings, including the Dolphins. “I can only imagine,” Luis says, “how difficult that was for him.”
But Flores has a remarkable ability to compartmentalize, to multi-task, to not lose focus. He’s honed that skill during his 15 years working for the most demanding organization in the NFL, but mostly it came from the woman who reared five sons out of one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City. She’s the reason why one of them is about to ascend to the height of his profession. “Imagine you raise a child, and that child is so successful,” Luis says. “That’s a testament to why she wanted to raise us here. So we could have better opportunities. We have been blessed with so many opportunities already, and now there is an even bigger, greater, opportunity on the cusp.”
Lately, for the first time, Flores has found that his mom is on his mind during games. He thought of her last weekend in Kansas City, when the lead changed four times in the fourth quarter and then headed to overtime. Was she stressed out? But Maria had proclaimed that her son’s team was going to win, and she’s not one to waver. A few hours before kickoff, she was so energized that she even tried to get up out of her wheelchair and walk.
“I think the game, my career, and the things that are going on kind of keep her going,” Flores says. “I know we are close, and that’s a hard thing to deal with, but the one thing I have peace in is that I know I have done everything possible to make her proud and to make her happy.”
One hour before every game, Flores talks to his mother. On Sunday evening, he will be calling from Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This is their ritual.
“I will do that again before the next game,” Flores says, “and I’ll do it for as long as I can.”
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