Brian Kelly watched his charges file into the LaBar Practice Complex after four days in Shiloh Park and smiled. He felt a well of emotion as a painful offseason continued to recede in his mental rearview mirror. He had driven the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston and couldn’t help but place himself on that imaginary saddle, wrangling the cattle. Tony “The Recruiter” Alford ambled beside him, unable not to notice the reverie that had descended over his boss. “You okay, BK?” he asked, arms folded, looking, too, at the line of players.
Kelly let the question linger without responding. These horses, his horses, were, in so many ways, his only companions. With every day now, the pace of things, and his presence here, would increase, until he, and they, were consumed by events. It made him think of Jack Nolan’s question to him before camp began: “how are you different than when you got here?”
Coach put his right hand on Alford’s shoulder and began to walk in the wake of his players. “I’m fine, Tony. Let’s go to work.”
He couldn’t shake the questions as he watched the practice drills unfurling before him. He told them at Shiloh Park that he didn’t know how tough they were. To that doubt, now, he added Alford’s question. Was he okay? How was he different? “Well, for one fucking thing, Tommy ran for a touchdown, so that’s something different.”
He watched Stephon Tuitt tomahawk chop the blue bag, the thudding crunch carrying in the warm August air. His eyes began to pick out the differences. The added muscles rippling under skin. The quickness in the step, of his assistants as much as in his players. Whistles piping the air. The priest in black walking the sideline, watching.
He felt the presence of someone behind him to his left and smelled the identity immediately as the air filled with the sweet scent of conditioner. “Your boys look good, Bobby.”
“Yeah.” Diaco shrugged and furrowed his face. “Not too bad. It’s early. But you know what they say about that.”
Kelly couldn’t help but laugh to himself because he didn’t, in fact, know what “they” said about that or who, even, “they” were. “Bobby, lemme ask you. How are we different?”
“Whatdya mean different, BK? Better? Yeah. We’re better.”
Now, two more men joined them, Alford and Mike “Tweet” Denbrock. Diaco nodded towards the head coach. “He wants to know how we’re different.”
Tweet spoke first. “We’re way different. Jacked! Couldn’t be more fired up about it, BK.”
Kelly looked at Coach Alford. “Yeah? You buy that?”
Alford shrugged. “I see that we’re different, sure, but are we better? Tougher? You think we know that now?”
Kelly, and the men around him, fell silent. Again, the coach lost himself in the wash of scenes playing out in front of and around them. He knew they were different. Miami, and all that came before, made them different. He talked about it at Shiloh Park, that they were a championship team, but he knew, as well, that they were losers. “Lose one game and you’re a loser.” He couldn’t shake that thought.
He saw other differences now. There was no Golson, but Tommy looked somehow faster. Maybe it was the moustache. There was no Eifert, but Niklas was flying through space, making catches that would have challenged Michael Floyd. And there was no Manti. No Lennay. There had never been, but now she was gone, too.
There had been no deaths. Declan’s death still lurked in his mind, years later. It helped put things in perspective, as the horror of that day put the very reason he was there at all, football, in perspective. They held together after that. Did that make some of these guys tougher? Different?
The four coaches were now joined by Chuck Martin. “We gotta wrap it up, BK, you know what I mean? It’s been a long day.”
Kelly turned to him. “You think we’re different, Chuck? Tougher?”
Martin consider that for a moment. “Those are two different questions, both tough. Yeah, I think we’re different. They’re hungrier now than before. You don’t lose like we did and not get changed by the experience. And I think we’re tougher. Again, you don’t get beat like that and not get tougher. But are we tough enough? I dunno. What do you think?”
Kelly blew his whistle and the entire ensemble dissolved and began jogging to the cluster of coaches. “I don’t know. I don’t know, Chuck. I sure as shit hope so, but I don’t know yet. Will time, or Temple, tell? Maybe. You give me another goal line stand in the rain and I’ll know. But right now, I don’t know.”
The players were drawing close, the clatter of their helmets and pads like the tack of cavalry at the trot. Kelly took the last moment for a quiet word to his assistants. “Only these guys know.”