When the Harbaugh brothers met in the Super Bowl last February, it was one of the primary storylines, because, as story lines go, it was pretty obvious. They fought over the last piece of pizza when they were kids.
A different band of brothers will converge on the Metrodome Sunday. When the Chicago Bears went from contender to dominator – when they won the Super Bowl they carried two coaches on their shoulders – a bond was forged that started at training camp and ended with etching their names among the elite. The 1985 Chicago Bears were so arrogantly confident, they filmed a video in November – nobody licked a sledgehammer – that was extremely dated by current standards in which they proclaimed themselves heading to the Super Bowl. Shufflin’ there, no less.
At the time, Mike Singletary was on the mic sporting the young man’s Harry Caray glasses as a lead singer. Backing him up in the de facto Shufflin’ crew backup singers was Leslie Frazier. Unfortunately, linebacker Ron Rivera was bypassed for the “Super Bowl Shuffle” in favor of football legends Jim Morrissey – how could you have a faux rap video without a guy named Jim Morrissey providing street cred – and something called Dan Rains.
As it turned out, the Bears achieved the lofty (and extremely cocky) goal of backing up what they “put on tape.” Unfortunately for Frazier, his playing career essentially ended on the night in New Orleans when he, Singletary and Rivera were teammates on a defense so dominant.
On Sunday, two close friends – brothers of different mothers – will meet at the Metrodome. In the business of the NFL, you leave your guns at the door. Friendship is suspended. It is lasting, but it takes a three-hour hiatus.
Rivera was in his second season with the Bears. Frazier was in his fifth. He was something of mentor to Rivera. In the game that became the fruition of one of the most braggadocios midseason claims of greatness, Rivera soaked it in. Frazier was underneath the Superdome in New Orleans being told his career was probably over. Bittersweet understates their relationship.
In NFL terms, it’s tantamount to seeing a friend die. Rivera’s career was just beginning. Frazier’s came to an abrupt, unexpected end.
Frazier’s career path into coaching began in humble beginnings. Very humble. He was asked to make a football program out of Trinity International University. When Rivera’s NFL career ended, Frazier offered him a coaching position. He declined, but a friendship became a bond tattooed in ink.
“He actually tried to get me to coach with him when he started the program at Trinity International University in Chicago,” Rivera said. “I kind of held that off. Then he and I got into coaching together with Philadelphia. I had done my second year as quality control coach with the Bears and Leslie was at the University of Illinois. We were teammates and we’ve stayed quite close. In all honesty, we talk once a week. Maybe two times. We did talk last week after he got back. I wanted to congratulate him. We won’t talk until we get together on Sunday.”
With both coaches are on the hot seat to keep their current jobs sporting identical 1-3 records. They’re enemies Sunday, but their friendship has helped them through their hard times.
“During the early stretch of the season, we’ve tried to pick each other up at times,” Frazier said. “We usually talk at least once a week during the season and in the offseason as well. We probably won’t talk this week. I just to try to encourage him as best I can and share some insight from my perspective and he does the same with me. He’ll share some things with how he’s doing things or how things are done where he is and whatever he thinks might be able to help me. It’s mutual communication where we’re both trying to encourage each other and help each other wherever we can.”
The friendship between Rivera and Frazier runs deeper than just the X’s and O’s of a football game.
“Leslie is probably one of the few people I can honestly say I do turn to for guidance – in more ways than one,” Rivera said. “Not just in everyday, but on the spiritual sense. Leslie is just one of those really good people that you can always rely on.”
The obligatory post-game head coach handshake won’t be a “Belichick-Rex” drive-by Sunday at the Metrodome. It won’t be a “Schwartz-Harbaugh” run-down back slap. It will be a hug that may last a little too long. To the loser, the heat under his seat will be hot enough to make liquids bubble. Will it be awkward for one of them to be the head coach of a 1-4 team late Sunday afternoon?
“Very awkward,” Rivera said. “It’s akward, too, because somebody I respect in this league, Mike Singletary, is on that staff as well. I’ve gotten to know him – obviously I played with Mike. I haven’t got a chance to coach with Mike, but they are two really good men. I do look forward to seeing them Sunday.”
Two friends who happen to be NFL head coaches will meet Sunday at the Metrodome. It may be the last time such a meeting takes place. The loser of Sunday’s game will be ripe for replacing. The winner gets a one-week reprieve. Forgive them if they hug a little too long. They have a history. The future? That may be another story.
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Viking Update web site or magazine, click here.