Note: I wrote this column last Christmas Eve, about an interaction I had with Raheem Morris, then coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I’ll update you on what happed to Raheem in the days following last Christmas Eve, and what he’s up to now, at the end of this post.
He’s the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ head coach. I’m not.
I sometimes write about the Bucs. I’m a correspondent for the Associated Press. It’s my job to write about his team, whether they’re the young world-beaters they were made out to be last season, his first on the job, or this, a year of turmoil and turnovers and long losing streaks and good starts gone horribly, horribly bad.
For one moment, on Christmas Eve day, he and I were bound together in a moment no one likely noticed, at the tail end of a press conference following a blowout loss to another going-nowhere team, the Carolina Panthers. It was the ninth straight loss for Raheem’s team.
For one moment, when I had a job to do as a journalist, I let the part of me as coach and father get in the way.
And I don’t regret it. A bit.
Raheem’s just 32. He’s put in his time; after a promising college career at Hofstra after which some might have thought he could go pro, he served as a graduate assistant, was accepted into a minority coaching program for the NFL, and toiled through the ranks, until the day the Bucs decided to fire their head coach and give Raheem his chance.
That was nearly two seasons ago. A lifetime, in professional sports. Because this isn’t a sports blog, but a parenting blog, I won’t go into the timeline of how Raheem fell from one of the league’s hottest new names to a man writers say lost control and respect of his team amid a season of unrealized promise.
My job on Christmas was simple – ask Raheem about the mistakes his team made. His decision to make his best running back sit on the bench for the first half after he fumbled on Tampa Bay’s first play.
And ask him what he felt about the probability of being fired. Soon.
I hoped another writer would beat me to it.
Raheem gave insightful, honest answers to tough questions. He blamed himself for the team’s woes, spoke candidly about his disappointment in one of his star players, and detailed a gameplan gone wrong.
“Two more questions,” the Bucs’ PR man said.
Someone asked him about the team’s offense … I didn’t listen, but instead, fought with my assignment.
Was I really about to ask a man – someone’s son – who had just taken a 48-16 beating, in a lost season, about his seemingly imminent unemployment?
On Christmas Eve?
Raheem does a lot for charity. It doesn’t make him immune to criticism as a coach if a team struggles. Raheem kept his chin high during the interview, made eye contact when posed a question by the writers – none of which made my job easier by broaching the sore subject. While fans had turned off their TVs and turned their attention to Christmas dinner, midnight mass and Santa Claus, we writers were fixed on a coach on the hot seat.
Apparently, Raheem had finished talking about his offense. “One more question for coach?”
“Coach,” I piped up, and the attention turned to me. From the writers, and from the coach.
In that moment, he looked at me. I don’t know him. This is my first time interviewing him. I do know that when he was in college, he moved from his established position to one his team needed help with. By thinking of the team first, he probably derailed his chance to play as a pro.
I do know he’s studious, driven, appreciative of the opportunity given him. It’s not lost on Raheem that he’s one of 32 men who are NFL head coaches, and a smaller fraternity who are minorities. I do know that when Raheem first got the Bucs’ lead job, he bought his mom her first car.
He looked at me, turned his head slightly (did he know what was coming?) and shifted his weight at the podium. Did he know he was also dealing with a coach, albeit in a slightly different tax bracket?
“Coach,” I asked, “what are you going to focus on next week?”
Raheem let out a breath, then lamented his team’s poor tackling. “We’re going to work on that this week, that’s for sure.”
“Thank you, everyone,” Raheem said. “Merry Christmas.”
I filed out to the team’s locker room, a solemn collection of men who’d just been rolled on a holiday. They told me they felt bad their coach was being singled out, felt responsible for his plight, felt hopeless, when they knew he’d done all he could to prepare them, but that sometimes the calls don’t go your way, the ball doesn’t bounce in your favor, and the scoreboard doesn’t protect you from your detractors.
You’ll never confuse my paycheck with Raheem’s. Or see me answering questions after a tough loss under the bright lights of television, as he must. But for one day, on Christmas, he reminded me we coaches, no matter how big our area or vast our audience, are just trying to do the best we can on game day to come out on the right side.
On this day, I won as coach. I might have failed as journalist, though.
I’ll focus on that next week, coach. Happy holidays.
NOTE:The Bucs fired Raheem on Jan. 2. Nine days later, the Washington Redskins hired him as defensive back coach. His new team has a shot at making the postseason this year. His old team, the Bucs, does not.