AVENTURA, Fla. — Andy Reid is a private person who has had a very public job for the last 21 years of his life, which means most of what we’re left with is a sketch of a man whose narrative has been shaped by the little pieces we’ve seen.
Some of them are endearing, like his fondness for cheeseburgers and Tommy Bahama shirts. Others are tragic, like the loss of a son in 2012 to a drug overdose. From one extreme to the other, Reid has powered on, revealing little about what it has been like to ride the emotional roller coaster of an NFL head coaching career that is now into its third decade and has left him with one major distinction: the winningest coach in the history of the league without a Super Bowl title.
“Some of you guys that know me away from it, I let my personality show from there,” Reid said Wednesday. “But other than that, I try to keep it as professional as possible.”
Yet despite his best efforts to conceal what a victory in Super Bowl LIV would mean to him, Reid has become the sentimental favorite both inside the Chiefs' locker room and for a general public that knows one fundamental principle of sports more than it actually knows Reid himself. When you’ve been as good at something as long as Reid without winning a championship, the emotional gravity will always pull toward wanting to see that burden lifted.
“One of the best coaches to ever coach football and to never have a Super Bowl as a head coach, that’s one of the biggest things I feel like is on my list as far as things I’d love to happen this Sunday,” said Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark. “I know the joy he’s going to get. I’ve got more years to play, to give myself a shot doing this. Coach ain’t old, but he’s getting old. Just keeping it real — it’s the nature of the game. You never know when someone’s time is going to end, so you want a guy like him to be able to enjoy the benefits of winning that championship and be able to see that.”
As much as the career validation championship run is part of the sports zeitgeist, it’s not always a huge storyline in the Super Bowl. You had a little bit of that element with Pete Carroll in the 2013 season, but you probably have to go back to Peyton Manning finally winning a title 13 years ago to find a case where one highly accomplished person needs a title this badly to fill in that last missing piece of their legacy in the sport.
Reid, of course, is sprinting as fast as he can away from that conversation this week, which is very much on brand. Understandably, he doesn’t want this to be about him or whether he needs it to get into the Hall of Fame or anything tangential to his job of trying to beat the 49ers.
But even within the locker room, it’s a very real thing because nobody has a better appreciation for what it would mean than the guys he coaches.
“He’s a Hall of Fame coach,” fullback Anthony Sherman said. “For him to be able to go down with a ring and a championship, it’d be a great feeling for a lot of these guys on this team. I know a lot of us want to win this for him.”
That’s not necessarily the norm in the cold-and-corporate NFL, especially in this day and age where teams are infatuated with finding the next 35-year-old offensive genius. Reid has been that guy, too; when the Eagles hired him off the Packers' staff in 1999, he was just 40 and the second-youngest head coach in the league.
But now, the coach they call “Big Red,” and who was initially derided in Philadelphia for his inexperience, seems more like America’s grandfather. We’ve seen him make the playoffs a remarkable 15 times without a championship; we’ve seen him lose in his only previous shot at the Super Bowl when Tom Brady broke his heart in the fourth quarter; and we’ve seen some highly publicized clock management warts in the biggest moments.
Even if Reid isn’t the biggest personality, it’s much easier to identify with someone who has repeatedly gotten close and failed than someone who wins everything. If Reid finally gets over the line this time, a lot of fans will feel like they took the journey with him, even if they don’t really know him.
What’s most striking, however, is the genuine affection players have for Reid. For some, maybe it’s the legendarily long hours he puts in at the office. As safety Tyrann Mathieu said, Reid “lets us be ourselves” and doesn’t discourage players from showing their personalities. It’s also true that Reid has shown a high tolerance in giving second chances to guys who have gone astray off the field, all the way back to signing Michael Vick at Philadelphia and continuing in Kansas City.
“It doesn’t matter what time you call him, he’ll answer the phone,” said receiver Tyreek Hill, who was welcomed back to the team after an investigation into child abuse allegations ended without him being charged or sanctioned by the NFL. “He’s very understanding because he’s a father and a grandfather. He understands that guys got personal lives and that guys deal with issues. To be the first team to win a championship for coach Reid, that would be huge.”
In a way, it’s almost counter-intuitive that, at 61, Reid would be considered more of a player’s coach than guys in their 30s. But as Clark said, it’s not the age that matters, it’s the ways in which he will show that he cares and wants to win just as bad as the guys in the locker room.
“Guys like that, they’ve seen it all. They’ve been there; they’ve been around,” Clark said. “Think about how many players Andy Reid has dealt with like a Frank Clark, like a Tyrann Mathieu. You don’t want to speak on the past and things that’s happened, but he’s dealt with a lot, he’s been through a lot of things. The same things he’s been through, I’ve gone through in my family, so it’s a lot of things he can relate to.”
Indeed, Reid has seen tragedy in his life, and he might be on the verge of the ultimate success, not that either of those things really balances out. They’re just all part of the story. And even if Reid isn’t the type to share a lot of himself publicly, a whole lot of people watching Super Bowl LIV will be happy for him if he can finally claim the ultimate prize.
Follow Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.