Meatballs, Mahomes and Miami: How Andy Reid got back to the Super Bowl

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It’s the Joe Montana Super Bowl! Niners-Chiefs, six days away. Best pass rush in football and ridiculously ascending run game versus toughest-to-defend quarterback and ascending D. Anybody’s game. Vegas says Chiefs by 1. It’s a coin flip to me. More about the game, and about a frenetic week as the focus shifts to Super Bowl LIV in Miami. First event: Mediafest tonight in Marlins Stadium, with both teams meeting the press between 7 and 10 ET.

First: my time with Reid, who will be interesting but likely cautious this week, when the world invades his space and 3,000 Super Bowl-accredited media people will ask him everything. When I went looking for something that said “Reid” but not many people knew, I found it deep in his past, around 1970 or ’71. He was 10 or 12 years old—he didn’t recall exactly—living in the shadow of the movie and TV studios in Los Angeles, where his dad worked as an artist.

The story involves sweet and sour meatballs, and John Wayne.

Reid’s dad shopped at a meat store in Hollywood, and the shop catered the green rooms for various studio shows. His dad was big on the two Reid boys having jobs, and the shopkeepers needed a hand, and so many days, young Andy would be an extra set of hands. He proved responsible early, so the caterers gave him a job on some days: He’d be the gatekeeper for the sweet-and-sour meatballs. Three, max, per person. Young Andy was a big sports fan, so if an athlete was in a green room before a show (he remembers doing “The Merv Griffin Show,” with Wilt Chamberlain as a guest once), he’d look the other way when the guy wanted more meatballs. But not Hollywood folk. Just three then.

“They weren’t huge meatballs,” Reid said. “So like one time, John Wayne, he wanted a couple more meatballs. If I knew he played football I would’ve given him as many as he wanted. But I was told, I was instructed, to give three meatballs or we were gonna run out. You’re getting three meatballs.”

You said no to Rooster Cogburn in “True Grit?” Kid, do you want to live? You denied the Duke extra meatballs?

Yes he did. And that wasn’t the only time. “I always looked down when I did it,” Reid said. “I never made eye contact—just, ‘Three meatballs.’ “

What’s the segue to that?

I fast-forwarded to the weird 2004 Super Bowl in Jacksonville, and the way his only Super Bowl as head coach ended. The Eagles trailed the Patriots 24-14 with 5:40 left in the fourth quarter, and Donovan McNabb moved the team at a maddeningly glacial pace to a touchdown. Playing with zero urgency, McNabb took 3:45 to drive for a touchdown. I asked Reid if he was telling McNabb to hurry it up. “Yeah, I probably was. It’s my responsibility to do that.” Reid on the game: “I wanted Donovan to have a great game. It didn’t work out that way. He took the blame for it when he didn’t deserve the blame. We were all part of that thing. Unfortunately, the quarterback takes the blame. He had a heck of a career there. He played a heck of a year that year. Couple balls got away from him in that game so didn’t look the best, but it wasn’t because of these stories out there that ‘he choked’ or ‘threw up’ or any of this stuff.”

Then . . . the end of Reid’s Eagles career. In August 2012, at training camp, his son Garrett, a camp assistant to the strength and conditioning staff, was found dead of a heroin overdose in his room. Then the Eagles floundered, finishing 4-12. Reid got fired on New Year’s Eve 2012. Wouldn’t this have been a good time to step back, decompress, ponder life, stare at the ocean and do whatever for a while? Not for Reid. Seven days after Reid was fired in Philadelphia (and five weeks after Kansas City had a tragedy of its own, with linebacker Jovan Belcher murdering his girlfriend and then killing himself), the Chiefs introduced him as the successor to Romeo Crennel.

“Yeah, we lost Garrett,” Reid said. “Had a rough football year. I understood why people felt that way. I didn’t feel that way. My wife supported me on that, Tammy. I just had no desire to take time off at that time. I was sad for what took place. I don’t wish that on anybody. But I also felt that the game could help heal [me]. Coming here they had issues here where they could heal me and I could heal them. It was kind of a joint union there.”

“How much did Garrett’s death affect you personally and as a coach?” I asked.

“I’m sure it did,” he said. “I’m sure somewhere in there it has [affected me]. I think that along with age. I’m sure all these events affect in some way or another. Make you better. Make you more patient. Make you keep your eyes open a little bit better, more. Try to help get people second chances. All those things. I think those are all probably because of those type of events that happen in your life. We’ve all had something there that makes us what we are. I think it was probably something like that to it.”

Reid’s other son, Britt, had drug problems of his own. [He’s now the Chiefs’ defensive line coach.] I reminded Reid that, in 2009, he told me Garrett and Britt advised him to give Michael Vick a second chance at football when he’d been released from prison after his dog-fighting and animal-cruelty convictions. Reid asked both to weigh in on Vick, and Britt Reid talked to Vick.

“What they said was, he’s admitting that he was wrong,” Reid said. “He’s done it publicly; he’s done it to them. That he sat in his cell and thought about it. He’ll never come back. There was conviction in that. . . . [He would] never come back to jail. He was determined. And then the other part was that he said he was willing to work and not in the NFL, but have a job, whatever it was to prove to people that he was back. He’ll work like crazy to do whatever it takes to get back in.”

With the approval of owner Jeffrey Lurie, and against a loud disapproval of the animal-rights community (and picketing), the Eagles signed Vick, who did as much as he could to make good on his second NFL chance. “There was always a kind heart in there underneath all the pressure of being the second coming of Elvis,” Reid said. Vick led the Eagles to the 2010 NFC East title, and in his sixth start back played arguably the greatest game of his life on Monday Night Football. Remember? He threw for four touchdowns, ran for two more, and Philly creamed Washington 59-28.

Would another coach ever have signed the toxic Vick? My guess is no. Being an Eagle for five years, and being a front-facing advocate for animal rights after doing so much wrong, contributed mightily to Vick moving back into the football and public mainstream in the decade since leaving prison. Imagine the NFL appointing Vick one of two Pro Bowl captains 10 years after walking out of prison, and imagine NFL partner FOX signing Vick to do some television work. Unimaginable 10 years ago. Reid is proud of what Vick has done with his second chance.

And in his second chance, in Kansas City, Reid needed his own Elvis.

Alex Smith was Reid’s first quarterback in Kansas City, and he went 53-27 in five seasons as a Chief, with a stellar 102-33 touchdown-to-interception ratio, making the playoffs in four of five seasons. Smith was a dream student, leader and executor of the offense. But he won only one playoff game. He had a ceiling, and it looked like he’d reached it. There was a drumbeat inside the organization—and certainly in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium—to upgrade at quarterback as 2016 turned into 2017. As Reid said, “Alex is no dummy.” He could feel it too.

One day in the spring of 2016—after the third of Smith’s five years as starter—Reid walked down to the scouting area and saw co-director of player personnel Brett Veach studying some tape. “I’m watching our next quarterback,” Veach told Reid. It was tape of Mahomes as a Texas Tech sophomore. Reid watched the strong arm and command and mobility of Mahomes for five or 10 minutes. “Coach,” Veach said, “I can only imagine what he’d do in this offense.”

Veach would text highlights of Mahomes to Reid’s phone in the fall. “At one point that December,” Veach said, “I remember Coach calling me into his office and showing me a Kiper/McShay mock first round. He said, ‘Your guy’s not even in the first round!’ They didn’t have Patrick in the round. I just said, ‘Coach, it’s perfect! Don’t worry. You don’t want him on these lists now. It sets up perfect for us.’ “

Reid hired Veach, a former wideout at Delaware (he caught passes from quarterback Matt Nagy) to be his personal assistant with the Eagles in 2007, and he came to trust his personnel acumen. “If you know Brett,” Reid said, “he can wear you out when he gets on a player. When he gets on a guy, I listen.”

“The thing about Andy that people who work for him will tell you is he’s got no ego,” Veach said. “The first year I’m in Philadelphia, I’m the lowest guy on the totem pole—literally. And I’d have little [scouting] projects and Andy would say, ‘You like this guy? If I’m gonna watch his best game, what would it be?’ “

The clincher for Veach—and for Reid, as it turned out—came in Mahomes’ second-to-last college game, in Ames, Iowa. In the first half, Mahomes got knocked out with a shoulder injury, and though he came back before halftime, Iowa State was up 45-3 at the half. Game over. Texas Tech was about to be 4-7, and Veach had seen enough. He gathered his stuff, put his coat on, and prepared to leave. But on the field late in halftime, Mahomes was loosening up his arm. This pro prospect, with a bum shoulder, was going to play in a blowout. Veach couldn’t wait to tell Reid. “Now you look back and you see how meaningful that was,” Veach said. “In the Denver game this year, his kneecap pops out, and the son of a buck wants to go back in the game!”

The Chiefs low-keyed their interest in Mahomes; Reid didn’t go to Mahomes’ Pro Day, or dig into his background with Texas Tech coaches. “That would have set off fire alarms,” Veach said. There was a natural trade partner—needy Buffalo—sitting at number 10, wanting volume. It didn’t hurt that Reid gave Bills coach Sean McDermott his first job in the NFL in 1999 in Philadelphia. Veach and GM John Dorsey did enough intel on the scouting trail to know that the two competitors for Mahomes were the Saints (picking 11th) and the Cardinals (13th), and the teams from six through nine didn’t seem keen on trading. Reid said Veach “CIA’d the whole thing.” The Chiefs targeted Buffalo’s pick, and when Mahomes was there, KC dealt two first-round picks and a third-rounder to move up 17 spots to pick Mahomes.

“Listen,” Reid said. “I love Alex Smith. Not because he’s just a great football player. But great person. Highly, highly intelligent. One of the best I’d ever been around. I mean, I wish I would’ve had him when he was younger in this offense. He would’ve been spectacular. Even more so than what he was. Go back and look at what he did here for those few years. We were bringing Pat Mahomes in. We were drafting him to sit for a year or two potentially, to learn from Alex and these coaches that we’ve got . . . Didn’t ask Alex to teach him. But Alex opened it up to do that. He learned, followed him everywhere. Whether it was talking about how he took his notes in the classroom to how he trained to what he did when he went home to study. Everything. Every little thing that goes into being a great quarterback in the NFL. The whole time, Alex knowing that this kid had talent just by watching him practice . . . Alex had his best year with this kid on his tail, in theory.”

Reid got 538 texts in the hours after Kansas City’s AFC Championship victory over Tennessee last week. One was from Alex Smith.

Reid recalls, “[Alex] goes, ‘Phenomenal win. The kid was unbelievable.’ He’s his biggest fan. That’s what’s weird about it. And Patrick’s his biggest fan.”

Time to go to work. The security guy, the only other person on the property at 3:55 in the morning, kept peering out of the Chiefs’ lobby, wondering what Reid could be doing in his truck.

I told Reid that Niners coach Kyle Shanahan is like a young Andy Reid—imaginative and inventive, hard to game plan for. “I think he grew up with a phenomenal football-coach father who I have a ton of respect for,” Reid said, speaking of two-time Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Shanahan. “He loves coaching. He loves the strategy part of it . . . I’d love to get him on the board, see what the stuff is. I love that. That’s the best part of it. He has a philosophy. It’s direct. It’s easy to understand for his players—‘This is where we’re going.’ “

“Think you’re going to win the game?” I asked.

“I’m gonna tell you,” Reid said. “I go into every game thinking we’re gonna win and rip your heart out. That’s every game. Right or wrong. You can talk to the sports psychiatrist or psychologist and they’ll probably tell you that’s the wrong way to go. But that’s the way I go. I’ve gone that way everything I’ve done. I try to do it humbly because that’s how I roll. But yeah, that’s why we work this hard. We don’t work this hard to lose.”

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.