Thursday, April 09, 2009

A familiar name found amid agate type

Buried beneath box scores and standings, this item caught my eye on a recent agate page:

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS -- Named Larry Coyer defensive coordinator.

The name probably doesn't mean anything to you, but I smiled upon reading about that hiring, even if I had to squint to see it in fine-print type.

As a sports writer, you never really root for teams, contrary to what fans may think. You root for people. Coyer is one of those people.

Coyer served as the Denver Broncos linebackers coach and defensive coordinator during my tenure covering the team, and he was unceremoniously scapegoated after another Mike Shanahan season gone awry in 2006.

His second chance as a coordinator is well deserved.

Beyond the fact he was a damned good one in Denver, he's probably one of the two or three nicest people I've come across in the coaching ranks in 15 years of sports writing.

(Ceal Barry, the one-time Colorado women's basketball coach, would be one of the others).

An older guy with wispy white hair, Coyer was rarely seen without a pipe in his mouth after practices, when he'd sit by himself for a few minutes of peace on the side of the field after everyone else went inside.

When he lit up, reporters could always wander over and get whatever quotes they needed about his defensive players.

But we could also just shoot the shit with him, and that was better.

That may not sound like anything extraordinary, but here's a little perspective that may help put it into context: Shanahan had everyone who worked in that building so paranoid about talking to the media that most reacted like scared cyborgs to the simplest of questions.

For Coyer to act ... you know, human ... was nothing short of astounding. And he'd sit there and talk for an hour if you wanted.

He had that approach because he was the exact opposite of the control-freak egomaniacs who populate most NFL sidelines.

Maybe that's because he knew what real hard work was all about, growing up in and around the mines of Greenbow, West Virginia.

Maybe because he knew what real loss was all about, having recruited a few dozen juniors and seniors aboard a DC-9 that crashed in Huntington, West Virginia in 1970.

Coyer worked as an assistant coach at Marshall.

He had accepted a position as an assistant coach at Massillon (Oh.) High School a year earlier, otherwise he would have also been on that plane.

Or maybe his low-key demeanor just evolved after coaching at dozen colleges, including Michigan, two USFL teams and leading a vagabond life before landing his first NFL gig. He knew what dues-paying was all about.

A couple things stand out about the man:

- Each Thanksgiving, he invited all his linebackers over to his house for dinner if they were stuck in town and didn't have anywhere else to go. His wife, Jan, would often make his players cookies.

- When Shanahan promoted Coyer from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator, the team held a press conference. He was not accustomed to such a formal gathering. He had about a dozen microphones pinned to his lapel, and it was really his first time in front of the cameras.

When the presser was over, he forgot the mics were still clipped to his jacket. He stood up and walked away, dragging them all with him. I can still picture that scene.

Welcome to the big time, Larry.

- My best Coyer memory came following a brutal 41-10 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in a 2004 playoff game.

The defense had a very strong season, but for whatever reason, the unit flat-out choked in this particular playoff game.

Manning destroyed them from the opening snap, and the Colts led 31-3 at the half.

The most egregious Denver failing came when Marvin Harrison caught a leaping pass over the middle and fell to the turf in front of safety Kenoy Kennedy and corner Roc Alexander.

Kennedy and Alexander conferred to discuss who blew the coverage. But neither bothered to tap Harrison when he was down. The Colts receiver got up, untouched, and scampered another 30 yards for a touchdown.

It was an embarrassing, blooper-reel failure.

In most scenarios, the defensive players and coordinator probably would rather join the witness protection program than stand up and answer questions the how, why and degree of their awfulness.

After that game, Larry Coyer not only showed his face to answer questions about that play and the defense's miserable day, but he sought out reporters to personally apologize for the unit's performance in the halls beneath the RCA Dome.

Every member of the Broncos media pool that traveled to Indy for that game got a one-on-one with Coyer that day. He made sure of it.

"I feel sick to my stomach," he said after that game. "I feel physically ill."

I knew he meant it, and thought for sure he would vomit.

The rest of the team had cleared out of the locker room and was ostensibly on a bus to the airport. Coyer stood among the empty lockers and discarded athletic tape and asked me if he had talked to everyone, and inquired about going up to the press box to make sure.

No one asked him to do that. He just did it, when there was no reason to do so and every reason not to.

Watching Coyer seek random reporters out to personally apologize in the halls underneath that dome stands out as one of the most fascinating and honorable sports spectacles I've ever witnessed.

Here's to hoping his best days in Indy are ahead.



At 8:12 PM, Blogger Erik Peterson said...

Great post...I wonder if there is a career in writing blogs about the good guys and bad guys?


Post a Comment

<< Home