Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Justice for Leslie Frazier

I lived in Chicago for about 20 years. It's arguably the greatest sports town in the land. During my years there, I was let down plenty of times by the baseball teams (and that beat goes on...and on). But I was also present for all six of the Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan-led world championships. And, perhaps most memorably, I was there in 1985, when the Chicago Bears Super Bowl Shuffled their way to the NFL title. The Bears had a ferocious defense, a varied offense led by Walter Payton and Jim McMahon, and they finished the season 15-1. They then vanquished their three postseason opponents by a combined score of 91-10, including kicking the New England Patriots all around the field in Super Bowl XX. Final score in New Orleans: 46-10.

Among the Bears' excellent players was a quietly efficient cornerback named Leslie Frazier. Frazier was a fifth-year pro out of Alcorn State in Mississippi. He led the Bears in interceptions that year with six. Aside from that, you never really heard Frazier's name called that much by the broadcasters. He just seemed to show up every week, clamped down on opposing receivers, got his occasional pick (he ran one back for a touchdown in 1985), and otherwise played his role on a brutal and fearsome defensive squad. Frazier was, if nothing else particularly noticeable, tenacious. And he never got his name called much on TV, I guess, because not that much got past him. On a team that had big-name defenders like Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton, Wilber Marshall, Otis Wilson, and William ("The Refrigerator") Perry, Frazier was unsung.

But getting his Super Bowl ring was a bittersweet thing for Frazier. In the second quarter of the big game, Frazier was called upon to carry the ball on a fake punt. The play was a flop. Worst of all, Frazier tore his anterior cruciate ligament at the end of the play. He hobbled off the field--and he never played another second of pro football in a regulation game. He attempted comebacks in 1986-87 with the Bears and Eagles, suiting up for pre-season games, but he never got a roster spot.

For years, I used to think about what a screw job Frazier had gotten. He was a first-string cornerback. What was he doing on the special teams helping them run a trick play? Just always seemed a cruel turn of fate to me. While the city of Chicago's Super Bowl celebration reached delirium proportions, talented, stalwart Leslie Frazier was finished. And I always wondered what the heck happened to him.

Fast forward to last night's "Monday Night Football" game. The Cincinnati Bengals, looking a lot more aggressive and hungry than usual, trying to rebuild under head coach Marv Lewis, squared off against the generally formidable Denver Broncos. Whattya know...the Bengals roar and beat the Broncs decisively, 23-10. Then the camera zeroes in on an intense, nice-looking guy holding a clipboard. Shazam! It's the Bengals' defensive coordinator--none other than Leslie Frazier--and Al Michaels and John Madden are singing his praises.

So the question that has dogged me for nearly 20 years has been answered. How did Frazier do it? Sort of like he played cornerback: quietly, determinedly.

After leaving the game behind as a player, Frazier took a job at tiny Trinity (IL) College, where he was the NAIA school's first ever head coach from 1988 to 1996. He departed in 1997 to take a coaching job at the University of Illinois, but not before Trinity would name its football field after him. (Frazier was all of 38 at the time.) After two years with the Illini as a defensive secondary coach, Frazier joined head coach Andy Reid's staff with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999. Four successful seasons coaching Eagles defensive backs led to Frazier's appointment in 2003 as Bengals defensive coordinator.

The Bengals have been an NFL doormat for a long time now. They showed signs of life early last year, then kind of underachieved their way to an 8-8 record. But even that was a huge improvement over 2002, when they were 2-14, and they haven't had a winning record since 1990. Their modern-day futility is legendary.

But maybe they're gonna get good. And maybe Leslie Frazier's gonna have something to say about it.

I don't know where all those big Bears stars of 1985 are now. I'm sure most of them are doing fine, though I seem to recall both McMahon and Hampton getting DUIs sometime in the not too distant past. Lord only knows what the "Fridge" is doing these days. Sadly, the great Payton left this mortal coil in 1999.

But Leslie Frazier, a fine football player who should have played a lot longer than he did, picked himself up off the slag heap of the game and went out and made an even better name for himself in the sport he loves so much.

This is the kind of justice I like. Way to go, Les.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Coach Frazier is a great leader and mentor on and off the field.

High 5 to #21