Coaching Through Tragedy

How two head coaches got struggling NFL teams ready to play one day after the shocking death of a teammate.

Two weeks in a row, a struggling NFL team had to deal with the shocking death of a player one day before playing a football game. Two head coaches got them ready.

ESPN’s Todd Archer recounts how 46-year-old Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett went about it this past weekend:

When the Cowboys arrived in Cincinnati on Saturday night, coach Jason Garrett met with his captains Tony Romo, DeMarcus Ware and Jason Witten to discuss how the team would proceed after learning of the death of teammate Jerry Brown.

“I talked to our players about, ‘Hey, guys, what do you want to do Saturday night? Do you want to have a team meeting? Do you want to have offensive and defensive meetings? Is that the right thing to do? Is that the wrong thing to do? Does routine helps us? Does it hurt us? Just tell me what you think. I’m not going to stand here and say, This is the way you handle it. I can’t say that I know the way to handle it,'” Garrett said. “But I know collectively when we talked about it and worked our way through it, I think everybody was together on how we’re going to handle it.”

The Cowboys kept the Saturday routine as normal as possible with the exception of a 25-minute special teams meeting. Offensive and defensive meetings were shortened.

“Afterwards we had a snack in the dining room, encouraged everybody to go in there and hang out with each other,” Garrett said. “Some guys chose not to. A lot of guys did and kind of hung out and were together. Another thing I said at the outset of the meeting was if anybody wants to leave this meeting, leave the next meeting, you don’t feel up to hear all this stuff, leave. Do whatever you need to do. I’m not telling you how to handle anything. I’m just saying we are here for each other. If you feel like you don’t want to be a part of this, if you want to walk out of the room and take a moment for yourself, you do that. There were no restrictions. There wasn’t a lot of structure. We just tried to handle it the best we could all together.”

Garrett is in only his second full season as a head coach and he’s still growing into the role in a football sense. But this strikes me as an incredibly deft show of leadership under an impossibly difficult circumstance. Romeo Crennel, a 65-year-old grizzled veteran of the league, took a similar approach just one week earlier, when linebacker Jovan Belcher committed suicide right in front of him. SI’s Dennis Dillon:

During his 31 seasons in the NFL, Crennel has been a three-time Super Bowl-winning defensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, the head coach of the Cleveland Browns for four seasons and the defensive coordinator-turned-interim head coach-turned head coach of the Chiefs. None of that vast wealth of experience, however, prepared him for the shocking event that happened on Saturday morning.


After gathering his players together, Crennel had to tell them what had happened. Then the team had to decide whether to proceed as usual and play a football game the next day.
Although the question first was put before the team’s captains, the consensus of the entire team, to a man, was to play. As it turned out, it was a therapeutic experience because it allowed players and coaches alike to take their minds off of what happened on Saturday, even if it was only a temporary relief.


The story line on Sunday was an emotionally hurting group of players coming together under the leadership of a strong, even-keeled man who hurt more than anyone else.

“You can measure a man by how he faces adversity,” said Lilja, one of the last players in a Chiefs locker room that emptied quickly after the game. “That tells you all you need to know about Coach.”

Despite witnessing a scene that could scar him mentally for the rest of his life, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Crennel somehow managed to switch back to his role as leader of this football team and give it the emotional nourishment it so badly needed.

“I did the same thing that I always do,” Crennel said after the game. “I’m thoughtful about what is important, what I think they need to hear, what they need to know, and then I tell them that. The thing that helped me the most was talking to them yesterday morning and telling them about the circumstance. We were able to lean on each other a little bit and let a little bit out. By letting a little bit out, that helped us all get through what we had to get through.”

Athletic coaches tend to adopt an authoritarian style of leadership. That’s especially true in football, where the physical grind of the game requires constantly pushing through pain and fatigue. Yet, both Crennel and Garrett instinctively shifted to democratic, affiliative styles. Most likely, they understood that they didn’t have any better idea than their players how to deal with a situation that’s not in any playbook.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. JKB says:

    Oh, for Christ’s sake. Supposedly, these teams are made up of adults and not third graders. It is tragic that these deaths occurred but spin the globe and you’ll find 18 and 19 yr olds who face the death of their friends every day. And after gathering the bits and pieces of someone they lived with 24/7 for months, including scraping off the bits of their own uniform, they carry them back to be returned to their family. And get up the next day to do it all again with a real risk that one day it will be them who is packed in a bag.

    Isn’t it an old saying in entertainment, “the show must go on”?

    Now let’s hear about the sergeants, lieutenants and colonels who hold kids together as they do real dangerous work day in and day out in the face bloody losses.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @JKB: It’s not the same thing. Soldiers are trained to continue the mission after loss and are psychologically prepared to cope with the fact that men die and battle. That risk is drummed into their heads constantly. Football players expect to get hurt playing the game and are mentally prepared for that. They’re not expecting teammates to die.

  3. arthropod says:

    Not sure I accept the statement that soliders are psychologically prepared to cope with losing their friends in battle. I don’t think anyone can be prepared for that, training notwithstanding. A better reply would be to say that losing a comrade is traumatic both for soldiers and for athletes. We should definitely be mindful of the burden carried by the military, but that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss what happened in the NFL.

  4. Geek, Esq. says:

    Not to take anything away from how these coaches handled the situation, but it’s a little disturbing to me that there’s about 100 times more discussion of the ‘tragedy’ over Belcher’s death and how his friends and co-workers handle it as opposed to the actual tragedy over the woman he murdered.

    Domestic violence is a plague, and to take a perpetrator of the worst extreme of that plague and treat his passing as the big tragedy misses the mark, and badly.

  5. CB says:

    It’s telling that the first reaction to a rather thoughtful and pensive piece was indignation. Instead of getting pissy that ‘these things happen, get over it’, why not think about how these events relate to similar occurences outside the world of sports. Jeez.

  6. CB says:


    I thought the same thing. Ive seen ‘tragedy’ countless times more than ive seen ‘murder-suicide’.

  7. Rafer Janders says:

    @Geek, Esq.:

    Not to take anything away from how these coaches handled the situation, but it’s a little disturbing to me that there’s about 100 times more discussion of the ‘tragedy’ over Belcher’s death and how his friends and co-workers handle it as opposed to the actual tragedy over the woman he murdered.

    Hear, hear. What about how the murdered woman’s friends and family are handling her senseless killing at Belcher’s hands?

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Rafer Janders: @CB: @Geek, Esq.: Innocent people who I don’t know get murdered all the time. While tragic, I don’t spend much time writing or thinking about them.

    This post is how innocent bystanders—the coaches and teammates—deal with a situation. The Cowboys lost a player whose sole offense was getting into the car of someone who’d had too much to drink. Romeo Crennel watched a man who he cared about very much, and was probably mentally ill, blow his brains out. The fact that that man had killed the mother of his child earlier that day makes his passing less lamentable, perhaps, but no less tragic for those having to cope with the situation.

  9. CB says:

    @James Joyner:

    Oh, no doubt. I didn’t mean to infer that the whole mess isn’t a tragedy, and I mostly agree with your take. Ive just noticed that much of the emphasis, at least in the sports media, has been on his suicide at the training facility. I haven’t seen a whole lot of acknowledgement of the killing. In the end though, it doesn’t make much of difference to me. It’s just sad.

  10. Geek, Esq. says:

    @James Joyner:

    Certainly we notice things involving high profile people moreso than ordinary folks.

    But, there also should be examination from coaches and players not only of the loss of a player, but on the evil he committed and how such things could come to pass.

    Also, note that the “someone who’d had too much to drink” was a fellow Cowboys player. Again, if there’s a valuable lesson to be learned in any of this, it’s how to change the behavior of young men so that they don’t kill other people or themselves.

  11. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Romeo Crennel watched a man who he cared about very much, and was probably mentally ill, blow his brains out.

    I haven’t really been keeping up with this story, but do we have any indication that Belcher was mentally ill?

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rafer Janders:

    but do we have any indication that Belcher was mentally ill?

    He blew his brains out.

  13. Rafer Janders says:


    That can be a decision made under intense mental strain and panic. It doesn’t necessarily indicate a previous and on-going condition.

  14. john personna says:

    According to Wikipedia the guy shot his girlfriend, the mother of his child, nine times in the chest, neck and abdomen.

    Shooting himself, later, was a pretty good call.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Rafer Janders: Rafer, agreed. But my point is, having watched a man kill his wife and then watching him kill himself, and then having to pick up the shattered remnants of his children off the streets….

    I am telling you, Yeah… they are mentally damaged. Seriously, I watched this man blow his brains out right after he he killed his wife…. and yet I have no doubt he loved his children.

    Make sense? No.

    But then, neither does life.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: But death does.

  17. john personna says:

    To say these things have ripples doesn’t go far enough.

    Would old man Hemingway have offed himself knowing he was setting a family pattern? Probably not.

  18. al-Ameda says:

    I can understand why the payers would play-on – the event was a shock, and most of the players are probably experiencing shock, yet can suspend their feeling and play the game.

    What I have a hard time with is Romeo Crennel – he tried to talk the player down from suicide, then the palyer killed himself in Crennel’s presence. I don’t see how Coach Crennell had the wherewithall to coach the next game. Wow.