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The business of burying the season was nearly over. The players who’d carried the 1997 Kansas City Chiefs to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the AFC had spent the morning answering one unanswerable question after another regarding the 14-10 loss the Denver Broncos had pinned on them less than 24 hours before.
Now all that was left was to gather in the press box dining room, where maybe 15 or 20 of us would shift our interrogations to Marty Schottenheimer. This was not unfamiliar terrain for Schottenheimer, who’d just lost for the 11th time in 16 playoff games, many of them just as tormenting as this one.
“We’re at the door,” he said. “One day, we’re gonna knock down the damned door.”
After 20 minutes of this, with the questions petering out, Schottenheimer asked us to turn off our tape recorders and close our notebooks. We were puzzled, but did as we were asked Marty peered at us and asked a simple question:
“What am I doing wrong?”
And in that moment, for many of us in that room, Marty Schottenheimer stopped being a football coach and became a human being, trying to manage all the frailties and disappointments all of us deal with at home, at work, in our careers, in our lives. We had no answers for him, of course – he never did win another playoff game the rest of his career, lost two more after he’d moved on to the San Diego Chargers.
But he kept knocking on that damned door. You bet he did. Schottenheimer died Monday after a long battle with Alzheimer’s Disease and the kind words that came flooding from all precincts were real and they were genuine.
“If you can’t play for Marty Schottenheimer,” the great Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas told me once, “then you shouldn’t be playing at all.”
He’d already brought the Cleveland Browns to that doorstep a couple of times, losing in agonizing fashion to the Broncos in January 1987 (when John Elway tied the game with a 98-yard drive late) and again a year later (when Earnest Byner fumbled as he was rumbling in for a tying TD late). He’d already lost an excruciating game in Kansas City as a 1 seed two years before when his kicker kept missing chip-shot field goals
Later, there would be one more knee to the gut, when his 14-2 Chargers had the Patriots down by eight points late in the fourth quarter of a 2006 AFC Divisional playoff game. The Pats went for it on fourth-and-five, maybe six minutes left, and I sent a text message to a friend of mine who’d been in the room eight years earlier when Marty had asked for our help. Neither of us covered him anymore so we were both rooting unabashedly for him.
“I fear,” I typed, “that the only man who could lose this game is also coaching this game.”
And sure enough: a few seconds after I hit “send” Tom Brady was intercepted by the Chargers’ Marlin McCree … except McCree refused to simply fall to the ground. And so Troy Brown hit him, jarred the ball loose, and Reche Caldwell recovered for the Pats. From there it was inevitable: touchdown, two-point conversion, field goal, Pats 24, Chargers 21.
“Here’s what I know about Marty,” his friend Ernie Accorsi told me once. “Great football teams follow him around. So he’s either the luckiest SOB ever or he’s a hell of a good coach.”
It was the latter, of course, borne not only of the 200-126-1 record he compiled across 21 seasons but a coaching tree that has yielded four Super Bowl champions – Tony Dungy, Bill Cowher, Mike McCarthy and, as of Sunday, Bruce Arians. Sadly, it is the 3-15 postseason record he’ll be remembered for, and he always knew that’s how it would work out for him.
A few weeks after that Chiefs-Broncos loss, the Kansas Jayhawks were upset early in an NCAA at a time when Roy Williams’ big-game reputation mirrored his friend Schottenheimer’s. I called Marty afterward, and he remembered winning a Pennsylvania state basketball tournament years earlier at Fort Cherry High School.
“All these years later, I can still tell you four or five plays exactly as they happened, plays that allowed us to win the title,” Schottenheimer said. “We don’t make any one of those plays, we lose. But we made them all. That’s what you need. You need everything to fall into place. And you need to believe that someday, everything will.”
They eventually would for his pal, Williams, for a quartet of his proteges. That they never did for Marty … well, he did spend an awful lot of time knocking on that damned door.
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