View Full Version : MERRILL: Well suited

08-28-2005, 05:20 PM
long piece in Merrill style


Well suited By ELIZABETH MERRILL, The Kansas City Star

August 28, 2005

RIVER FALLS, Wis. - By the time he reaches the doorway, Patrick Surtain (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/4303/) knows he's packed too much. His duffel bag is big enough to carry a small referee. About 100 pounds worth of socks, underwear and creature comforts are crammed into one 3 1/2 -foot bag. He calls it the basic necessities. He won't use half of the things he brought.

Seven years in Miami, and Surtain never had to pack for training camp. Never had to look into the sad eyes of Patrick Jr., who asks when he's coming home.
"Daddy's doing his job," Surtain tells him.

They call this 470-mile journey to training camp a business trip, and really, who in the NFL had more offseason business to take care of than the Kansas City Chiefs (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/teams/kan/)? They went 13-3 in 2003, were preseason darlings to make the Super Bowl, then sputtered to 7-9. For the third year in a row, the defense had failed them.

That is what brought Surtain here to River Falls for training camp along with Sammy Knight (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/4106/), Kendrell Bell (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/5486/) and Derrick Johnson (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/7191/). Soon, they'll be new starters on a defense that ranked 31st in the league last season. For now, they're relative strangers viewed as saviors in a football-crazed town hungry for its first Super Bowl since the 1969 season.

For now, they're the $106 million men, the identity of the revamped defense.

"For me, the jury's still out until Jan. 1 at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon after we've finished our 16th regular-season game," says Chiefs president/general manager Carl Peterson. "I'm not interested in just players coming in and replacing other players. I'm interested in players coming, being productive and contributing to us winning.

"If that happens, I'll say these are good personnel selections. And if it doesn't, and I've said this before, you know whose fault it is."

He taps on his desk, which sits in a makeshift office in a dorm room. If this fails, of course it's his fault.

McMillan hall, late afternoon, July 27

The bag hits the tile floor, and reality hits Surtain. He didn't pack right. He trolls the aisles of ShopKo, loading his cart with other necessities. Snacks, drinks, blankets, an eggshell mattress pad to help ease the pain of the two thin dorm-room beds that are pushed together.

Knight, cornerback Eric Warfield, linebacker Shawn Barber (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/4342/) and receiver Freddie Mitchell (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/5472/) come along for the trip to the store. With their diamond earrings and hulking muscles, they stand out in this sleepy town of 13,000.
They're not here to be tourists.

"The coaches are preaching all the time that it's going to fly by," Surtain says. "So you've got to make the best of every opportunity you get. You're going to be sore, you're going to feel the aches and pains, but you've got to fight through them mentally. That's when a team really starts coming together."

Surtain and Knight were together for two seasons in Miami, and they're tight. They knew Warfield and Dexter McCleon (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/3945/), because if you're a secondary guy in the NFL for long enough, you get to know everybody. Surtain, who prides himself on being personable, already is calling Barber by his nickname: Barbershop.

When free-agency opened last winter, it was a cornerback's market. Ty Law (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/3188/), Samari Rolle (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/4305/), Fred Smoot (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/5492/). Chiefs defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham gave Peterson a wish list. Surtain was at the top of it.

The courtship started in February, but Surtain wouldn't become a Chief until April 22, hours before the draft. It was the most complicated of all the deals. Surtain had a salary of $5.85 million, and the Dolphins wanted to get rid of him to clear cap space. That part was easy. But Surtain had one year left on his contract, and if the Chiefs were going to get him, Miami wanted something - a second-round draft pick, maybe more, in return.

Peterson wasn't budging. Seasons changed, free-agent cornerbacks were shuffled in and out, and Kansas City signed Knight, the Dolphins' top safety. He'd call his friend from Kansas City and tell him to be patient. They had the same agent. They wanted to stay together.

Surtain is standing outside the cafeteria in River Falls after lunch, saying it's just business and there are no grudges. He gave Miami the first seven years of his career; he established himself as one of the NFL's best cover men. It was time to move on.

Then he thinks about those last days in Miami and how he dragged himself to work.

"My heart wasn't really there anymore," Surtain says. "For the simple fact that they offered me the secret trade, a guy who's given so much to the organization I just felt that it was over."

A man can intercept 29 passes, he can swagger through 82 NFL starts, but he still needs to feel wanted. Kansas City offered that - and a contract worth about $51 million. Just after he signed, Peterson trotted out Surtain to a pre-draft party, where about 2,000 Chiefs fans were waiting. The crowd went nuts.

Surtain's wife, Michelle, broke down and cried.

"You're finally getting the recognition you deserve," she told him.
Surtain played in the shadows of Sam Madison (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/3929/) in Miami. In Kansas City, everybody wants a piece of him. Cameras crowd around his locker. Fans scour the racks for No. 23. He recently did a photo shoot for FHM, a hip men's magazine. He says he wants the exposure. He can't play football forever.

"Being a DB, you've got to look good," he says. "When you look good, you play good."

Surtain (pronounced Sir-tan), who grew up in New Orleans, didn't mind being flashy. Or confident. He played football with the older boys, was the quarterback at Karr High, and ended up starting in place of Peyton Manning (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/4256/) in the Louisiana high school all-star game. He named his daughter Paris. He showed up to sign his contract with the Chiefs wearing a loud light-blue suit.

He isn't a morning person. He hates the Chiefs' 6 a.m. wakeup calls. But he's at practice every morning by 7:30, and he's smiling.

"He's a true pro," coach Dick Vermeil says. "You can see why everyone says he's one of the premier corners in the league. He has a tremendous work ethic, a great focus and concentration. I think he sets a great example for everybody else back there."

Surtain, who ends nearly every sentence with "man," instantly comes across as approachable to the younger players on defense.

Study your playbook, man. Never leave your man, man.

As much as Surtain misses home, he also sees the 3 1/2 weeks in River Falls as a group chemistry experiment, a place where the defense is either going to come to like each other or make a mad dash for the airport at the end of camp. It's tiring, it's monotonous, but the coaches are helping.

Vermeil introduces a speaker one day at a team meeting. He says the guy is from the NFL and wants to talk about what they should do on their off days. He's actually a magician brought to lighten things up.

"You have to make it fun," Surtain says. "If you dread every day coming out, you're not going to get better. You're not going to be the best at your craft.

"If you wake up every morning and say, 'Damn, it's another day, I don't want to go out there, I don't want to work,' that's when you take a step back. And ultimately, the team takes a step back.

"Being a leader on this defense, a guy they depend on, I've got to set an example by going out there every day and working hard."

Wisconsin-River Falls practice fields, 5:30 p.m., Aug. 1

A Chevy TrailBlazer crunches onto the gravel road, and Peterson pulls up with the final piece of the 2005 overhaul. Derrick Johnson didn't want to be late for camp. He promised he wouldn't be late for camp.

When the plane boarded without him, Peterson called Johnson to remind him of that late-April promise. Johnson didn't answer his phone. Didn't return the call, either. Apparently, it's a negotiation ploy.

But now the rookie is here, a $10.5 million deal has been struck, and Johnson is about to get an earful from his new boss. Peterson takes him to his office, an 11-by-13 dorm room with a window air conditioner, a college-sized refrigerator and a flat-screen TV. Peterson asks if he's learned anything about the business of this business.

Johnson says he did.

"From this point forward," Peterson tells him, "I think it would behoove you to begin to build a relationship with the president/general manager. Because I'm going to be a lot closer to you in the next five years than your agent's gonna be."

Peterson likes Johnson. He really, really likes him. In the days leading up to the draft, they did research on the Butkus Award winner, knowing he probably wouldn't be around for the 15th pick. Peterson will say only that they projected Johnson in the top 10.

"Sometimes," Peterson says, "you get lucky."

Johnson signs his contract in the tiny dorm-room office, joins the team for dinner, then leaps on a table for his rookie hazing. He sings "The Eyes of Texas" and flashes a hook-em sign. He's way off-key.

But he does nearly everything else right the next morning, when he arrives for his first two-a-days. He runs from sideline to sideline and chases down a running back who's 55 pounds lighter. He's missed seven practices, but he's clearly ahead of many of the people around him. On the third day in camp, Johnson is promoted to the first team.

And Vermeil, who on draft day warned that it may take a while for Johnson to make an impact, has anointed him a candidate for rookie defensive player of the year. It's bad news for second-year linebacker Keyaron Fox (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/6852/), who's been one of the hardest hitters in camp but is now relegated to the second team.

"I'm not really the jealous type," Fox says. "Naw. My goal was to be one of the best linebackers on the team. I'm still trying to prove that."

Thing is, with the progress Fox has made, he probably would start on the 2004 team. They gave up more big plays than any team in the NFL. Their 435 points allowed broke a franchise record.

Johnson is standing in the rain, towel over his head, when he's reminded how much Kansas City fans want to bury those defensive sins. Fans stand in lines at least 10 deep, drenched, just to get DJ's autograph. He pulls off the towel to pose with a little girl in overalls. He signs for 25 minutes.

"He's an unusual first-rounder from ones I've met," says fellow rookie linebacker Boomer Grigsby (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/7314/). "He doesn't have that swagger like he's better than everybody.

"A lot of guys I've met through the rookie symposium had that little walk to them. Since they've got a little money, they think they're the show now. Derrick, he doesn't have that at all. He's a good kid. He was raised right. He doesn't have that flamboyance, I guess that gaudiness. I haven't seen a big ol' chain around his neck yet or anything of that sort. It's just Derrick. He's laid-back, he's chilled, and when he comes to play, he makes plays on the field."

Johnson speaks softly, almost as if he's embarrassed to tell you of the time he had 30 tackles in one high-school game or how he ran the 100-meter dash in 10.5 seconds. Johnson was projected as a first-round draft pick after his junior year at Texas. He did what any son of a schoolteacher would do - he stuck around for his last year of college.

He's made just one major investment. He bought a car for his mama in Texas. He went with her to pick out the Infiniti, not to brag, but to see the look on her face when she sat in it and played with all the bells and whistles.

"Oh man, my mom was happy," Johnson says. "Her youngest boy, in her eyes, has made it."

When Johnson wants to talk about his day at training camp, he calls his mom, who was one of 21 children. He tells her things are good. He may be understating it. One morning, he runs stride-for-stride with Chiefs receiver Jeris McIntyre (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/6954/), then intercepts the pass with an over-the-shoulder grab.

His teammates are stunned. "Tuck the ball, running back!" they yell. Vermeil is giddy. For a moment, he upgrades Johnson's status to defensive player-of-the-year candidate.

Johnson just goes on his way. He's supposed to take a picture for the newspaper after practice but asks if it can wait. He hasn't had a haircut yet.

"He's just so naturally laid-back that I can't wait to see him upset," Grigsby says. "One of these days, I'm going to try to make him angry just to see how he reacts. Because I can't picture him being angry."

The Metrodome, Minneapolis, Aug. 12, 6:50 p.m.

It's 10 minutes before the Chiefs' new-look defense is unveiled in the preseason, and Kendrell Bell is on the sideline in a red T-shirt and black shorts, ready to explode.

A groin injury helped lead to his departure in Pittsburgh. Shoulder issues have made Vermeil decide that his right-side linebacker will sit this one out. Bell is easily the quietest one on this new Chiefs' defense, but that's the face he shows on the outside.

When he was a rookie, he needed his teammates, in times like these, to calm him down.

He was too amped before games. He wanted to light into someone, hit harder, hyperventilate, then hit again.

"I'm just an emotional player," Bell says. "I like playing football. I get into it."

The Chiefs signed Bell in March because he's fierce, he's emotional, and - for the better part of five years, since the death of Derrick Thomas - they'd lacked that imposing, hard-hitter at linebacker.

In Bell's rookie season, he sacked Chiefs quarterback Trent Green (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/2547/) twice. He lifted Green off the ground on the first hit. His defensive coordinator said he'd be one of the best linebackers to ever come through Pittsburgh. At 23, the rookie defensive player of the year appeared to have the world clenched in his angry hooks.

Then came an ankle injury, then groin problems that forced him out of 13 games last season. Teams saw him as an injury liability. Bell saw it as an excuse for those didn't want to spend money.

"I took it easy," Bell says. "Everybody made a big deal out of (free-agency). I thought it was just a free trip. They'd feed me and keep me in a hotel in a really big city. It didn't bother me at all."

Bell was supposed to go to the New York Giants (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/teams/nyg/) last winter. The deal never got done. He became the Chiefs' first free-agent acquisition in 2005, and after he signed, somebody asked if he'd be viewed as a savior. Bell, who rarely minces words, suggested calling Miss Cleo, a TV psychic.

Peterson calls Bell a calculated risk. But so was Joe Montana in 1993. They structured a contract that gave the Chiefs some wiggle room in the event that Montana couldn't go, and the Hall of Fame quarterback led the Chiefs to the AFC championship game. Peterson says Bell's contract also protects the Chiefs. But he hopes Bell's injuries are behind him.

He's holding him out of the first two weeks of training camp as a precautionary measure. Bell understands, and he's trying to be patient. As the Vikings hit the field in the preseason opener, Bell says it feels like a regular-season game. And he wants to jump around and play.

He controls himself. He gives the younger players a pep talk, then watches Fox start at linebacker in a 27-16 loss. Vermeil gives the team Saturday off, a wild night that will lead to three legal incidents across the area involving five Chiefs players, and Bell returns to River Falls to be with his wife and catch up on some sleep.

He's different from the other new guys. Mysterious. While Surtain packs enough to clothe the entire Chiefs secondary, Bell goes light and has to buy a pair of jeans on the trip. He doesn't even pack his favorite video game, Mortal Kombat. He was glued to it in his days in Pittsburgh.

"My agent sent me another bag with toothpaste and that stuff," Bell says. "I brought my own, but he just normally does stuff like that.

"I'm not ready to go out. I just want to kind of focus in and work."
His godfather was former Chiefs cornerback Jim Marsalis, a man who never shied away from work. Marsalis used to time Bell as he ran through the country roads in Georgia. When Bell left college, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.57 seconds.

In River Falls, he runs in five minutes before the doors close for lunch. Bell has been across the street, watching practice tape with Kawika Mitchell (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/6383/). He does it just about every day. He doesn't want to be just good, he wants to dominate like he did that rookie year in Pittsburgh.

When the Chiefs took a break this summer, Bell went to a performance clinic in Arizona to work on his strength and speed. He ran into Chiefs fullback Robert Holcombe (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/4297/) there.

"I think people just have to get a chance to know him," Holcombe says. "He's a good guy. As he starts to feel more comfortable, maybe he'll open up."

When Bell momentarily opens up, he says he belongs in Kansas City. He loves Cunningham's tough, no-sleep, no-mercy approach and the fact that he's spitting expletives because he wants the defense to be great. He says that's coaching. He says he can handle it.

But most of all, he likes what a change of scenery represents.

"This is a new beginning for me," Bell says. "I think it's a perfect fit, just because there's not much to do. It's simple. Play football.

"When I was a rookie, I came out blazing. I took some things for granted. It takes about three or four years for players to understand that, and in a lot of cases, they don't get the opportunity to bounce back. Now I realize that this game of pro football is more than a game, it's a business. The irony of it is that it is a game because it can play with your head if you don't have direction."

Now, Bell knows exactly where he's going. He heads out the door and gets ready for the afternoon practice.

Last day of two-a-days, Ramer Field, Aug. 18, 6:15 p.m.

Sammy Knight is walking past the ropes, off the practice field, and four kids near the bleachers yell, "Sammy! Sammy!" Knight knows the new autograph policy. Cornerbacks sign on one day, running backs go another, and so on. There has to be order.

Knight walks to the end of the bleachers anyway. There are more talented men on this defense, guys who can run faster and hit harder than Knight. Few of them can captivate an audience like Knight.

Cunningham has this story about Kawika Mitchell, the linebacker who took much of the heat in 2004 for his inconsistent play. Sometimes, Mitchell gets it. Other times, Cunningham's screaming so hard he almost forgets what he's just said.

One day, during one of their heart-to-hearts, Mitchell tells Cunningham, "You know, I'd like to be like Sammy Knight."

Cunningham melted.

"As a coach, you get warm fuzzies hearing things like that," he says.
"To me, that is big time. When you hear that you rise up in your chair and you think, 'Here we go.' They're buying in, they're getting the idea. Because the bottom line is you can coach 'til you are blue in the face, but it's the men that walk across the line and the coaches just watch them."

Knight doesn't stop and think about being a leader. It just comes to him naturally. He plays on instinct and knowledge. His senior year at USC, he was captain, MVP and most inspirational player.

He met his wife, Freda, when they were 2 years old. Even his post-practice soundbites are wrought with passion.

Early in camp, somebody tells Knight what the NFL gurus are saying, that the Chiefs only need to be a middle-of-the-pack defense for the team to be successful. His reaction sounds as if it has come off a movie script.

"When I hear that, it makes me sick to my stomach," Knight says. "It makes me want to throw up. These guys are out their busting their ass every day and we expect to be the top defense in the league. I mean, that's what we shoot for. Anything else is uncivilized."

The kids near the bleachers will settle for top 10. The Dolphins may have been woeful in 2004, but they had one of the best secondaries in the NFL with Knight and Surtain. There was a chemistry, a oneness, and Knight says defenses need to be like one giant whipping chain.

When he signed with the Chiefs, he occasionally prodded Peterson about Surtain. Patrick wants to get this done, Knight would say. Peterson usually responded with the same answer. He knows. Building a defense takes time, money and patience.

"Did they ever take my first offer? Ha, ha," Peterson says. "No. And I certainly didn't take their agents' first offer. It's called negotiations."

There are times in camp when it feels as if the long months of negotiations were worth it and the defense is coming together. On Family Fun Night, in front of a few thousand fans under the lights, the defense stuffs the NFL's No. 1 offense on goal-line stands and third-down drills. Surtain smiles.

Slowly, they are getting better. There are 51 practices in training camp, 25 players are on the scratch list for the Arizona game, but Knight and Surtain don't miss one workout. They slowly saunter out to the practice field for the final workout, and Knight pounds hands with defensive tackle Ryan Sims (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/5892/).

A girl takes down the Chiefs' concession-stand sign. About five diehards are in the stands, and the sky is gray. It's about to rain.

"Guys, pay attention," special-teams coach Frank Gansz Jr. says.
Knight skips the final lunch, retreats to his dorm room and hurries to catch a bus to the airport. The greaseboard outside the cafeteria, which has plotted their schedule down to taping, snacks and naps for the last 3 1/2 weeks, has been hand-smeared, possibly in an act of defiance.

On the side of the board is a scribbled note. It says, "You stay classy, River Falls. Signed, Ron Burgundy."

Cunningham is walking down the stairs in a noticeably good mood. He teases rookie Alphonso Hodge (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/players/7323/). He slaps assistant coach Fred Pagac in the rear as they head out the door.

Four buses roll out of the parking lot, and Knight goes home. He's in bed by 10 o'clock. It's the best sleep he's had in about a month.

"Our camps in Miami were pretty laid-back," he says. "We didn't win there, so I can't say that's the recipe for success. We just didn't do as much hitting. That's what you've got to do to be successful."

They'll all see soon enough.


08-28-2005, 05:41 PM
Nice fluff piece, that is damn near as long as the off season.