LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- As he strolled into the tiny, dimly lit, all-brick restaurant 10 years ago, Matt Nagy had one goal: to put football in his past. But little did he know his three-hour dinner meeting would circuitously lead to the exact opposite. And the stranger he was about to meet he would one day refer to as his "angel." And it would all happen against the longest of odds.
"That word ‘angel’ is more than a little humbling," says Larry Wisdom, the man at the other end of the table that night in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. "It’s embarrassing. I had no intention of hiring him. Ten percent chance? Maybe? And that’s being generous. There’s no rewriting history here."
Instead, there is the unlikely tale of a man who was unemployed, out of football and desperately seeking a job in new home sales becoming the driving force behind the resurrection of one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. In two seasons with the Chicago Bears, former coach Marc Trestman won 13 games. In three years John Fox won 14 games. Matt Nagy has won 12 games and an NFC North championship in his first year. And the season isn’t over.
On Sunday, Nagy’s Bears will host the defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in the opening round of the NFL playoffs. Ten years ago Nagy tried to quit football. He failed. Now he’s the favorite to win the NFL’s Coach of the Year award and has a football-crazed city dreaming of the most improbable of turnarounds -- from football laughingstock to Super Bowl champions.
"This is a great story what’s going on. Worst to first is hard. It’s hard to do," says ESPN NFL analyst Louis Riddick, who worked with Nagy in Philadelphia and has picked the Bears to go to the Super Bowl. "This is a special, special season for this football team.
"I knew Matt would be good, with the potential to be great. But I didn’t know he’d be this good, this quickly."
Dinner with Nagy? 'Hell no'
Fifty-one weeks ago, on a sunny but biting-cold winter afternoon, Nagy stepped to the podium at Halas Hall and officially took the reins as the 16th head coach of the Bears. He spent the first five minutes of his introductory news conference rattling off the names of family, friends, coaches and teammates who helped him reach the pinnacle of football coaching. There was of course his wife, Stacey, and their four boys. His high school and college coaches. Quarterback Alex Smith, with whom he worked closely in Kansas City. And a name few had ever heard of.
"Larry Wisdom," Nagy said that day. "A guy nobody in here knows. He persuaded me to live that dream. I’m living the dream. And Larry, the dream came true."
Somewhere back on the East Coast, Wisdom was chuckling. If he would have had his way, he and Nagy never would have even met. Back in the fall of 2008, as Wisdom cranked bench press sets at 4:30 in the morning, his personal trainer constantly badgered him about meeting his friend Matt Nagy about a potential job.
Nagy grew up dreaming of playing quarterback in the NFL. But after a successful high school career at Mannheim Central in eastern Pennsylvania, he didn’t receive a Division I-A scholarship offer. He ended up at Delaware, where he broke more than 20 passing records. But after graduating in 2000, he went undrafted. His NFL dream officially died after a free-agent tryout with the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 11, 2001. He joined the Arena League, where he threw for more than 18,000 yards and 374 touchdowns in six seasons. But after the 2008 season, the recession caused the league to fold.
At 30 years old, with a wife, two kids, two more on the way and a mortgage, Nagy needed more than just a job. He needed a new career.
"That was such a challenging time for me financially and emotionally," Nagy says.
But Wisdom, the president of a new home construction company, was fighting to save the employees he already had, not add new ones.
"This was a home-building operation. Not a real estate firm," Wisdom says. "People’s lives were at stake. Builders are going bankrupt. Companies are failing. And I’m going to meet someone with no experience about a job? It didn’t make sense."
But Wisdom’s trainer, Steve Saunders, now the strength and conditioning coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens, wouldn’t quit. Saunders worked with Nagy when the quarterback tore his ACL in 2003. He knew the family. The work ethic. The drive. So every time Wisdom came in to train, Saunders brought up Nagy. Eventually the executive caved, if for no other reason than to stop the pestering.
"I said, 'All right. I’ll talk with him,'" Wisdom says. "'Have him give me a call.' And Steve goes, 'Great. You’ll have dinner with him.' I said, 'Hell no.'"
Ten minutes into that dinner, Wisdom realized this was far more than a favor for a friend. Wisdom found Nagy authentic. Personable. Smart. Confident. He loved his communication skills. And he was drawn to his sense of humility and coachability. "All the things people love about him in Chicago came across that night," Wisdom said.
After three hours of conversation, Wisdom got to the point.
"I said to him, 'You’re asking me for a role in which you have absolutely no experience,'" Wisdom says. "'A role that hundreds of other people would want. How can you possibly make the case that it would make sense for me to hire you?'"
"For [Larry] to jump into my life and take care of me the way he did ... it was just special. Sometimes I believe people are brought into your life for certain reasons and he did that. He took care of me." Matt Nagy
Nagy didn’t flinch. He promised to outwork and outhustle anyone in the company. He told Wisdom he’d do everything he could to learn, sell and eventually become one of Keystone Custom Homes' leaders. Wisdom liked everything he heard, but worried about Nagy returning to football. His passion for the game was obvious. But Nagy promised his playing days were in the past. He talked it over with Stacey and they agreed this was the best move for his family: to build a successful business career and volunteer as a coach on the side.
After two more meetings, Wisdom offered Nagy the only position he could, given Nagy’s lack of experience: a commission-based sales job. But with a growing family at home, Nagy needed a consistent income. He negotiated a salary of $100,000 a year, no commission. Wisdom agreed.
"It was instinct and guts, not exactly good business," Wisdom says. "I was building for now and the future and that’s why I was willing to take the risk. I believed in Matt and what he could do for our company long-term."
Says Nagy: "For [Larry] to jump into my life and take care of me the way he did ... it was just special. Sometimes I believe people are brought into your life for certain reasons and he did that. He took care of me."
Football comes calling
Nagy spent his first four months on the job learning everything he could about the Keystone Custom Homes operation. In June 2009 he was finally able to represent the company on the sales floor. And in four weeks, amid one of the worst real estate slumps in 50 years, Nagy managed to sell six homes.
"I began to see this vision I had for Matt’s potential starting to come true," Wisdom says.
But a month later, football came calling again. One of Nagy’s Delaware teammates, Brett Veach, was working with the Philadelphia Eagles and invited Nagy to spend three weeks as a coaching intern during training camp. Nagy had interned with the Eagles the summer before, but now life was different. He was a few months into a promising new career. He had promised he was done with football. How could he ask for three weeks off? Veach reminded Nagy of the ramifications of saying no. "Out of sight, out of mind," he explained.
"I always looked at him as a leader and a guy who had great ability to communicate and deliver a message," said Veach, now general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs. "He was one of those guys who instantly popped into my mind, knowing him as a leader, competitive, and a player, that he would be able to transition those skills over to the coaching side."
Nagy called Wisdom, explained the opportunity and apologized for even bringing it up. He made it clear that if Wisdom didn’t want him to go or if it would in any way jeopardize his standing with the company, Nagy would say no. Family was the priority.
Wisdom instead said yes.
"I saw it as a business development exercise," Wisdom says. "I figured he would come back and be on fire selling homes. I told him to go and get everything out of it that he could and when it was over come back here and get back to work."
Nagy did just that, with an asterisk. When quarterback Kevin Kolb sprained a ligament in his knee in training camp, the Eagles quickly signed Nagy to their 80-man roster. Opposing teams cried foul, insisting Philadelphia was roster-stashing by signing a coaching intern who had attended meetings and thrown passes during training camp drills. A day after Nagy signed, his contract was nixed. And when his internship ended, he was back selling homes.
"And never for a second did I have the thought it would happen again," Wisdom says.
'Go chase your dream'
Eight months later, Nagy sat in his office in the converted garage of a spec home working on some closing papers for a sale when his cellphone rang. The area code read 215, Philadelphia. On the other line was Andy Reid, offering a full-time job as a coach’s assistant with the Eagles for $45,000 a year. It was a huge pay cut. Mostly grunt work. But he’d get his foot in the door. Reid told Nagy to talk it over with Stacey. That talk lasted two minutes. Before Nagy could accept, there was a phone call he had to make.
It was a little after 10:30 at night when Wisdom’s cellphone rang during a late dinner. He saw Nagy’s number and assumed there was an issue with a customer. Wisdom stepped out of the restaurant two blocks from his home. As Wisdom listened to Nagy explain the opportunity with the Eagles, he could sense the uneasiness in his voice.
"He said something about not wanting to let me down," Wisdom says. "He was uncomfortable with breaking the commitment he had made. I told him, 'Matt, you did the integrity thing. You were straightforward and honest with me. There’s something bigger going on here. Go chase your dream. Neither one of us knows where it’s going to lead. Go chase your dream.'"
Nagy took the pay cut and bet on himself. For a year he woke up at 3:30 in the morning and drove 100 miles each way from Lancaster to Philly. Some nights he would just sleep in the Eagles offices. He tried to soak up everything he could from Reid and the entire Philadelphia operation.
"He did a lot of the dirty work and the grunt work for Andy," says Riddick, whose office was just down the hall from Nagy. "I sat in on a lot of game plan meetings. He’d come ask me a lot of things that I said I saw versus what he saw. I knew he had a great football mind."
Says Nagy: "I was the assistant to the assistant. Once I got in the door I knew I would make it. If you’re given a chance and you’re driven and obsessed and consumed when given the opportunity to prove people right, the sky is the limit."
Each step along the way, Nagy followed in the footsteps of Doug Pederson, whom he will match up against on Sunday. In 2010, when Reid promoted Pederson to quarterbacks coach with the Eagles, Nagy bumped up to quality control coach. When Pederson became the offensive coordinator in Kansas City, Nagy moved up to quarterbacks coach. When Pederson took the Eagles' head job in 2016, Reid promoted Nagy to offensive coordinator with the Chiefs.
“It was easy for Matt to climb the ladder,” Veach says. “He came in and quickly gained the trust of not only the players but the coaches.”
Two seasons after becoming Reid’s offensive coordinator in Kansas City, Nagy became head coach of the Bears. The journey from new home salesman to NFL head coach was complete.
"He was uncomfortable with breaking the commitment he had made. I told him, 'Matt, you did the integrity thing. You were straightforward and honest with me. There's something bigger going on here. Go chase your dream. Neither one of us know where it's going to lead.'" Larry Wisdom
“Wow,” Veach says. “When you phrase it that way, it’s kind of silly. But with Matt ... I don’t think there’s anything from a talent or coaching standpoint that would’ve held him back. It was just a matter of him getting an opportunity to fulfill his dream. I think the sky is the limit for him.”
Says Nagy: “If you were to say to me 10 years ago that you would be given these opportunities what would you do with them, I would tell you I’d be right here."
Nagy admitted this week that after the Eagles won the Super Bowl last year, he told Pederson at the NFL owners meetings this past offseason that he planned on following Pederson’s lead all the way to the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
“He probably doesn’t want to hear that right now, but I’m trying to stick on that path,” Nagy says.
A 'surreal' experience
This past May, 10 years after their first dinner in Pennsylvania, Matt Nagy and Larry Wisdom met each other at another restaurant, this time in Nagy’s new home of Chicago. The two stayed in touch over the years, with Nagy hosting Wisdom at occasional Eagles practices and Chiefs games. But this meeting was a bit extra special.
Wisdom grew up just outside Chicago, in a family full of die-hard Bears fans. He loved Ditka, tolerated Wannstedt, appreciated Lovie and lost hair over Trestman. Now his former employee, his friend, would be the one stomping along the Soldier Field sideline leading his favorite football team.
"It’s surreal," Wisdom says.
"For [Larry] to be a die-hard Bears fan just shows how crazy life is," Nagy added.
Wisdom hadn’t been waiting long when Nagy walked into the restaurant in May. He gave Nagy a hug and told him he had two things to get off his chest.
"I told him, 'One, you’re not all that,'" Wisdom laughed. "'You’re a work in progress. And two, when we sit down people’s heads are going to swivel and look our way. Somebody is going to ask for an autograph. Probably my autograph. Just deal with it. It comes with the territory. Just go with it and we can get through this dinner.'"
Over the span of a couple of hours, Nagy and Wisdom joked, laughed and reminisced. They talked about family and faith and Nagy’s ideas on how to build a winning culture with the Bears. And they reflected on the unlikely path that brought them to this point.
"It was a very serious agenda," Wisdom says sarcastically. "I had to give him all those trick plays."
The next day Nagy gave Wisdom a tour of Halas Hall. Since then, Wisdom has followed this Bears season as closely as any, keeping in touch with Nagy through texts along the way. And he can’t believe the Bears are three wins away from the Super Bowl -- thanks in large part to the man he met in Lancaster that night trying to put football in his past.
"I’m so excited for Matt, of course," Wisdom says. "But I’m just as excited as a Bears fan. We want a Super Bowl. And I know he is wired to lead us there. It won’t be because he’s waving a magic wand or calling the right plays. It’s about his leadership skills. Inner strength. And his ability to get the most out of the people around him. I believe in Matt now just like I did 10 years ago. And I can’t wait to see what happens."