EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. -- The Minnesota Vikings have now been through three coaches in the eight years the Wilf family has owned the team. They fired the first, Mike Tice, minutes after the 2005 season ended. They got rid of the second, Brad Childress, in the middle of the 2010 season, after he usurped their authority in cutting Randy Moss and his players soured on him.
So simply because of logistics, it's a safe bet there hasn't been a scene in recent memory like what happened Monday morning at Winter Park, when Frazier said goodbye to his players -- some of whom admitted they were holding back tears -- told them to call him if they ever needed anything and left the room to a round of applause. But the uniqueness of the moment goes beyond that.
It's not normal for a group of professional athletes, who operate removed from the front office and insulate themselves emotionally with reminders about how the game is a business, to emerge from a meeting like that and admit to reporters what their emotions were. It's even less normal to hear so many talk about what Frazier -- first as the Vikings defensive coordinator, and then as their head coach -- meant to them as men. But that's Frazier. And the things for which his players praised him are the things he does best.
Some coaches make their money as tacticians. Others make it as taskmasters and disciplinarians. Frazier's thing was servant leadership: his ability to get players to follow him, and play for each other, because of how he treated them.
Consider the stories players told Monday: Erin Henderson, who was arrested last month for drunken driving and who has talked about dealing with emotional issues this season, talked about how Frazier encouraged him over the past six years in Minnesota, and said he plans to keep in touch with Frazier. Chris Cook, who was arrested in 2011, said Frazier "definitely helped me as far as being a calm person and channeling some of my aggression that I had when I first came in." And Jared Allen, who came to Minnesota after struggling with alcohol in Kansas City, said he believed Frazier's presence in his life wasn't a coincidence.
"When you come in [at] 25 years old and land a huge contract, heck, we’ve seen it in the league go the wrong way a lot of times," Allen said. "[It was] just helping me from the standpoint of having somebody to talk to as far as, when I first started dating my wife, just life, and going to someone for advice. I think people think all the time that just because you’re a professional or you’re in the NFL that we have it all figured out. Heck, I know people in their 50s and 60s who don’t have it figured out. We’re always growing and looking for people to guide us along that way. Coach Frazier is one of those guys that God put in my life at a certain time to help me develop as a man."
There were valid criticisms of Frazier as a head coach -- he might have been too deferential to his coaching staff this season, and too beholden to a style of football that doesn't work in today's NFL. Those things might have been grounds to get him fired.
Those are separate issues from what will probably be Frazier's legacy in the NFL: the number of players who credited his influence and leadership in their lives. That's a powerful thing to say about a person in any walk of life, and it's even more so in a profession that seems to often reward aggression over humility. It's accurate to say Frazier was popular among his players, but it's probably also too shallow of a characterization.
It's more accurate to say they had a deep appreciation for Frazier's character. That, more than anything else, created a uniquely somber mood at Winter Park on Monday.
"When you talk to him, you respect him as a man and you respect what he believes in," safety Jamarca Sanford said. "He’s a Godly man. He believes in God. He’s a great guy. At the end of the day, he didn’t succeed like he wanted to as a head coach, but at the end of the day we respect him for each and every play. One player on this team can’t have one bad thing to say about him as a man. As a coach, the way he did things you might have something to say, I don’t. But as a player you might not agree, but at the end of the day you respect as a man.”