ASHBURN, Va. -- Within 30 minutes Thursday morning, Washington Redskins coach Jim Zorn learned that two members of his extended football family had died. One was far too young, the other was a strong man overtaken by a sudden illness.
When he gathered the players for practice, all went silent in prayer. They thought of offensive line coach Joe Bugel's daughter, 36-year-old Holly, who had lost her long battle with a rare form of bone cancer. And they were stunned over the news of the death of longtime NFL players' union chief Gene Upshaw, an influential voice in the sport for 25 years.
"The crux of it is that it's real life," Zorn said. "Real life goes on. It's not just about the building and the Redskins and 'Here we go and now we're playing the Carolina Panthers.' It really is about the real life situations, and they're hard."
Players that have dealt with too much untimely death and illness were mourning again. Last year, former Redskins linebacker Kevin Mitchell, who lived nearby and remained a good friend to many of the players, died of a heart attack at age 36. A month later, former Redskins receiver Justin Skaggs died of a brain tumor at age 28. In November, safety Sean Taylor was shot and killed at age 24, a tragedy that overwhelmed the entire season.
Also, cornerback Shawn Springs' father, former NFL running back Ron Springs, has been in a coma for nearly a year, following what was supposed to be routine surgery to remove a cyst. And former coach Joe Gibbs spent last season distracted by the latest word from home on a young grandson with leukemia.
It truly seems like one thing after another.
"It does feel that way at times," tackle Jon Jansen said. "But the one thing is we have a real tight family in the building. When you lose a member, it obviously hurts a lot more when you're tight-knit, but you also know you've got a lot of people around to support you."
Holly Bugel, one of Joe Bugel's three daughters, was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, but her condition deteriorated over the last year. Bugel left the team for a week earlier this preseason to be with his daughter, and he learned of her death Thursday morning when his wife phoned during a meeting with the offensive line. Owner Dan Snyder immediately made arrangements for the 68-year-old longtime Redskins assistant to fly home to Arizona.
"I don't know what there is to say," Jansen said. "We just told him that we love him. None of us have gone through that situation. Some of us have kids, and we know how we feel about our own kids. He came in and just told us, 'Hey, love your kids. You don't ever know what's going to happen."
Football has been a welcome outlet for Bugel during his daughter's illness, and Zorn said there was a possibility that Bugel could rejoin the team for Saturday night's exhibition game at Carolina.
"He has been very strong, very real, about this situation," Zorn said. "The conversations he's had with my coaches have been very upbeat, talking about the little victories each day. Each day he has considered a real blessing that his daughter has been alive to communicate with him and her mom. I could see the pride he had in how his daughter was fighting this illness. That's what came through these last couple of weeks."
Upshaw's death was unexpected. The 63-year-old executive director of the NFL Players Association was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on Sunday, but few people knew of the illness.
"It really took my breath away when I saw the message come across my desk," said Zorn, who was a quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks when Upshaw was a Hall of Fame guard with the Raiders. "I just stopped and immediately thought about all the times that we played against each other. We didn't like each other when we played against each other. But he was a tremendous athlete, a tremendous leader. ... He made a very deep mark in the history of the NFL, and he'll be greatly missed."
Zorn said there might be a somber mood on the team, particularly among Bugel's offensive line, following Saturday's game against the Panthers, but he also expects the players to take pride in their performance when they're on the field.
"I think we are urged within our hearts to press on," Zorn said, "and grit our teeth a little bit and bear down when these things happen."
LB Marcus Washington, who has been experiencing a nagging twinge in his hip, was absent from practice. ... Zorn said rookie WR Malcolm Kelly, who returned to practice this week following a hamstring injury, might have to wait until next week to make his preseason debut. "He just didn't quite give me the full speed that I needed to see," Zorn said. ... S LaRon Landry (hamstring), T Todd Wade (ankle), TE Jason Goode (toe) and LB Matt Sinclair (back) remain sidelined.