Mike Haynes would ultimately land in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, even though that seemed unlikely in his initial practices with the New England Patriots. Haynes remembers early struggles and what Chuck Fairbanks said to him as if it were yesterday, not 1976.
"He took me under his wing as a rookie; I didn't have the greatest start, but I finished pretty strong, mainly because of the conversations I had with him," Haynes recalled Tuesday night. "He helped me understand the pros, the learning curve. He told me you don't just show up and be great from day one. You have to work hard to be great. He challenged me to do it. I did."
Haynes relishes memories of those conversations with Fairbanks. He's also thankful that he had the opportunity to have one final conversation, a few weeks ago in Arizona.
Haynes had received a call from former Patriots teammate Shelby Jordan, telling him that Fairbanks was battling brain cancer in Scottsdale. By chance, Haynes was scheduled to travel to Arizona, so he called Fairbanks and the two reconnected, sitting side by side for about 30 minutes, the bond between player and coach still strong.
"He told me it was inoperable and I was starting to get sad. He looked at me and said, 'Don't be sad for me,'" Haynes relayed. "He was really strong-willed and upbeat. That's his personality."
Fairbanks died Tuesday at 79, which had former Patriots players like Haynes and Tim Fox reflecting on his impact on the franchise, as well as owner Robert Kraft recalling the excitement that swept through the region when Fairbanks was hired as head coach in 1973 from the University of Oklahoma.
"Coach Fairbanks gave the Patriots instant credibility," Kraft said in a statement. "For Patriots fans of that era, Fairbanks was the Bill Parcells before Bill Parcells. Meaning, he did for the Patriots in the '70s what Bill Parcells did for the team in the '90s."
The Patriots were 3-11 the year before Fairbanks arrived in 1973. By the time he left -- and that departure to become the University of Colorado's head coach has complicated his Patriots legacy -- the franchise was hosting its first-ever playoff game following an 11-5 season in which the Patriots set the NFL record for most rushing yards in a season (3,165). That record, by the way, still stands today.
"I think he brought the Patriots from being a laughingstock, a team that came from the American Football League and was not really considered to be a team to be reckoned with, to the point that we could play with anyone in the league," said safety Tim Fox, a first-round draft choice in 1976 out of Ohio State. "That was a dramatic turnaround and he did it in tough times -- work stoppages, strike, you name it -- and I don't think he has ever gotten the credit he deserved for taking this team to the next level."
Fairbanks' personnel acumen was widely credited for being the catalyst. He drafted future Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive lineman John Hannah in the first round of the 1973 draft, followed by running back Sam Cunningham and receiver Darryl Stingley.
Then there was linebacker Steve Nelson, tight end Russ Francis, quarterback Steve Grogan, Haynes, offensive lineman Pete Brock, Fox, cornerback Raymond Clayborn, receiver Stanley Morgan, among others, in ensuing years.
"When you look back on the group we had, it's pretty amazing," Fox said. "He certainly had a talent for finding talent and he did it without a [big] staff. There was no combine. I always thought he looked for not only guys that were athletes, but those that had a certain fire in their belly, guys that were true competitors."
Added Haynes, "I remember his whole thing was, 'We have the best athletes, we're going to win.' It's the athletes that make guys great coaches, not the other way around. He always drafted guys that were great football players. A guy might be undersized, but boy could they play football, and they enjoyed doing it. With the scouting staff they had there, with Bucko Kilroy and others, they took a lot of pride in getting the best athletes. We were always a young, athletic team loaded with talent and that's what he felt it took to win. He was really great at getting fantastic athletes and getting the most out of them."
Fairbanks wasn't alone in that regard, as Haynes and Fox both recall he surrounded himself with top-notch assistant coaches, many of whom went on to succeed in greater roles elsewhere. Fairbanks, who was described by Fox as being "less hands-on and more CEO," would often remind players how fortunate they were to be coached by his assistants.
Last September, current Patriots coach Bill Belichick said that Fairbanks' impact has "stood the test of time" and that disciples still in the game -- such as Belichick himself -- still utilize Fairbanks-based principles when it comes to the 3-4 defense and the way Fairbanks organized the draft and personnel meetings.
As for Fairbanks' departure from New England in 1978, it was tough for many to digest, with Fairbanks and owner Billy Sullivan not operating off the same script.
"It was certainly a fiasco and it was handled very poorly. We find out the week before the regular season is going to end that he had been talking to Colorado and Sullivan fires him," Fox recalled.
"It was one of the strangest situations I've ever played in; we go down to Miami to play Miami in the Orange Bowl and we have two head coaches -- Hank Bullough, the defensive coordinator, and Ron Erhardt, the offensive coordinator. It was probably the most interesting pregame session I've ever seen, with dueling head coaches with pregame pep talks. They were almost competing against one another, trying to get us fired up to go play. We didn't play well, lost the game [23-3], and then I'm not sure what happened but they brought [Fairbanks] back to coach for the playoffs."
The Patriots lost that playoff game, the franchise's first-ever home postseason contest, falling 31-14 to Houston.
A few months later, on April 2, the Patriots announced that Fairbanks -- who had the title of head coach and general manager -- had been released from his contract to become head coach at Colorado.
"I wish he was able to work differences out with the Sullivans and would have stayed there," Haynes said. "We were really close. Football is a business and business kind of got in the way of our greatness."
Fast-forward to April 2, 2013, when Fairbanks lost his battle with brain cancer, and Haynes is asked what people should know about Fairbanks that perhaps hasn't been said.
"They need to know he's a family man, a loving man, a great father, a great friend, the type of guy you want on your team," he answered. "If you were looking for a job, and he said he would help you, he would be on the phone until you had a job. There are not a lot of guys like him. He was a great leader and I feel blessed to be able to call him a friend, a mentor, and a brother."
Haynes wanted to make sure Fairbanks knew that's how he felt, going back to when their bond first began to form on the practice field in 1976, so he told him again on their recent meeting in Arizona.
"I sat there wide-eyed, beaten by every single receiver on the team and I threw my helmet down. That's when my education started," Haynes recalled of his connection with Fairbanks. "He told me, 'You know, Mike, this is the best thing that ever happened to you. In order to be a great player, you have to work hard.' If I had come out the first day and had success, maybe it would have been different.
"He was always honest with players and had great love for us, and great love for the game. He would have done anything for those who played for him. So I just wanted him to know that I loved him and cared for him."