ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — With the nation on edge, Leslie Frazier mustered his courage by drawing upon some of his most painful memories of growing up Black in America to share with Bills players following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.
At the request of coach Sean McDermott, it was on Buffalo’s defensive coordinator to provide historical perspective and personal insight in a bid to keep a multiracial team united in early June 2020.
Frazier spoke from the heart.
He shared experiences of being an 11-year-old having to switch schools during desegregation in Mississippi by tempering the hatred he endured with the benefits of meeting those who looked different than him. And Frazier spoke of the time when, as a member of the Bears' famed 1985 defense, he was stopped and questioned by police about his presence at a suburban Chicago shopping mall before being recognized and allowed to go on his way.
“It was a moment where you kind of know where they are because the players were really angry, just like our country was angry. But somehow we’ve got to stay together,” Frazier said, emphasizing his message last year was directed at the entire group, not just one race.
“We didn't want to be a team that becomes fractured over what’s going on in the world today. And it could easily happen,” he added. “And that was what I tried to get across to them, that even though all this stuff is going on in the world, we can still be one together.”
The past was suddenly present, and the now 62-year-old Frazier never envisioned being thrust into such a role. Yet, his experiences and reassuring voice are what made him ideal for such a moment — and a reason he is trusted by his former and current players, and considered among the NFL’s most respected assistants.
“That really opened a lot of us guys’ eyes to be like, `OK, as much as we’re talking about change, we have a coach, one of our mentors, a friend, who lived this and is reliving it to this day,‘” defensive end Jerry Hughes said. “Whenever he’s talking to you, we sit there, shut up and just soak it all in.”
It was no different for Frazier’s former players.
“It’s leadership,” said NFL executive and former safety Troy Vincent, who was with the Eagles when Frazier broke in as a defensive backs coach in 1999.
“When you start giving real-life examples, you start seeing people sit up in their seat. You start seeing heads come a little forward, and you go, `Coach didn’t have to share that. He understands what I’m feeling, but he’s also listening to me,” he added.
Frazier has such a deep and commanding voice, it has been playfully referred to as the “Voice of God.” No matter the circumstance, Frazier has never been known to waver even in the most troublesome times.
It’s no coincidence Vincent and current Bills safety Jordan Poyer both recalled times they would be reassured by Frazier upon returning to the sideline after giving up a touchdown.
“I just got my butt whooped and I came back to the sideline, and he was like, `Hey, make this slight adjustment and you’ll make that play,‘” Vincent said.
Poyer repeated a similar story nearly word for word in crediting Frazier for “calm breeding calm.”
It’s an even-keeled quality which has led to Frazier enjoying a comparatively stable NFL career, including a three-year-plus stint as Vikings head coach from 2010-13. He’s in his fifth year in Buffalo, which represents his seventh stop in 23 NFL seasons.
He was the first assistant McDermott hired upon taking over in 2017 after the two first worked together with the Eagles. McDermott considers Frazier his most trusted confidant.
“He sees things through a different perspective than I can because I didn’t play in the league," McDermott said. “He’s an African American in this business and I am not, so mutual respect for one another that way.”
Frazier’s players, meantime, would run through a wall for him. That was evident in a 40-0 win over Houston in Week 4, when Buffalo’s defense dedicated the game to Frazier after he failed to land the Texans' head-coaching vacancy last offseason.
“Frazier is a hell of a coach, hell of a person,” safety Micah Hyde said. “Any organization in this league would be lucky to have him. That’s my opinion. For him to not get that job was eye opening for me.”
Frazier was unaware of his unit’s motivation until Hyde entered the locker room.
“Micah came up to me and he grabbed me and hugged me and goes, `Man, and they turned you down, coach?'” Frazier recalled. “And I said, `I’m in the right place.′ ... But it did make feel good that Micah and the other players felt the way they did.”
Frazier is once again being mentioned as a head-coaching candidate, with his name most recently tied to Chicago, where Matt Nagy’s status is in serious question.
“Leslie is ready. I was disappointed he didn’t get one of those jobs last year,” McDermott said.
“The time is now,” Vincent added, noting his support for Frazier has nothing to do with the color of his skin nor how the NFL continues to lag in hiring minorities for the top coaching position.
“Forget color. You put the tape on. Is the group performing?” Vincent said in October of a unit which has now been ranked first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed for 11 straight weeks. It finished second and third in 2018 and '19, respectively.
Frazier dismisses questions of his future by saying his sole focus is on Buffalo's next game.
“You just trust that things will work out like they should,” he said. “If I don’t ever become a head coach, I’ll be fine. You know, I’ve had a really good career.”
That might well be the case for someone who played under Buddy Ryan in Chicago, coached under Andy Reid and Jim Johnson in Philadelphia, and Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, and won a Super Bowl as a player and coach.
And yet, Frazier provided a glimpse behind his steady demeanor when informed he never appears to sweat.
“The fire’s burning,” Frazier said. “It’s underneath, behind the chest cavity, but it’s burning.”
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