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The Life and Career of Running Backs Coach Eric Bieniemy

A look into the life-changing decisions that landed Bieniemy in Kansas City

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By BJ Kissel

Chiefs Reporter

His passion, for not only the game of football, but also for life in general, permeates through him in such a way that it’s hard to not be inspired after a simple conversation.

Eric Bieniemy lives life to the fullest, not in a Hallmark card kind of way, but with a love and passion for everything he’s doing that’s ultimately developed a long history of respect from those who have been lucky enough to cross paths with him.

He’s currently the running backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs, and for anyone who has ever been to a practice before, you’ve undoubtedly heard him shouting “SCORE! SCORE! SCORE!” or “FINISH! FINISH!” to his running backs as they race towards the end zone.

Yes, that’s Eric Bieniemy.

His love for his family is what defines him, while his love for the game of football inspires those who work with him, and the amalgamation of all these traits is the foundation of respect he’s earned over the course of the 17 years he’s been in the NFL as a player or coach.

But long before coaching the Chiefs was on his radar or coaching at all for that matter, Bieniemy was just a kid coping with a cross-country move after his parents divorced before he was 12 years old.


A Culture Shock: From Louisiana to California

Bieniemy was born in New Orleans, Louisiana and lived there for the early part of his life.

After his parents divorced, his mother remarried and decided to move the family to Southern California.

Before he was a teenager, Bieniemy moved away from everything he knew in Louisiana, where 90 percent of the Bieniemy family still lives today, and wound up on the West Coast.

"I went from an area where everything was black and white to where in southern California, it was so much of a diverse neighborhood. We were living in the same neighborhood as blacks, whites, Chinese Americans, Filipinos, Mexican Americans—it was unbelievable. It was a huge culture shock, but it was fun at the same time because a lot of those kids are still some of my best friends to this day."

- Bieniemy on growing up

His mother’s decision to move the family almost 2,000 miles west ultimately shaped Bieniemy into the man he is today, which is something he’s grateful for.

"I don't know if we'd be sitting here having this conversation if she hadn’t of done that,” Bieniemy said. “New Orleans, where we grew up, my parents worked their tails off. They provided for us and they did everything they could to make sure our lives could be as stable as possible.

“But we lived in an environment that just wasn't very appealing."

It was the first big decision that would ultimately shape the direction of Bieniemy’s life, and it wasn’t his own.

But the next few would be.

The move to Southern California was a culture shock for Bieniemy, but it would later serve him well in the chosen path of his current profession.

"It was totally different—completely, utterly different,” he explained. “I went from an area where everything was black and white to where in southern California, it was so much of a diverse neighborhood. We were living in the same neighborhood as blacks, whites, Chinese Americans, Filipinos, Mexican Americans—it was unbelievable.

“It was a huge culture shock, but it was fun at the same time because a lot of those kids are still some of my best friends to this day."

Bieniemy attended the Southern California powerhouse of Bishop Amat High School in La Puente, California. It’s the largest private school in Los Angeles.

At the time, Bishop Amat was a huge feeder school to USC for football.

As a standout playmaker for the Lancers football team, Bieniemy would soon have to make another one of those life-changing decisions.


Beach or Mountains? Bieniemy Sets His Own Path

He grew up idolizing all of those who came before him.

It was guys like Pat Haden, the current athletic director at USC, John McKay and John McKay Jr., Paul McDonald and Ron Brown. They all went to Bishop Amat and then left their mark on the storied USC football program as well as the NFL.

Bieniemy had loved everything about USC football from the moment he first saw the Trojans play.

So when he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and 30 touchdowns as a senior and earned second-team All-America honors, the natural thing was to follow those who came before him and go to USC.

“You couldn't have told me anything different—that I was going to leave the state of California and not go to USC,” Bieniemy explained. “My heart and soul was set on going to USC. Heritage Hall, seeing all the Heisman Trophies.

“I used to go up to games almost on a weekly basis because we had players who went to Bishop Amat who played at USC.”

They were receivers Randy Tanner and John Jackson, along with outside linebacker Ron Brown.

There was tradition, familiarity and the prestige of playing for the University of Southern California, which meant something to Bieniemy.

But a visit during his senior season to Boulder, Colorado changed everything.

“I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life," he said of the college town nestled in the Rocky Mountains.

Bieniemy would choose to play college football at the University of Colorado.

Bieniemy, left, meets with Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz in the Notre Dame lockerroom after the Buffaloes defeated the Fighting Irish, 10-9

“The thing that persuaded me is that I wanted to be part of something different,” he said. “Rather than going to USC and becoming a part of the norm, I wanted to help be a part of the foundation of laying the groundwork of something new.

“It worked out perfectly.

“All of my buddies who went to USC, yeah, they had great careers, but you know what? We played for two national titles, we won one. We won two Big 8 championships. I got some bragging rights."

During his four-year career for the Buffaloes, Bieniemy rushed for 3,940 yards and 41 touchdowns, both of which still rank No. 1 in school history.

During the 1990 National Championship season, Bieniemy finished second in the nation with 1,628 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns.

He finished third in the Heisman voting in 1990 and was named the Big 8 Conference’s Player of the Year. Bieniemy was selected by the San Diego Chargers in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft (No. 39 overall).

How a Nine-Year NFL Career Led to Coaching

Bieniemy returned to where his football career had really began—Southern California.

He recalled what he was going through on draft day.

“It was a very, very long day,” he said. “It seemed like it took forever. Two of my teammates at Colorado, Mike Pritchard and Alfred Williams, went in the first round, and then I went in the second. I was blessed and fortunate to be a part of it, but I remember being so tired after it was over.

“It was a trip though because I had left Southern California to go to college and now I was going right back there.”

- Bieniemy on being drafted by the Chargers

“It was a trip though because I had left Southern California to go to college and now I was going right back there.”

With the Chargers, Bieniemy was playing just two hours south of Bishop Amat High School.

But he didn’t have the kind of start to his professional career that he had hoped, and it was his running backs coach Sylvester (Sly) Croom who really helped develop Bieniemy into the man who eventually became an NFL coach.

“Working with Sly, I learned a lot about humility,” Bieniemy explained. “Earlier in my career, I was a hot head for a lot of different reasons. When you come into this league, everybody thinks they deserve to be the starter. He taught me a lot about humility.

“It actually gave me a better perspective on what my role was going to be throughout my entire career.”

After four years in San Diego (1991-94), Bieniemy signed with the Cincinnati Bengals, with whom he played with for the next four years.

"I was playing with the Cincinnati Bengals in '97 and at that time, I established myself as one of the NFL’s top special teams players,” he said. “I was a personal protector on the punt team for a number of years.

Eric Bieniemy in the second quarter of a Bengals game against Arizona in 1996.

“Coach Al Roberts, who was a longtime special teams coach in the league, used to always challenge me not only to be a great player and leader on the field, but to study tape and break down everything to where I had a great understanding of what the game plan was. It allowed me to help my teammates understand exactly what we were doing.”

Bieniemy’s best professional season was with the Bengals in 1995, when he had a combined 805 yards rushing and receiving with three touchdowns.

While he wasn’t the starting running back, as he would have liked, that didn’t dissuade him from making sure the starter always knew what he was doing.

It’s a trait that helped him realize where his future passion for the game could be manifested.

“I understood that whoever was starting was a representation of the group,” Bieniemy said. “So I’d tell them, ‘You better know what the hell you're doing because what you put on tape is a direct reflection of who we are, and I am not soft, so let's make sure you put the right stuff on tape.’

“I got to teaching guys in the room later in my career, so I always knew I wanted to get in coaching.”

After four years in Cincinnati (1995-98), Bieniemy was looking for something different. It would lead to another one of those bold decisions that led Bieniemy down the path of where he is today.

“They offered me a ton of money to stay,” Bieniemy said of the Bengals following the 1998 season. “They offered me a three-year deal. I left and I went to Philadelphia and took the league minimum.

“I wanted to be part of a different culture.”

That new culture was the beginning of Andy Reid’s coaching tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. It was the first head coaching job of Reid’s career.

The Beginning of Reid, Bieniemy and Company

Two of Bieniemy’s teammates with the Eagles in 1999 were quarterback Doug Pederson and cornerback Al Harris, whom both later joined him on the coaching staff in Kansas City.

One thing that sticks out to Bieniemy about that year with Reid and company in Philadelphia was training camp.

Bieniemy's 1999 Philadelphia Eagles team headshot

"I'll never forget this because on record, at the time, it was one of the hottest summers ever,” Bieniemy recalled. “You'll hear the same story from me, you'll hear it from Doug [Pederson] and you'll hear it from Al [Harris]. It was so damn hot that year. I'll never forget.

“Every day, you swore you saw the devil running across the field. That's how hot it was. I told my wife, I said 'Listen, baby. If we make it, we’re good. If we don't make it, we’re also good because this training camp has taken everything out of me.'

“The NFL was different back then. You're talking about a physical training camp. We banged every single day. It was one of those survival of the fittest deals."

Bieniemy ultimately finished that training camp under Reid, but while he didn’t know it at the time, that would be his last training camp as an NFL player.

The Eagles finished that season with a 5-11 record.

“It's amazing because playing in Philly for just that one year, and we weren't very good, but you knew great things were going to happen,” Bieniemy said, “because of the way coach Reid and that staff had everything structured, you knew great things were going to happen.”

A few of the notable members of that staff were receivers coach David Culley, quarterbacks coach Brad Childress, defensive line coach Tommy Brasher and offensive quality control coach Tom Melvin.

Reid remembers the fiery tandem he had in the running backs group that year.

“I had Eric Bieniemy and Duce Staley at running back, and both of those two are wired the same way,” Reid explained. “[Eric] was fearless. He was all about team and he was like 'Listen, if coach Reid said this, we're doing it.'

“He didn't care if you were a 6-foot-7, 350-pound offensive lineman. If you weren't doing it the right way, he was going to be in your grill and say 'Listen, that's not how we're going to win here!”

Bieniemy served as a good role model for Staley, who was coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season the year before in just his second NFL season.

He was a young, talented player with a fiery personality.

“Duce was the same way as Eric,” Reid said. “I had those two as like stereo. They were coming after you if you stepped out of line, you were getting it. EB was on the latter part of his career at that time, but Duce was young.

Philadelphia Eagles running back Duce Staley

“Duce got to see that there was somebody else as intense or even more intense than he was in that role, and not to be afraid to do those things. It was huge."

Staley went on to rush for 4,807 yards and 22 touchdowns during a seven-year career with the Eagles.

“He was a guy who you could rely on,” Pederson said of Bieniemy as a teammate. “He was a very outspoken guy, and still is, and he backs up what he talks about. You have to honor that.

“He was great in the locker room, great with the guys, and was truly one of our team leaders.”

Pederson was displaying similar leadership with the team’s first-round pick that year, quarterback Donovan McNabb.

The leadership they showed as players obviously struck a chord with Reid, who now holds both of them on his offensive staff with the Chiefs—Pederson as the offensive coordinator and Bieniemy as the running backs coach.

“One thing I always knew about coach Reid is you just had a great feel from day one because he was always energetic,” Bieniemy said. “Even during those training camp days, he was always making sure that everybody was focused on paying close attention to the details, and not just what you were doing—but having an understanding of where you fit in the whole big package. That was huge.

"He always preached details.”

One Program Changed Everything

One of the reasons the 1999 season was Bieniemy’s last as a player in the NFL wasn’t because he lacked options. The Eagles actually wanted to bring him back that next season.

He got heavily involved with one of Reid’s programs called “Invest in Yourself” during that 1999 season.

“I'm grateful for coach beginning that program,” Bieniemy said. “It's kind of what the league is doing right now, but it was a program that basically helped set you up for life after football. That program helped me set me up for where I am today.”

“I never wanted to play the game or cheat somebody out of an opportunity that deserves to play, that wants to play, just for dollars and cents. That’s not why I played the game. If I was going to play, I was going to have my heart and soul into it.”

- Bieniemy on leaving the NFL in 1999

Reid explained a little bit about where the program came from.

"We did it a little bit in Green Bay,” he said. “Mike Holmgren and I had the same agent—Bob LaMonte. This was his program. There was such a high percentage of players, and there still are, that are broke five years after they're done playing. It's sick.

“The league now puts a big emphasis on that. But at that time, they didn't necessarily have a program for that. They were just kind of finding all of this out. This program was phenomenal for us.”

With the help of former players who served as mentors, the guys were given the knowledge and resources they needed to set plans for their lives after football.

Right now, NFL teams have player engagement staffs that help oversee this kind of thing, but at the time, for Bieniemy, this particular program helped him make another life-changing decision.

“I jumped right back into school after finishing up that [1999] season,” he explained. “I was actually supposed to come back, but I got so locked into my plan with this program, I was doing great in school in that I saw my plan come into fruition. I told my wife 'We've been blessed and fortunate to make enough money and if I do go back, it's only about the money.’

“I never wanted to play the game or cheat somebody out of an opportunity that deserves to play, that wants to play, just for dollars and cents. That’s not why I played the game. If I was going to play, I was going to have my heart and soul into it.”

Bieniemy walked away from the NFL and for the second time in his career, left money on the table because he was looking for something different.

“I had a great time playing with those guys,” Bieniemy said. “Duce Staley, Doug Pederson, Hugh Douglass, Troy Vincent, Bobby Taylor, Brian Dawkins, Al Harris, Tra Thomas and company, there were a lot of great players on that team.

“But that program helped me become the coach I am today because first and foremost, it helped me set a plan for what I wanted to do five, ten years down the road.”

As Bieniemy was taking classes back at Colorado, he had a friend that was the head coach at nearby Thomas Jefferson High School, which is where he’d ultimately start his coaching career.

Bieniemy oversees a drill between Adrian Peterson and Toby Gerhart during the Vikings 2010 training camp

Also at the time, Colorado had hired Gary Barnett as their head coach. Barnett was Bieniemy’s offensive coordinator when he was playing for the Buffaloes.

“Gary [Barnett] used to have me come in and watch tape, break down some film and just do a lot of little things for him,” Bieniemy recalled. “It’s amazing how everything just fell right into place.”

Bieniemy was hired as the Buffaloes running backs coach in 2001 and stayed there for two seasons.

In 2001, his first season as a running backs coach, Colorado ranked eighth in the nation in rushing. In 2002, they moved up to sixth.

But then, once again, he’d return to Southern California because of football, but this time it was to coach the running backs at UCLA for three seasons (2003-05).

While at UCLA, Bieniemy tutored former NFL All-Pro running back Maurice Jones-Drew for three seasons. Jones-Drew earned Freshman All-America honors in 2003, rushed for 1,007 yards in 2004 and was a consensus All-American in 2005.

Following that 2005 season, Bieniemy hooked back up with a member of that Eagles staff when Brad Childress got the head coaching job with the Minnesota Vikings.

Bieniemy spent the next five years with the Vikings (2006-10) as their running backs coach.

While with the Vikings, he oversaw one of the most productive rushing units in the National Football League.

In those five seasons, the Vikings produced a 1,000-yard rusher each year while his stable of running backs broke the 100-yard mark 31 times in 80 regular season games.

In 2007, Chester Taylor combined with Adrian Peterson to form one of the most dynamic duos in the NFL, as the two combined for 2,185 yards, 1,341 of which were from Peterson, who was named All-Pro as a rookie.

The Vikings led the NFL in rushing in 2008 with 2,634 yards and set franchise marks of 5.3 yards per carry and 22 rushing touchdowns.

Overall, Peterson totaled 5,782 rushing yards and 52 touchdowns in four seasons under Bieniemy’s guidance.

After spending two more seasons back at Colorado (2011-12) as offensive coordinator, Bieniemy joined Reid in Kansas City prior to the 2013 season.

Since arriving in Kansas City, Bieniemy has helped tutor one of the best running backs in the NFL in Jamaal Charles, who became the franchise’s all-time leading rusher in 2014.

Charles appreciates the way in which Bieniemy handles him as a player.

“You want the truth,” Charles explained. “You want him to be real with you, and he’s not shying away from being honest with everybody in our room. He’s treating me just like he is the rookies; he’s being fair and everyone respects him for it.

“He’s always preaching the details, pushing us to be better.”

In 2013, under Bieniemy, Charles led the NFL in touchdowns (19) and first downs (104) and ranked second in yards from scrimmage (1,980 yards). He recorded the most yards receiving by a running back in Chiefs history and led the AFC in rushing (1,287 yards).

Charles’ 38 touchdowns since Bieniemy’s arrival in 2013 are the most in the NFL of any player over that span.

But while football may be his passion, Bieniemy’s life is focused more around a simple, yet powerful, ideal.

Faith, Family and then Football

The constant moving across the country for this profession is something that just comes with the territory, and it’s something that Bieniemy, a dedicated family man, credits his wife Mia with, for making it possible.

“She is the nucleus that makes everything work,” he explained. “She made a lot of sacrifices. She was accepted to several medical schools and she turned them down because she wanted to start a family. I am very, very grateful to have her because she makes everything go. For the most part, she's mom and dad for the whole year.

“It's always been faith, family and then football. That's how we structure our lives.”

Bieniemy and Mia first met back when they were in college, when he and some of his fraternity brothers used to visit Spellman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she was a student.

“You have kids playing outside all the time and you see people that just enjoy life. That's one thing we love about living here. The people’s values are great, just hard-working blue collar people. Our neighborhood is great and the kids love it."

- Bieniemy on leaving the NFL in 1999

“She went to the all-girls school there and we knew a lot of the same people,” he explained. “We finally ended up connecting in San Diego and it was like we had already known each other for years.”

A wedding and seven cross-country moves later, they’re now settled in Kansas City and have two sons together, Eric III (20) and Elijah (16).

“My boys, that's my life,” he said. “Their mother, my wife, every year for our anniversary, I always wake up and tell her, 'I fooled you again.'”

They’ve been married for 21 years and have lived all over the country, and Kansas City suits their family well.

“You have kids playing outside all the time and you see people that just enjoy life,” Bieniemy explained. “That's one thing we love about living here. The people’s values are great, just hard-working blue collar people.

“Our neighborhood is great and the kids love it."

Bieniemy is coaching his third season in Kansas City, one that has high expectations for the group he’s coaching every day.

But it’s the way he’s lived his life, both on and off the field, that’s respected the most by those who are around him every day.

“He’s a great father and mentor,” Charles said of Bieniemy. “If you’re trying to be a coach or just a better man, he’s the perfect guy to look up to and try to emulate.”

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