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Toughness Personified; Chiefs DL Coach Tommy Brasher’s Story

The life and career of Chiefs defensive line coach Tommy Brasher


By BJ Kissel

Chiefs Reporter

There might not be a tougher man in the NFL than Kansas City Chiefs defensive line coach Tommy Brasher.

Over the past 15 years, Brasher has been challenged.

The lessons of meeting these kinds of challenges head-on was instilled in Brasher by his father, Ferry, who spent four years of Brasher’s early life fighting in World War II.

During his battle with cancer back more than a decade ago, Brasher was working with the Philadelphia Eagles as their defensive line coach.

He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his parotid gland on October 16, 2001, which fell right in the middle of the NFL season.

Brasher underwent a six-hour surgery to have it removed.

“I had surgery on a Monday, then another one on Wednesday and went back to work on Saturday,” he explained. “Then I worked a month before they called me and I had to have another surgery. I had it on a Wednesday and went back to work on Saturday as well.”

That second procedure was to have 67 lymph nodes removed from his neck and shoulder. He missed just five days of work total and not one snap of football.

“I felt that I should probably just recover doing the normal, natural thing,” he said. “I couldn't see how laying around was going to help me.”

This is the personification of toughness.

But even at 74 years old and with everything he’s been through, Brasher still has the gift of teaching and is every bit the leader of that Chiefs defensive line room.

“He’s not shy about telling us everything he knows,” Chiefs two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Dontari Poe said. “He’s been in the game a long time and has a lot of knowledge. For me, just being there to soak it all up has been really good for my career so far.

“He’s straightforward and he’s honest. He’s definitely earned my trust.”

That’s high praise from Poe, who has established himself under Brasher’s guidance as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the NFL at just 24 years old.

Brasher is entering his 27th season in the NFL this fall and his third with the Chiefs. He was part of the Eagles staff that followed Andy Reid to Kansas City prior to the 2013 season.

This will be Brasher and Reid’s 11th season together overall.

But long before he was an NFL coach, Brasher was busy winning state championships as a two-way player (fullback, linebacker) at El Dorado High School in Arkansas.

From High School Domination to a Difficult College Decision

Football was always Brasher’s passion, even as a little kid.

“It was a natural fit for me from the time I was a little boy,” he said.

As he grew up and eventually stepped on the field at El Dorado, Brasher’s passion ultimately became his strength.

During his high school career, Brasher said he lost just one game, which despite the fact that it was more than 50 years ago, remembers like it was yesterday.

"It was my junior year and we played Little Rock Central,” he recalled. “At that time, there was only one high school in Little Rock and they were the best in the country. But I played on multiple state championship teams."

After a successful prep career, the time had come for Brasher to make a decision about where he wanted to play college football. But little did he know at the time, his mom and dad also had an idea on where he would go to college.

“I walked in one day and told my mom I had decided where I was going to school,” Brasher recalled.

“Those were great times, actually, for a young football player. Because I was the first recruiting class for (former Arkansas coach) Frank Broyles. That was when that program was really being developed.”

- Brasher on going to Arkansas

“She said, 'Oh yeah, where is that?'

“I said 'LSU.'”

“She said, 'No you're not, you're going to Arkansas!'”

“So why didn't you tell me that?” he recalled of that conversation. “You had told me, ‘It's your deal. You earned it and you can go anywhere you want.'”

“We didn't mean it,” she had said.

Back then, the recruiting process wasn’t public like it is today.

Brasher had friends that were playing at LSU, which factored into his initial decision to want to play for the Tigers.

“I hadn't told anybody that I was going to LSU,” Brasher said. “I hadn't even told the LSU coaches yet, but that's what I decided I wanted to do. They had just won a national championship and I didn't know anyone at Arkansas.

“LSU, actually, in those days, the days before the interstates and all that, was three hours closer to my home than Arkansas.”

But his parents, who hadn’t been that involved in his decision prior to that conversation, had other plans, which ultimately worked out well for Brasher.

“They wouldn't say it until they had to say it," he recalled, “but the University of Arkansas is where I met my wife, and I've been married to her for 53 years.”

Brasher wouldn’t have it any other way, even though looking back, the conversation with his mother still makes him laugh.

From a football perspective, the decision to go to Arkansas might not have initially looked like it’d set a path for Brasher to reach the highest level of football, but it did.

“Those were great times, actually, for a young football player,” Brasher said of going to Arkansas. “Because I was the first recruiting class for (former Arkansas coach) Frank Broyles. That was when that program was really being developed.”

Reynolds Razorback Stadium

Broyles served as head coach of the Razorbacks from 1958-76 and worked as the athletic director from 1974 until he retired in 2007.

His career record of 144-58-5 still stands as the most wins for a coach in school history.

It’s safe to say that Arkansas athletics as we know them today are a reflection of the efforts of Broyles.

"You go down there and see all those great facilities, that's all Broyles,” Brasher noted. “When I played football there, we had aluminum bleachers—a 45,000-seat stadium. They didn’t have big time facilities back then.”

As Broyles took the lead as the head coach, it was Brasher’s positional coach who really made the biggest impact on him as a player.

“Jim Mackenzie was my position coach when I first went to Arkansas,” he explained. “You’ve probably never heard of him, but he went on to be the head coach at Oklahoma in 1966 and died from a heart attack when he was 37 years old after just one year there.

“Had Jim lived, he would be one of the icons of the game right now. He's a guy that I learned a lot from as a player because I was the signal caller on defense and he used to make me install defenses in front of the whole team. You don't want to screw that up, so you're studying a lot to be prepared enough to do that."

After his collegiate career was over, playing with the likes of former Dallas Cowboys head coaches Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, as well as owner Jerry Jones, Brasher knew he wanted to get into coaching.

He had been surrounded by several future legendary coaches in Hayden Frye, Joe Gibbs and Johnny Majors at Arkansas, in addition to Broyles, Switzer and Johnson as well.

The transition to coaching was one that would come easy to Brasher.

The Coaching Journey Begins

Brasher started his coaching career at the high school level.

“It was a natural fit for me from the time I was a little boy,” he said. “I knew I wanted to be a coach when I was in the eighth grade. It was always what I did, what I enjoyed doing."

Brasher’s first coaching job was back at El Dorado, and after just one season as an assistant at his alma mater, plus another quick one-year stop at Ball High School in Galveston, Texas, where he was the defensive assistant, Brasher was given the head coaching job at Hot Springs High School in Arkansas.

In 1968, which was just his second year at Hot Springs, Brasher’s team finished with an 8-1-1 record, the best record they had in more than 25 years.

“It was a natural fit for me from the time I was a little boy. I knew I wanted to be a coach when I was in the eighth grade. It was always what I did, what I enjoyed doing."

- Brasher on coaching

The defense had allowed just 20 total points in 10 games.

For his efforts, Brasher was given a raise of $100 following that season.

“It became pretty obvious to me that if I wanted to make any money and do the things for my family that I wanted to do, I couldn't do it coaching the high school level," Brasher explained.

Just a couple of years later and with more experience, Brasher reached out to his former coach at Arkansas, Broyles, and asked if he had any positions open.

He was hired as the Arkansas freshman team’s defensive coordinator in 1970, and was also heavily involved with the recruiting. It was a position Brasher knew he wouldn’t stay at long, but he also knew the power that coaching at Arkansas in any capacity would look like on a resume.

It worked.

Just a year later, Brasher was hired as the defensive line and linebackers coach at Virginia Tech.

Over the next 11 years, Brasher would make coaching stops at four different schools.

His big break into the NFL came after a five-year stint at Southern Methodist (1977-81), which happens to be the alma mater of Chiefs founder Lamar Hunt, who, like Brasher, also grew up in El Dorado, Arkansas.

Brasher was the defensive line coach at SMU for Ron Meyer, who was hired as the head coach of the New England Patriots in 1982 after finishing with a 10-1 record at SMU in 1981. His success that year came primarily thanks to Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, who rushed for more than 1,400 yards and had 19 touchdowns that year.

Before Meyer’s hiring, the NFL wasn’t necessarily the goal for Brasher.

"Meyer took me with him,” Brasher explained. “That's how I became an NFL coach. The fact that I'm here isn’t because I had this burning desire to coach in the NFL. I never really had a goal to coach in the NFL.

“(Meyer) didn't have to invite me to go with him and I'm sure the GM probably advised him against it. He took six college coaches with him, but all six of us retired from the NFL.”

Brasher spent three years with the Patriots (1982-84), followed by stops at the Eagles (1985), Atlanta Falcons (1986-89), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1990) and Seattle Seahawks (1992-98).

With the Seahawks, Brasher tutored Hall of Famer Cortez Kennedy, who earned six of his eight Pro Bowls and all three of his All-Pro honors (1992-94) during their time together.

It was with the Seahawks during that 1998 season that Brasher worked with Jim Johnson, who would ultimately pair Brasher with Andy Reid just a year later.

Brasher and Reid: An Immediate Attachment

Johnson coached the linebackers for just one year in Seattle before being offered the defensive coordinator position with Reid in Philadelphia in 1999.

It was Reid’s first head coaching position and he was putting together his staff, which for Reid, didn’t initially include Brasher, according to him.

“I had never met (Reid) and he didn't want to hire me. He didn't not want to hire me, but he’d already made up his mind to hire somebody else. But he wanted to hire Jim Johnson, and Jim Johnson wouldn't go without me. So that's how I became associated with Andy. But after we met, it was almost an immediate attachment."

- Brasher on Andy Reid

“I had never met (Reid) and he didn't want to hire me,” Brasher said with a laugh. “He didn't not want to hire me, but he’d already made up his mind to hire somebody else. But he wanted to hire Jim Johnson, and Jim Johnson wouldn't go without me. So that's how I became associated with Andy.

“But after we met, it was almost an immediate attachment."

That attachment would mean more to them both than either might have realized back in 1999, as it was just two years later that Brasher would be diagnosed with cancer.

Brasher was given the Ed Block Courage Award in 2001 for the toughness and courage he displayed in his fight with cancer while coaching with the Eagles.

During this first stint with the Eagles, both Corey Simon and Hugh Douglas became Pro Bowl players under Brasher’s leadership.

But after the 2005 season, Brasher stepped away from football for the next seven years and spent most of his time at his house on Orcas island, the biggest of the San Juan islands off the coast of Northern Washington.

But even though Brasher wasn’t coaching players day to day during this time away from the game, Reid still kept him busy.

"I had him do projects for us and they were phenomenal,” Reid explained. “I brought him back to training camp and this is when I really knew, I just had him observe stuff and it drove him crazy.

“I knew he still had the itch in there. He just had to get himself back to where he felt comfortable.”

Then, late in the 2012 season, Reid called Brasher with an opportunity.

“We were having some problems with the defensive line,” Reid recalled. “I called him and asked if he still had any interest in coaching. I kind of knew by that time he was feeling a little better.”

Then, after seven years away from day-to-day coaching in the NFL, Brasher returned to the Eagles.

"He just really wouldn't take no for an answer,” Brasher said of Reid with a smile. “It wasn't that I didn't want to come back. I just thought Andy needed a younger, more energetic person. I was trying to steer him in that direction, but he just didn't quite want to be steered.

“He can be kind of hard-headed."

Tommy Brasher looks on from the sideline before the NFL game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, December 9th 2012.

Brasher coached the Eagles defensive line for the final four games of the 2012 season, and it was after the season had ended that Brasher was given a choice.

“There’s a good chance I’ll be moving on,” Reid told Brasher soon after the season ended. “Do you still want to do this thing?”

After seven years away from the game and then after just four games to finish out the 2012 season, Brasher knew enough that he wanted to continue coaching and so he joined Reid’s staff in Kansas City.

Under Brasher’s guidance last year, the Chiefs defensive line led a group that ranked No. 2 in the NFL by allowing just 17.6 points per game.

Reid has seen this story before back in Philadelphia, and the way Brasher continues to handle himself is why he’s looked up to the way he is by those who know him best.

“He’s extremely tough-minded and he just loves to coach,” Reid explained.

Simply stated, Tommy Brasher is toughness personified.