Webster's World

I have always enjoyed late-night chats. They can take place at home, in hotel rooms, in bars, in offices, in cars. But whatever the venue, the outcome is frequently the same – people reveal themselves better in a late-night chat.

I don’t know if it has something to do with the fact that the world seems calmer once most of it has gone to sleep but that revelatory aspect has been something I have enjoyed on countless occasions, particularly where work is concerned. It has often provided excellent background or detail for something I may have been working on at the time.

More than seven years ago, in October of 2005, I was in North Carolina on business for First Down. I had three things planned for the few days I was out there, the main one being to sit down with Aden Durde, the British linebacker who was on the Carolina Panthers practice squad as part of the NFL Europe International Development programme.

Unfortunately, the day I arrived, Durde was busted for a drug test which revealed Nandrolone in his system. The banned steroid, which he claimed came from a supplement he took while still in England, brought an abrupt end to his time in North Carolina. Like ships in the night, I arrived just as he was getting on a plane out of there.

With no interview, no practice to watch, and no club officials to talk to about Durde’s development, I found myself with a little extra time on my hands. Part of my trip had always included dropping in on Jim Tomsula and his family but the cancelled Durde interview meant I drove north to Salisbury a lot earlier than planned to see the Berlin Thunder assistant coach.

I had stayed at Jim and Julie Tomsula’s house for a few nights a couple of months earlier with my wife and children while we were driving from New York to Florida. Their hospitality, like their enthusiasm for life, knows no bounds.

This time, I was visiting on my own but the welcome was just as warm. We spent a couple of days together, stepped across the street on Saturday to see Catawba play, and, with Jim’s wife and daughters, we visited a mutual friend on the Saturday night. But later on, after we returned to the house, and in the comfort of Jim’s living room, we had a late-night chat and for the first time in the seven and a half years I had known him, I saw something new, something that had not revealed itself even in previous late-night chats in the bars, restaurants and hotels of Glasgow, Barcelona and Dusseldorf.

Tomsula was in the process of applying for new jobs, and in particular, he was beginning to look at the possibility of becoming a head coach. And for the first time, I saw the self-doubt. Not about his ability to coach. If you spend 30 seconds watching Tomsula drill players, or get in between offensive and defensive lines at practice, you know there is no doubt – from him or anyone else – about his ability to influence on the field.

But Tomsula was considering the other side of the coin, the one that says if you want to be a head coach, you have to deal with so much more than just coaching players. There is the game of politics to be played. There are the aspects of coordination of staff, of dealing with people’s problems in their own lives and their problems with others they work alongside. Tomsula, the epitome of a meat-and-potatoes, just-let-me-coach kind of guy, didn’t know if he had what it took to step from one world to the other. He didn’t know if he had the wherewithal to write a job application letter, stick on a suit and tie, sit in at an interview and impress people enough that they thought he was worth entrusting with the top position.

Sure, put him in sweat top and shorts, let him chew gum, give him nine hungry linemen frothing at the mouth trying to impress him and he would be in the greatest comfort zone you could imagine. But take him out of his natural world and into a realm of people in suits, talking office politics, planning schedules and working out media-duty routines? It didn’t sit well.

Through all the introspective questioning however, as we sat there in his house long into the night, and as Jimmy showed me his thoughts and plans for head coaching a college or NFL Europe team, it became clear that sticking with what he had was no longer an option. He showed me a dossier he had compiled for what he wanted to do if he was given the chance. It was the sort of attention-grabbing, detailed document that wasn’t hurriedly put together. This was from a guy who had been thinking this stuff through for a long time.

The following day, I said my farewells and headed off, knowing that despite coaching stints at Catawba and NFL Europe’s Monarchs, Claymores and Thunder, the Jim Tomsula story was only just getting going. On Sunday of this week, its next chapter will be written in the Superdome in New Orleans when Tomsula squares up his San Francisco 49ers defensive line to the threat from Baltimore’s Joe Flacco and Ray Rice in the battle for the Super Bowl. That Pittsburgh native whose hand I first shook on a rutted, death-trap of a practice field in Carrollton, Georgia in the spring of 1998 at Monarchs training camp has come a long way.

This week in Louisiana will see millions of words spoken, written, transcribed, broadcast and sent all across the globe for consumption by a football-adoring public, eager to know the inside scoops and the fascinating back-stories on players, coaches, owners, fans who are congregating in New Orleans for Super Sunday.

We are going to hear an awful lot about Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco quarterback, whose route to the Super Bowl in his rookie season already has Hollywood script written all over it.

We are going to read just as much if not more about the 17-season professional journey of Ray Lewis, the Baltimore linebacker playing his last game in the NFL, some 12 years after many thought he left serious questions to be answered when he copped to an obstruction of justice plea bargain after two men were left dead in Atlanta. Some, particularly prosecutors, believed Lewis’s football career should have come to an end right there.

And, of course, the two head coaches will find it impossible to escape the inevitable grilling about the fact they are brothers. How on earth are their families supposed to react in this most bizarre set of circumstances?

But while it may seem to come on a much smaller scale, there will be people in many stations around the world who will be quietly wishing for an epic conclusion to the long, arduous track Jim Tomsula and his family have navigated to arrive at this moment.

From Pennsylvania to North Carolina, family and long-time friends will cheer every tackle, and be on the verge of tears every time one of Tomsula’s linemen stops Rice short on third down.

In Glasgow, Dusseldorf and Berlin, they will be screaming approval every time the sideline cameras catch a glimpse of the stooped, rolled-shoulder style as he paces up and down, gauging necessity on the next series, encouraging and chastising in just the right measures, and sending in a player at just the right time to make a crucial difference.

The Down Syndrome children and adults who Tomsula has spent time coaching in specially-arranged camps and their families will roar him on for all 60 minutes.

And somewhere not too far away, Julie Tomsula will beam with pride about the man she fell in love with while at college, the man who has dragged her halfway round the world chasing his dream. Not a dream to make lots of money or to be in the Super Bowl but a dream that was simply to coach football players, to enrich people’s lives and to have fun doing it.

One night in Barcelona a decade or so ago, there was a group of about 20 of us having dinner in the Olympic Port district. Jim and Julie were there along with daughters Britney and Brooke, and a number of people from the Scottish Claymores. I was sitting next to Jim, who was in customary, jovial mood. He had ordered bread and olive oil, and spent the rest of the meal making everyone laugh as he systematically stole from everyone else’s plate but only after congratulating them on what a great choice they had made.

Later in the meal he leaned over and raised a subject I had heard him talk about many times. He had long worried about the effect on his daughters of taking them out of school and bringing them to Europe for five months season after season and whether or not they would suffer. But on that night in Barcelona, as his young daughters held their own in adult conversation in one of the world’s great and historic cities, he was beside himself with joy, recognising the positive influence and education they were gaining from the experience.

Personal circumstances have prevented me from being at this year’s Super Bowl but come Sunday night, I will be watching on television and rooting for a dear old friend, who will be supported from far and wide by so many people who could tell you a story of kindness or inspiration or selflessness from this man of steel.

While staying at the Tomsulas’ home with my family in the summer of 2005, we all went over to have a look round at Catawba. A number of the college’s football players were around and Jim took the time to introduce every one of them to me and my family. I had never met such a collection of such respectful young men. A little later, Jim told me some of their stories. One who had come from “somewhere in the hills” and had never seen a television before coming to college. Too many to mention from broken homes. At least two who had been the main bread-winner in their families since about the age of 12. The list went on but Jim refused to let any of their hard-luck tales be an excuse for bad manners or lack of effort. Every one of those players, many of whom were fed at the Tomsulas’ table and some of whom even got the clothes off Jimmy’s back – and I mean, literally – will be watching on Sunday night. Many will choke back a tear of happiness for a man who touched their lives so wonderfully.

Jim Tomsula is not the only person in Sunday’s game who will have people cheering him on from far-flung places. And yes, Ray Lewis could well be the biggest story in town this week. After all, he is probably the greatest defender I have ever seen, albeit with some major character flaws. For all that, he has inspired a lot of people in the past decade with his attempt to travel the road to redemption. 

But I know this much for sure as Super Bowl XLVII approaches. There will also be plenty of people who want Lewis to lose because of his past. I cannot imagine one person, anywhere in the world, who is wishing ill-will on Jim Tomsula this week.

I am not ashamed to admit that I am feeling overly-sentimental this week. In the past 29 years, I have spent long enough reporting and writing about NFL players found drugged out of their heads the night before a Super Bowl, or arrested on the eve of the game for soliciting a prostitute. I have heard too many depressing stories of coaches scalping Super Bowl tickets, of players raping and killing, or owners failing to understand what fans are feeling as they move their teams.

But I have also known great stories that could warm the coldest heart and this week, an old friend of mine is in the greatest moment of his football life and the reason it will touch so many hearts is because all those people I mentioned earlier will all be thinking the same thing. They will rejoice in the fact that Jim Tomsula being in the Super Bowl is proof that good things happen to good people and sometimes in life we need that reassurance to let us know that the struggle is worth it.

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