10 years ago, Garrett Reid’s death at training camp at Lehigh forever altered the Eagles

Jeff McLane
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid walks next to his son, Garrett Reid, after the Eagles beat the New York Giants to win the NFC East division on Dec. 30, 2001. Garrett Reid was found dead in a Lehigh University dorm room on Aug. 5, 2012. (Yong Kim/Philadelphia Daily News/TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — It didn’t take long to realize something was awry. Andy Reid was nowhere to be seen and the Eagles were huddled, most on one knee, bent over as if in prayer.

Reid was a constant at practice. Like most coaches, he loomed over the proceedings. But his size and gravitas magnified his presence by his 14th season in Philadelphia, and when it became apparent that he was absent at training camp on the morning of Aug. 5, 2012, the workout took on an ominous feel.

It was as if a family meal were being eaten without the father at the head of the table.

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Reid was under no physical duress, team sources would only say at the time. But it was clear a tragedy had just occurred at Lehigh University, and it was general manager Howie Roseman who delivered the news shortly after the walk-through ended.

“It is with great sadness that I tell you Garrett Reid, the eldest son of Coach Reid, was found dead this morning in his room here at training camp,” Roseman said, choking back tears. He then crumpled up the written statement. “On a personal note, we’ve been with Andy a long time. He’s always been strong for us. We’re going to be strong for him now.”

Garrett Reid had succumbed to a long battle with drug addiction and died from a heroin overdose at the age of 29. Many would marvel at the elder Reid’s resilience in the face of what had to be profound grief. Some questioned his swift return to the Eagles even though those who knew him best understood that coaching was the remedy.

But the greater sorrow from that day was of a young life cut short. Much has changed for the Reid family, the Eagles and others impacted by Garrett Reid’s death since. But 10 years later, drug addiction remains an epidemic in the United States. The numbers have only gotten more grim. More families continue to be affected.

The Eagles hoped that their collective emotion could be channeled into winning. Some players dedicated the season to Garrett. They reacted the way a football team might be expected to react to human loss. Reid, at least on the surface, never seemed to waver.

But the incident cast a pall over the season. The Eagles finished 4-12, Reid was fired and the team never returned to Lehigh.

It marked the end of one era in some respects. Reid represented old-school sensibilities, two-a-day practices, and transplanted training camps. And his successors — Chip Kelly, Doug Pederson, and Nick Sirianni — have introduced new-age thinking to the Eagles involving sports science, emotional intelligence, and up-tempo walk-throughs.

In truth, Reid was ahead of the curve in as many areas. The change of scenery, though, may have benefited the coach as he has only cemented his Hall of Fame credentials with the Chiefs. The Eagles, too, needed a reshaping.

It took their second head coaching hire to deliver an elusive Super Bowl in 2018. Reid claimed the title himself two years later. But upon looking back on one of the darkest days in franchise history, few could have predicted how the decade would unfold, not that anyone was looking beyond that traumatic Sunday.

Comforted by the coach: At approximately 7:20 a.m., Lehigh University police received a 911 call about an unresponsive male in a dorm room at Sayre Park Village on campus. Dom DiSandro, Eagles chief security officer, found Garrett Reid and made the call. But upon arrival, officers were unable to revive him.

Players knew something was wrong because they had spotted emergency vehicles outside Building C, where the coaching staff resided, on the way to breakfast. DiSandro, meanwhile, was responsible for telling Andy Reid, and by the time players arrived at the locker room, about a half mile from the dorms, most had heard the tragic news about their coach’s son.

Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg informed the team on the field just before the 8:15 practice was to commence, and wide receiver Jason Avant led the squad in prayer. The walk-through, players would later say, was somber and as they walked off, Roseman took the podium along with Lehigh chief of police Ed Shupp and the coroner.

After handing off to Shupp, a distraught Roseman fell into the arms of head trainer Rick Burkholder. Shupp said there were no indications of foul play in Garrett Reid’s death. The coroner’s investigation later confirmed that he died from a self-injected lethal dose of heroin.

At noon, Reid addressed the team and told them that he would be leaving Lehigh to be with his family at his Villanova home. He was his typical stoic self, according to players, but he was resolute and told them he would return later that week.

That afternoon, a few reporters texted Reid their condolences and were astounded when he replied almost immediately, thanking them. Roseman and others would later tell stories of how they found themselves being comforted by the coach instead of vice versa.

“That night Andy called me to check on me,” Roseman said in 2020. “I broke down when that happened. That he was calling to check in on me to see how I was and to tell me how Garrett loved me and was proud of me.”

Fittingly, a steady rain fell before the afternoon practice. Fans waited in their cars until the start and as they filed into the stands, Jeffrey Lurie was addressing his team. The Eagles owner was slated to hold his annual state of the franchise news conference, but instead fielded only questions about the Reids.

It would be the last time Lurie was made available to reporters during camp in such a setting.

Paying their respects: Mornhinweg and defensive coordinator Juan Castillo oversaw the team in Reid’s absence. The Eagles practiced on Monday, but on the off day Tuesday, were bused down to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Broomall for Garrett Reid’s funeral.

More than 900 paid their respects to the Reids, including former Eagles players, coaches from around the NFL, and league officials. Reid had been in and out of rehabs and courtrooms for nearly a decade, but he seemed to have conquered his demons after he was released from prison in 2009.

His father had given him various jobs and eventually he became a strength and conditioning assistant. He had found his passion, his family said, and had planned to study sports management that fall.

At his service, family members and friends reflected on Reid’s gregarious personality and sense of humor and not his struggles.

Andy Reid drove back to training camp the next morning, and along the route, there were signs on lawns and in driveways delivering messages of consolation and encouragement.

“I’m a football coach. That’s what I do,” he said during an 18-minute news conference that did not include a single football question. “I know my son wouldn’t want it any other way.”

‘Absolutely’ thinking of Garrett: The Eagles returned to Lehigh following Thursday’s preseason opener at Lincoln Financial Field, but those last several practices would be their last in Bethlehem. Reid’s departure set the wheels in motion, but the team has since cited convenience as the primary reason for holding camp at the NovaCare Complex since 2012.

Reid still likes to go away to camp with his Chiefs.

In February 2020, 7 1/2 years after Garrett’s death, the coach finally won a Super Bowl. While most questions afterward focused on the Xs and Os of the Chiefs’ comeback, or Reid’s long wait, or an assortment of other football-related topics, his son hadn’t come up.

Few were at Lehigh on the day he died. But long after Reid finished his formal interviews, he was asked if Garrett crossed his mind once the final whistle was blown.

“You can’t help but think of him,” he said. “Absolutely.”