Four years before their most recent NFL championship, the Philadelphia Eagles used the 161st pick in the NFL draft to select a center out of Penn State named Frank Reich.
He was a rock of a human being, the son of a millworker who spent 47 years refusing to call in sick, a schoolboy football star who served with the Marines in Korea then resumed his career as a two-way starter at Penn State. He became an all-star, and a captain, the anchor of a Nittany Lions line that paved the way for future Hall of Fame running back Lenny Moore and a fixture on a defense renowned for its toughness over the middle.
The Eagles offered him a contract. Reich said no thanks. He took a job for less money as a schoolteacher and coach, moved back home to central Pennsylvania, and prepared to start a family.
Less than a year after the Eagles won their last championship, Reich had a son, whom he named Frank. Like his namesake, Frank was an athlete. He grew tall and square and tough. He starred in baseball, basketball, and football at Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon County, making his biggest name in the same sport as his dad.
“My dad was a real stoic man,” the younger Frank, the Eagles' offensive coordinator, said last week. “He’d sit up there in the stands and his facial expression would never change. I could throw four touchdowns or four interceptions and his face was never gonna change.”
Instead of criticism or praise, the elder Reich would hammer his son with a phrase: words that ring through his head to this day. Hey, he would say in his limestone rumble, keep the pressure on.
Keep the pressure on.
“What he meant by that was, whether you win or lose, or whether you are 0-10 or 10-0, you play the same way,” Reich said. “You don’t ever let up. You just don’t ever let up.”
Master of the comeback: Those words echoed through Reich’s mind on an autumn afternoon in 1984 when he led the University of Maryland to what was then the largest comeback victory in major college football history, coming off the bench to orchestrate six scoring drives and erase a 31-0 deficit on the way to a 42-40 victory at Miami.
He heard them again in 1993, when he rallied the Bills from a 35-3 deficit in the third quarter of their AFC wild-card playoff game against the Oilers en route to a 41-38 overtime victory.
“Whatever role I played in those games was a direct influence of my dad,” Reich said.
Those were the words Reich heard two weekends ago, when a 7-0 deficit to the Minnesota Vikings in the NFC championship game became a 24-7 halftime lead.
Long, slow climb: Coaching has been a long, slow climb for Reich. He’d been retired as a player for nearly a decade before joining the Colts staff as a 45-year-old intern in 2006, officially joining the staff in 2008. He spent four years as an offensive assistant coach, the second of them the season the Colts lost to the Saints in Super Bowl XLIV.
When Indianapolis parted ways with Jim Caldwell after the 2011 season, Reich moved on to the Cardinals as a wide receivers coach for head coach Ken Whisenhunt, whom he followed to San Diego the next season, where both men were members of Mike McCoy’s staff. After one year as the quarterbacks coach, Reich replaced Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator, remaining in that role for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
The latter of those seasons capped off one of the more difficult years of Reich’s life. In the spring of 2015, his father died at 83.
“He brought me up to respect the coach, respect the chain of command, and how important that is,” Reich said. “He used to tell me that when you are the quarterback, your job is to step into that huddle and call that play as if it’s the best play that’s ever been called. No matter what you think, you step in that huddle because everyone’s looking at you, and they better know that’s the best play for that situation that’s ever been called.”
Telling photograph: A photograph sits in Frank Reich’s office at the Eagles’ practice facility, like a portal to the past: two men, alone in the middle of a field, both frozen in midstride, one in a light-colored jersey, the other dark. In the distance, the stands are a black-and-white blur, featureless bodies melting into one another, accentuating the action in the foreground. There is panic on the face atop the white jersey, the ball held high against his torso, flapping between forearm and shoulder, as if he might drop the darn thing to abet his escape.
Behind him, the man in the dark jersey looms, eyes locked in a predatory focus, jaw and nose hardened between the ear flaps of a white helmet with no bars across the face. There is a cast on his right hand, a big ol’ papier-mâché club of a thing. His arms are tense, his body locked and loaded and ready to strike.
Big game looms: On Saturday, somewhere in the vicinity of the Eagles’ team hotel outside Minneapolis, Reich and head coach Doug Pederson will do as they’ve done before every game this season. They will huddle together, examine their play sheet, crack jokes about the game plan they’ve scripted. At some point, perhaps, Reich will think of the words that the man in the dark jersey so often spoke.
Keep the pressure on.
Whatever happens Sunday, you can be sure the Eagles will.