Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Bloody nose, broken back: Mike Vrabel brings toughness to halls of fame, Browns vs. Titans


Nate Ulrich

Akron Beacon Journal


  • Mike Vrabel shares memories of a back injury creating a "pretty traumatic" experience and a proverbial fork in the road during his Walsh Jesuit High School football days
  • What is work like for members of the Tennessee Titans who play for Vrabel? Two guys with Browns connections, Jack Conklin and Joshua Dobbs, share insight about the NFL coach who was born in Akron
  • Former Walsh coach Gerry Rardin and former NFL defensive coordinator Dean Pees remember Vrabel as a player and how his behavior back then foreshadowed a future in coaching

Mike Vrabel jumped into a scuffle among Tennessee Titans players, pushing and shoving to prove a point as the franchise's new head coach.

“He's yelling at the same time, teaching them, 'You do this in the game, it's a penalty!' And as he's doing it, he's knocking them around. He's right in the middle of it,” said Gerry Rardin, Vrabel's former Walsh Jesuit High School football coach.

“I'm thinking, 'Holy cow! He's not only teaching the lesson, but he's teaching them the lesson physically.' That's just the way he does it. He's going to be hands on. He's going to walk the walk.”

The scene Rardin recalled from his visit to Titans organized team activities in 2018 wasn't a rare instance of Vrabel mixing it up with players as if he were still a famed New England Patriots defender, special teamer and part-time tight end.

“I remember from the first day of OTAs him coming in and jacking offensive linemen,” said Browns right tackle Jack Conklin, a member of the Titans during Vrabel's first two seasons at the helm in Tennessee. “We're doing drills, and he's in there as the defender trying to give looks and in the middle of it all. I remember him getting bloody noses and him getting hit in the face.”

It's not like Vrabel borrows a helmet when he does this.

“No, he'd just jump in there, flip his hat backwards and take a shot in the face,” Conklin said. “But he didn't care. He'd tell you, 'Good.'”

This fall, Vrabel will bring his intense brand of toughness to two halls of fames and a matchup with the Browns.

The former NFL linebacker who's in his sixth season as Titans coach will be inducted into the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 3 and the Patriots Hall of Fame on Oct. 21.

“A lot of great people from Northeast Ohio, a lot of great athletes, so it's pretty cool,” Vrabel told the Beacon Journal by phone last month.

Before Vrabel is honored, his Titans (1-1) will face the Browns (1-1) on Sunday in Cleveland.

Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel attended last Cleveland Browns game before the team moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens

Vrabel's all-time record against the Browns is 9-4, including 4-1 in Cleveland. As a player, he went 6-3, including 2-1 at Cleveland Browns Stadium. As a coach, he's 3-1 versus the Browns, including 1-1 as Titans boss and 2-0 on Cleveland's lakefront.

Unlike some coaches who downplay the personal significance of a homecoming game, Vrabel said clashing with the Browns is indeed special to him.

“Yeah, I grew up a Browns fan,” Vrabel said. “My first NFL game with my dad was in the Dawg Pound and was at Municipal Stadium for the last game [in 1995 before the team moved to Baltimore].

“[Fans] were taking the rows of chairs off and throwing them onto the field. ... I grew up wearing the dog bones and all that other stuff, just because football was popular and important where I grew up.”

Vrabel, 48, was born at Akron City Hospital and said he lived in Springfield Township until he moved in middle school to Stow with his parents, Chuck and Elaine.

At Walsh, Vrabel became a standout in football, basketball and track and field — he threw shot put and discus — before starring as a two-time All-America defensive end at Ohio State and playing 14 NFL seasons for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1997-2000), Patriots (2001-08) and Kansas City Chiefs (2009-10).

How a back injury Mike Vrabel suffered as a student at Walsh Jesuit High School threatened his football career

The journey wasn't always smooth. Vrabel encountered a proverbial fork in the road the summer before his junior year of high school.

Excruciating back pain sent Vrabel to two doctors who said his football career should have ended. Determined to exhaust all options, Vrabel went to a third doctor, a back specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, who concluded he could continue to play if he wore a brace and rehabilitated the injury.

“I was like, 'Thank God!' Finally, I went to enough doctors,” Vrabel said.

What was the issue? Vrabel said he had suffered “stress fractures in the fourth and fifth lumbar.” He conceded the experience was “pretty traumatic” until the back specialist cleared him to play again.

“Then it was like, 'OK. It's not going to be the end of the world. This is what we're going to do — get fitted for a brace, go from there,'” Vrabel said. “The brace was crazy. It was from my upper chest down below my waistline, so they kept me literally straight up and down.”

As a Walsh junior, Vrabel played defensive end, linebacker and tight end standing up. As a senior, he shed the brace and returned to a three-point stance.

“It just kind of shows the perseverance this guy has,” Rardin said. “I think a lot of people could have given up at that time. But that [third] doctor gave him hope, and he said, 'I'm taking it.' He ran with it.”

Vrabel's version of how he initially detected the back problem provides a glimpse into his ruthless sense of humor. The discovery occurred while he ran laps as punishment for arriving late to two-a-day practices with some of his teammates.

“Did Gerry tell you when he made me run around, made me run laps when I was like, 'My back's killing me?'” Vrabel said. “He was like, 'Keep running.'

“Then I found out I had stress fractures, and poor Gerry wanted to, like, you know, kill himself because he felt terrible. I always hold it over his head. I was like, 'Remember when you tried to ruin my career by making me run for 40 minutes around the fields?'”

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't immune to Mike Vrabel jokes

Vrabel is almost always busting someone's chops. His players are frequent targets, and even Bill Belichick is not safe, according to a tale Rardin said he has heard about Vrabel unveiling an impersonation of Belichick during a Patriots practice and drawing laughter from the stern coaching legend.

“It's like cynical humor,” said Arizona Cardinals quarterback Joshua Dobbs, a former member of the Browns who started two games for the Titans last season. “He's going to throw some jabs, but he expects you to throw some jabs back.”

With Vrabel, Conklin said “you've got to be on your game” when it comes to trash talk.

“He'll either hit you with something you've got to improve on for practice and be all in your face, or it's a joke,” Conklin added. “So you never know what you're going to get, but you've always got to be on guard because he's just full energy.”

Conklin can't help but chuckle about Vrabel's wife, Jennifer, catching the youngest of the couple's two sons, Carter, chewing tobacco and then punishing the family patriarch because his habit had set the example.

“Vrabes had to quit chewing tobacco,” Conklin said. “So he started smoking cigarettes outside the [Titans] training room every morning — every morning.”

Rardin accepted an invitation from Vrabel to hang out at Titans headquarters shortly after the latter had secured his first head coaching job. Rardin observed Vrabel's knack for being personable but simultaneously commanding respect.

“He doesn't have to act like the hard ass every second, but everybody knows he is,” Rardin said.

On another serious note, Vrabel revealed the back discomfort caused by the stress fractures he suffered in high school never vanished.

“It bothered me throughout my career,” he said.

Mike Vrabel had the traits of a perfect NFL defender, former New England Patriots assistant coach Dean Pees says

Adversity shaping Vrabel as a teenager in Summit County is fitting because of what the area represents to many who hail from it.

“There's an importance on, I think, some toughness and hard work,” Vrabel said.

Former Patriots assistant Dean Pees said Vrabel “was a perfect defensive player” because he possessed loads of the four ingredients Pees seeks in defenders: Physical toughness, mental toughness, intelligence and work ethic.

Those traits allowed Vrabel to become a three-time Super Bowl champion (2001, 2003, 2004 seasons) and a Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro selection (2007) with the Patriots after he spent his first four professional seasons as a backup with the Steelers, who drafted him in the third round (91st overall) out of Ohio State in 1997.

Vrabel started 140 of his 206 career regular-season games and compiled 762 tackles with 57 sacks, 11 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles and nine fumble recoveries. He started 18 of his 20 playoff games, registering 88 tackles with nine sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

As a tight end in goal-line situations, Vrabel established himself as a go-to target of former Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. In the regular season and postseason combined, Vrabel caught 12 passes — all for touchdowns. Ten were with the Patriots (he had TD receptions in back-to-back Super Bowl victories) and two others with the Chiefs.

“There is nobody that is better than Mike Vrabel,” Pees said. “He was tough — physically tough — and he was mentally tough. And the thing is, he was as hard a worker as I've ever seen. He's in the top shelf of smartest players I have ever, ever coached.”

How Mike Vrabel playing with Ohio State Buckeyes, New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs translated to coaching

Pees has a long history with Vrabel. After serving as the head coach at Kent State University for six seasons, Pees entered the NFL in 2004 as a linebackers coach with the Patriots and became their defensive coordinator two years later.

Pees reunited with Vrabel by working for his former pupil as the Titans' defensive coordinator from 2018-19. In the second of those two seasons, the Titans advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

At the time, Vrabel was a second-year head coach who had ascended from an Ohio State assistant (2011-13) to a Houston Texans linebackers coach (2014-16) to the Texans' defensive coordinator (2017).

From Pees' vantage point, increased power and pressure didn't affect Vrabel. Pees said he's seen other coaches undergo personality changes with promotions.

“He's the same guy, and so, to me, that's what makes head coaches successful,” Pees said. “They are who they are. Belichick, [Steelers coach Mike] Tomlin, those guys are the same guys all the time.”

The leadership abilities Vrabel demonstrated as a player, Pees said, foreshadowed the coach he would become.

Pees explained Vrabel policed New England's linebacking corps after a highly touted rookie repeatedly ignored a coaching tip and acted as if “he had a little bit of an attitude” during position group meetings.

“I'm ready to go after this guy, and so bottom line is I start in on him,” Pees said. “Vrabel stands up and says, 'Coach, don't worry about it. Go on with the meeting. Teach us what you need to teach us. We'll take care of it.'

“I don't know what all the linebackers did, but that kid was a different kid after that day. I know they didn't do anything physically to him, but I think they told him, 'This is not how we're going to do things here.' But that told you right there about Mike Vrabel's leadership.”

Rardin was stunned when former Ohio State assistant Fred Pagac visited a Walsh practice before Vrabel's sophomore season and predicted he would become an NFL player. The declaration didn't seem as bold by the time Vrabel was named the Beacon Journal Player of the Year after his senior season in 1992.

There was another notable revelation during Vrabel's high school days. When Vrabel would sit in Rardin's office with his feet atop a desk and discuss strategy for an upcoming game, everyone knew he was coaching material. Rardin visited Ohio State during Vrabel's freshman season and saw the same routine unfold in coach John Cooper's office.

Vrabel's parents were administrators at several local schools. His father played basketball at Copley and the University of Akron before coaching hoops at Norton.

“I was always around the team,” Vrabel said. “I was an only child. I will always say this: When you're an only child and your parents both work, you end up being spoiled — you had nice things. But I also was taught what the value of hard work was and also how important it was to be a part of a team.”

This is how Mike Vrabel has fared while coaching the Tennessee Titans against his hometown Cleveland Browns

As coach of the Titans, Vrabel's record is 51-38, including 2-3 in the playoffs. He was voted the 2021 Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year a season after the Browns' Kevin Stefanski received the same award. The last time the Titans and Browns met, Cleveland prevailed 41-35 on Dec. 6, 2020, in Nashville.

The previous season, the Titans had wrecked the head coaching debut of Freddie Kitchens by rolling to a 43-13 win on Sept. 8, 2019, in Cleveland. The Browns finished with 18 penalties for 182 yards and could have used a coach who would blast them with the dangers of lacking discipline.

The Titans meet during the season for what they call “mental Thursday,” Dobbs said. Vrabel calls out individuals from every part of the depth chart and quizzes them about their responsibilities on a given play.

Vrabel holds players accountable and dishes out tough love, but he celebrates and encourages them, too.

“He'll be that guy in the middle of the circle hyping guys up, outside the locker room congratulating guys or picking up guys for support after a tough loss, which is very unique to see,” Dobbs said. “But I think it goes back to he's been in those moments as a player.”

“Through all of his antics and everything, I think that's just his way of showing that he does care about you,” Conklin added. “He wants to get the most out of guys, and he's going to push you. But in his heart, it's 'cause he cares about you and he wants you to do well.”

Vrabel also wants his players to talk about being “great” when they are in the Titans' training facility, no matter how they're feeling in the moment.

“There's something about speaking it into existence,” Conklin said.

Vrabel's greatness has granted him entry this year into two halls of fame, including one in a community where he was steeled for life in the NFL.

Here is ticket information for the Summit County Sports Hall of Fame's upcoming induction ceremony and banquet

The 65th Summit County Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony and banquet will be held Oct. 3 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 129 S. Union Street, in Akron. A social/cocktail hour is scheduled to run from 5:30-6:30 p.m. The program and dinner will start at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets can be bought online at Tickets for adults are $55. Tickets for children 12 and younger are $25. Patron tickets, which include dinner and the purchaser's name listed in the banquet program, are $80.

In addition to Vrabel, Jim Braccio, Andy Daniels, Jessica Jenson Starcher, Mike Morrow, Sean Robbins, Stan Stammen, Mark Steinkerchner and Mary Varga Stupczy will be inducted.

The Rev. Ronald Fowler will receive the Andy Palich Memorial Service Award. Glenda Buchanan will receive the Ed Kalail Volunteer Award.

For more information or advertising opportunities, contact SCSHOF president Jeff Kurtz at 330-329-3677 or SCSHOF vice president Glenda Buchanan at 330-687-1896.

More Summit County Sports Hall of Fame: Find bios on the entire Class of 2023

Nate Ulrich can be reached at On Twitter: @ByNateUlrich.

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