PHILADELPHIA — When Bill McGovern died Tuesday, it would have been understandable if a ripple of recognition, and nothing more, swept over those Eagles fans who happened to notice the news. McGovern spent three years with the team — the entirety of Chip Kelly’s tenure, from 2013 through 2015 — as its outside linebackers coach. In fact, he was Kelly’s defensive coordinator at UCLA before becoming the program’s director of football administration earlier this year, when he was diagnosed with cancer. He was a husband. He was a father of three daughters. He was 60.
He was also a good one, as coaches go. Those Kelly years aren’t remembered all that fondly around here, but McGovern should be. Under him, Connor Barwin developed into one of the NFL’s best pass-rushers, collecting 14 1/2 sacks in 2014, and McGovern shepherded Brandon Graham through a move from defensive end to linebacker to accommodate coordinator Billy Davis’ 3-4 scheme.
Before joining the Eagles, McGovern had formed a particularly close relationship with Mark Herzlich, a native of Wayne who had played for him at Boston College and who, despite suffering from a type of bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma, played six seasons for and won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants. For all those reasons, there was plenty of cause to speak with McGovern frequently during his time here. Those conversations were never brief and often deep, and they say more about him than anyone else could.
It’s a dream come true to be here. I grew up in North Jersey. I knew all about the Eagles and their history. And then, I come in with Chip and a bunch of guys I know. I remember even talking with my college buddies at Holy Cross. They’d say, “Hey, we’re going to go work in New York City.” I just never saw myself as a suit-and-tie guy. It wasn’t me.
I’ve got three beautiful daughters at home. Love them all. When I’m coaching football, the guys I’m coaching are basically my sons. Obviously, Mark holds a special place in my heart. He’s stronger than all of us. I would call him, and I’d be saying to myself, “I’ve got to be ready to go. He’s dealing with the chemo now. He’s getting the rod put into his leg. OK, he might be down. Got to stay positive.” By the time I got off the phone, he had me fired up. I was sending him tapes when he was down in the hospital. He was critiquing things, calling me back. He was dealing with chemo, and he would come to meetings. I’d tell him, “Listen, you’re exhausted. You’re tired. Get your rest.” “No, I’ll be there, Coach.” It was just inspirational being around him.
You’re talking about a guy who people were talking about going No. 10 or No. 15 in the draft. Then all of a sudden, he might lose a leg. He might never play football again. He might die. To see him come back, people don’t get it. He played 28, 29 plays in our first game. He didn’t practice until the Thursday before, and he was playing. Before the game, I got out in the front, right on the sideline. “I want to see this. I want to see him come out of that tunnel.” Nobody deserved it more, and it was thrilling to see. Again, I don’t want to slight the word, but it was. It was inspirational.
You always learn. That’s one of the biggest things that was great coming here. I’d never actually worked with Chip. Even a guy who’d been in professional coaching 25, 30 years when I got with Chip, I was surprised how much he taught me, how much I learned, what he exposed the coaching staff to. One of the biggest things Chip says is, “Hey, don’t tell me that’s the way we always did it. That’s not the correct answer.” It’s, “Let’s find the best way to do it.” It’s really stuck with me. I thought that’s the right way to approach everything.
There are a thousand things. It starts with going to sleep at night. I watched my old man. He was a truck driver. I remember him waking me up in the middle of the night, giving me a kiss on the forehead. He left before I was awake and came home when I was asleep. I thought that was the way you did it. But Chip was saying, “You’ve got to get your sleep at night — players, coaches, everybody. Otherwise, you’re not going to be at your best when you walk in.” It was something that, when you think about it, makes sense. If you’re going to be there all night, you’re going to run yourself into the ground. It makes me think about how I’m raising my kids. Can you get everybody a little bit better? How do they think? How do they approach something? How do they wake up? How do they go to school? How do they go to bed at night?
I like to know the people I’m dealing with. It’s about more than just football. It’s about life. You’ve got to be happy in what you’re doing. There’s going to be challenges and obstacles and highs and lows. It’s important to understand that sometimes you have a good day and sometimes you have a bad day. And sometimes, when you have a bad day, you have to understand why you had it so you don’t have it again. If I can help a guy have a good day and get a little bit better, that’s what teaching and coaching is all about.
Read the last sentence of that paragraph again. Bill McGovern lived that line. There could be no better epitaph.