Friend has become foe.
The Eagles snuck into the NFL playoffs on Sunday, due in large part to the play of the Chicago Bears, who beat the Minnesota Vikings and opened the playoff door for the Eagles.
Ironically, the team the Eagles will face in the first-round of the playoffs is none other than the Bears, who are coached by somebody familiar to Eagles fans and even more familiar to University of Delaware fans.
Matt Nagy is a true Cinderella story.
He played quarterback at Division I-AA Delaware and then in the lowly Arena Football League before getting his start as an NFL coach as an intern, but only after coaching in the high school ranks for a few years. Andy Reid was coach of the Eagles when he took Nagy under his wing, and Reid brought Nagy with him when he became coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013. Nagy worked his way up through the ranks and, in large part because of Reid’s reputation as a developer of coaches, was named head coach of the Bears before the 2018 season.
It was a remarkable run, from high school coach to NFL intern to NFL head coach, and Nagy proved the wisdom of the move when he completely turned around the Bears fortunes – one year after finishing last in the NFC Central Division, Chicago finished 12-4 and in first place. And now they’ll host the Eagles in their first playoff appearance since 2010.
But even though Nagy came from humble beginnings, he was an outstanding player at every level, even if they weren’t the top ones. He played at Delaware from 1997-2000 and twice led the Blue Hens to the Division I-AA semifinals. And Nagy still holds several Delaware passing records, including touchdown passes in a season (29 in 2000) and TD passes in a career (58), as well as most passing yards in a game (556 vs. Connecticut in 1998) and passing yards in a career (8,214).
He also shined in the Arena League, where he played for six seasons with the New York Dragons (2002), Carolina Cobras (2004), Georgia Force (2005) and Columbus Destroyers (2006, 2007). Nagy led the Destroyers to two straight Arena Bowl appearances, but, alas, they lost both times to the San Jose SaberCats, and, as we all know, it’s no disgrace to lose to the SaberCats.
I remember two stories in particular about Nagy when I worked at our local daily newspaper and then for the website CBSSports.com. The first came when Nagy was playing in the Arena League. I decided to do a column about the indoor league and went to a Philadelphia Soul game at the Wells Fargo Center (or whatever it was called at the time).
The gist of the column was that even though the players were talented and many of them were good enough to play in the NFL, I just didn’t like the format, because the running game was almost nonexistent and there was no defense and typical scores were 65-58. I even compared it to one of those old vibrating football games, where you lined up your players and flipped a switch and they went in all directions, usually in the opposite one from which you wanted them to go.
I still remember the headline to that column, and it’s important to remember that writers don’t write the headlines; an editor does. Anyhow, the headline read: “Arena football – it’s fun, but it’s not real.”
Well, the next day I went to the newspaper office and when I checked my e-mail I was stunned to see that I had more than 100 about that column, and some of them were from places like Oregon and Arizona and all over the country — and all of them ripped me because of what I wrote. Then I realized that somebody had read the column and posted it to the Arena League website, which is why it went national.
Well, one of those emails was from none other than Matt Nagy, one of the stars of the league. And he angrily challenged me to suit up and go head-to-head with some AFL players, since I didn’t think it was “real”. I replied and patiently pointed out that I didn’t write the headline and questioned whether he actually read the column, since I was very complimentary to the athletes who played in the league and it was simply the format that I didn’t like.
Nagy didn’t respond, but, later on, when he became a low-level assistant with the Eagles, I reminded him of it and he laughed it off, saying that the column simply fired up his competitive juices.
And that brings us to the second Nagy story.
After the AFL folded in 2009, Nagy was hired as an intern by the Eagles, which, of course, is the lowest rung on the coaching ladder. During training camp that summer at Lehigh University, backup quarterback Kevin Kolb got injured, and the Eagles announced that Nagy would be signed as a player, which meant he would finally realize his dream of wearing an NFL uniform.
Nagy was supposed to practice in the afternoon session – needless to say, I was eager to write an article about him – but he never showed up. Then the Eagles made another announcement – even though the Arena League didn’t exist anymore, Nagy was still under contract to the league. So, the NFL, always concerned about possible lawsuits, negated Nagy’s contract with the Eagles. Needless to say, he was crushed and refused to discuss the situation with the media.
Nagy did keep his job as an intern and gradually worked his way up that coaching ladder with Reid, first with the Eagles and then the Kansas City Chiefs. And now he’s a head coach in the NFL, making millions of dollars, and he’s a leading candidate for NFL coach of the year.
Sometimes, good guys do finish first.