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Cool As Ice

Published on January 01, 2012

by Joshua Cooley

Originally Published: January 2012

The sun was still asleep on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010, when Leslie Frazier’s phone rang. It was one of the Minnesota Vikings’ executives. That’s odd, Frazier thought. It’s awfully early for a call on game day.

Leslie Frazier
College: Alcorn State University
Personal: He and his wife, Gale, have three children: Kieron, Chantel and Corey.
Playing Career:
• Chicago Bears (1981-85); Super Bowl XX Champions Coaching Career: Assistant Coach
• University of Illinois (1997-98)
• Philadelphia Eagles (1999-02)
• Cincinnati Bengals (2003-04) • Indianapolis Colts (2005-06); Super Bowl XLI Champions
• Minnesota Vikings (2007-10) Head Coach
• Trinity College (IL) (1988-96)
• Minnesota Vikings (2010-Present)

Still groggy, Frazier reached for his phone. Three weeks earlier, the call would have gone to Brad Childress. But Childress had been released after a 31-3 loss to the Green Bay Packers that dropped the Vikings record to 3-7. Frazier, the team’s defensive coordinator, had been promoted to interim head coach and promptly won his next two games.

No time for basking, though. That afternoon’s opponent, the visiting New York Giants, were coming in with an 8-4 record. And a wild time for Frazier was about to get wilder.

“Hello?” he said into his phone.

“Have you heard the news yet?” the executive asked hastily.

“What news?” Frazier said.

“Brace yourself,” the executive responded.

“There won’t be any football today at the Metrodome.”

“Why not?” Frazier asked in disbelief.

“The roof has collapsed.”

At first, Frazier thought it was a weak attempt at a practical joke. Then, he turned on the TV. Sure enough, earlier that morning, a massive winter storm in the Midwest had dumped enough snow on the Metrodome’s inflatable roof to puncture it like an overstressed Jiffy Pop bag. Frazier watched in shock as TV images showed snow and ice pouring onto the stadium’s artificial turf.

The surreal morning only foreshadowed more bizarre difficulties to come. The NFL moved the game to Monday night at Detroit’s Ford Field and resulted in a 21-3 Vikings loss that also marked the injury-induced end of quarterback Brett Favre’s NFL-record string of 297 consecutive starts.

The following week, the Vikings hosted Chicago at the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium, falling 40-14, but they rebounded in Week 16 to defeat the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-14, in the first Tuesday night game in NFL history. The season rounded out with a 20-13 loss at Detroit.

It seems that sometimes in life, even when things seem to be going well, life dumps a ton of wet snow on your head. This wasn’t a new lesson for Frazier— just a particularly clear reminder.

Ever since Frazier was born on April 3, 1959, in the midst of many personal and social complexities in the segregated South, life has been a trade-off of big trials and big successes. But in each instance, the truth of Romans 8:28—Frazier’s favorite verse—has been validated. He knows that God truly does work for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose.

He knows because he is living proof.

* * *

Frazier grew up in Columbus, Miss., an early-19th century settlement located near Alabama’s western state line that was first started by a U.S. interpreter for the Choctaw Nation. These days, Columbus is a charming town (pop. 23,640 as of 2010) in which the tea is sweet, the barbeque sauce is tangy and the local vernacular twangs like a friendly banjo. The city, it’s proud to say, is the birthplace of famed playwright Tennessee Williams and home to a nationally recognized Main Street district and many beautiful antebellum estates.

Leslie Frazier
In 2010, as the interim head coach, Frazier led the Vikings to a 3-3 record that included a 24-14 win over Andy Reid’s Philadelphia Eagles.

But for African-Americans in the 1960s, little was charming and beautiful in racially polarized Mississippi. During Frazier’s childhood, it seemed as if each morning’s newspaper brought new headlines of bigotry and hate. Like the now-infamous Ole Miss Riot in October 1962 when President John F. Kennedy ordered thousands of federal troops to quell the deadly protest of the first black student at the University of Mississippi, just two hours northwest of Columbus. Or the June 1963 slaying of a black Civil Rights activist by a Ku Klux Klan member in Jackson, only two-and-a-half hours to the southwest.

Frazier has spoken to his three children—Kieron, Chantel and Corey—only sparingly about those years, but they know enough to understand that their father saw and heard things they never will.

“I know he did,” Corey says. “Whenever we go to visit, he tells me where most African-Americans lived at the time and where most whites lived at the time and how it was segregated.”

For young Leslie, though, his family life presented greater concerns. He and his two younger brothers grew up without much help from their parents. His mother battled substance abuse, and he never really got to know his father. In their absence, Ozella Gaston, the boys’ maternal grandmother, raised them.

“Big Mama,” as the boys called her, provided what she could, but her paycheck as a cook at Columbus Air Force Base didn’t supply much more than the bare necessities. Frazier never even ate at a fast-food restaurant until he was in college.

“My grandmother did the best she could without having a lot financially,” he said.

But Big Mama provided for her grandsons in other areas, giving them something of far greater value: Scripture. She stressed their need for a Savior and made sure they knew that salvation was by grace alone, through faith in Jesus Christ. And every Sunday, without fail, she put those boys in the pews at St. James United Methodist Church.

Eventually, the promises of Isaiah 55:11 produced spiritual fruit in Frazier. At age 12, moved by an Easter morning sermon, he answered God’s call to surrender and publicly proclaimed his faith in Christ.

“[The pastor] was stressing if we knew whether we would go to Heaven or Hell,” Frazier said. “I knew I wanted to go to Heaven, but I wasn’t assured. When he explained it, though, I knew. I went forward and accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior, and I’ve grown over time.”

While maturing spiritually, Frazier also developed athletically. At Alcorn State University, he played baseball and football, becoming an All-American cornerback.

In 1981, the Chicago Bears signed him as an undrafted free agent, and by 1983 the 6-foot, 189-pound Frazier was one of the top cornerbacks in the league, posting a team-high seven interceptions. The following year, he helped the Bears reach the NFC Championship game with a team-leading five picks.

Then came 1985.

With everything clicking under fiery head coach “Iron” Mike Ditka and using defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan’s legendary “46” scheme, the Bears produced one of the NFL’s greatest seasons. Chicago went 15-1 in the regular season before blanking the Giants and the Rams by a combined score of 45-0 in their first two playoff games. They then destroyed the Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.

“Da Bears” were equally memorable off the field, particularly known for the Super Bowl Shuffle, their team rap video that became a cultural sensation. (For a humorous trip down Memory Lane check it out on YouTube.) While the video highlighted the team’s biggest stars including quarterback Jim McMahon, running back Walter Payton and linebacker Mike Singletary, Frazier also appeared on-screen several times as a background dancer.

“Yes, I’m sad to say, I had a dancing part,” he lamented.

This little Frazier-flavored slice of American pop culture provided hours of entertainment for Frazier’s family. His kids sometimes asked him to perform the Super Bowl Shuffle in the family’s living room.

“They had fun with it, teasing me and getting me to dance,” Frazier said.

“But they had to do their part, too, which was to laugh at Dad.”

“Very soon,” Chantel laughed, “we figured out he was not the dancer.”

Indeed, for Bears fans, that winter was a time to dance, sing and celebrate. But Frazier’s season ended way off-key.

In ’85, Frazier had led Chicago in interceptions (6) for the third straight year. He was only 26 and seemingly destined for greatness. But while returning a punt in the Super Bowl, he suffered a left knee injury so severe that, even after 18 months of rehab, left him unable to pass a team physical. Finally, the Bears cut him loose. His brief but promising career—with 20 interceptions in 65 games, including two returned for touchdowns—was over.

It was a devastating blow for the kid from Columbus, so he turned again to Romans 8:28. He recalled the helpful reminder about faith in Hebrews 11:1, and he took heart from Joseph’s trust in God amid seemingly unfair trials in Genesis 37 and 39.

“I thought I would beat the odds and that it would be a great testimony,” Frazier said. “It didn’t happen, and it was tough. But my faith got me through.”

With a bum knee and question marks clouding his future, Frazier considered his options. One he quickly dismissed was an offer in August 1986 from Dr. Ken Meyer, then the president of Trinity College in Chicago’s northern suburbs, who asked Frazier to launch a football program at the tiny NAIA Christian school.

Frazier threw Meyer’s first letter in the trash. But Meyer persisted, and, in 1988, Frazier became Trinity’s first football coach, leading the school (now known as Trinity International University) to two Northern Illinois Intercollegiate Conference titles and several years later being honored with his name on the Trojans’ football field.

In 1997, he left Trinity for the University of Illinois, where he coached defensive backs for two years before landing his first NFL job in a similar role with the Philadelphia Eagles. In 2003, he became Cincinnati Bengals’ Head Coach Marvin Lewis’ defensive coordinator for two seasons before joining the staff of former head coach Tony Dungy in Indianapolis, where he won a second Super Bowl ring after the 2006 season.

Frazier came to the Vikings as a defensive coordinator in 2007 and molded his unit into the league’s sixth-ranked defense overall in 2008 and 2009, both playoff years. In 2009, the Vikings went 12-4 and nearly reached the Super Bowl. But 2010 turned into a loss- and snow-saturated mess.

Yet, for guiding the team to a 3-3 mark under extreme conditions, the Vikings removed the “interim” label and officially named Frazier the head coach last January.

“We had such high expectations, and for the year to unravel like it did was tough on everybody,” Frazier said. “Once again, I had to trust in God.” 

* * *

Life hasn’t always been easy for Frazier’s family. His wife, Gale, whom he met in the Alcorn State library and married during his rookie NFL season, and their children have followed Frazier through the nomadic existence of a football coach. Since the 1990s, the Fraziers have lived in Illinois, Ohio, New Jersey, Texas and Minnesota.

But it’s been a good life, too. This, they know.

As his kids grew up, Frazier tried to provide things that he never had during his childhood—both materially and spiritually. He made sure he was around for his children and often cited Scripture when they encountered questions or problems.

“He really passed along his knowledge of the Bible,” Chantel said. “Whenever we have conflicts or questions about what to do, we always come to him and he gives verses or thoughts.”

Defying NFL stereotypes, Frazier is as easygoing a personality as you’ll find roaming the sidelines. He’s not a yeller or a fire-breather. And he’s the same at home, too. According to his kids, he was a calm, consistent father who worked hard to train them, not bark at them.

But he was no pushover, either. The children knew they’d see hot coals in Dad’s eyes if they disrespected their parents or one another.

“That’s when it was really crossing the line,” Corey said.

“Family is so important to him—honoring your father and mother, respecting your siblings, and keeping the family close. He just didn’t tolerate anything less.”

As coaching began to demand more of Frazier’s schedule, he worked hard to invest in his family. When Chantel played golf in high school, he would use their time together on the driving range for deeper conversations rather than meaningless chatter. Each week, he calls Corey, who just finished his junior season as a safety at Rice University, before games to read the Bible together and after to discuss the game itself. And Frazier still enjoys being in the same building as Kieron, who played wide receiver at Illinois and now works in the Vikings’ legal affairs department.

“Dad was always there to offer advice and insight,” Chantel said. “We all know that is a blessing.”

Leslie Frazier
Now in his second season at the helm in Minnesota, Frazier is maximizing his platform to spread the message of Christ through various organizations, including FCA.

Frazier’s faith has spilled into the lives of countless others, too. He is a spokesman for All Pro Dads, a ministry that encourages men to become better fathers. And he has been active in FCA since his rookie season with the Bears when the area director at the time encouraged him to chaperone local events and speak at high school Huddles.

“It was a great time for me as a young rookie in the NFL trying to find my way,” Frazier said. “I’m so thankful I had FCA in my life at that time. It helped me stay grounded in what I believe.”

Frazier first met FCA’s Jake Vanada, the current West Metro area director in the Twin Cities, in the fall of 2008. Since then, Frazier has spoken at local Huddles and banquets and has helped Vanada organize and run the popular Frazier FCA Football Camp each summer at the Vikings’ practice facility.

Frazier said he has maintained a 30-year relationship with FCA for a very specific reason.

“I know God has provided me with a platform, and I know what kind of impact a coach can have,” he said. “I was a kid once, and I looked up to athletes and coaches. When I was young, my baseball coach really shaped me. So, I know the impact it can have when I tell kids that Jesus Christ is the most important thing in my life. That’s why I stay involved.”

Vanada, for one, has been greatly impressed by Frazier’s spiritual walk.

“His faith drives everything he does,” Vanada said. “He isn’t quiet about it, but he doesn’t push it on others. It’s the backbone of how he operates, how he interacts, and how he leads his staff and coaches. It’s been a long time since I’ve met someone that strong in their faith. He’s passionate about the Lord, and it’s not hard to see that.”

* * * 

If the roof-busting trials of 2010 weren’t enough, Frazier has felt the frigid bite of adversity again this season. As free-agent quarterback Donovan McNabb and the team’s once-vaunted defense struggled early on, the Vikings stumbled to an 0-4 start and missed the playoffs for a second straight season. This, of course, stirred plenty of criticism among antsy fans.

“If anyone can handle it and not get ruffled, it’s him because he’s solid and anchored in Christ,” Vanada said.

That anchor of faith has been the weight that has secured Frazier through the worst of life’s storms—from poverty to prejudice, from career-ending injuries to maddening losses. And yes, even the occasional Midwest-blanketing blizzard.

“One thing I can point to,” Frazier said, “is that God will be glorified by what we’re going through. Of that I am sure.”

Photos courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings and Matt Blewett of Matte B Photography