The Head Viking: Leslie Frazier

Portrait of Leslie Frazier by Rich FleischmanStory Birney Imes | Photograph Rich Fleischman

The play John Madden called “probably the greatest interception I’ve ever seen” took place Sept. 16, 1984, at Lambeau Field, and if you were in the stands that day in Green Bay, chances are you didn’t see it.

You might have seen Packer quarterback Lynn Dickey drop back and deliver what looked to be a well thrown pass to his All-Pro wide receiver John Jefferson. You might have seen the collision between Jefferson and two Chicago Bears defenders, one of whom came up with the ball. From the stands, it looked like a routine interception.

Seeing the replay, you can understand Madden’s exuberance. The view from the Bears’ end zone shows Jefferson running down and across the middle on a post pattern. As the ball spirals toward his outstretched hands, Bears defensive back Leslie Frazier, in an astonishing display of athleticism, leaps up and over Jefferson and without touching him catches the football.

It was over in a blink. Afterward, a couple of teammates slapped him on the back, and, without much ado, the 6-foot, 189-pound Frazier trotted to the sidelines.

The play is emblematic of Frazier’s sports career, if not his life. Those who know him describe Frazier as quiet, steady, even spiritual (boyhood friends in his hometown of Columbus, dubbed him Casper the Holy Ghost). Time and time again his quiet, steady competence all but gets overlooked, yet, somehow, in the end, someone notices.

Most recently it was Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, who noticed Frazier’s quiet competence. Last fall Wilf elevated his 51-year-old defensive coordinator to interim coach and then on Jan. 3 of this year, named Frazier head coach of the Vikings.

Leslie Frazier speaks easily and fondly about growing up in Columbus. He and his two brothers were raised by their grandmother, Ozella Gaston, a cook at Columbus Air Force Base. Aunts and uncles in Washington, D.C., and New York adopted him in the summer. He credits them and sports with keeping him out of trouble. That and the influence of one man.

By the time he entered the first grade, the young Frazier had developed a close friendship with Roger Brown, a neighborhood boy his age. Brown’s father, Charles, was assistant principal and a coach at Hunt High, then the all-black high school. Recognizing a need, or perhaps seeing something special in the fatherless boy, the elder Brown and his wife opened their arms and home to Frazier.

“They treated me as a son,” Frazier said about the Browns. “They introduced me to another world.”

On Sundays after church Frazier would spend afternoons watching football with the Browns. If dreams of Super Bowls and gridiron heroics danced in his head, they were not so far-fetched. Frazier has earned two Super Bowl rings, one as a player for the ’85 Chicago Bears and one in 2007 as a coach for the Indianapolis Colts.

Frazier is repaying the Browns’ kindness in part by his involvement in All-Pro Dad, a Christian-focused organization that uses star athletes as role models for fathering.

He and his wife, Gale, have three children: Kieron, who works in the Vikings’ legal department; Chantel, who is in graduate school in New York City; and Corey, who plays defensive back for the Rice Owls.

Roger B. Brown, now a talk show host on a Dallas radio station, has always looked upon Frazier as a brother.

“Yeah, he was just on my show last Wednesday,” Brown said from Dallas in a recent phone interview.

“Every morning during school he would be at my house at 7:15. Every morning, not every other morning,” Brown said. “Nobody gave him anything growing up.”

Frazier was a talented athlete who stood out in sandlot games, be they football, basketball or baseball, says Brown.

“He could play anywhere. Everybody recognized his talent.”

Everybody, it seems, but his high school football coaches. That all changed during a junior varsity game his junior year.

Brown, who played quarterback, remembers the game vividly. He had been injured and that night was returning to the lineup. When the starting wide receiver was ejected from the game, Frazier went in.

On the first play Brown dropped back to pass, looked downfield, then turned and tossed a screen pass to his best friend. Frazier took the ball and ran 75 yards for a touchdown, the first of four. That night Frazier emerged from the shadows.

Frazier laughs at the story. “I don’t ever remember scoring any four touchdowns,” he said.

“I can remember,” says his friend. “It was a highlight for me; he’s had so much happen since.”

The following year classmates voted Frazier Mr. Lee High and Senior Favorite and elected him to the school’s hall of fame.

Frazier played college ball at Alcorn State, a historically black university that, despite its small size and obscure location, has produced dozens of NFL athletes. Frazier hoped to join that elite group, but a recurring hamstring injury from his senior season left him in no shape for the 1981 scouting combine, a prerequisite to the NFL draft.

Frustrated, Frazier sat out the draft and stayed at Alcorn intending to earn his degree in business administration that summer. A week before the end of summer school, Frazier got a call from his agent, who had arranged a tryout for Frazier with the Chicago Bears.

The Bears liked Frazier, even though he wasn’t able to run the 40-yard dash, a requirement for every tryout. Frazier told Bears management he had only one week of school to go and he was going back to finish. He now laughs at his youthful audacity. The Bears agreed, and Frazier went back to Alcorn, finished school, then flew back to Chicago and made the team.

Frazier played with the Bears from 1981 until the 1985 Super Bowl, where he suffered a career-ending injury on a second quarter punt return.
After his Super Bowl injury and a lot of soul searching — and encouragement from his wife — Frazier took a coaching job at tiny Trinity College near his Chicago home. That lasted for eight years. After that he took another college job, and then worked as a defensive coach for a succession of NFL teams, ending up at Minnesota as the defensive coordinator in 2007.

In November 2010, Leslie Frazier entered what may be the most challenging chapter of his life when he ascended to head coach of the Vikings.
Though his quiet manner may be an anomaly in the ego-driven business of professional football, Frazier says his former mentor Tony Dungy is evidence that nice guys can succeed and even prevail in the NFL.

“The players know I can be firm,” Frazier says. “I treat them with respect. If they realize you can help them, they respond. People trust me; they know I don’t have a hidden agenda.”

Leslie Frazier’s most obvious agenda item now is to win football games. To do that he must perform a complicated juggling act on a big screen in a sports-mad world. He now must hire and fire coaches (“That has been the hardest thing to do,” he says about firing former colleagues), choose players that will complement the existing lineup, and be a resolute and inspiring leader in front of his players. His work now takes place more in offices and less on the sidelines.

“It’s hard not to get involved with the Xs and Os of our football team,” he says. “I’ve learned I can’t do it. If you are bogged down with game plans you can’t do all you need to do for the organization.”

Championship teams ride on the shoulders of an effective quarterback, and right now Frazier doesn’t have one. For the past two years the team has relied on the aging Brett Favre, who at 41 retired this year. Despite rumors to the contrary, Frazier says he and fellow Mississippian Favre get along just fine.

“I’ve loved working with Brett,” he said, adding that a few years ago on the way home, he stopped in Hattiesburg to visit Favre.

“I was just down at the Senior Bowl looking at a young quarterback for the draft; we’re also looking at vets in the league who are becoming free agents who can bridge the gap.

“We won’t know until after the draft.”

Frazier pauses when asked to name players he’s most enjoyed coaching or playing with. He mentions fellow Mississippian Walter Payton, and defensive back Mike Singletary with whom he played defense on the Bears.

The question somehow evokes the memory of a conversation he had with yet another Mississippian, or rather the son of a Mississippian, Peyton Manning.

“When I was in Indianapolis, I remember telling Peyton about being at the Magnolia Bowl (in Columbus) when I was 12. We were there for a Punt, Pass and Kick competition. I was one of the kids. Archie was there. I remember him throwing me some passes.”

Frazier, an avowed late bloomer, says small schools such as Alcorn and Mississippi Valley — where the brilliant Jerry Rice played — allow athletes to mature at their own pace, away from the bright lights and accompanying pressures (and glamor) of the SEC.

“When you are growing up, you want to go to the big schools, State, Ole Miss, Alabama. If I had gone to Ole Miss, they may have wanted me to play a lot sooner than I did at Alcorn. Maybe I would have gotten lost in the shuffle. Jerry was able to grow at Valley.”

More than once in his life Leslie Frazier, the late bloomer, has almost gotten lost in the shuffle. Somehow, through perseverance and hard work, he has emerged and even excelled. Again, someone has recognized Frazier’s gifts, and a door has opened. If the past is any guide, he will shoulder this opportunity and quietly go about making a success of it.