Those who know Todd Bowles from his Washington days have a high opinion of him
Tae Kwon Do was Todd Bowles' idea.
He was an undrafted rookie, searching for an edge. And Raleigh McKenzie was a low-key, quiet guy just like him.
So three times a week in the late 1980s -- in addition to their offseason training with the Washington Redskins -- the young safety and offensive lineman took part in their special routine. And over time, those martial arts classes helped strengthen their now-unbreakable bond.
"He didn't know how quick and flexible a big ol' offensive lineman I was, and I didn't know how quick Todd's hands were," McKenzie recalled with a laugh on Tuesday while on a college scouting trip for his current organization, the Oakland Raiders.
"I said, 'Man, you've got some of the fastest hands in the world. We sparred one time and he knocked me upside my head.''
"And he kicked me in my side," said Bowles, now the Jets' coach, belly-laughing outside of the Jets' cafeteria a day later. "I got too cocky one day and -- whoa!"
The native of Elizabeth, New Jersey, was never satisfied. Bowles prided himself on outworking others and was dedicated to fine-tuning his craft.
"For me, it was just about the next day and getting better," he said. "My thought process was: I'm not going to quit, they're going to have to cut me."
As he spent the past week preparing his Jets (3-1) to face the team that signed him almost 30 years ago, memories of his formative years in Washington came flooding back. And those who knew the former Super Bowl XXII champion best couldn't stop raving about him.
Said former Redskins defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon: "I wish they were all like Todd.''
JACK OF ALL TRADES
Truth be told, Bowles never blew away his coaches with spectacular plays.
"Physically, there's really nothing special about Todd," Petitibon said matter-of-factly from his home in Vienna, Virginia. "He wasn't the greatest athlete in the world. He wasn't the fastest guy in the world. He wasn't the toughest guy in the world. But he had everything.
"He's everything that you want at that position. The guy was flawless," added Petitbon, a Redskins safety in the 1970s and the defensive coordinator for their 1982, '87 and '91 Super Bowl teams. "He was our quarterback on defense."
Bowles still takes pride in his finest attribute. "I had great hands," he said, flashing a smile.
But he quickly acknowledged, "I was a jack of all trades, master of none. I couldn't do anything great, but I could see everything. And I could learn everything. And I was never out of position so it was hard to beat me."
Initially, it was difficult to quarterback a Redskins defense that featured Dave Butz, Charles Mann, Dexter Manley and eventual Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green. The first time Bowles called the huddle, someone yelled: "Speak up, rookie!" And in his first NFL game, a teammate changed his play call on the field. "We don't want to run that, we want to run this!" Bowles remembers being told.
"So in the meeting, [we were] asked what happened and I expected everybody to speak up for me, and nobody said a word," Bowles recalled. "I said, 'You have got to be kidding.' Then I really got [annoyed]. So at the start of the next game, I didn't give the huddle call and everybody's waiting. 'Where's the call?' So I called timeout.
"I said, 'Ya'll want to play this game again?' ''
He then went to the sideline and assured coach Joe Gibbs that everything was OK.
"And after that, it was fine," Bowles said, smirking.
THE REAL DEAL
It didn't take long for the Redskins to realize they had a uniquely talented defensive back in Bowles.
"He didn't make interceptions like Odell Beckham makes catches," joked one of his closest friends, Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to start and win a Super Bowl and the MVP of Super Bowl XXII. "But [Washington's defensive players] knew one guy would know the right place to be in -- and that was Todd. That's why they respected him. Because Todd knew exactly what was going on on the offensive side of the ball.''
The same low-key demeanor Bowles displays on the Jets' sideline is "how Todd played the game," said Williams, who was hired as a personnel executive by the Redskins in February 2014. "Whether or not it was good or bad, you couldn't tell. I mean, you knew it was bad, but Todd refused to let you know it was bad because he knew it would get better."
In a statement to Newsday, Gibbs praised Bowles' dedication. "Todd was one of those players that was always prepared and ready to play," Gibbs wrote. " . . . I don't think he ever got too high or too low. Coaching is a tough profession and I think that is a quality that can really help you because you never know what situation might come up each week. It's been great to watch him work his way into this opportunity with the Jets and certainly it's one that is well deserved."
On game day, Bowles' presence was felt. But off the field, he was the quiet guy who often went unnoticed in a crowd.
"Sometimes we would go out or go to a party and the next day, guys are talking about what a good time we had and Todd was almost like an afterthought. Like, 'Oh, Todd, you were there too?' '' said McKenzie, who now scouts for his twin brother, Reggie, the Raiders' general manager. "But he was a leader for us as far as keeping some of those knuckleheads straight."
Bowles never took days off, his former Redskins teammates said. He was always at work, always prepared and always on time. And those are the same traits he preaches to his Jets more than two decades after his eight-year NFL career ended.
"You've got the real deal," McKenzie said, noting that he agreed to be interviewed only because of how fond he is of Bowles. "You've got somebody that is accountable for everything he does. That's one guy that, when you talk about class, he's what you want."
IN THE MAKING
Petitbon never imagined Bowles would wind up in coaching.
"I thought he was too smart for that," Petitbon joked. "But his success doesn't surprise. I'm proud of Todd. I really am."
Little did he know that his young pupil had been studying his every move along the way, noticing every detail about the way that Petitbon broke down X's and O's, studied film and "ran everything possible," including a 4-3, 3-4 and 46 defense, Bowles said. "I took almost everything from him as a coach."
Even the way he wears his laminated game plan on the sidelines -- attached with a cord clipped to his pants.
"That's from Richie," Bowles said.
Bowles always envisioned being a scout because he wanted to learn the game "from the ground up." But after a brief stint on Green Bay's personnel staff from 1995-96, Williams offered Bowles a job as his defensive coordinator at Morehouse College. And that phone call forever changed the course of Bowles' career.
"I was like, you want me to come in as a coordinator? Not even a position coach? I said, let me try it and see if I like it. And it worked out," Bowles said.
However, those closest to him believe he should have been an NFL head coach much sooner.
"Other people might have gotten to this point a little quicker because of being flamboyant, or whatever. But he just quietly goes about his job and I think the smart people take notice," McKenzie said.
"The cream usually comes to the top. And in Todd's case, it did," Petitbon added. "He's not interested in publicity, he's not interested in mouthing off or getting noticed. But I think we need more people like Todd. I really do."
On Tuesday afternoon, the day before Williams prepared to bury one of his brothers in Louisiana, he gleefully spoke of Bowles. "Todd's like a little brother to me," he said.
And the outcome of Sunday's game between the Jets and Redskins (2-3) won't have any bearing on their bond.
"I root for Todd every day," Williams said. "I text him every week to let him know 'good luck.' . . . Me rooting for Todd is bigger than the fact that we play this weekend."