ATLANTA -- The letters would come by the hundreds, every year, young men looking to get their start in an NFL personnel department. Scott Pioli, then the vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots, would read and respond to each of them, but first he separated them into piles of those who had ties to someone he knew, and those who did not.
In 2004, Brian Flores' letter landed in the former category. He had played collegiately at Boston College under Tom O'Brien, a friend whom Pioli trusted and respected. When Pioli phoned the coach for more information on Flores, O'Brien could not stop gushing. Even so, Pioli wasn't sure. He didn't like hiring guys straight out of college. So he set up a meeting.
"Brian was young and nervous, but clearly very intelligent, very driven, and very passionate. All of that came through pretty quickly," says Pioli, now an executive with the Falcons. "The other thing I learned about him was, he was clearly wiser than his years. When I would ask him personal questions, his answers were not that of a 22-year-old kid. You could tell he had grown up with a lot of responsibility. He had gone through some things. There was a presence about him."
Tim Pichette first met Flores in the summer of 2005, while seeking an entry-level scouting position with the Patriots. Flores had been hired the previous year, and because the two would be working alongside each other, Flores was to interview Pichette, a former player and coach at Duquesne University. The two hit it off immediately, and over the next three years, they worked side by side at desks in the back of a small room. They even lived together for a year and a half.
"We were together a hundred hours a week," says Pichette. "If you spend that much time with somebody, you're going to get sick of them, but that was never the case with Brian. He was a unique individual. There was something to him. Literally, I've been saying for 10-plus years that if you spend 30 minutes around Brian Flores, you feel like you just got better as a person."
Matthew Slater first met Flores in 2008, after being drafted in the fifth round by New England. He played wide receiver and safety and returned kicks at UCLA, but he wasn't sure how he fit with the Patriots, who viewed him as a potential special-teamer. Even after making the team, Slater struggled to get comfortable. He had a home, but didn't really feel at home. His confidence ebbed and flowed.
Flores had transitioned from scouting assistant to pro scout to special teams assistant at that time, and he saw something in Slater that Slater might not have seen in himself. So he pushed the rookie in a firm yet supportive way. Even when Slater thought he had played well, Flores would tell him there was another level he could reach. That's just not it yet. You're not playing to your potential. That's not good enough. You can do better. You can BE better. You can be a Pro Bowl player in this league, but you're not playing like it right now.
"He was the first coach who really believed in me and told me he thought I could be a good player in this league and have a decent career," Slater says. "He would always challenge me to do better. He would do it in private -- he would never embarrass me or anything like that -- but he would challenge me. One day, we played the Jets on Monday night, in 2010, and I played what at that time was a pretty good game for me on special teams. I had four tackles and played with aggression and confidence. I didn't hesitate in my assignments. He called me in after the game and said, 'That's it! If you can do that, you'll be OK. That's what we're looking for.' Something as simple as that really encouraged me, a young player trying to find his way, trying to build confidence, trying to establish himself. He made me feel that there was a place for me, that I did belong in this league. That meant a lot to me."
The platitudes are never-ending when it comes to Flores, the Patriots' linebackers coach and de facto defensive coordinator who is expected to be named head coach of the Miami Dolphins as early as Monday, after New England takes on the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. He is a man of faith and character, honesty and integrity, discipline and humility. The next bad word you hear about him will be the first. Seemingly the only thing he has ever failed at is choosing a single word to describe his life's journey.
Truth is, Flores' story is an after-school special waiting to be filmed: The son of Honduran immigrants grows up in a high-crime Brooklyn neighborhood, earns a scholarship to a private high school, earns another scholarship to Boston College, accepts a low-paying high-hours job with an NFL team, sleeps on an air mattress in the attic of a friend to save money, sends any extra monies home to his parents, climbs the organizational ladder to become the team's defensive play-caller, moves his parents and an autistic brother to a condominium near his home, stops in every night to visit his mother, who is battling cancer, then, at age 37, becomes the only person of color to fill one of eight NFL head-coaching vacancies that opened this year.
"Fun, an adventure, a roller coaster at times, but that's life," he says in describing his journey.
"You guys have watched the games, and I'm sure you've heard of everything Flow has done as a coach, but I think for me it's been more personal. ... Throughout my time in New England, he's been more than just a coach to me; [it is] the closest relationship I've ever had with any coach in all of my sports to this day," McCourty said in his speech at the event. "I'm very thankful, not just of him, but him and his wife, Jenny. I've been over (to) his house for Thanksgiving, I've hung out with his mom and dad and his family, and I think that speaks volumes ... about the man he is. When free agency came, we had a one-on-one talk, we talked about our relationship, my future, everything on the table, and that just showed me, from beginning to end, he's always had my back as a person first, and I'm very thankful just to be able to learn under you, not just football but learn how to be a better man, a husband and a father."
Flores speaks about the importance of relationships and trust. It is what allows him to be tough on players without losing their respect. They understand that his words come from a good place and are only meant to help them. Many know this because their conversations run deeper than football. They are about family, faith, purpose.
"We've talked a lot about marriage and raising children," says Slater. "His kids (Flores has three) are older than mine, and he's been married longer than I have been, but there are a number of questions I've asked him about raising kids and how he was raising his sons as it pertains to me raising my son. And something that is near and dear to both of us is our faith in the Lord. We talk about marriage and fatherhood through the filter of our faith. He's always been more invested in who I am as a man and making sure I'm OK off the football field than what goes on between the white lines."
The conversations happen randomly, sometimes over text, sometimes in the hallway at work, between meetings or after hours. Flores always has an open door and a willing ear. He measures his leadership by not only how his players perform during games, but during the day, as they walk the halls or interact with support staff. Character matters to him. Being respectful matters. Finding positives where others focus on negatives matters.
"My last game with the Patriots was when we were 18-0 and lost in the Super Bowl," Pichette says. "After the game, we were all hurting, and we're getting on the staff bus. One of the employees was like, 'Man, if so and so could have made that play ...' Right away, Brian was like, 'Stop it. We don't do that. We do not do that. We're a team. That's who we are. Everybody on this bus is in it together.' Not another word was said like that. Ever."
The Dolphins are currently rebuilding, with only one winning season in the last 10 years and just two playoff appearances in the last 17 seasons. That does not intimidate Flores. He has been a winner everywhere he has been. His high school teams never lost a game; his college teams never had a losing season; and the Patriots are appearing in their seventh Super Bowl and seeking their fourth ring since he joined them. There isn't one member of New England's organization who expects anything other than success for Flores, should he indeed land in Miami. Why?
"He's a really good football coach, and he's an even better human being; that's probably where it starts for me," says Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. "He's a great communicator, he's a great motivator, and he's not intimidated by anything at all, whether that's adversity or dealing with any player or coach. He's a problem solver. He's a guy that everybody respects and loves in our building. I think those are good attributes to have if you're heading into a new place and going to encounter a lot more responsibility. ... I'm a big fan of Brian Flores as a person and as a coach. If that's what he's doing, I'm sure he's going to be successful at it."