To the delight of Navy football players, the blizzard of 1996 had blanketed their campus in Annapolis, Md., with 2 feet of snow.
Everything shut down — except Phil Emery. In case Emery, then Navy's inexorable strength and conditioning coach, decided against canceling a regularly scheduled 5 a.m. workout, team captain Clint Bruce volunteered for an early "reconnaissance mission" to see if teammates were safe sleeping in.
"I peeked around the door and saw Phil standing there with his whistle on, so radioed back, 'Hurry, he's here! He's here!" Bruce recalled Sunday. "We were sure he wouldn't make it. But he probably slept there. Phil was the most convincing, inspiring and compelling man I've ever known."
If it sounds like a snow job covering the new Bears general manager with unwarranted praise, consider what Emery means to the former Navy linebacker. Bruce, who later became a Navy SEAL, lost his father as a high school senior. He went to college lost, angry and looking for direction. He found Emery, nicknamed "Satan," for his torturous conditioning regimen.
"One of the reasons I made it through SEAL training was I had five years with Coach Emery," said Bruce, 38, who runs a personal-security company in Dallas. "He took the good clay my dad left and molded me into the man I became. I respected my instructors. I was afraid of Phil. I didn't want to disappoint him."
Former Navy fullback Omar Nelson singled out Emery's integrity among the officers and coaches he encountered. Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper, then a graduate assistant, remembered how Emery took it personally if players flunked fitness tests. Bruce believes Emery's impact on future soldiers in Navy's football program extended far beyond college and any NFL player Emery ever scouted after leaving Annapolis.
"It'd be impossible to quantify Phil's impact on the (United States') war on terror because I know so many guys who feel the same way about him based on what he helped make out of us," Bruce said. "He took that unique athlete at Navy that had the will but not always the frame and created a team out of those different athletes. He trained us mentally, physically, athletically to be consistent."
Nobody can predict yet whether Emery's sterling character credentials will make him a good general manager — or a bad one. Tepid early reactions have more to do with the Bears' track record than Emery's.
Hiring a man similar in background and age to Jerry Angelo feels like change for the sake of change, an organization meeting the low expectations a skeptical football city has come to expect from Halas Hall.
Instead of interviewing even one outside GM candidate with experience, such as Ted Sundquist, team President Ted Phillips picked novices and forced them to accept head coach Lovie Smith. Phillips didn't attempt a front-office coup by targeting a smart, sitting general manager with local ties and soon-to-be expiring contract, such as Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland. He didn't go outside the box and tempt Bill Cowher by offering total control.
No, Phillips underwhelmed us by hiring an overachieving scout's scout, believing the best way to catch the Packers is to copy them. Green Bay made former scout Ted Thompson its GM on Jan. 14, 2005. A year later, Thompson fired inherited coach Mike Sherman — whose career .594 winning percentage exceeds Smith's .555. Last year, the Packers won it all.
There is a lot we don't know yet about Emery and his ability to draft players, sign free agents and handle coaches. What I have learned from former players and NFL colleagues about Emery's brand of leadership prevents me from being overly critical until we know more about the scope of his power. I can see what intrigues the Bears.
Expect Emery to set ambitious goals, Nelson promises from experience.
After Emery studied tape of the former fullback plodding through his junior season at 230 pounds, he strongly advised losing weight.
"Here was my strength coach watching enough tape to tell me he thought I'd hit holes better at 218," said Nelson, a pharmaceutical company representative living near Baltimore. "I bet him I still would be 218 in October. But I didn't want no dinner or trophy. We bet the sunglasses he always wore during summer workouts."
On Oct. 12, 1996, before Nelson set up a game-winning field goal against Air Force with a 50-yard run he couldn't have made carrying the extra pounds, he weighed in at 218.
"Phil hugged me and cried," Nelson said. "Tell him I still have his sunglasses."
Keep the shades. It's Emery's inspired vision the Bears need now.
Bears need Emery's inspired vision
Former Navy players know what a motivator new GM can be