NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Chinese takeout. That was what Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said he was planning to eat for Thanksgiving dinner last year.
Of course, Vrabel would have liked to have joined his family for the holiday, but he had to stay at the office to prepare for a Week 12 game against the Houston Texans on Monday Night Football. That’s NFL life.
Even the offseason is demanding. Here’s a sample of what Vrabel’s schedule looked like during minicamp:
4:30 a.m.: Leave for the office
Coaches fitness club. They pick different things to do — sometimes they push the blocking sled. It’s another bonding opportunity for them. Vrabel makes it a point to commit to finding 30 minutes for his own health. “This is a stressful environment. I have to remind myself to take care of myself mentally and physically.”
Plan team meeting
Meet with coordinators
Meet with director of sports medicine Todd Toriscelli to talk about the health of the team
Sit in on different position meetings
Stop by the training room to talk to players
More meetings, review practice film
6 p.m.: Leave the office
In addition to his responsibilities at the facility, the Titans’ community events in the evening can keep Vrabel out later.
“If there’s something going on at night, I have to get some more work done during the day so that I can get out for that appearance or event,” Vrabel said.
The second-year head coach always has football on his mind, continuously evaluating ways to improve his team. But he’s also a family man who strives to stay involved with his wife, Jen, and two sons, Carter and Tyler. How does he balance the two?
In short, it’s maintaining priorities despite numerous demands of the job.
Vrabel’s oldest son, Tyler, is a 19-year-old redshirt freshman offensive lineman for Boston College. Sometimes Vrabel flies up to Massachusetts to check out Tyler’s games if the Titans have a bye week or a Thursday night game.
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His younger son, Carter, 17, is a pitcher on Father Ryan High School’s baseball team in Nashville. Vrabel has no problem wrapping up his day at St. Thomas Sports Park to take in Carter’s games, even if one of them starts at 4:30 p.m.
“You love what your family loves. There’s a lot of baseball games. Carter loves baseball. When there is a baseball game, I am leaving,” Vrabel said.
Since Carter is at games or practice a lot, Jen doesn’t cook as much as she used to. But Vrabel said his favorite dish she makes is lemon chicken with pasta. Jen said she got the recipe from Heidi Bruschi, the wife of former New England Patriots teammate Tedy Bruschi.
“She made it the first time we went over to their house for dinner. I was like, ‘I need this recipe!'” Jen said.
Staying connected with family is something Vrabel stresses to members of his staff, too, especially during the offseason.
“I tell our staff that we work too much during the season for any of our guys to miss something that their family has in the offseason. That’s not healthy for their families,” Vrabel said while sitting at his desk after a minicamp practice in June. “It’s not healthy for them. They’re not going to be productive here at work if they’re thinking, ‘Man, I wish I was at that game.’ If their kid has a game or a dance recital, I need them to be involved in that.”
Vrabel’s assistants appreciate his work-life philosophy. Defensive coordinator Dean Pees was especially thankful to Vrabel for allowing him to go to Canton, Ohio, last year during training camp for former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis’ Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Pees will be taking the trip once again this August when Ravens safety Ed Reed is inducted. Both players played for Pees in Baltimore.
“Coach Vrabel does a great job of giving coaches long weekends off during the offseason, along with several full weeks off during that same period,” Pees said. “We have almost five weeks off in the summer. During the season, he is a head coach that doesn’t watch the clock. It’s get your work done and go home — myself along with all the coaches truly appreciate that.”
Navigating the season grind
Strangely, coaching in the NFL has afforded the Vrabels more time together than when he was a linebackers coach at Ohio State.
“Fridays are always our nights because we have a teenage son that doesn’t want to hang out with Mom and Dad, so he goes to high school football games,” Jen said. “It’s fun. He’s usually home earlier, and we grab dinner. When he coached in college, he really didn’t have a night like that, so we cherish that night. It was the same when he played. Fridays were always the best. It became like a date night or family night.”
But on other weekday nights during the season, Vrabel can get home from the facility as late as 11 p.m. He needs time to wind down before he can sleep — that’s when he has to fight poor eating habits. Vrabel shook his head at the thought of all the late-night snacks and leftover pizza he has put away.
Eating healthy in season can be tricky. Like most team employees, Vrabel mostly eats what is provided at the team facility. He loves the Buffalo chicken wraps.
“I’ve been hammering too many of those. They put them there, and every time you walk by, you’re tempted to grab one,” Vrabel said with a smile.
On weeks when the Titans have road games, Vrabel doesn’t see his family much on Saturdays or Sundays. Vrabel and his wife primarily text each other to keep in contact. Back-to-back road games are the worst because there are times when the team returns to Nashville late at night so Vrabel might not see his family on consecutive weekends. Jen bought Mike an inflatable queen-sized mattress for the occasional nights when he has to crash at the office.
Sleeping at the facility is something Vrabel tries to avoid. But sometimes it’s necessary to save time and get a jump on the next day.
Home games afford him a chance for more family time. Vrabel goes to the facility around 12:30 p.m. on Saturday but returns in time to chill with the family. “We like to sit around and watch college football,” Jen said.
After a casual college football scouting session, Vrabel heads to the team hotel around 7 or 7:30 p.m. before a home game. The Sunday afternoon games allow him to get home earlier and see his family before going back to work Monday.
So what do the Vrabels do to get away from the grind? They planned an RV trip to Atlanta this summer. Vrabel laughed as he told the media that he did a good enough job on a similar trip last year to talk Jen into taking the journey again. Sitting behind the wheel on the four-hour trip gave him plenty of time to think. Although it’s the offseason, the relentless pursuit of finding an edge over the opponent won’t allow Vrabel to detach from football entirely, especially with training camp rapidly approaching.
“I think it all the time. You’re always thinking about a play or a player throughout the course of your day or night or time off,” Vrabel said.
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