On Sept. 11, 2001, 23-year-old Matt Nagy, a record-setting quarterback from Delaware, left a hotel in Green Bay, Wisconsin, got into a white minivan and headed to a workout with the Packers. It was time to prove his worth to the NFL.
“People were coming in saying, ‘Did you hear what just happened? Did you hear what just happened?’ ” Nagy recalled. “We didn’t really know exactly, but we knew something in New York City. But it wasn’t a big deal for us because we didn’t know the details.”
Nagy and more than a dozen other invited players went to the Packers’ practice “bubble,” as he called it. When they returned, the world was different.
“That’s when the news started breaking,” Nagy said. “We couldn’t believe it.”
In the Packers’ locker room, stunned members of the roster watched the news about the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.
“Brett Favre, LeRoy Butler, Dorsey Levens, Antonio Freeman . . . we were all just watching CNN together,” Nagy said. “Here I am, a 23-year-old in the locker room as a tryout guy and watching this go down on CNN with Brett Favre and all these guys.”
It was a surreal moment. Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. In Nagy’s case, he happened to be with Favre, following his last workout for an NFL team.
For Nagy, the next several days were full of introspection. The Packers didn’t offer him a contract, but without any flights or rental cars available, he was stranded in Green Bay for nearly a week. He thought of his cousin, who worked close to the fallen World Trade Center. He thought of his own playing career and his future with his wife, Stacey — his high school sweetheart whom he had recently married.
“To me, perspective is [that] there’s bigger things in life than football, and I know that’s hard to grasp,” Nagy said. “Perspective can be taken so many different ways, and for me, it’s the perspective of life, whether that’s family, friends [or] treating people the right way. [It’s] never thinking that you’re bigger than something else. That’s perspective.”
Last Saturday, one night before the Bears declared their arrival as a contender with a 15-6 victory over the Rams at Soldier Field, Nagy delivered a speech at the team’s hotel that still has players nodding in approval.
“He was feeling it,” backup quarterback Chase Daniel said. “You could tell.”
Nagy ripped apart the headlines. Sunday’s prime-time matchup wasn’t about Khalil Mack vs. Aaron Donald or Mitch Trubisky vs. Jared Goff or even Nagy vs. Sean McVay.
“He just said, ‘Forget all that,’ ” cornerback Prince Amukamara said.
Said Daniel: “It was just like, ‘Hey, man, just have belief, not only in yourself, but your teammates.”
Or as receiver Allen Robinson described it, Nagy was “just being real.”
“This was about us,” Robinson said. “We have a lot of good players in this locker room. We have great coaches in this organization. We have great trainers. For us, everybody is in it. Everybody comes to work each and every day to, at the end of the week on Sunday night, be able to say we won.
‘‘For [Nagy], he never wants us to really lose sight of that.”
Nagy doesn’t remember the exact route he took on his drive to Toledo, Ohio. But he remembered seeing American flags hanging from overpasses, listening to U2 on an endless loop, even though he’s not a big fan of them, and thinking.
And thinking some more.
His drive from Green Bay to Toledo, where he met Stacey and his mother before another long drive back home to Pennsylvania, was full of personal reflection. His country was changing, and so was his life.
“I was at a point where I’m out of college [and] I’m kind of figuring which direction I’m going to go,” he said. “Am I going to get a chance in the NFL? Am I going to use my degree and become a teacher? Am I going to try a lower-level league in the football world?”
His road trip followed his five days in a Green Bay hotel room.
“I just laid in my bed,” Nagy said. “I just watched CNN for five straight days. It just made you reflect on everything.”
Today, Nagy’s coaching philosophy includes a belief that things, good and bad, happen for a reason. He acts on his perspective, whether it’s attending the funeral of Chicago firefighter Juan Bucio or expressing his condolences to the family of slain Chicago police officer Samuel Jimenez before a news conference.
“It doesn’t go unnoticed,” third-string quarterback Tyler Bray said. “He truly generally cares about not just football but the outside life. There is nothing fake about Coach Nagy. What you see is what you get. There is much more to life than just football, and that’s how he goes about it and his approach to things. Any time you can shed light on something going on outside the building, he tries to do his best.”
“Club Dub” — the dance party the Bears have in the locker room after victories — was closed for the night, and the lights were back on. But the players weren’t done celebrating their nationally televised dismantling of the Rams. It was time to go “boom” with their coach.
“One more!” Nagy beckoned.
“BOOOOOOM!” they responded.
Players aren’t just buying into him. The team, now 9-4, is seemingly taking on his identity and attitude.
“Swag, having fun, being yourself,” linebacker Danny Trevathan said. “Everything is not pretty out there. But [it’s] the next play mentality, and just having fun. Nagy does a great job of telling us to not get complacent, to not reach our peak. [It’s] little things that young guys need [to hear], and the older guys echo it.”
All the words used to describe Nagy when he was hired — obsessed, energetic, charismatic, passionate, genuine and authentic — still apply. He’s challenging players and coaches. But now, there’s a contagious resilience, too.
“The biggest thing I’ve seen [compared with] almost any team that I’ve ever been on is that this team, when things don’t go a certain way that we may want it, people don’t waver,” Robinson said. “We don’t point fingers. We don’t blame anybody. Everybody is all in it to figure out how we can create the best solution to bounce back.”
When Nagy thinks of 9/11, it still starts with his cousin, who was working near the Twin Towers.
“He witnessed everything,” Nagy said. “And I know he was completely scarred from that, and he has his own story. [It’s] just hearing from my aunt about how my cousin went through seeing that and how it affected him for years and years. It just put so many things into perspective.”
Everyone has his own story. Nagy remembers that in his current job. That’s life. Nagy would know from his own whirlwind journey, going from being a Division I-AA quarterback to starring in the Arena League to selling real estate to breaking into the NFL as a coaching intern under Andy Reid.
“It happens during the season, obviously — the roller coaster of emotions,” Nagy said. “And so you have to make sure that you handle each and every one of them. [The players] all have their own situations, where they have things going on off field and things going on on the field. So I’ve got to make sure that I’m at the forefront of all that. [It’s] keeping things in perspective and making sure that they get that — and [that] they don’t ever get too high or too low is really a daily thing.”
After victories such as Sunday’s, the perspective was to remember that beating the Rams wasn’t winning the Super Bowl.
That comes later.
“I looked back, and I often think: ‘What if [the Packers] would have signed me?’ ” Nagy said. “Then I also step back and say, ‘Well, I’m glad they didn’t because I wouldn’t be here right now.’ ”