- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

When he coached the Phoenix Cardinals in the early 1990s, Joe Bugel bestowed high praise on a player with the acronym, “LTG,” which stood for Legitimate Tough Guy. If Bugel himself didn’t qualify for the tag before, few would dispute he does now. He is demonstrating his toughness in ways most people can’t fathom or imagine.

Bugel, the Washington Redskins’ 68-year-old offensive line coach, and his wife, Brenda, lost a daughter to a rare form of bone cancer Aug. 21. Holly Bugel died at the family home in Arizona on a Thursday, literally in her mother’s arms, a week after her 36th birthday. The funeral was the next day.

On Saturday, the Redskins had a preseason game in Charlotte, N.C., and Bugel, transported to and from Arizona on team owner Dan Snyder’s private jet, returned to his team. His linemen are his second family.

“He’s still coaching us hard, just like he’s done in the past,” offensive tackle Chris Samuels said.

Said guard Pete Kendall: “He still seems to have the same passion. And he still seems to catch nearly every mistake. He strikes me as, remarkably, the same guy, which is almost unbelievable given what he’s been through.”

Inside, of course, Bugel is not the same guy. Absent the same circumstances, it’s difficult to presume or surmise what he and his family have endured. As offensive tackle Jon Jansen, who has two young daughters, said, “I don’t know what to say about it because I can’t even imagine it happening.”

A boisterous and upbeat man during normal times, Bugel in January discussed Holly’s worsening condition, which led to the amputation of her left arm a few weeks before Christmas. He marveled at her spirit and courage and said he believed she would somehow survive her battle with osteosarcoma despite nearly impossible odds. During training camp, he still summoned the resolve to talk about it.

But now he can’t. Although he said this week when he takes long walks he thinks of her constantly, his emotions are too raw to discuss the subject for public consumption or even much in private.

Not that opening up about pain and loss ever would come easily to Bugel, who was born in Pittsburgh at the end of the Great Depression.

“Buges is old school,” Kendall said. “I don’t think the touchy-feely, sitting-around-and-talking-about-it is something he wants to share.”

Except for this: Rather than broach the subject directly, “He’s always stressing to love your kids, to make sure you tell them you love them,” guard Randy Thomas said.

Also, as cold as it might sound, there is business to attend to - big NFL business that involves many people with heavy financial and emotional investments and careers at stake.

“Just like we’re supposed to go out on the field and do our jobs, [Bugel’s] been steady with it,” Thomas said.

Said Bugel’s close friend, tight ends coach Rennie Simmons: “I think the worst thing you could do is belabor it and emphasize it more. We’ve all had tragedies in our lives, and we all have to deal with those and settle them and life goes on. Everybody’s prayed for him and his family and continued to pray for him. You know he’s suffering and hurting, but we have to be as positive as we can.

“There are more challenges each day, and he understands that. As far as the organization and the team, Mr. Snyder has been fantastic, and I know he’s helped Joe a lot. Everybody from the top on down, we ask the same question: How can a guy go through that? We just try to love him up as much as we can and keep him going.”

The Redskins know about life’s ugly intrusions. Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor’s murder last season shook the organization to its core. But the team regrouped and won its last four games to make the playoffs.

Still, the angst and turmoil could have hastened the departure of Joe Gibbs, who resigned as coach with a year left on his contract. Before steadying his team after Taylor’s death, Gibbs endured the ordeal of his young grandson, Taylor, fighting leukemia.

“One of the tough things about football is that so many people are counting on you,” Gibbs said. “It’s hard to explain that to people sometimes. Football is very tough from that standpoint.”

But football also represents Bugel’s place of solace and diversion, and he knows he can attack his job full bore while Brenda and daughters Angie and Jennifer man the home front. They also understand where he belongs.

“My wife and kids have handled this in a great way,” Bugel said in January. “They know I work. It’s been my whole life.”

Said Simmons: “I know it’s still affecting him … but Joe is still Joe, and he’s still got to do his job the best he knows how.”

“He talked about it then, but ever since he’s been back coaching hard,” Samuels said. “I’m sure he’s dealing with it mentally, but he’s dedicated to his work, and he’s moving forward.”

But the football part has proved harder than anticipated. Under new coach Jim Zorn, the Redskins’ offense sputtered during the preseason and wobbled in the Week 1 loss to the New York Giants. One reason is, at times, Bugel’s linemen have been overmatched. And perhaps most difficult of all, Bugel had to tell Jansen, a line mainstay for nearly a decade, that he lost his starting job.

“It was an uncomfortable situation, that’s for sure,” said Jansen, who’s trying to come back from an ankle injury that cost him virtually all of last season. “He was upset. We’ve been together for a long time, and it was hard to do.”

But not the hardest thing. Echoing Jansen, Thomas said he “can’t even put into words how you’re supposed to deal with [Holly’s death].”

The answer seems to be, keep working.

“He’s a tough dude,” Gibbs said. “He’s been battle-tested. He’s been through a lot, and he’s still swinging. ”

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