BLOOMINGTON, Minn. – They gathered every Thursday night for dinner, and were supposed to put their phones away when they arrived.
Any topic was fair game: work, family, other personal situations – the crazy adventure known as life.
And over the course of the season, the members of the Philadelphia Eagles defense created a new family, and a bond that they believe played a role in their being one of the best units in the NFL this season.
“You get that unity, you get that brotherhood, that trust off the field,” cornerback Jalen Mills said. “Talk to guys outside of football, talk to them about life, maybe a situation that you have going on or had going on or upcoming, when you drop that barrier as a man, to drop it to a guy you’re playing with all four quarters, all season, that really helps on the field.”
The no-phone policy – they’re supposed to be off-limits for at least an hour – was instituted by the veteran players. Sometimes everyone is supposed to put their phone in a pile, but at other times, guys keep their phones and the first one to pick his up has to pay a fine.
“It’s usually one of the young bucks” who has to pay up, linebacker Mychal Kendricks said. The fine money goes toward another group outing at the end of the season.
“I personally would put a ban on the phones for the entire dinner,” linebacker Bryan Braman said. “People live their lives through their smart device, and that was a good way for us to prevent that from interrupting dinner, time for us to talk with each other and bond, you know, just kind of get away from the phones, this crazy life.”
Safety Malcolm Jenkins has been a big part of the Eagles’ defensive dinners; when he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 2009, the older players had the tradition in place, and Jenkins saw how it contributed to how close-knit the players were.
“So when I got here [in 2014], it was something I wanted to do,” Jenkins said. “They were kind of already doing something, but I just think it builds that rapport with one another off the field, it builds that relationship, so when you get in these games or when you face some adversity, it’s a lot easier to get through it with guys that you truly care about, guys that you spend time with, guys that you know their stories, they know you, it’s been huge.”
The Eagles have had some blowouts this season, most recently in the NFC championship against Minnesota, but they’ve also had some close ones, with six games decided by a touchdown or less. They won five of those.
“We’ve been in tough games,” defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. “And the thing about being in tough games is that you’re always looking for that one guy that’s pointing the finger and you never see that on the sideline.
“Everybody is always supporting each other, everybody is always behind them, everybody is always trying to keep that guy up that maybe is having a bad day. When you’ve got guys like that around, it’s really hard to beat.”
One player picks up the tab each week, so over the course of this season, 17 guys will have had the opportunity to treat his teammates to dinner.
Thursday night in Minnesota will be the last one of this season. The location hasn’t been decided yet; they had a hard time getting a reservation for the entire group before the team left Philadelphia, so they may have to get it catered and delivered to a room in their hotel at the Mall of America, a space where they can gather one last time, turn off their phones, and chill.
“Yeah, man,” Kendricks said when he’s asked if he’s looking forward to the last supper, before turning a bit wistful. “I am and I’m not, because I know teams change after the year. This team won’t ever be the same after this year in terms of personnel.
“Who knows – maybe no one leaves on the defensive side, you never know how this thing works, but… I’m looking forward to it, but it’s also going to be bittersweet.”