MINNEAPOLIS — Brian Flores will be the next coaching star of the New England Patriots, and to understand why is to understand where he is from. He grew up in the housing projects of Brownsville, Brooklyn, maybe the toughest neighborhood in New York, so there was nothing about Bill Belichick or the Patriot Way that could ever shake him.
Life had roughed Flores up early, prepared him for full-contact drills inside the NFL’s most demanding environment.
“I never backed down from anybody,” Flores said. “If people see you’re scared, or as somebody who backs down, you’re going to deal with it every day. That was my thing. I didn’t back down from anybody or any situation. Football, school, anything.”
Long before the 36-year-old linebackers coach became a Patriots scouting assistant in 2004, or a defensive coordinator-in-waiting, he was the son of Honduran immigrants who lived with his four brothers 20 stories above a community that could be perilous to navigate. His younger twin brothers, Luis and Danny, each had knives pulled on them in separate mugging incidents on their way to the local video-game store. Luis, now a fourth-grade teacher in the South Bronx, said he saw chalk outlines of bodies outside their building more than once, and that almost every night the Flores family heard the not-too-distant sound of gunfire.
Brian, the second-oldest, prefers not to offer the same details on similar confrontations. “I was tested many times,” Flores said, “and I want to leave it at that.” Flores knows what people often think about Brownsville and what journalists from far different places often write about Brownsville. He didn’t need to read in a 2012 Time story that his neighborhood had the nation’s highest concentration of public housing. He didn’t need to read in a 2014 New York Times Magazine piece that there were 72 shootings and 15 murders the previous year “in an area spanning about two square miles that many people never leave.”
Flores lived it every day. He lived amid the high poverty, crime and unemployment rates. And he loved his community all the same. “It shaped me in a lot of ways,” he said. “It made me tough. I learned how to deal with adversity, and it motivated me to get out of there. … It’s a tough environment, and there’s violence and drugs. But it wasn’t the wild, wild West. There are a lot of good people there too. I was fortunate to be around a lot of them.”
It takes a village, after all. “And it takes a big village when you come out of Brownsville,” Flores said. His father, Raul, was a merchant marine who was out to sea as many as 10 months out of the year. His mother, Maria, stayed home to stand guard over the five boys, including the youngest, Christopher, who has autism. Maria ruled with two iron fists. Unless her sons were traveling to and from school or practice, or running an errand, they were expected to be off the streets and inside their three-bedroom apartment in the Glenmore Plaza projects.
“A bunch of our friends from middle school were in gangs,” said Danny, now an equipment manager and graduate student at Columbia University, “and our parents didn’t want us involved in that culture and lifestyle. I was leaving school once and saw a kid running for his life from a gang member. I went straight home. That’s a hard thing to see when you’re 13 years old.”
On a beautiful fall day when Flores was 12 years old, his uncle Darrel Patterson stopped by the apartment to find the Flores boys watching TV. Maria didn’t want them out of the building, but Patterson, a Jets fan and Brooklyn firefighter, had an idea. A cancer survivor, Patterson had been on medical leave on September 11, 2001, when he lost six colleagues from Ladder 118 at the World Trade Center. But football was Patterson’s joy, and he told Maria he was going to load the boys into his car to drive them to a Queens park used by the Lynvet youth football league. A coach there timed Flores in the 40-yard dash and couldn’t believe the kid’s speed. He pointed Flores toward a parked van and told him to go inside and pick out the equipment he wanted to use. The young Flores put his first pair of shoulder pads on backwards, and the rest is football history in a basketball town.
Flores became a Lynvet prodigy as a defensive end and running back, and as an eighth grader, he was spotted by former NFL nose guard Dino Mangiero, who was coaching at Brooklyn’s Poly Prep Country Day, a private high school attended by the children of New York elites. Flores was a grade-A student, and the school allowed Mangiero to admit a number of athletes from low-income backgrounds as part of its Jordan Scholars program. Before its campus was rocked by reports that a previous coach had sexually abused students between 1966 and 1991, Poly Prep was seen as an idyllic sanctuary in the affluent Dyker Heights section of Brooklyn. Flores and the younger brothers who followed him from P.S. 332 to Poly Prep, Danny and Luis, thought it was really something after a 90-minute commute by train and bus to see a pond full of ducks and a parking lot full of luxury cars. They were a long way from Brownsville in every literal and figurative way.
By his sophomore year, Flores was starting at tailback and safety for the varsity. Unbeaten Poly Prep was down big at halftime to a strong team from the Peddie School in Hightstown, New Jersey when Mangiero challenged his team to show its heart. On a fourth-and-1 near midfield in the second half, Mangiero had decided to punt before Flores, then a sophomore, started to plead his case during a timeout. Over his headset, Poly Prep assistant Craig Jacoby heard Flores tell the head coach: “Give me the ball. I’ll get a first down.” Flores ran through a tackle and scored a 51-yard touchdown in what would be a 38-38 tie. Jacoby said it was the only varsity game over Flores’ three years that Poly Prep didn’t win.
Flores scored a reported 1,140 on his SAT, and picked Boston College over a wide circle of major college programs offering him a full ride because of its academic standing and proximity to home. The BC coaches saw in Flores what the Poly Prep coaches saw: grit, intensity and, more than anything, humility. Flores redshirted his first year with the Eagles and eventually moved from safety to linebacker. Bill McGovern, now the New York Giants‘ linebackers coach, was Flores’ position coach at BC, and he couldn’t get over Flores’ aptitude for the game and how quickly he applied a lesson from the meeting room to the field. McGovern would speak at clinics and use tape to support his teaching points, and over time he noticed something about his film clips: Flores kept showing up in them. His feet and eyes were always in the right places, and his technique and execution were all but ripped out of a textbook.
The 5-foot-11, 212-pound Flores was BC’s second-leading tackler in 2003, and would have landed in an NFL camp if not for a torn quadriceps muscle that required surgery and knocked him out of the Eagles’ bowl game. Flores had all the makings of a perfect Patriots player — selfless, undersized, overlooked — and suddenly he had to make himself a perfect Patriots staffer. Scott Pioli, vice president of player personnel, hired Flores as a gofer before later teaching him how to judge talent. Belichick taught Flores how to develop that talent once he transitioned from scouting to coaching in 2008.
Belichick’s offensive and defensive coordinators, Josh McDaniels and Matt Patricia, are now preparing to take over head-coaching jobs in Indianapolis and Detroit, respectively, leaving some major holes at the top of the New England staff. After interviewing for the head-coaching vacancy in Arizona and impressing Cardinals officials, Flores is expected to fill Patricia’s role. Flores doesn’t fit the profile of past Belichick protégés — small-college, small-town grinders who were long-shots, yes, but who never confronted the type of odds facing a kid from Brownsville. If the camera finds Flores next season as often as it found the bearded Patricia, it will do a great service to young men around the country who are forced to deal with hopelessness and despair below the poverty line.
“I hope it’s a powerful image,” Flores said. “I hope they look at me and hear my story, and there’s a hope and an understanding that they can do it too. That would be exactly what I would want them to feel. To see that regardless of what your circumstances are, or where your parents are from, of where you live … you can write your own story. I’ve written my own story.”
Raul and Maria were Flores’ co-authors. They arrived from Honduras in the 1970s unable to speak a word of English, and by making education the household’s No. 1 priority beyond physical safety, their sons Raul Jr. (Virginia Tech), Brian (BC), Danny (Albany) and Luis (Bucknell) all graduated from four-year universities. Flores earned his undergraduate degree as an English major and then earned his master’s in administrative studies, all while playing big-time football and, when home on breaks, tending to Christopher’s special needs.
People in the community took notice. “Brownsville is the trenches,” said Lance Bennett, the athletic director at New Jersey’s Mater Dei Prep and a childhood friend who became a prominent young musician and a kick returner at the University of Indiana. “And Brian was like a rose growing out of the concrete. At 14 years old, he had this grown-man demeanor about him. I’ve never seen him show emotion or any sign of weakness.”
Another childhood friend, Chris Legree, who played quarterback at Poly Prep and then at the University of Maine, said Flores could put their neighborhood on the map for a reason other than boxers who fought their way out — Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Shannon Briggs among them. Legree recalled Flores as a unifying force at home and again at Poly Prep. “He was really the first black person I’d seen mingling with white people,” Legree said. “And it was a cool thing.”
Legree also said he’d never met anyone who was prouder of being from Brownsville than Brian Flores. As a schoolboy football star, Flores was protected, to some degree, by friends and strangers alike. Even most drug dealers knew to stay clear of him. He was a designated golden child, a kid with a chance to make it out, and if something unlawful or dangerous was about to go down in a park or on a street corner, someone usually rushed Flores out of there, according to Flores and his brothers.
“But at the same time, I still had to watch my back,” Flores said. He described his early-morning walk to the train station as ominous enough to “look like a movie scene where you’re about to get robbed.”
His life experiences made him a hell of a football coach. He learned how to survive in Brownsville. He learned how to interact with people with different socioeconomic backstories at Poly Prep. He learned how to overcome adversity — in the form of his leg injury — at BC.
Belichick has been tough on Flores, just as he’s tough on all the young assistants who he’s groomed through the system. But Belichick has nothing on Maria Flores, who once grabbed her young son by the ear and forced him to immediately start reading the phonics book he’d just pushed to the side.
“Myself and my brothers are what our parents dreamed of having when they came to this country,” Flores said. “We are the American dream.”
Two years ago Flores moved Raul, Maria and Christopher out of the projects and bought them a condo in North Attleborough, Massachusetts, two miles from his home. Flores’ own American dream, as a kid, was to make it as an NFL player and buy his parents a home so they never again had to walk up 20 flights of stairs when the elevator broke down, which happened every couple of weeks. Flores made that dream happen as an NFL coach, instead.
Raul and Maria are close to their three grandchildren, Flores’ two boys and girl, and Christopher, 25, is enjoying a local special-needs program that keeps him active in flag football, basketball and softball. It isn’t crazy to think that Flores will remain in Foxborough for many years, that he might even someday replace a retiring Belichick, considering Patriots owner Robert Kraft is said to adore Flores, and since the timing — three, four or five years from now — might make him a logical candidate.
But Flores is a Patriot, and so the only future he wants to talk about is his Sunday date with the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII. A few years ago, Flores made a name for himself in the closing seconds of New England’s indelible Super Bowl XLIX victory over Seattle by ordering onto the field Malcolm Butler, who only pulled off perhaps the greatest goal-line play in league history.
Flores is about to become a bigger name in New England and beyond. No matter what happens with the rest of his coaching career, Flores said he will honor what he called his neighborhood’s mantra: “Never ran, never will.”
Bring on the Eagles, and then a much bigger role in Belichick’s cabinet. This proud product of Brownsville will never run, and he will never back down.