It would take nearly a year for freshmen to overcome their fear of his intimidating silence and angry explosions—his hurling those 15 play cards across a meeting room, busting the blackboard, or chasing and screaming the defensive captain right off the practice field. Nearly a year to get past their confusion at being called chivos, Spanish for "goats," if they made mistakes, or JAGs, for Just A Guy, if they were merely occupying the field, not dominating it. One day the freshmen would chip in a few bucks and join the 35 or 40 other players who'd eat pancakes and eggs and catfish that he'd pick up at 5 a.m. at Jackson Soul Food to fill their bellies before their 6:30 meetings, and they'd begin to see another side of him. Then they'd risk entering Randy's office with an upperclassman and find their teammates, seven or eight at a time—often the players who'd come from the harshest circumstances—lounging about as if it were their rec room. Some rifling through his desk drawers, closet and refrigerator for snack bars, muffins or peanut butter and jelly that they'd pitched in for him to buy. Some dozing in a chair. Some watching TV or game film, or talking life with him.
Somehow he'd sense what was troubling them, sometimes before even they could. They took things to him that they wouldn't drag into white coaches' offices, not in a million years, nor even the offices of those black assistants who'd been raised by schoolteachers and ministers. Because those guys wouldn't get it, man, couldn't possibly know what it was like for Nanton to have grown up with a mother on crack and a dad missing from his life, or for safety Kenny Phillips to have three buddies who were shot and killed in separate incidents, all within a few weeks. They'd tiptoe around the raw stuff, those assistants, trying to say the correct thing, or spoon out something straight from the coaches' can. Not Randy. Players could take the worst to him, and the worst from him. They could talk to him in shorthand. They wanted what they could smell all over him: survival.
He was the one all of them turned to every time another Hurricane died—and, God, they just kept dying. Randy would be the athletic department's liaison with the devastated family, the community and former Hurricanes, the one behind the scenes who gathered and calmed all those who were crazy with grief when Pata was gunned down last fall. When safety Al Blades, one day past his 26th birthday, plunged into a Miami canal in his car in 2003. When linebacker Chris Campbell, just two months before the '02 NFL draft, died in a car crash with a blood-alcohol level exceeding the legal limit. When cancer took Randy's old college roommate, defensive tackle Derwin Jones, in 1999. When linebacker Marlin Barnes was bludgeoned to death in '96 by the jealous ex-boyfriend of a woman he was friends with and guard Robert Woodus went down in a plane crash the same year. When two of Randy's former teammates, Jerome Brown and Shane Curry, died in '92, one in a car accident and the other from gunfire outside a nightclub.
Randy's eyes would grow wide when he received such heartbreaking news, the team's security chief, Coral Gables police major Ed Hudak, noticed. Then, in a flash, they'd narrow to a squint, and he'd become so ... so businesslike, so calculating, as if he'd rehearsed for this all his life. So discreet, materializing like a funeral director when he was needed to utter just a few well-chosen words, then dissolving into the background. So skillful at nudging players from the ledge of despair to the next assignment, the next opponent. So cool in the wake of Pata's murder that finally linebacker Jon Beason went to him, burning. "Half the team doesn't even seem like it bothers them!" he cried, both of them knowing that he meant Randy as well.
"Jon, you can't judge people by how they react to death," he replied. "Everyone deals with it differently. You'll never see me crying, but I hurt inside. I recruited Bryan. He was always in my office. I loved him. But if we dwell on it, this season will go down the drain. You've got too much to finish here, too many people depending on you."
Beason swallowed hard ... and agreed. A few weeks later Coker was fired and word spread through the team: Coach Shannon was a candidate for the job, right up there with those hotshot names. They'd watch him rise from his desk at 9 p.m., almost always the last coach to leave, reminding them to cut the lights and the TV in his office when they were done, then heading off God knows where. They'd wonder aloud about the coaching rumors and come to the same conclusion: They didn't want some stranger to walk in and take charge of the brotherhood. They wanted the stranger who'd just walked out that door.
Who needed to know that drugs and sex and despair had annihilated his family? Nobody. Not his players. Not his fishing buddies. Not even that well-meaning athletic director, fishing too, casting that big net with the Eagleton Question.
Nobody on the Dolphins staff had needed to know, one day seven years ago, that Randy even had an older brother named Ronald, let alone that Ronald had AIDS, let alone that his funeral would commence in an hour. Randy just slipped away from his office, slipped into the back of the church, stood by the door with his arms folded, slipped the money into the proper hands for the burial—but never went near it—then slipped back to work.
Nobody needed to know what it was like in grade school to see both your big brothers, twins Ronald and Donald, out on the street fried on cocaine, thrown out of your house by your mother. What it was like to see the needle tracks climb their arms, to tell them to stop and be told, "You ain't none of my daddy, squirt." To watch Ronald stop peeing when AIDS shut down his kidneys, then start gasping when it choked his lungs, then leave the world when it went after his heart.