The Tragedy That Changed Chip Kelly

The Eagles coach feels a strong link to the military, in part thanks to a tale of valor that happened in Afghanistan five years ago.

Chip Kelly with service members during the team’s Military Appreciation Day in 2013. Photograph by Matt Rourke, AP

Chip Kelly with service members during the team’s Military Appreciation Day in 2013. Photograph by Matt Rourke, AP

Schools were let out the day Army Sergeant Joshua Lengstorf returned home, and the kids, waving small American flags, joined the rest of the community along the side of the road.

His body was flown from Afghanistan into Eugene, Oregon, where a police escort waited to assist in the hour-plus drive south to Douglas County. Businesses in the neighboring towns posted signs of support in their windows. Locals lined the streets. The closer they got to the heart of Roseburg, the larger the crowd became.

“We went through some of the small towns that he lived in, and it was just packed,” says Josh’s widow, Jesse. “It was that way all the way down and even to the funeral home. I think that’s when we realized that this is a big deal.”

Some 500 people gathered to pay their respects on that day in January 2010. Among them was then–University of Oregon coach Chip Kelly.

Josh had been a huge Ducks fan. He sported an Oregon tattoo on his arm, and Jesse still remembers the big, green Ducks jacket he was wearing the first time she laid eyes on him in the seventh grade. She and Josh’s mom thought it might be nice to have a representative from the football team at the service, so they reached out to the university. To their surprise, the head coach showed up, bearing a pair of team-signed footballs for the family. He was asked if he wanted to say a few words, and he obliged.

“He just spoke about how he didn’t know Josh, but he was really touched by his devotion and that the family would reach out to the Oregon Ducks. He was really touched to be given an opportunity to thank a soldier and to just be appreciative of the military,” Jesse says.

“He’s a man of few words — at least he was then — and you could really tell that he was just kind of amazed that we wanted them to be such a big part. But we were just really, really touched — and I can’t even come up with the right words — but very honored that he would even come out.”

Kelly hadn’t planned on going at first. With his team still stinging from Oregon’s Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State a few days prior and Kelly already out on the recruiting trail, the decision was made to send other representatives from the football program to the service. A chance encounter changed those plans. On a plane ride back to Oregon, Kelly was seated next to a serviceman who was flying in to attend Josh’s funeral.

“The more I learned about this kid, the more I couldn’t not go,” Kelly told a few months after the funeral. “Everyone there cried. It was emotional. It was life-changing. Driving into town, military personnel lined the streets. It was impressive. The folding and presentations of the flags to his wife and mother was so emotional. Josh was just 24. He seemed like a great young man who had such a bright future. He has such a young wife, a beautiful little one-year-old daughter who was crawling around during the service.

“It just kind of hit home.”

“SHIT WAS HORRIBLE. You have no idea,” says Oregon-turned-Eagles receiver Josh Huff, shaking his head.

During his last years as head coach of the Ducks, Chip Kelly would bring in Navy SEALs to put his players through some of their training. Ask one of the team members what that experience was like, and they’ll shoot you a look that matches Huff’s words: You have no idea.

“I remember one morning we had to wake up at like 4 o’clock, and they took us to the swimming pool and threw everybody in the deep end,” Huff recalls. “We had to basically [tread] water in the middle of the pool in the deep end, take our shirts off and then hand them over to your teammate. And they had to put them on, and that was a difficult task. You had people going underwater trying to put their shirts on and stuff like that, just people struggling to try and stay afloat.”

Huff recalls another occasion where the players were required to blow up a lifeboat, put the lightest person in it, carry it over their heads 40 yards down the field, then perform a military workout. If they didn’t do the drill in a certain amount of time, the air would be let out of the lifeboat and the players would have to jump in a pond.

“It definitely taught me a life lesson,” Huff says of the drills. “It teaches you teamwork and what it’s like to have your life in another person’s hands, or someone else’s life in your hands.”

Moved by what he experienced in Roseburg in January 2010, Kelly began to intertwine his life and his work more with the armed forces. He decided to take a USO trip later that year and visited troops in Iraq, Kuwait and Bahrain.

“He was always doing stuff with the military. He would go overseas and tell us about everything he experienced,” says Brandon Bair, another former Oregon player who followed Kelly to Philadelphia. “What they do is life and death. It can put things into the right perspective on how you approach the day.”

Kelly’s operation has a definite military influence to it. Practice isn’t practice for the Eagles; it’s training. There are credos that roll off the players’ tongues (“You don’t rise to the occasion, you sink to the level of your training”; “Habits reflect the mission”) that could just as easily be coming out of a barracks as a locker room.

Kelly’s high-octane, semi-chaotic practices were inspired in part by documentaries on military training. “You see how they train the Navy SEALs. They squirt them with water, play loud music and do all these other things when they have to perform a task. That’s how we practice,” he once told the New York Times. “We want to bombard our kids.”

Kelly’s reverence toward members of the armed forces is evident. During the Eagles’ Military Appreciation Day at training camp last year, he made sure he shook every serviceman’s and servicewoman’s hand before leaving the field. This season, he brought some military members inside the locker room to mingle with the team. On game day, it’s men and women in uniform who open the locker room doors and greet the players as they make their way onto the field just before kickoff.

Asked this offseason where his affinity for the military comes from, Kelly pointed to Sgt. Josh Lengstorf.

THOUGH THE FEELINGS were there ever since Jesse spotted Josh in that large green Oregon jacket back in grade school, it would be years before they got together.

“He was actually serving in Iraq, he was already in the Army, and there was a four-year break when we hadn’t seen or talked to each other,” says Jesse. “And he just sent me a message one day and was like, ‘Hey, I’m just checking in on ya, want to see how you were doing. I’ve been looking for you.’ We started talking, and he came home — I was living in Idaho then and he was still stationed out in Colorado. We started talking and we happened to be in Oregon at the same time over the holidays; that was December of 2007, I think. We just decided that we wanted to date and then we got married. It was really fast.”

Army Sgt. Joshua Lengstorf with his daughter, Kadence.

Army Sgt. Joshua Lengstorf with his daughter, Kadence.

They had a daughter together. Josh, a former quarterback, showed his deep love for football and the military by naming his daughter Kadence. He replaced the “C” with a “K” so it had a softer feel fit for his baby girl.

Josh was deployed for his second tour, this one in Afghanistan, in May 2009. “He came home that September for Kadence’s first birthday,” says Jesse, “so we were able to see him one last time.”

On January 3rd, 2010, Josh and his unit were on a routine foot patrol, Jesse says, going to a village that they’d been to many times. They were friends with the kids and would always take candy to them.

When they came to the village that day, it was empty. So they sat outside the village, waiting. Eventually they sent a small group of men to set up a gun line on the other side of the village. Among them were Josh, a young private he was training, and Michael Malarsie, a member of the Air Force’s Tactical Air Control Party who had gone so he could radio back to his partner in case they saw anything over on the other side.

They had to cross a small bridge, and as soon as Josh stepped off of it, he put his foot onto an IED — an improvised explosive device. It went off, then a blast of gunfire followed. Josh was killed.

When Michael’s partner and a medic rushed over to treat the casualties, a second IED was detonated from the hills, killing both the medic and Michael’s teammate.

Jesse stops telling the story of what happened to her husband, and there’s a long pause.

“It’s one of those things that I don’t like to talk about, but at the same time I don’t want their memories to be lost. I want them to be recognized for what they did that day.

“There were four casualties and six wounded out of the 13 guys. Some of the soldiers have told us that they didn’t know if any of them were going to get out alive. They were pretty worried about that.”

The explosion that killed Josh left Michael completely blind. Michael’s partner’s widow connected with Jesse through memorials and told her about Michael and how his family had started a blog about his recovery journey. Jesse began reading it and thought she should go meet him.

The widows from that day flew to California where Michael was in a rehabilitation center. Jesse and Michael struck up a friendship, which eventually blossomed into more. They’re now married and have two kids of their own together.

The family moved to Utah, where Michael is a motivational speaker and Jesse is a photographer. They’re beginning to settle into a routine, which has provided comfort. “We are blessed in the midst of tragedy,” Jesse says.

Kadence is now six and in kindergarten. Michael, Jesse says, is raising Kadence as if she were his own.

WHILE THEIR HOME is now Utah, the family’s Oregon roots run deep, and young Kadence has blossomed into a huge Ducks fan just like her dad. Her team came to town in November to take on the Utah Utes, and Jesse took her to the game.

“It was so fun. I am so glad that she loves the Oregon Ducks. I feel like [Josh’s] legacy, through her, is living on. And she doesn’t care if it’s freezing cold outside — because it was really cold. She just goes out there and she cheers and she pumps her little fist,” says Jesse.

Kadence saw Josh’s Oregon Ducks hat and suggested her mother wear it on the day of the game. “I hadn’t worn it since 2009. And I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be so emotional,’” says Jesse, beginning to cry. “Just watching her enthusiasm really helps. I’m sorry. Sometimes I can talk about it and I don’t shed a tear. But that’s one thing … to some people it’s just a team or just a game, but to our family it’s so much more.”

When he was at Oregon, Chip Kelly made the annual Spring Game an appreciation event for active military members and their families. That tradition has continued on since Kelly left. At the end of the game, military personnel are invited onto the field to receive special-edition game-worn jerseys, and players exchange emails with the members of the armed forces. On the first Spring Game after Josh passed away, Kelly invited his family and friends to the event. Josh’s mother, Ronda, and several other family members were able to sit in Kelly’s box as Josh was honored that night (Ronda and Kelly have stayed in touch). It was an example of what Jesse describes as the “ongoing support” that the family has received from Kelly and the University of Oregon since their paths first crossed five years ago.

People called Josh a soldier’s soldier. “That’s a really big compliment because he was a really great leader,” Jesse says. “He wasn’t loud about it – he was quiet but he was very confident. Michael actually told me that one of the reasons he volunteered to go on that small squad with Josh is because Josh was the one that was leading them, and he knew Josh would take care of them and protect them and wouldn’t lead them astray. He was very calm and cool-headed and just a really good leader, a really good friend. So he did well. He did well.

“Josh was a quiet guy and I don’t think he realized how great he was. He touched so many lives, even people who he hadn’t even met just because of who he was and how he led his life. He was a very honorable person. And we happened to live is his community from Oregon that was very patriotic, very supportive.

“Still to this day, I think it’s what has really carried me through,” Jesse says, “just knowing that people like Chip were out there willing to drop everything and show their love and support. Five years later, it still gets me through. It might have been so small to them, but it’s been such a strength to me.”