Nov. 22, 2003. Lane Stadium, Blacksburg, Va.
No. 12 Virginia Tech trailed unranked Big East rival Boston College by seven with 1:42 to play — more than enough time for a Hokies offense that ranked 13th in the nation in scoring that season to drive down the field for a game-tying touchdown.
That offense, though, wouldn’t see the field again.
Sandro Sciortino, who’d just drilled a 29-yard field goal to put the Eagles ahead 34-27, booted a kickoff that landed a yard deep in the end zone. Return man Cedric Humes ran it out, faking a reverse as he looked for a seam in BC’s coverage unit.
Humes made it to the 27-yard line before hitting a wall of tacklers and getting drilled from behind by a linebacker who was playing on special teams despite starting nearly every game on defense over the previous two seasons.
As the linebacker, who’d reached the 15-yard line before doubling back in pursuit, made contact, he used both arms to rip the ball from Humes’ grasp. Teammate Larry Lester recovered the fumble, and the Eagles’ offense drained the remaining clock with three kneeldowns, securing an upset victory that clinched them a spot in the San Francisco Bowl.
Unfortunately for the linebacker, a senior with little chance of playing in the NFL, he suffered a serious leg in practice the following week and was unable to play in that bowl game. But for someone whose college career was defined by outworking others and making the most of his 5-foot-11, 218-pound frame, it was fitting that his final act as a football player was a hustle play.
The linebacker was Brian Flores, who took a scouting job with the New England Patriots just months after that Virginia Tech game. Fifteen years later, the now-37-year-old has a very real chance of becoming one of the NFL’s youngest head coaches this offseason.
Flores, who’s climbed the ladder from scouting assistant to pro scout to special teams assistant to offensive/special teams assistant to defensive assistant to safeties coach to linebackers coach and, finally, to de facto defensive coordinator over his decade-and-a-half in New England, has garnered serious interest this year from teams with head-coaching vacancies.
He interviewed with the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers during the Patriots’ playoff bye week. Three of those spots have since been filled, but Flores reportedly is considered a front-runner for the Dolphins job.
Those who knew him in Chestnut Hill aren’t surprised.
“Here’s what he was: He had a tremendous work ethic,” former BC defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani told NESN.com last week. “He had a tremendous work ethic, and he had tremendous instincts. You hear coaches all the time say, ‘Yeah, he’s a football player.’ He had instincts, and he worked hard, and he had tremendous character. He had all the right things you want as a player on your team.
“Now, was he Luke Kuechly (the former BC star-turned-All-Pro linebacker for the Carolina Panthers)? No. But he was a good player, and he maximized his ability through his work ethic and his instincts. So I’m not surprised that he is where he’s at now. Did anybody see it back then and say, ‘This is his track’? I don’t know about that. I didn’t. But I’m not surprised where he’s at now because of his work ethic and his instincts and his sticktoitiveness.”
Flores actually began his college career as a safety, seeing occasional playing time there as a freshman and sophomore. But, as Flores himself admitted earlier this season, he had poor ball skills for a defensive back, so before his junior year, he switched to linebacker.
Undersized as he was, Flores’ college career flourished after the position change. He became an everyday starter, registering 74 tackles in 2002 and 106 (second-most on the team) in 2003.
?His nickname was ?Flo Blitz,? because we used to send him all day long,” said former defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka, who was two years behind Flores at BC. “And I think that has to do with his knowledge, his understanding of the game, the game within the game. He was playing at a higher level than what we were, so they were able to do different things with him regardless of his physical abilities.”
Kiwanuka, who went on to play nine seasons with the New York Giants, described Flores as “extremely intelligent,” “very personable” and “confident, but not arrogant.”
“He was somebody you wanted to hang out with,” he said. “He was like that coach on the field, I guess you would say, but not in a coach-y way. He knew he had the answers, but he wasn?t trying to push them on people unless they needed it.”
Early in his junior season, Flores garnered Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors after tallying eight tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception, one forced fumble and one pass breakup in a blowout win over Central Michigan. Later, in his senior season opener, he racked up 16 tackles in a loss to Wake Forest.
Asked to recall a memorable Flores moment, Kiwanuka and another former Eagle, Will Blackmon, both immediately mentioned a devastating hit he laid during a road loss to West Virginia in 2002.
?I remember he smacked somebody. Some running back,” said Blackmon, a defensive back/receiver/return man who enjoyed a 10-year career in the NFL. “That’s just the kind of energy that he brought to the environment. You always knew that B-Flo was going to do his job. I was different. I was more of a wild card — really athletic, didn?t know how to prepare, got away with it because I was a good athlete. But I watched him — just how he prepared and what he did to always be in the right position.
“He?s one of those guys where, if you?re a head coach and you go to bed at night, he?s definitely one of those guys you know you don?t have to worry about. He?s just going to take care of his business.”
All told, Flores appeared in 39 games during his Boston College career, totaling 205 tackles, seven tackles for loss, nine passes defended, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and one interception. The Brooklyn, N.Y., native also was recognized for his work in the classroom, earning a spot on the Big East All-Academic Team as a senior.
Was it known back then that a long, fruitful coaching career was in Flores’ future? Spaziani, Kiwanuka and Blackmon all said no. But they knew the whip-smart, hard-working linebacker was destined for greatness, regardless of which profession he pursued.
?I didn?t have an idea that he was going to go into coaching, per se, but his level of success is not something I was surprised by,” Kiwanuka said. “He was an extremely hard worker. He was confident. He had that New York swag about him. There was nothing that was going to be able to deter him from whatever goal he wanted, and he was very intelligent, goal-oriented and driven.
“So in my mind, even back then, I would have felt very confident saying whatever he gets into, he?s going to be successful at it. He could have been in Silicon Valley, he could have been in the medical field — whatever he did, he was going to go full go, and he had all the skills — intelligence, confidence, work ethic — to get it done.”
Added Blackmon: “All the things (he did at BC) set him up to be where he is right now. So what he’s doing right now is no surprise.”