He promised his brother a trip to the other side of the world, so on a Friday morning in early August, Kerry Meier is zigzagging through traffic in Atlanta, headed for a storage facility.
Meier is in a “de-clutter” phase, he says, stripping away life to the bare minimum following his three-year NFL career. In 24 hours, Meier and his girlfriend, Alexandria, will board a flight for South Korea. Fourteen hours, Meier says, above the Arctic. The plan is to pack light. They will bring a few books, a couple bags of clothes, and that’s about it.
They will stay for close to a year, teaching English to Korean kids at a private school near Seoul. In and of itself, the trip is not unique. For thousands of young Americans, a year teaching abroad in South Korea is a gratifying life experience before the pressures of the real world call you back home.
But for Meier, who became Kansas’ career receptions leader before playing for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, this journey is something different. Four years ago, his older brother Dylan died before he was set to spend a year teaching in South Korea, one more adventure for a man who thrived on life’s little moments.
Now four years later, Meier is sitting in traffic, ready to drop another load of stuff in storage and fulfill a second promise to his brother.
“Here I am,” Meier said, “going and taking Dylan on his Korean adventure.”
The first promise came on draft day, a Saturday afternoon in 2010. The Atlanta Falcons drafted Kerry Meier in the fifth round. The family gathered together to watch. Just three years earlier, Kerry was a converted quarterback, playing wide receiver for the first time. Now he was here, the second Meier drafted in the NFL, after oldest brother Shad, a former tight end at Kansas State.
It should have been joy. But it couldn’t be. Five days earlier, during a family hiking trip in Arkansas, Dylan Meier had slipped and fallen to his death in the Ozark National Forest. He was 26, three years removed from a college football career at K-State. He was also Kerry’s best friend.
They shared the same blonde hair, the same free spirit, the same blend of charisma and curiosity. Naturally, both were quarterbacks at Pittsburg High. Dylan then played four years for Bill Snyder at Kansas State; Kerry signed on with Mark Mangino at Kansas.
They were rivals, but not really. And they shared similar journeys, too. When Dylan lost his starting job to Josh Freeman as a senior at K-State, he poured his energy into helping mold a talented young quarterback. When Kerry lost his starting job to Todd Reesing at KU, he willed himself into becoming the most productive receiver in school history.
Maybe it was the Meier gene. For Kerry, his older brothers — including Shad and Adam — were something like a template. But Dylan was the closest model. So in the days after his brother passed, Kerry made his first promise.
“The day I was drafted, that night,” Kerry said, “I made a commitment to Dylan that I was going to take him on the NFL adventure that he never quite got to live.”
Here is one story about Dylan Meier: In the year before he died, he traveled to New Zealand for a long stay of hiking and fun. It was classic Dylan, Kerry says. He was always exploring, always crafting the next great adventure.
After Dylan’s career at K-State, there were two years of pro football in Germany, and another year in Milan, Italy. Dylan loved the game. But in a way, each stop was just another stamp in the passport, a springboard to another memory.
“Dylan had so many crazy stories,” Shad Meier says. “It’s almost like these myths.”
This one, they insist, is real. During his stay in New Zealand, he found himself on the Tazman Sea, navigating the waters with two elderly sailors he’d just met.
“That was kind of his approach,” Kerry said. “He was always in an aberrational state and curious about pushing the norm.”
While Dylan was in Spain, he met another former college football player, David Malino, who had played at North Carolina. David had mapped out a plan to teach English in South Korea for a year, and Dylan wanted in.
So that was that. South Korea it was.
Sometime last year, Kerry Meier knew his football days were done. From the beginning, the NFL adventure he promised Dylan was an injury-riddled grind. There was a torn ACL his rookie season, and major surgery to repair his groin in 2012. In between the injuries, Kerry proved himself a capable special-teams contributor for the Falcons.
But his body wasn’t cooperating. For close to two decades, football was his life. He’d played in the Orange Bowl. Beat Missouri in the snow at Arrowhead Stadium. And appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But after working toward one last return in 2013, Meier was ready to leave it behind.
“If there’s anything hesitation about playing the game or not being able to play at the level that you’re capable of,” Meier said, “it’s time for you to walk.
“I pushed and pushed and pushed. But I didn’t want to put something on the field that I wasn’t proud of.”
In the meantime, he says, he began charting his next path. For the first time in years, he had “free time.” A rare concept in the football world. He traveled to China over the holidays last year. He helped out with the “Get Busy Livin’ Foundation,” a non-profit organization started in his brother’s memory. And he took a few moments to reflect.
In the weeks after his brother’s death, he’d gone straight to NFL rookie camp and spent three years chasing his dream. It didn’t leave much time or energy to grieve and process.
“It’s been a rough four years in trying to maintain your lifestyle and continue to live your life,” Meier said.
During the 10-day trip to China, Meier became intrigued by a new culture. There’s something invigorating, he says, about realizing how small you are in a world of billions. So around that time, he says, he thought about fulfilling another promise: He would take Dylan to South Korea.
“I take a look at Dylan’s life and the things that he did,” said Kerry, who arrived in Seoul a few weeks ago. “It was such a celebration.”
This is how Kerry sees the next few months in South Korea. It will be long hours, and dedication to his students, and the sort of adventure that Dylan would have loved. He and Alexandria found jobs in the same school, six to eight students per instructor, and, you know, maybe some traveling on the side.
“It’s kind of like a chapter left open,” Shad said. “(Kerry) always marched to the beat of his drum … so he’s doing this for himself, guaranteed. But I think he’s closing a chapter, too.”
When he returns to the United States next year, Kerry said, he’ll be heading back to graduate school. He has it all mapped out. A Master’s degree in nutrition. Maybe a job in sports. Yes, graduate school. That was Dylan’s plan, too.
“I approach going to Korea as a celebration of his life,” Kerry said. “And it makes it that much better. It’s how you approach it. If you approach life with an open mindset, you get so much more out of doing things.”