KANSAS CITY, Mo . —Brandon Flowers keeps the cell phone close. It's his link to the old life. It's his connection to home.
"Places could've been traded so easy," he says, holding that phone with both hands.
Flowers is the Chiefs' best cornerback now. Coach Todd Haley said the second-year defender has the skills to be great. But Flowers thinks often about how close he came to never getting this chance — to being stuck in South Florida, working some 9-to-5 like so many of his childhood teammates, the NFL nothing but an itch that never got scratched.
Flowers calls the old friends now, making himself stay close so he never drifts too far from life's realities. Some of them work in hospitals or in office buildings. Some don't work at all. Can't find a job. Times are tough, Flowers says. He says that when he presses the phone close, his friends' emptiness comes through clear.
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He sits in the Chiefs locker room, his hands clasped between his knees, and talks about the time he came to a crossroads and an unlikely thing happened: Flowers caught a break.
It was 2002. Atlantic High School had lost four games in Flowers' four seasons. He played with boys he'd known since they were kids running the backyards of Delray Beach, Fla., players who taught Flowers to press hard, stay aware and keep quiet. He says they were better than him. He did what they said.
"I just kind of played the back role," he says now. "I did what I was supposed to."
Then Atlantic won the regional championship, and Flowers became a local star. His skills were never in question. His grades were. Flowers says now that his grades in high school were so low that college recruiters never stopped by. They never burned up his phone line as national signing day approached, and his mailbox was never stuffed with letters.
Instead, his parents sent videos of Flowers' high school games to college recruiters, trying to get someone's attention. He says that Eastern Illinois and the University of Buffalo were interested, but the schools couldn't make it work. They couldn't sneak Flowers in under the curtain of academic eligibility.
"Everybody backed off," he says.
He says now that it was a common obstacle for the friends. They'd once talked about someday playing together in the NFL. Now they were discussing what would come after graduation, when the summer months and the dollars started vanishing. They'd get a job, try to get in school or... something. Flowers spent his time, he says, burning hours and watching his dreams fade. A month went by, then two.
"I had nothing planned out," he says. "Just eventually find a job."
Then the phone rang. The voice on the end other was talking about Virginia's Hargrave Military Academy, a final frontier for promising players with regrettable academic records. The man offered an opportunity to Flowers, but not without a price: He'd have to wear a military uniform, abide a curfew, go without television or a cell phone — and someone would have to come up with $20,000 to pay Flowers' tuition. Flowers accepted the restrictions, and his father, Willie, took out a loan.
"A second chance," he says.
He spent a year at Hargrave and was offered a scholarship to Virginia Tech. After two seasons with the Hokies, Flowers was the Chiefs' second-round pick last year. Money is no longer a problem. But he does have to conform to rigorous demands, some of which resemble a military boot camp. Haley is Flowers' coach, after all, and there isn't much love shared among coaches and players these days. Not when Kansas City has won two of 19 regular-season games since Flowers joined the Chiefs.
Flowers says he tries to ignore the losing, the pessimism, the months of struggling to find answers and consistency. He says he concerns himself only with trying to do his job well.
"I didn't want to come into the game to just be an average corner, you know?" he says. "I want to make plays and be great, to be honest."
Haley says that's possible. Flowers shook off a shoulder injury this season, missing just one game, and that was enough to get Haley's attention. The coach doesn't like it when players milk injuries. The youngster went further by proving that he's a steady and dependable player. Haley doesn't mind that, either.
Flowers learns that Haley has said good things about him. He hears that Haley used an interesting word — "great" — when discussing the 23-year-old cornerback. Flowers smiles.
"He rarely gives credit out," Flowers says. "It just drives me. If he sees it in me, there has to be potential there."
Not that he's there yet. Haley says that Flowers has taken only the first steps toward realizing what might lie ahead. There is more work, more mental and physical beatings, and more tests that Flowers will have to pass before he makes good on that potential. Haley will see to it that he's tested. The rest is up to Flowers.
"I expect Brandon to be one of the better players in the league at his position," Haley says. "My expectations are real high for Brandon. His expectations are pretty high, too."
"They all wanted to play in the NFL," he says. "They're living it through me. A lot of people don't get that second chance. I've just got to do the best I can with it."