It was cold and dark, and he was tired and sore, and Rodney McLeod couldn’t find his car.
The Rams’ plane had landed an hour earlier and bused back to the practice facility in Earth City, Mo., about 20 miles west of St. Louis, where the players parked their cars in the expansive lot during road trips. McLeod and Janoris Jenkins, another young defensive back, had pestered the defensive line all week.
So veteran defensive end Chris Long decided to teach them a lesson.
He hired a towing company to move their cars to a distant corner of the lot. He then hired a contractor to build garages on top of the cars. He hired a painter to paint their names and numbers on the doors.
And then he had the doors padlocked.
“We found the garages, but we couldn’t get in. Had to catch a ride home from somebody,” McLeod said. “That’s Chris. That just describes his character.”
McLeod followed Long at the University of Virginia, then followed him to St. Louis, then, when Long went to New England in 2016, McLeod signed with the Eagles. They reconnected when Long signed with Philadelphia in 2017, and they joined Eagles captain Malcolm Jenkins in his protests during the national anthem, and they helped the Eagles win Super Bowl LII.
Wary of playing a reduced role in the coming season, Long, 34, announced his retirement on Twitter on Saturday night, after 11 seasons and two Super Bowl titles. Long illustrated the tweet with a photo of him toasting the stuffy NFL with a red Solo cup — a final tweak of the nose at authority.
It wasn’t as elaborate as the locked garage prank, but it was quintessential Chris Long, and that’s what the Eagles and the game have lost.
Long wasn’t the biggest player on any of the teams for which he played, but he had the biggest personality, and he had the biggest heart.
“I’ll miss his humor,” McLeod said. “He’s a great teammate, and a great pro, but, most importantly, his humor. Chris is a funny dude. You don’t see that much.”
“It’s a bummer," said Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz. "I love that guy,”
An empathetic free-thinker with an insatiable curiosity, capable intellect, and scathing wit, Long embraced the opportunity to explore every point of view. He saw value in every teammate, and he considered each teammate a brother, regardless of which side of the line they occupied.
“He definitely had dialogue with us O-linemen," said guard Stefen Wisniewski. “He helped us get better.”
He helped his brothers feel better.
“That really is my brother, man. He might be the most solid teammate I’ve ever had,” said defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan.
Jernigan landed in Philly in 2017 after three seasons with the Ravens, who drafted him in the second round in 2014. Jernigan struggled with back problems as an Eagle, resulting in surgery in the spring of 2018 that sparked a renegotiation of his contract, cost him 13 games, and ultimately spurred his release after the 2018 season. The Eagles re-signed him last month, though at a reduced rate. Long, the No. 2 overall pick in 2008, himself fought injury in 2014 and 2015. He knows what it feels like to wonder if your career is over prematurely, and he knows what it feels like to be considered cut-rate damaged goods.
“When I was going through those things, Chris was one of the few people who just reached out and asked, ‘How are you doing? How you feeling? You all right? You need anything?’ ” Jernigan said, shaking his head at the memory. “I’d do anything for Chris, man.”
What else would you expect from the reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year? Long went out on top of the league’s activists, recognized for his quest for clean water in Africa, his fight against homelessness, his tireless advocacy for veterans and, of course, his devotion to youth. In his two seasons as an Eagle, Long donated almost $2 million to educational initiatives.
“People have made a lot about his off-the-field contributions, which obviously are second to none. I mean, he donated his entire [$1 million] salary [in 2017]. Incredible. Amazing stuff. Nobody does off-the-field stuff like that,” said Zach Ertz, who wants to emulate Long’s dedication to philanthropy. “But, in some way, that sort of diminishes how good a football player he really was.”
Only 14 active players have more than Long’s total of 70 sacks, and he got close a lot: His average of 56.3 hurries from 2010-2012 led the NFL, according to profootballfocus.com.
“He was dominant at rushing the passer,” Ertz said. “He was an alternate to the Pro Bowl four times for a reason. He never made it, but nobody cares about that. Every time it came to the fourth quarter, I felt like he was going to make something happen. He was going to be the best when the team needed him the most.”
There’s always room for that type of player on any roster. Long shared snaps with a nest of nasty linemen, but there was never a whiff of discontent in the meeting room.
“What will I remember? Just the person. The knowledge in the room. Football knowledge. Life knowledge,” Brandon Graham said. "It’s amazing how genuine he is. You know what I’ll remember? The text he sent me back when I congratulated him on retirement.
"Here. Let me read it to you:
‘Chris, congrats on a hell of a career. Glad we hoisted that trophy together before you moved on to a new journey. Enjoy that good time off before you get into the next thing. Love you, man!’ "
“You know he was busy, right?” Graham said. "But he texted me right back:
"‘You were such a big chapter in my career for me, man. You always supported the new guy. You were always selfless, and one of the best teammates I’ve had. One of my favorites I’ve suited up with.’ "
They were kindred spirits in that sense. Graham felt the scorn of veterans when the Eagles drafted him 13th overall in 2010, but, like Long, he didn’t resent a newcomer, young or old.
“That’s never who I was,” Graham said. "Guys did that to me. I said, ‘I’m never going to be that guy.’ "
Both welcomed pass rusher Derek Barnett when the Eagles took him 14th overall in 2017. Barnett recovered the Tom Brady fumble that Graham forced to seal Super Bowl LII.
As Graham texted, the three of them hoisted a Lombardi Trophy together. A year later, Long is gone.