Coal miner’s son: How Chad Brinker worked his way from Martins Ferry, Ohio, to the NFL

Football roads lead to football destinations so if you’re wondering how someone gets to the NFL from Martins Ferry, Ohio, you start on Lou Groza Highway.

Groza is the famous son of Martins Ferry, a river town that was once busting at its seams with football and steel. Lou took his toe to Cleveland and eventually, Canton. So, as they do in small towns, they named a strip of Route 7 after him in 1986.

If you take Lou Groza Highway north alongside the Ohio River, you can find your way to Pittsburgh and that’s where we find another of Martins Ferry’s favorite sons, Chad Brinker, at a Thursday night football game in early November.

Brinker is in his first year as the assistant GM of the visiting Tennessee Titans and he’s walking on the field at Acrisure Stadium with his boss, the impeccably dressed Titans GM Ran Carthon. But it’s Brinker who’s getting the attention.

It’s Brinker who has a TV reporter following him around and who is greeting friends on the field and in the stands.

“Oh, yeah, you know we gave him s— for that,” Carthon said later in a phone conversation. “The big homecoming of the great Brinker. … All jokes aside, it’s a cool moment just to show you where the game can take people, you know what I mean? Chad’s a coal miner’s son, comes from a very small town, and we’ve had these talks about where do you think you would be if it weren’t for the game of football.”

Where would the 44-year-old Brinker be without football? He’s thankful he doesn’t know.

“For whatever reason, God made me the way he made me,” Brinker said. “And I’m meant to be in football.”

There’s a poem about Martins Ferry. You might’ve read it in the epigram of the book “Friday Night Lights.” It’s titled “Autumn Begins In Martins Ferry, Ohio.” It’s written by a native son, Pulitzer Prize winner James Wright, and it’s a haunting ode to small-town life.

The ending is worth highlighting:


Their sons grow suicidally beautiful

At the beginning of October,

And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

There aren’t many poems about football, said Denison University professor emeritus David Baker, who recently spoke at a James Wright poetry festival in Martins Ferry. Part of the reason for that, he thinks, is how football involves a sublimation of individuality. The players are ensconced in helmets and pads. And notice, there are no names in the poem, just descriptions of the ethnicities of people in a steel town.

“This is a kind of brutal, sacrificial sport,” Baker said. “And, you know, James Wright’s heart was with the working-class people. I mean, his dad worked in the steel factories and his family were farmers. That was part of his material and part of the specialness of his material. He’s speaking for a group of people that aren’t often or haven’t often been woven into lyric poetry.”

Brinker’s father, Chuck, was a coal miner (he finally retired in recent years), but Chad’s life in Martins Ferry wasn’t bleak. He didn’t play football to escape his fortunes, but he knew that football could provide a path to something greater. And boy did he “gallop terribly” as a Purple Rider running back.

“He is the best player that I ever coached and the best person I’ve ever coached,” said Brinker’s coach at Martins Ferry, Dave Bruney.

Bruney is football royalty in this slice of the Ohio Valley. Not only did he coach there for 39 years, but he has a connection to the NFL. His uncle Fred, who passed away in 2016, was employed in the NFL (or AFL) from 1953 to 1997, which was believed to have been a record until it was broken by Dick LeBeau. Fred Bruney was credited with developing the safety blitz.

Martins Ferry had its share of famous (or locally famous) athletes — the Niekro brothers and John Havilcek are from there and went to nearby Bridgeport High School, for instance — and when Brinker was a high school freshman he first wanted No. 7 because of Joey Galloway, who starred at nearby Bellaire High School. He then decided on No. 21. Bruney told him it was retired for record-setting running back Jimmy Johnson, who played in the late 1970s.

“I don’t remember saying this because it doesn’t sound like my personality,” Brinker said, “but he claims that I sat there for a second and I said, ‘Well, you can give me 32 and just go ahead and get prepared to retire that one too when I get done.’ And then sure enough, they retired 32 when I got done.”

Martins Ferry football is still a big deal in this small town along the Ohio River. (Jon Greenberg / The Athletic)

Nearly 4,000 rushing yards and 51 touchdowns later, Brinker proved his younger self prescient. In his senior year, he ran for a whopping 2,024 yards and his coach remembers two games in particular, one from Brinker’s junior year and one from his senior season.

As a junior playing against Indian Valley on a rainy night, Brinker’s helmet popped off as he was fighting for yards and he got popped in the face by a defender’s helmet. His face was ripped open under one cheek and he was rushed to a nearby hospital for stitches. When he returned, the game was in overtime and Martins Ferry was near the end zone.

“He walks up to me on the sideline, his whole face was swollen, and he said, ‘Coach, if I can get my helmet on, put me in right here and I’ll end the game,’” Bruney said. “And I said, ‘There ain’t anybody in the stadium who wants you in the game more than me right now, but I can’t do it. I wouldn’t do it to my son. I’m certainly not going to do it to you.’”

Indian Valley won the game, and the next year, when Martins Ferry faced that same team again, Brinker rushed for 319 yards and seven touchdowns in just over two quarters in a 71-6 win.

“I sent somebody in for him and he didn’t want to come out,” Bruney said. “And he said, ‘Coach just let me finish one more drive because I owe these guys.’”

It was around this time that Jim Grobe, the new coach at Ohio University — where Bruney played in the 1970s — was building a program based on the triple-option offense he learned at the Air Force Academy. He made time to drive to Purple Rider Stadium for a game.

Purple Rider Stadium is set across the road from the town in the middle of an industrial park along the Ohio River. On Friday nights, it was the place to be, as Grobe, a native of Huntington, W.Va., found out.

“I was so impressed the first time I went, watched him play,” Grobe said. “They had the gates (to the stadium) closed and they would open the gates and everybody would sprint to get their seats. It was the wildest thing I’d ever seen. You’re talking about standing room only. I guess, the bottom line was football was really important to the community.”

Brinker went on to Ohio University, where he anchored Grobe’s triple option for two years before the coach left for Wake Forest. In his redshirt sophomore year, he pulled off a touchdown trifecta (running, catching and throwing) in an upset win at Minnesota, something a former Ohio beat writer reminded him of one day when Brinker was at the Metrodome scouting for the Packers.

“Well, we didn’t have anybody who could outwork him,” Grobe said. “He was one of those guys that was always early for everything and late leaving. You had to almost run him off the practice field. Just great work ethic and, of course, great ability. He was, if not the fastest guy on the football team, he was one of the fastest guys.”

As a redshirt junior, Brinker was racking up yardage but he was also waking up with headaches, blurred vision. He didn’t want to tell the team doctors so he trudged to the student health center, where a well-meaning doctor told him he might be having panic attacks. Brinker threw away his prescription on his way out of the building and kept playing.

“Where we’re from, you’re not raised to say anything,” Brinker said. “You’re supposed to be tough and you gut it out. You think my dad, he’s retired now but he went in the coal mines for over 40 years, you think he felt good being in the coal mines every day?”

In the fourth game of the season, Ohio was at home against Toledo and Brinker couldn’t tough it out anymore.

“I remember losing peripheral vision and just having the excruciating pain in my head and I guess I was forgetting plays and stuff,” he said. “So my teammates are the ones that told the doctor that ‘I think Chad’s concussed, there’s something wrong with him.’ And then the doctor got a hold of me. And I think that was the first time I was a little scared.”

Ohio’s team doctor sent him in for a CAT scan.

“And that’s when they found the mass on my brain,” he said. An arachnoid cyst, to be exact.

Ohio running back Chad Brinker secures the ball as he is hit by Florida’s Bobby McCray in 2002. (Andy Lyons /Getty Images)

Earlier that season, Ohio had played at West Virginia and on the sideline was Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurologist who had previously been a Steelers doctor. As Brinker was figuring out his next step from a medical standpoint, his mom happened to run into Bailes, the chair of the university’s neurosurgery department, at the hospital she worked at in Wheeling, W.Va. Bailes remembered Brinker and agreed to meet with him and then perform surgery.

What could’ve happened if Brinker kept playing?

“First of all, he could’ve had sudden enlargement or swelling,” Bailes said. “The cystic tumor could have bled, it could have hemorrhaged and anything can happen when that occurs and including someone having a stroke or dying. A lot of times people don’t know they have something in their brain until something happens. His fortunately was headaches, but not many people are playing D-I football as a running back.”

Bailes wound up removing the cyst that was lodged between Brinker’s brain and his skull. The craniotomy wasn’t a particularly memorable surgery for Bailes, but what happened next was a first for the neurosurgeon.

“The thing that made it unusual was his young age,” Bailes said. “And the fact that he was a football player and he wanted to go back to playing football.”

Bailes approved of Brinker’s return for his senior season because the skull had healed and he felt Brinker’s brain would be stable enough to take hits. But there wasn’t much precedent to go on.

“There have not been many people after brain surgery who returned to play football at a high level,” Bailes said. “I don’t know of anybody who’s had brain surgery and then gone on to play in the NFL. It is very likely it has happened, but I’ve never heard of it.”

But to prove it’s possible, a picture of Brinker in a New York Jets uniform hangs up in Bailes’ Chicago-area office.

After a scary recovery, Brinker started running track for Ohio University in the winter and returned to the football field the next year for his senior season. He rushed for a career-high 1,099 yards and 10 touchdowns.

After finishing with 2,826 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns, Brinker went undrafted and was invited to the Jets training camp, where he was a late cut. The next stop was NFL Europe but not for long.

It was 2004 and Brinker was in Birmingham, Ala. Back then, when you got injured in NFL Europe, you got sent there to do your medical rehab.

Brinker was with his wife, Rachelle, and he was bored. They were at a bookstore and he picked up a copy of “Moneyball,” the Michael Lewis blockbuster about Billy Beane and the statistical revolution in baseball. Brinker was hooked. Here was this guy who grew up in the cradle of smash-mouth, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust football, where collision is poetry, and he’s transfixed by the idea of arbitrage in sports.

“It was really interesting to me and it kind of sparked my interest in analytics on a small scale, because I didn’t know how it would fit in football because football was so interdependent,” he said. “And over time, obviously, the interest grew and you started to see where analytics could help in football.”

But before that happened, Brinker went into medical sales and dealt with the usual post-football doldrums.

“I wasn’t clinically diagnosed with depression, but I was going through some things, you know, just struggling to find out who I was, what am I gonna do next,” he said.

The years went by, he was doing well in work in the medical sales business, and he decided to help coach high school football in the Columbus area with some friends. In 2008, he made a trip to the University of Cincinnati for a game against South Florida. He was on the sideline when he ran into Terry Bradway, the former GM of the Jets, and they got to talking about a potential future in football.

Brinker said he didn’t really want to coach, so Bradway brought up a front-office job and started introducing him to scouts.

It was Packers assistant director of college scouting Shaun Herock, who had scouted Brinker in college, who recommended he try getting into the Green Bay scouting internship program.

Chad Brinker worked for the Green Bay Packers for 13 seasons. (Evan Siegle / Green Bay Packers)

Brinker moved his family to Green Bay and found himself in football heaven. Ted Thompson was the GM. John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie, Russ Ball and John Dorsey worked under him. Future Packers GM Brian Gutekunst was a scout and Eliot Wolf was a rising star and his dad, Ron, was still a big influence.

“I did not realize until later how special that place was,” Brinker said.

Brinker started as a scouting assistant in 2010 and worked in both pro and college scouting. Then he was promoted to a pro scout.

Green Bay’s approach was to teach its football executives how to embrace scouting and player acquisition from a holistic approach. Scouting pro and college players, learning about the salary cap, delving into analytics, they learn a little bit about everything. But in the end, scouting is about making educated guesses, right?

“Ron Wolf said something like, sure, you can teach people what to look for in players, the different attributes and different position specifics, and teach them how to watch film and all the things that go with it, but there is an instinct to what we do,” Brinker said. “He said that we’re in the prediction business. We’re trying to predict human beings, right?”

He found that his football experience helped him trust his instincts. But beyond hitting the road to evaluate talent, Brinker also worked with his mentor Russ Ball, now the executive vice president and director of football operations, on the salary cap in Green Bay. He was getting a Ph.D. in football, but by this point, the Moneyball era had fully hit football, with new owners taking over teams and looking for the NFL’s version of Theo Epstein. Ex-jocks now had to compete with Ivy Leaguers for jobs.

“I thought I was missing some formal training, so to speak, and I wanted to accelerate my growth,” Brinker said. “Now, the ‘school of hard knocks’ works because Russ Ball is the poster child for it. The guy was a strength coach and he’s considered arguably one of the best football personnel/salary cap people in the league. So I could have learned from Russ and I was learning the practical experience and all that, but I wanted some formal education.”

In wanting to differentiate himself, Brinker, who already had a master’s in sports administration from Ohio University, applied to get his MBA part-time at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern. He surprised himself by getting in and his bosses not only agreed to him doing the program, but they offered him time off to complete the grueling two-year program. Instead, Brinker didn’t slow down, juggling a full workload in Green Bay, classes and a wife and three kids at home.

It sounded hard, but it beat working in the coal mines.

“I used to talk about his schedule, and what it was like at that point in time, and it was pretty grueling,” Ball said. “So he’s definitely made a commitment to his craft and to try to be the best he can with his opportunity. And I think it’s going to pay dividends.”

Carthon knew Brinker from the scouting circuit and trusted him as a contact. So when Carthon got the Titans GM job, he reached out to him for the assistant GM job. Funny enough, he didn’t even know about Brinker’s MBA, the thing that was supposed to differentiate him from other candidates. Carthon just knew he wanted him around to help build something in Tennessee.

“He had this unique background, you know,” Carthon said. “Former player, he has a scouting background, has an analytics background, has a cap background. It was just unique. I thought he would provide really good insight for myself.”

So after 13 years in Green Bay, he left. Brinker’s focus as assistant GM is on strategy, from roster construction to working on the kind of statistical analysis that will help the front office and the coaching staff. The Titans are 5-10 going into the last two weeks of the season and headed for a top-1o draft pick.

“He’s also helping us build out our analytics department here, which is going to be a robust project,” Carthon said. “He’s heading that up. He also works alongside Vin Marino from the salary cap standpoint, right, while also maintaining his background as a scout. He’s a man of many hats.”

Brinker wants to be a GM one day, but first, he has a job to do in Tennessee.

So, how do you get from Martins Ferry to the NFL? Just like with anything else in life, you make your own road.

(Top photo: Evan Siegle / Green Bay Packers)

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