Brian Flores and Derrick Knight started their college football journeys together at Boston College in 2000 though on different sides of the ball; Knight was a standout running back and Flores a promising safety/linebacker.
They found a connection almost immediately.
They were both sons of Honduran immigrants, venturing out for the food they grew up on, making their way through Chelsea to find Flores’s favorite Latin specialty of steak and onions.
Now two decades later, Knight said he is not at all surprised by Flores’ boldest move of his football career. The former Patriots assistant and head coach of the Miami Dolphins has sued the National Football League and three teams alleging discrimination in his interview process., instantly launching a national referendum on racially biased hiring practices in the country’s richest sports league.
For Knight, the lawsuit is a pure reflection of Flores’ character, someone “blessed with intergrity” who has “the bigger picture in mind.
“This lawsuit goes to show his character. It’s not always about him in the here and now, where does the NFL want to be? In his mind, it’s about the future. This really is right up his alley. He’s a man about his integrity.
“That’s his motive, doing what’s right.”
Flores’ lawsuit could be a landmark case that unmasks systemic problems in the NFL. At the end of the 2021 regular season, after Flores was fired following three seasons in Miami and David Culley was dismissed after one season in Houston, the NFL was down to one Black coach among 32 teams. With that glaring statistic, as well as his personal experience, Flores decided to rock the boat.
Yet it also carries an enormous risk for a 40-year-old man who may have shut himself out from the job he describes himself as being “gifted” to do.
That personal risk has resonated with Flores’s friends and supporters, who wonder what price he will pay for taking such a stand. But it didn’t surprise them. To those who have known Flores the longest, he has always stood for what he believes is right, and they believe in his stated goal to create real change, to open dialogue and lines of communication, and to “change the hearts and minds” of the NFL hierarchy.
‘Brian is blessed with integrity. He always has the bigger picture in mind, in football, in life.’
Derrick Knight, Brian Flores's college teammate
Flores’s character was shaped by his family; his father Luis was in the Merchant Marines, while his mother Maria stayed home to raise their five boys. They lived in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, in public housing that Flores described in a 2017 Globe interview Globe as “people stacked on top of people on top of people.”
With Maria vigilant from the window of their 20th-floor apartment in Glenmore Plaza, the Flores boys went to school and came straight home, they went to football practice and they did their homework, they avoided the temptations of street life, the drugs and crime that were ever-present in the neighborhood.
They strived for their American dream. For Brian, that meant earning a scholarship to the private high school Poly Prep, where his football coach and eventual lifelong mentor and friend Dino Mangiero realized almost immediately this young man was “serious as a heart attack” and destined to “do great things and have a great future.”
Chris Legree Jr. could see it, too. A neighborhood friend who was two years behind Brian in school, Legree found a role model.
“Brian is a morally driven guy, who likes seeing things done the right way,” Legree said from his home in New Jersey. “He’s maybe not the loudest person in the room, but he’s the most prepared in the room, the most driven person in the room. And he does it without telling you.
“Me being a little bit younger, I tried to take some qualities from him in going about my business. He was a really good football player, I thought the best in the state, but he would never tell you that about himself. That was never his thing. He worked his butt off, and everything he received, he earned.
‘He’s a leader. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s maybe not the loudest person in the room, but he’s the most prepared in the room.’
Chris Legree Jr., who grew up with Brian Flores
Knight remembers visiting Brownsville with Flores back in college. The trip was a lesson in how their lives, similar in many ways, were also very different. Knight also attended a private high school, Xaverian, but he was from suburban Rockland in Massachusetts. And watching Flores in his native Brooklyn was an eye-opener.
“I’m a kid from a single mother but I grew up more in the suburbs,” Knight said. “We were going right into the frying pan going there to Brownsville, but it was so interesting to see how he interacted with people, always walking with pride and his head up.
“He’s obviously no fool, and from walking from the train to the front door, through the neighborhood, you’re seeing the neighborhood guys, they know Brian’s out there doing something with his life, and he’s being polite, treating everyone with respect, but he kept walking, too.
“We kept on our path.”
Purposeful, but without blinders, as if planting seeds for an enduring approach to life. In a 2017 interview with the Globe as the Patriots prepared for one of the four Super Bowls they reached during his tenure (winning three), Flores said this about his upbringing:
“We were poor and people didn’t have much, and there were drugs there, but I would say this: It wasn’t the wild, wild West. I love where I came from, and there’s a few things I learned there. I learned to never back down, because if you backed down there, you’d be backing down every day.
“I learned how to be tough, and that transcended into something else, that I wasn’t going to back down from anything, academically, football-wise, any challenge I was presented with kind of went back to that.”
In other words, he’s in this for the long haul.
Spurred to take action
The days since Flores was fired have been filled with triumph and with despair, with support from some and skepticism from others, with those wondering why a Black man who had actually ascended to the top rung of the professional ladder would take this on.
But consider: Flores was fired despite the Dolphins finishing 8-1 finish, with their first back-to-back winning seasons in almost two decades. He even swept the season series from the Patriots and his former boss of 16 years, Bill Belichick.
After his firing, he failed to land a new job despite various interviews, including one with the Giants that Flores alleges was a sham, conducted only to check a box for the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview at least two minority candidates.
When Flores went to New Jersey to sit down with the Giants, he had already been on the receiving end of the now-infamous text messages from Belichick, who seemed to confirm that the Giants had already decided to give the job to someone else also with the first name of Brian, Buffalo Bills assistant Brian Daboll.
Daboll, who is white, did indeed get the job.
Flores described feeling “humiliation, disbelief, and anger” over the exchange. The anger that the playing field was not equal, combined with the belief that he had evidence of back-channel dealing that shut out Black candidates, spurred him to action. Again, no surprise to those who know him.
Former BC teammate Chris Snee played his entire Pro Bowl NFL career with the Giants, winning two Super Bowls with his father-in-law and coach Tom Coughlin. So commenting on a lawsuit against his former team could be awkward.
But Snee had no hesitation saying this of the man he described as a consummate team player, who switched positions when the Eagles needed him to: “I had tremendous respect for Brian when I played and still do. I’m not going to touch [the lawsuit], but I sent him a message privately to let him know my respect for him is very high. I’ll leave it at that.”
It’s a popular refrain. Across his 16 years with the Patriots, Flores moved his family out of Brooklyn, settling them just down the road from Gillette Stadium in North Attleborough. All of them, including Flores’s wife and children, became heavily involved with the Hockomock Area YMCA, in part because of a program called the Integration Initiative, an inclusion effort that was perfect for Brian’s younger brother Christopher, who has autism.
While Hockomock chief executive Ed Hurley long had dedicated volunteers from the Patriots, Flores was exceptional — involved, around, generous with both his time and money. Even after Flores left for Miami, he committed to the Y, sending new Nike uniforms for the kids, joining the 2020 virtual fund-raiser known as the Legends Ball, staying for the duration to help raise money.
For Hurley, the man now taking on the NFL is the same one who showed up at a YMCA cookout with a Super Bowl ring — not to show it off, but to let all the kids try it on.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Hurley said. “He’s a great football coach, everyone knows that. But I’ve got even greater respect for Brian Flores as a person, always have. He’s a man of integrity and is also a very kind and thoughtful person. He’s very genuine.
“I think the light he’s shining on something he feels is very important could come with personal sacrifice and cost for him. That doesn’t surprise me.”
‘It’ll be worth it’
Flores had his first interview for an NFL head coaching position in 2017 with the Arizona Cardinals, who instead hired Steve Wilks. Wilks is also Black, but he was fired just one season later and replaced by Kliff Kingsbury, a white man from the college ranks who had never coached in the NFL.
At the time, Flores spoke highly of the experience, telling the Globe, “I learned a lot about myself, about how that process works. I think hopefully in the future the things I learned in that experience will make me a better candidate.
“If I get that opportunity again.”
He did. But he, too, ended up getting fired.
And now, his lawsuit against the league might mean that the opportunity won’t come again. But, in Flores’s words, “if I never coach again and there’s change, it’ll be worth it.”