Mike Rumph walked into the hospice room looking for a familiar face. Leonard Myers lay in bed, cancer ravaging his body. Myers smiled when he saw his former teammate. But Rumph also noticed something else: cookies on the nightstand. Nobody on the team loved cookies more than Myers.
"Man, you're still eating those cookies!" Rumph said to him.
Myers laughed. So did Rumph. They told old stories. They laughed some more. Then Rumph took out his phone and put Miami highlights on YouTube, showing Myers all those memorable plays he made. Myers seemed so happy. Rumph felt at peace saying his goodbyes.
Yet what struck Rumph amid the sadness was an all-too-familiar feeling. When Myers died in February, he became the third player off the all-important Miami teams in the late 1990s and early 2000s lost too soon.
Tragedy first hit 15 years ago, in early 2002, a month after Miami won its fifth national championship: Starting linebacker Chris Campbell was killed in a car crash, devastating not only the team but the Miami community.
One year later, popular safety Al Blades was killed in a car crash, another gut-wrenching blow. Now Myers was gone, too. On the 2000 team that ultimately became the springboard for the most recent championship Miami would win, Rumph started alongside Blades, Myers and Ed Reed in the secondary. Campbell started, too.
"Chris, Al and Leonard really built us to who we were," Rumph said. "The reason the University of Miami got to win a championship? Because of those players right there."
Rumph is now part of the Miami staff tasked with bringing another championship to Coral Gables, entering his second year as cornerbacks coach. Having played and practiced alongside Campbell, Blades and Myers, he knows exactly what it takes to become a champion. If he can pass those lessons down to the players he coaches, then he can be sure their legacies continue through the next generation.
He can start with Myers, who set the tone in offseason workouts. Back then, players made sure to work out during the hottest parts of the steamy Miami afternoons to help build their endurance and stamina. Myers still holds the bench press record among defensive backs to ever play at Miami.
"Leonard made it look like he wasn't even trying," linebacker Howard Clark recalled recently. "That was just his way."
When Rumph arrived on campus, Myers took on the mentor role. Not only did he teach Rumph the basics. He also taught Rumph how to be a strong, physical cornerback, essential skills Rumph is passing on now.
Blades, meanwhile, set the tone with his intensity. He was aggressively manic on the field, but he personified Miami in everything he did. His brothers, Bennie and Brian, played for the Hurricanes, instilling a passion and fire for the program that nobody else had.
"Al literally was Miami to me. He was what I aspired to be," Clark said.
To win championships at Miami, players have to truly understand what it means to be at Miami. The trademark Blades intensity went missing during its leanest years, but those who watched last season saw flickers coming back.
Much of that has to do with defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, who grew up in South Florida watching Miami defenses dominate with a "take no prisoners" approach that rattled and intimidated opponents. Rumph has made sure to emphasize the important intangibles that make Miami ... Miami. Blades had them all.
"Miami football is full-speed, running through people. We're trying to make people fold, but we're doing it all the right way," Rumph said. "We're trying to get these kids to get to the standard of how we played the game, and they've bought in. We've been dwelling on that the whole offseason."
Myers mentored Rumph as a cornerback, but Campbell was his first friend on campus. The two arrived as freshmen in 1998, but Campbell may have taken the bigger risk. Rumph grew up in South Florida, having watched Miami win titles as a youngster. Campbell chose Miami after a disastrous 5-7 season, coming in from Mount Pleasant, Texas.
Larry Coker recruited him on the promise for better days. Campbell and Rumph played as true freshmen, and became full-time starters the following season. Myers and Blades became stalwarts, too, and the Hurricanes started winning again.
In 2000, they beat Florida in the Sugar Bowl but had a legitimate case to play in the national championship game against Oklahoma. Instead, the BCS selected Florida State. The following season, Campbell and Rumph helped the Canes go undefeated and win yet another title. Unfortunately, Campbell was unable to play against Nebraska in the Rose Bowl because of a knee injury.
In the month after the game, he started preparing for a shot at the NFL. Rumph remembers their final workout together: Campbell let everyone know he had eaten his eggs that morning, changed his diet and had a positive outlook. On the night Campbell died, he went out in Coconut Grove, a popular area just north of the Miami campus. He and Clark had recently had a fight, but on that night, Campbell wasn't upset when Clark spotted him sitting on some steps.
"He looks at me with the biggest smile on his face," Clark remembers. "I'm like something's wrong, this can't be true. He gets up, he hugs me, says, 'Man I'm sorry. I've got a lot of things going on in my mind. I'm stressed out, but I'm getting ready to make it to the league, dog!' I'm going to make it to the league!
"It was honestly the happiest I'd ever seen him. I always remember that smile. And he gave me a hug. He's not a hugging type of person. Within that hour or two hours, he gets in his car, goes up the street and crashes into a tree." Campbell was dead at age 21. Coker and his assistants began calling players to meet at the football facility to provide support.
"We were on such a high, winning a national championship and for this to happen to Chris ... It took the wind out of the sails of our team," said Coker, head coach at the time. "He's one of your brothers, and all of a sudden now they're gone. For young kids, too, it's hard to understand and figure out sometimes. To lose one of their brothers like that was a tremendous shock."
A few months later, Rumph and 10 other players from the 2001 team got drafted, an NFL record. Campbell was not far from their thoughts.
"We've always felt we wish Chris could have been a part of it," Rumph said. "What happened let us know how important life is. We felt we were invincible, but we're not."
In the years that followed the deaths of Campbell and Blades, more tragedy struck: Miami players Bryan Pata, Sean Taylor and JoJo Nicolas also lost their lives. "Too many for one place, let's put it that way," Coker said.
It is a lesson Rumph has had to repeat as coach nearly every single day: Never take a moment for granted. While there always will be melancholy, their collective memories live on through the stories their friends, coaches and teammates tell. And they serve as an inspiration, too.
Most especially for Rumph, who is trying to instill the same work ethic, determination, passion, intensity and responsibility in his players today.
"You're going through training, going through mat drills, going thru 110s, you see who's going to give up on you and who's going to run through a brick wall," Rumph said. "We figured it out on that field. Those three right there, Chris, Leonard and Al, were some men among boys. They really set the tone, and that's what we're trying to bring back now."