BEREA, Ohio -- Five years ago, Rob Chudzinski sat in a Cleveland Clinic waiting room discussing friendship, promises and the mortality of a man he had known since high school.
It was the summer of 2008 and Chudzinski listened to P.J. Miller calmly speak about the future of his family without him in it. The Toledo native and Strongsville resident was losing an eight-year battle with cancer.
Chudzinski's mind reeled as his fellow Toledo St. John's football co-captain laid out the sobering details and asked if he and a few close friends would keep watch over his wife, Jane, and their three children. His two boys, Jack and Matt, showed tremendous football potential and Miller wondered if the buddy everyone called "Chud" would shepherd them through their careers.
Fifteen years earlier, Chudzinski had toasted Miller as the best man in the couple's wedding. Six months later, he would eulogize him, asking a roomful of mourners to repeat "We thank you, P.J.," every time the coach recited another of Miller's good deeds.
On this day, however, Chudzinski's sole focus was honoring his friend's solemn request.
"He asked a few of us to help out," the Browns' new coach recalled this week. "It hit me square on that day I needed to live up to my responsibility."
At his introductory news conference, the lifelong Browns fan spoke Friday about wanting to deliver a winner to Cleveland. Chudzinski, 44, is a surprise choice to many, an accomplished assistant with no head coaching experience at the college or NFL level.
But 19-year-old Jack Miller believes nobody will work harder to turn around a franchise. He knows first-hand Chudzinski's loyalty and sacrifice, a man who friends say embodies the Jesuit brotherhood and the "men for others" philosophy.
"Chud is someone who lives up to his end of a bargain," Jack said by phone Saturday. "He would die before he would let down the people who are closest to him. I know I'm biased when I say this, but I think he is going to make a great coach for the Browns."Same school to same street
Chudzinski has won national championships as a player and coach at the University of Miami. He transformed Derek Anderson into a Pro Bowler for one season in Cleveland and coordinated an offense that helped Cam Newton become an NFL Rookie of the Year in Carolina. But his oldest friends and best memories are rooted in Toledo and northwest Ohio.
The residents of Lucas and Wood counties are thrilled one of their own has become the Browns 14th full-time head coach. On Monday, St. John's students plan to wear Browns shirts to school and gather for a photo, board member and good friend Bert Brady said. They plan to send it to Chudzinski.
The son of an Ohio Air National Guard pilot, Chudzinski's passion for the Browns followed him through his formative years as the family moved from Toledo to Bowling Green to Fremont and back to Toledo. His love for the team has been well chronicled: Munching on dog biscuits, playing backyard football pretending to be tight end Ozzie Newsome, propping a television in the windows of his aunt's home to watch games in the chilly outdoors to simulate life in the Dawg Pound.
But it was at St. John's where the dreams of a slow-footed, yet sure-handed tight end manifested themselves. Chudzinski ran with a circle of athletic friends that included Brady, John Ragan, Mark Fabian and the gregarious, barrel-chested Miller. Each enjoyed success after graduation and many were influenced by former St. John's football coach Fred Beier, who died in 2004.
"You talk about discipline, you talk about toughness, you talk about work ethic that we need as part of a football team and the foundation of a football team," Chudzinski said. "Fred was instrumental in teaching those things and stressing those things."
Chudzinski carried those lessons to Coral Gables, Fla.
In a border town split between loyalties for Michigan and Ohio State, Chudzinski's friends became rabid Miami supporters as he won national titles in 1987 and '89. His playing days behind him, they watched as he ascended from a 27-year-old graduate assistant to a Hurricanes coach who molded the careers of future Pro Bowlers Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee, Bryant McKinnie, Clinton Portis, Jeremy Shockey and Kellen Winslow.
"During football season we didn't hear much from him because he was laser focused," Brady said. "But when it was over he always came home and he was always the same guy -- humble as hell."
In 2004, former Browns coach Butch Davis hired him as the team's tight end coach and after a two-year stint in San Diego he returned to Cleveland as the club's offensive coordinator under Romeo Crennel. He settled in the Strongsville development of Waterford Crossing and lived on the same street as two of his St. John's buddies, Fabian and Miller.
Miller, who worked in sales, had relocated to Cleveland after college and started a family with his wife, Jane. Friends teased him about being the "president of the Chud Fan Club" and digging a tunnel that ran between their homes. They had all grown up Browns fans and here was one of their own calling plays for a team that finished 10-6 in 2007 and sent four offensive players to the Pro Bowl.
"It was so much fun," said Chudzinski, who's married with three children. "Our wives probably didn't always appreciate it because we acted more guys in high school than in our 40s."
It wasn't so bad for the offspring, either. The Miller boys marveled at the good fortune of living in a neighborhood that included former Browns assistant Chuck Pagano and players such as Courtney Brown and Ross Verba. Jack, who attended St. Edward High School for two years, babysat for the Chudzinskis in exchange for game tickets. He met all the players and stood in the stadium tunnel after games, once shaking hands with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis.
"It was a fairy tale, it was a surreal life for a kid who grew up a Browns fan," said Jack Miller, who also has a younger sister. Molly, 15. "Chud always hooked us up, he always took care of us."
Their father, P.J., who was ailing from Hodgkin's lymphoma, realized as much. As the boys showed promise on the football field, the president of the Chud Fan Club knew who he wanted to guide them after he was gone.Promise kept
During Chudzinski's introductory news conference, owner Jimmy Haslam expressed confidence his new coach would earn the players' respect. Fabian witnessed it at a 2008 fund raiser for Miller. The Browns offensive coordinator encouraged his players to attend and participate in a silent auction. Anderson, Brady Quinn and Josh Cribbs, among others, donated time and money.
"I was so impressed that I went around and thanked the players," Fabian said. "All they kept telling me was, 'We're here for a good cause and we're here because of Chud. We would do anything for him.'"
P.J. Miller died on Feb. 18, 2009 at 40, surrounded by his closest friends. A few days later, Chudzinski celebrated his life with a eulogy, its message still potent enough to move men such as Fabian to tears.
"He was such a good man and a good father," Chudzinski said. "He and Jane did such a great job raising those kids. They are so mature for their age and they're really good students."
The family returned to Toledo three years ago and Jack and Matt played football for their father's alma mater. All of dad's friends assisted in his children's mentorship.
As the boys went through the college recruiting process, Chudzinski counseled them at every turn. They talked about the best fits. They talked about the best programs. Mostly, they talked about life and honoring the wishes of a father.
Matt Miller, who turns 18 on Sunday, has accepted a full ride to Wisconsin. The youngest boy still speaks to Chudzinski three times a week as he prepares for college. Jack Miller earned a scholarship to Michigan two years ago. He's expected to be the Wolverines' starting center next season as a red-shirt sophomore. He wears the No. 60 in tribute to his dad's uniform number at St. John's.
Jack Miller plays for Wolverines coach Brady Hoke, who spent eight seasons as a Michigan assistant before returning nine years later to guide the program. The 6-foot-4, 288-pound center sees similarities between Hoke and Chudzinski.
"They understand what tradition means and what it means to the fans," Jack Miller said. "No one is more deserving of this opportunity than Chud. I think the stars are aligned. ... He wants to be here and no one will expect more of himself."
Jack Miller's father had known it for years.