The young man, going out of his town to meet the adventure of life, began to think but he did not think of anything very big or dramatic.... He thought of the little things....
—SHERWOOD ANDERSON, Winesburg, Ohio
Scott Pioli has what looks like the biggest desk in America. The thing must be 14 feet long, with drawers large and deep enough to hold two or three defensive tackles. The desk is a thing of beauty—dark stained wood and a thick glass top—and it is enormous because of a misunderstanding. Pioli had looked at the blueprints for his new office in Kansas City, and he misread the proportions. He has never had a good mind for spatial relations. After taking over as the Chiefs' general manager nearly two years ago, he expected a normal-sized desk and instead got one bigger than the team bus.
He still feels sheepish about it, but he has grown used to the big desk. Pioli is 45 now and still has a bit of the look of the All--New England defensive tackle he was at Division II Central Connecticut State. He sits behind the big desk the NFL-recommended daily allowance of hours (18, often) and thinks of little things. All of his professional life, Pioli has longed to recapture something, something from his childhood, something difficult for him to explain. It is something he tries to explain now. He begins to talk about how, in building a team, you want—no, more than want, you need—to find people who will do the right thing most of the time.
Then he stops. No. That will sound wrong, sanctimonious, and that's not what he wants, not at all. "There are a million skeletons in that closet," he says, and he points at the closet past the end of his desk. He turns the conversation, starts to talk about how powerful a team can be, how much a team can mean, how much his own team....
And he stops again. No. His eyes redden, and he stares at the wall with the writing on it, and he knows that he is blowing it. Bruce Springsteen, Pioli's idol, sings about how he "lived a secret I shoulda kept to myself." Pioli feels words are diminishing what is in his mind. People will get the wrong idea. This is why he doesn't like talking about it.
He repeats some of the core words about building a team, hoping their power might fill the empty spaces. Reliability. Dependability. Accountability. Discipline. But these words have been used so often and so much in vain that they shrivel and fray and lose their color in the light of day. Say discipline, for instance, and people think of banning long hair and earrings and tattoos, of avoiding dumb penalties. "That's not at all what I'm talking about," Pioli says.
Lived a secret he shoulda kept to himself. Yes. It's better to say nothing. There are fewer misunderstandings that way. For most of the previous decade Pioli was the Patriots' general manager without being called that; his official title was vice president--player personnel, featuring a dash instead of the word of—like United States--America. Nobody could say precisely what the title meant, and it didn't matter. Led by coach Bill Belichick, inspired by quarterback Tom Brady and flanked by scores of people famous and unknown, New England and Pioli won three Super Bowls in four years. They lost another in February 2008 after going 18--0 during the regular season and playoffs. For all this, ESPN named Pioli NFL personnel man of the decade.
He stayed in the shadows. It is almost impossible to find a story about Scott Pioli that does not refer, usually at length, to his anonymity. The popular thought was that he remained in the background in deference to Belichick, his friend and mentor, and there is some truth in that. But then in January 2009, after turning down more jobs than he will ever reveal, he came with great fanfare to Kansas City to reshape a dysfunctional Chiefs team, and he moved right back into the shadows. At his first press conference he announced that he expected the coach, not the G.M., to be the public face of the franchise. He talked about how he had no interest in individual stardom—"I'm not here to sell jerseys"—and he rarely did interviews. When The Kansas City Star attempted to do a bigger story about him, where he comes from, what drives him, what he thinks about, Pioli called friends and family back home in Washingtonville, N.Y., and asked them not to reveal anything. The story that appeared in the paper was mostly about how Pioli wanted no story to appear in the paper.
This year the Chiefs have improved dramatically—on Sunday they beat the Seahawks 42--24 for their seventh win in 11 games, more victories than they had in 2008 and '09 combined—and Pioli has stayed in character. He has been distant, careful, emerging only every now and again, mostly to remind everyone that his team is still a work in progress. He sits behind that big desk, and he scouts college players, and he talks with agents, and he works over the salary cap, and he pushes his coaches, and he raises expectations, and he pierces egos, and every now and again he stares at his wall where the Winesburg, Ohio passage is written in calligraphy. The young man, going out of his town to meet the adventure of life.