Titans DBs Kevin Byard (31), Tramaine Brock Sr. (35), Logan Ryan (26) and Kenny Vaccaro (24) celebrate after Ryan’s game-clinching interception return for a touchdown against the Patriots.Kathryn Riley/Getty Images
NASHVILLE, Tenn. A six-minute drive from Broadway, from where he’d love to bring a Super Bowl parade to this city, Kenny Vaccaro is hooked up to an IV. He’s refueling his body with a potent anti-aging molecule that always makes him feel like a new man.
The steady drip of NAD (Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide) coursing through his system refreshes and rejuvenates and recharges Vaccaro so much he barely says “Hi” before elaborating on what exactly this magic potion is. Way back in the 1940s, he explains, NAD was used to treat schizophrenia. Nowadays many celebrities use it for addiction therapy. The Titans safety isn’t addicted to anything, but this just makes him feel really, really good.
First comes the sensation of having a 103-degree fever, then, gradually, the bliss.
Nobody’s 100 percent this time of year, but Vaccaro is about as close anyone could possibly be, thanks to six weeks of this treatment with Adam Bobo, the founder of Arete. It’s probably no coincidence the Titans keep on winning, too. Vaccaro feels faster. More intense. He calls this NAD his premium fuel, his “93” option at the gas pump. At 28 years old, Vaccaro sincerely believes he’s just now entering his prime.
Bobo’s beefy French bulldog “Drake” leaps onto the couch next to Vaccaro, turns over for a belly rub and licks his arm. Bobo travels to road games, too. He’ll refuel Vaccaro and others before the AFC Championship Game in Kansas City.
Then, Vaccaro makes one thing clear: He plans to be right here again Tuesday for more.
These Titans fully expect their season to still be rolling then.
Forget the odds in Vegasas low as +10000 to win it all before the season (via sportsoddshistory.com) and +6000 when the playoffs began. They conquered Tom Brady. They slayed Lamar Jackson.
Next up is Patrick Mahomes, that cyborg of a quarterback who just exterminated the Texans in the divisional round with a 51-7 run you can’t replicate on Madden. These Titans defensive backs are not exactly shaking in their cleats, though. Not trembling at all.
Unprompted, Vaccaro starts laughing. He brings up a meme that went viral on his Twitter feed the day before and starts thumbing through his phone to find it. “You’re about to die,” he says, “you’re about to die!” As talking heads on the TV above the fireplace blab about yet another coach taking over the Browns, the preseason darlings Tennessee clubbed in Week 1, Vaccaro scrollsand scrollsand, boom, there it is: a picture of four dragons with the four remaining teams’ logos on their chests.
Three look fierce. The fourth? The Titans’ dragon? Not so much.
NFL Memes@NFL_MemesThe remaining four teams… https://t.co/6mdIf4zJFN
“All of the sexy teams,” Vaccaro says, “and our dumbass in the corner.”
Yet right when you fully expect Vaccaro to play the underdog card, to pull out a dog mask like those Eaglestwo years agohe does not. He loathes that narrative. Everyone here does. The reason Vaccaro laughs at that meme is the same reason he laughed in the locker room after the Titans stunned the 25.4 million people who watched them upset Baltimore. Guys weren’t shouting “Nobody believed in us!” as the rap music blared. The world simply does not understand how good they are, and, to him, that’s comical.
Friends were literally apologizing to Vaccaro up to that Ravens game for betting on Baltimore to win big. Vaccaro’s own son was worried about him facing Lamar.
Vaccaro knew not to worry about it.
“We have our own energy,” he says. “We always thought we were supposed to be here.”
So, yes, they expect to beat Mahomes.
“Yes! Why not?” Vaccaro says. “They have Patrick. They have all this speed. I don’t care. We’re going to find a way to win.”
Forget what the Chiefs did against the Texans. Forget that Mahomes has been revolutionizing the sport, that Travis Kelce is doing Gronk things on the field, that Tyreek Hill is telling the world nobody can guard him and the Chiefs receivers. Vaccaro’s voice picks up.
He has some names for everyone: Kenny Vaccaro and Kevin Byard and Logan Ryan and Adoree’ Jackson.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
“They have to play us,” he says. “They have to look at it like, How am I going to get the ball downfield against Kenny, KB and Logan? You can’t always look at it like, How are we going to stop those guys? How are they going to block me when I blitz? How is Kelce going to beat KB? What route is he going to run? People try to crown and give people credit way, way too much and not even realize what they have in their own backyard. Coaches do it! They get so scared.”
Against Mahomes, they know, this must be the mentality. To be the aggressor. The Titans are headed to Kansas City to punch, not be punched. They expect to make plays against this Chiefs offense, and they expect to win, even if that’s the absolute last thing the NFL world wants.
Vaccaro laughs again.
“Nobody wants to watch us in the Super Bowl,” Vaccaro says. “It’s just going to be funny after the game to me. I was laughing after the Baltimore game. I was going, ‘Ha ha ha!’ Nobody wants to watch us. They want Lamar Jackson versus Patrick Mahomes. It’s going to sell more ratings. We f–ked up y’all TV ratings!
“I’m laughing at all the TV money y’all just lost. Ha ha! There goes all your millions on that sexy matchup you all wanted. That’s the mentality. I don’t care about all the revenue you’re all going to make. All I know is we were in there at 5 a.m. every day trying to prepare and work. But nobody cares about that. All they care about is the lights and cameras and Lamar Jackson versus Patrick Mahomes. Maybe next year!”
Vaccaro plans to laugh again in the visitors’ locker room.
These Titans are absolutely ready for Mahomes’ best shot, because Mahomes is about to get their best shot.
In a black hoodie with the letters “MMCNB” in white capital letters on the front, Vaccaro stares down at a body he’s put through hell. Long before this Titans secondary was coining its “My Man Catch No Balls” motto, long before he entered a conference championship with such bravado, Vaccaro was trying to pop that left ankle back into place like it was a dislocated finger.
He was a rookie in New Orleans, playing Carolina, with a division title on the line.
He was not a doctor.
“My ankle was turned all the way around,” he says, cringing and re-enacting, “and I went, ‘Boop!'”
Just like that, Vaccaro broke his fibula, tore all the tendons on the outside of the ankle and needed 12 screws inserted to hold it all in place. He instantly lost athleticism that he’ll never get back. But he gained so, so much more. The injury forced Vaccaro to rely on smarts and physicality, and his toughness only grew. By his fifth year, he played to the point of his groin muscle tearing off the bone. He never thinks twice about consequences. Vaccaro loves throwing his body into “600 pounds of linemen,” at peace with the reality it’ll cost him later in life.
“I want to invest so much into what’s going on right now,” he says. “So when I’m 60, 70, it’s already written. Whatever. If I can’t walk, I can’t walk.”
Such is the mindset of this Titans roster. When Tom Brady posted a playoff hype video portraying himself as a lion, they took notice. They embraced being the hyena in that jungle because, as Vaccaro says, smirking, hyenas can destroy any animal together.
Ignore that massive tattoo of a lion on his leg.
“We don’t have 12 Pro Bowl lions out there,” he says. “We have 53 hyenas that will eat you down to the bone.”
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
There’s receiver Kalif Raymond tracking down a 45-yard bomb. There’s tight end Anthony Firkser, who Vacarro calls one of the toughest players he’s ever tried to guard. “Including Gronk,” he says. The hyenas are everywhere hereespecially in that secondary. The reason Tennessee’s defensive backs are so confident is they know the work they’ve put in to get here. From vicious summer workouts running hills in Austin to entering the facility between 5:15 and 5:45 “everysingleday” Vaccaro says.
Vaccaro sets his clothes next to his bed every night, so he can get dressed and head to work as quickly as possible in the morning and have time to see specific trainers to work specific body partsright down to someone stretching his big toe because he knows one bad plant on that toe could decide a game.
By 8 a.m., he’s already ripped through two games on his iPad, too.
And he’s not the only one there. Ryan is outside in the pitch black, doing his ladder drills. Byard is in the corner, stretching with bands. Even after signing what was then the richest contract ever for a safety, Byard didn’t set his alarm back one second.
The goal for all? To play “relentless” and “unconscious,” Vaccaro says.
“If I die in battle, so be it! It’s already written.”
Adds Byard: “The preparation we put in week in and week out, we feel like, is better than anybody. Our confidence is sky high. And we don’t fear anybody. We haven’t feared anybody this year.”
Just turn on the film, he implores. You’ll see it. “We’re the hardest-working team in the NFL.”
This is who they are. A product of everything that’s led them to this point.
Julio Cortez/Associated Press
Byard ripped branches off trees in high school to heat his home. Vaccaro remembers his mom raising four kids while making $1,000 a monthso why would he complain about a throbbing groin? Jackson is trying to be an inspiration for his hometown in East St. Louis, Illinois, where 14-year-old phenom Jaylon McKenzie was tragically shot and killed last spring at a party. Jackson paid for the burial because he saw himself in Jaylon. He remembers moving to Los Angeles at that same exact age to live with his sister and chase his own football dream. He knows making the Super Bowl would give kids back there hope.
All Ryan, the former Patriot, has done is make five AFC titles games in seven years. He still remembers everyone telling him he was selling his soul by signing with Tennessee, that he’d never win again.
And all four are a direct reflection of their head coachyou know, the one who said he’d cut a certain body part off to win a Super Bowl. They describe Mike Vrabel as the epitome of a player’s coach. He’s a guy who’ll go on a player’s podcast, in a bus, with a glass of whiskey in his hand. He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He is never afraid to dish on problems in his own life, and it gets them to open up.
“He’s one of my favorite coaches I’ve ever had. I trust him,” Vaccaro says. “I can’t imagine playing for anybody else honestly. His genuineness. Things I can’t even talk about to you. If something’s going on in his life, he’ll tell you. He’s not perfect, and a lot of coaches try to portray themselves as perfect.
“I want to run through a wall for him, because he’s genuine.”
Back in the spring, Vrabel told players that nothing would come easy. They listened. They worked. And now they’re one win away from the Super Bowl.
All these DBs need to do now is stop Mahomes.
The funny thing about confidencereal, raw confidenceis that it’ll always find a way to cut through cliches and bubble to the surface. Sure, the Titans praised Lamar Jackson. Vaccaro is still sitting here raving about his game, how annoying it is to play him, and claims he actually loves all the hype around the QB because it’ll open up doors for so many African American kids around the country.
Now they can pick up a ball and daydream about playing quarterback.
But these DBs knew they’d corral Lamar. Pressure Lamar. Beat Lamar. And when people raved about Jackson being unstoppable, including themselves publicly, they knew they had a plan.
Now, they know this too: Mahomes is also stoppable. Human. They’ll make the Chiefs deal with the Titans.
“You can’t go into the game looking at it as, Oh my God, it’s Patrick Mahomes. Oh my God, it’s Travis Kelce,” Byard says, “I don’t fear anybody. Nobody in our room fears anybody. Nobody fears the amount of talent they have, because we have talent, too. We don’t go into games like, Oh my God, they have more talent than us. No, we have talent as well. We have confidence in ourselves. And that’s what it takes.
“You trust your work. Point blank, period. You leave it all on the line. The work comes first, and then you go out there with the confidence that you can play with anybody. That’s how I go into every single game, no matter who I line up against and no matter what quarterback I play. I can make plays against these guys. That’s my mentality.”
There’s a gnarly edge to their voices when they talk like this.
Like when Ryan kindly points out that Tennessee did beat Mahomes already this season.
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images
“You would think we didn’t play a game earlier this year,” he says. “We played a game. We won. We lined up before, and we won before.
“We have to be us. It’s a championship fight. You can’t be afraid to step in the ring.”
Attitude won’t be an issue. As for the game plan, no unit in the league has been as good as defensive coordinator Dean Pees’ in terms of using one defense one week (getting Brady off his spot) and a completely different one the next (going Engage Eight on Jackson and tempting him to run laterally). Each week, Vacarro explains, the Titans think how to win “this game this way,” whereas he believes other teams are too “arrogant” to change, too hellbent on running their system and their system only. He points to the Texans offense as an example. The plays he studied on film a month ago were the same ones they ran over and over and over against Kansas City.
The Titans knew there was literally nothing Brady’s never seen before, so they didn’t bother disguising a thing. The next week, they did.
Against Mahomes, blitzing carries a steep price. He can retreat 20 yards and still gun it downfield with his bazooka of a right arm. The DBs half-expect him to put up a ton of yards, like Jackson did with 365 passing yards in the divisional roundor like Mahomes himself did in Week 10 against Tennessee, with 446. The key, here, is making Mahomes pay for his gunslingin’ ways. They remember dropping multiple interceptions in that 35-32 November win.
Mahomes will present a throwor twoor three on a silver platter.
“The guy has such trust in his arm, such trust in his guyslike Travis Kelce; they have such a great rapport,” Byard says, “But when he does make a mistake, when he does throw one of those balls up there, we have to capitalize on those plays.”
Adds Vaccaro, “Shoot your shot. Passive is not going to work.”
Passive didn’t work for the Texans, up 24-0, when Vaccaro saw “leverage” and “effort” issues on film. Jackson must chase Hill. Byard must body up Kelce. And while it’s true Byard was blown away by a video on social media of Mahomes and Kelce talking about unspoken chemistry, Vaccaro believes he and Byard have reached the same mental stratosphere. They’re always yo-yoing off each other, with no audibles, no signals, no communication required.
Which brings Ryan to what makes this Titans secondary so good. He doesn’t see a weak link. Whereas you could always point to one stud corner on great defenses past, like Darrelle Revis’ Jets, Ryan sincerely sees stars everywhere here. “I feel like if you’re the best DB in our secondary,” he says, “you’re the best DB in the league.” It’s a title that changes game to game.
That’s the beauty of this matchup to him: Who does Mahomes choose to test? Ryan believes in today’s NFL you’re either an asset or a liability. QBs either throw at you because they don’t respect you or avoid you because they do. Period. It’s that simple. The Titans poured millions of dollars into their secondary to drive QBs mad in trying to differentiate who belongs in which category. He knows most everyone expects Mahomes to light it up”we’ll be written off again”but Mahomes cannot avoid everyone for three hours.
“You’ve got to throw at somebody,” Ryan says. “We have a bunch of people who feel like they’re assets.”
And when Mahomes inevitably lets a ball sail, these DBs must pounce.
So they’re not cowering. No, Vaccaro basically begs Mahomes to choose him. In that first matchup, on the first play of the game, Mahomes did, gunning a deep ball to Hill. Vaccaro was there but couldn’t hang on. Just as Jackson had another potential pick ricochet off his chest.
Vaccaro would like a do-over. His message to Mahomes, right here, is bring it on.
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press
“If he bombs me up, it’s up to me,” says Vaccaro, then pointing to the IV. “I’m getting my gas right now. I can’t be defeated. It’s an even better situation for him. He’s the GOAT already! He’s one of the best players. I don’t care! We’re going to battle play after play until I empty the tank.”
Vaccaro knows Sunday will be decided by inches, too.
By one play, one moment, that could change all of their lives.
The comparison is a sensitive one. He gets that. He gets that this is a gamenot life or death. But the best way Vaccaro can describe this secondary is through his other passion: the military. He consumes military books and movies and history all the time. Right now, Vaccaro is loving Shooter on Netflix.
Just as he loved American Sniper and Jarhead and Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down.
When Saints QB Drew Brees, another military buff, gave him the book Fearless, about Adam Brown of SEAL Team 6, Vaccaro devoured it in record time.
And he cannot get enough of this all because he believes elements of war absolutely apply to his profession: “Preparing with your brothers for a greater good.” It’s why he’s OK with his body breaking down at 60. The night before, Vaccaro saw Earl Campbell struggling to move on his TV screen at the College Football Playoff National Championship and hardly flinched. The reason he chucks his 6’0″, 214-pound body into 600 pounds of linemen is because he knows that will clear room for a cornerback to make a play.
That concept of physical sacrifice for his brothers is intoxicating. He relishes that sacrifice. That’s why he gets so emotional watching a soldier’s sacrifice in a movie.
He cries. And cries. Often.
“I get emotional,” he says, “when I think about two people working together to achieve something. Every time. I’m getting emotional right now. You can’t fake it. You can’t manipulate it. I love that feeling of guys relying on each other to achieve something that’s bigger than them.
“This might sound corny, but I’m deadass serious. Every time that happens in a movielike somebody’s running and their partner shoots [someone to save] himI get all emotional. Like, Man, if he wasn’t there, that could’ve changed the course of history. It’s the same thing in the NFL. If I don’t take this one step or communicate this one thing, it might change the course of the game or the course of history.”
Mark Zaleski/Associated Press
Which, he explains, is exactly how the Titans need to attack Sunday. One play could change everything. Malcolm Butler, the fifth flagship member of MMCNB, who’s on IR and won’t be playing, knows all about this, of course. His split-second decision to jump a Russell Wilson slant is one of the most immortalized plays in NFL history.
Says Vaccaro, “You have to play like that.”
So there was Vaccaro and his fiancee, both crying together when she finished Fearless on his recommendation. It’s not the literal deaths that bring Vaccaro to tears; it’s the raw nature of one soldier relying on another soldier. Granted, football is much, much, much more trivial than any true story he’s read, but those are the types of bonds forged here in Nashville, from Vrabel on down. Around the league, Vaccaro hears all about dysfunctional locker rooms. He believes that there’s a true “spirit” within every team dynamic and that when you trade away a Jadeveon Clowney, for example, you risk tearing away at that spirit.
Here, when the front office rewarded one of its hardest workers (Byard) with a $70.5 million deal, it sent a positive message.
Not that money’s a factor. More than contracts or fame or notoriety, these DBs say, genuinely, that what drives them is making each other proud. Vaccaro wants teammates years from now to think of him laying his body on the line. He feels more responsible to them on the field than any coach, any fan, any family member and knows they’re wired the same way. And that, Ryan believes, is how a secondary that finished 30th against the pass in 2016 is now the backbone of a team one win from the Super Bowl.
Ryan knows there’s more than talent at play here. There’s a true bond, a “brotherhood.”
Byard calls it a genuine trust, that even when things go southand, no doubt, Mahomes is bound to strike Sundaythere’s never a blip of panic.
“The fact that we have trust that we will make every single play allows us to stay together when it’s not looking good,” Byard says. “We don’t come to the sideline and start bitching at each other, saying, ‘Hey! Why didn’t you make that play?’ We really stay calm and get stuff fixed. Then, we go out there and play extremely hard. It’s like a boxing match. It’s a heavyweight boxing match, and you have to keep throwing your punches.”
No wonder nobody panicked when the Titans fell to 2-4. Vrabel benched Marcus Mariota for Ryan Tannehill, the Titans started winning, and even Mariota joined the pack of hyenas in his own way by embracing his role as scout-team QB. Mariota playing the role of Brady, Lamar and now Mahomes has further sharpened this secondary. Vaccaro knows he sure wouldn’t have been able to handle such a demotion nearly as well. (“His mindset. His attitude. I know I would’ve been like, ‘F–k this. Trade me. I’m out.'”)
Now, a defining moment awaits. Someone must pounce like Butler did.
Maybe it’s Byard, the one with more interceptions than any player in the NFL the last three years. (“You can’t measure my heart. You can’t measure my preparation.”)
Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Maybe it’s Jackson, the corner set to face Hill. (“We talk about belief all the time. You have to believe that you’re going to be great.”)
Maybe it’s Ryan, the slot man who led the team with 113 tackles. (“I’m an underdog to no one.”)
Maybe it’s Vaccaro. On second thought, he says, football actually can be life or death. He’s OK with that, too, saying darkly, “I might die. I might break my neck. You can lacerate your kidney and bleed. I don’t know.” OK then. The IV continues to drip. The TV above continues to highlight every team but the Titans. And Vaccaro leans in. A moment of reckoning for this team is coming. Sunday. He can feel it.
“You have to play every play,” he says, “like this may change the course of history.”
Nashville is the undisputed greatest nonstop party in the country, and yet the party never seems to include the football team positioned a Hail Mary toss from the honkytonks.
As country music rages down Broadway, as the line at Hattie B’s Hot Chicken snakes down the street, the Titans too often go ignored.
The apathy ticked some players off this season. It’s impossible to ignore the Bills fans, the Chiefs fans being louder than your own. “Embarrassing,” Vaccaro says.
And yet, Vaccaro isn’t necessarily ripping his own fans. He points the finger back at his own team. It’s on them to make you care.
He hopes they now do.
“If you all don’t show up next year, just move out of the city,” he says. “We’re one game away from The Show. Whether that’s earning or not, I don’t know. Some fanbases would cut their arm and leg off for that.”
He sees the vibe changing. When he went to Starbucks this week, Vaccaro got his coffee for free. Twice. When he pulled up to red lights, he glanced out the window and saw other drivers giving him a scowling-intense Let’s go!! face. When he checked his Instagram this week, he realized he’s gained 5,000 followers through the playoffs alone. No, he won’t give his secondary a “Legion of Boom”-like nickname yet for folks to latch onto. They need to earn that, too.
Two more wins would do it.
Briefly, Vaccaro pictures a Super Bowl parade on Broadway.
“It’d be dope,” he says, “but we have to win this AFC Championship. We have to win this”
Vaccaro finishes up this IV session with a smile. Wondering what Derrick Henry’s secret has been? Why he looks stronger on his 23rd, 24th, 25th carry into the fourth quarter? He’s been fueling up with NAD, too. As has most of the offensive line. Don’t expect this Monstar of a running back to slow down any time soon. And Vaccaro knows if the Titans conquer Mahomes after possibly ending the Patriots dynasty and after stymying the league MVP, everyone’s lives will indeed change.
Nobody will be mocking his team via meme.
Nobody will choose draft beers at Tootsies over a Titans game.
Nobody will call them an underdog.
They will go by one title only: champs.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.
Titans DBs Kevin Byard (31), Tramaine Brock Sr. (35), Logan Ryan (26) and Kenny Vaccaro (24) celebrate after Ryan’s game-clinching interception return for a touchdown against the Patriots.Kathryn Riley/Getty Images