By MIKE SZOSTAK, JOURNAL SPORTS WRITER
PROVIDENCE — Brown football players should expect no sympathy from head coach Phil Estes or defensive coordinator Michael Kelleher if they feel sore and tired after a workout or if the weather is hot during preseason camp later this month.
"My players are not going to like me," the veteran coach said. That's because two weeks ago he and Kelleher experienced more pain, fatigue and heat than any offensive guard or middle linebacker will during two-a-days. They survived The Register's Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI), a grueling 471-mile journey from the Missouri River in the west to the Mississippi River in the east.
"It was tough, and one of the most unique things I've ever been involved in," he said. "I learned a lot about myself that I can apply to the team. You can push your body more than you think. I am 54 years old. I had hip replacement 2 1/2 years ago. I was able to ride across Iowa. It hurt. My hands are still numb from leaning on the handlebars. But if you keep everything in front of you and have goals, you can succeed."
Even better, Kate Estes and Betsy Kelleher pedaled every mile with their husbands, and two of the three Estes children, Meaghan, 26, and Brett, 16, served as the support team.
Best of all, they raised a little over $30,000 for cancer research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston in the name of Bill Perry, a Brown football alumnus who is being treated for thyroid cancer.
"It was unbelievable to share all that," Estes said Thursday. "I kept thinking along the way about Dana Farber and Billy Perry and Paul Gorham [Sacred Heart coach and former Brown assistant who had a double lung transplant and had both legs amputated as a result of a rare lung disease]. That was the stuff that kept us going. And to have Meaghan and Brett as our road crew, for them to see it and experience it, to see what their mom and dad are going through, that was extra-special."
Estes started thinking about RAGBRAI last summer after he watched a YouTube clip and became intrigued.
"I was looking for something physical to do. I rode a stationary bike for 45 minutes on my lunch hour and thought I can do that. I became obsessed by it," he said.
He completed an application for the RAGBRAI lottery when it became available in November. He assembled his team, the Angry Bears, and ordered T-shirts.
"I was that sure we'd get in," he said.
The route changes from year to year to allow numerous cities and towns to participate. When the 2012 route was released, Estes grew even more optimistic. Cedar Rapids, his birthplace, was on the ride.
"I thought this is fate. It's got to be," he said. In May, he received word that the Angry Bears were in. He turned a second-floor hall in his East Greenwich home into RAGBRAI Central. He posted an 8-foot map on the wall and highlighted the route. He used two whiteboards to keep track of goals and assignments.
"People would go up there and then ask what the mad scientist is doing," he said with a laugh.
Estes invited his entire coaching staff to join the ride, but only Michael and Betsy Kelleher accepted.
"If it's a challenge, they were in. They were as enthusiastic as Kate and I were," Estes said.
They rode all over Rhode Island. Route 3. Route 138. Route 102. Block Island. Jamestown. East Greenwich to the East Side to work. East Bay Bike Path. They even took spinning classes.
"We tried to train as much as we could," he said, "but you can't train for the heat and the 30-mile-per-hour headwinds."
Or the hills.
"The funny thing is, everyone believes that Iowa is flat. It's anything but flat. And where it was flat, we had headwinds," he said.
The Angry Bears and 10,000 other riders followed tradition and dipped their rear wheels in the Missouri River at Sioux Center on July 22 and started pedaling toward their first overnight stop in Cherokee, 54.4 miles away. They passed three crashes in the first15 miles and wondered if they would survive.
They rode 62 miles on July 23 and 81.2 on July 24. They could have added a 23-mile loop for a century (100 miles) but didn't.
"That was the hottest day, and we had headwinds. The heat radiating from the road was 120 degrees. Mike had four flats. That was probably the toughest day," Estes said.
The downhill into Lehigh near the end of that run was so fast that he thought if "I crash, I'm dead." After a few turns through town they confronted "the biggest hill to get out of town. A guy got off his bike and played 'Taps.' A girl at the top was playing the 'Rocky' theme."
They added 77 miles on July 25 and 85 on July 26, which they dedicated to Kelly Estes, who turned 22 at home with the dog.
They rode an extra six miles before starting on the 27th to find Phil's childhood home in Cedar Rapids. "We went to West Post Road across from the Truman Elementary School. I didn't recognize it. It was a new development when we lived there. All the trees had grown up. My father had planted a birch tree because he loves New England, and it was huge."
The Estes family moved to Laconia, N.H., when Phil was 9.
The Angry Bears pedaled 42 miles on the 27th and finished with a 70-mile ride to Clinton and the Mississippi on the 28th.
Various members of the extended Brown football family met and cheered them along the way. At night, as they iced and rested their aching muscles, they wondered what they were doing and if they were crazy. "It was the most oppressive heat I've ever been in. Every day at the start it was 99 or above, except the last day," Estes said.
Riders dropped out because of the heat, but not the Angry Bears. Said Estes: "I had to finish."
And he did, with Kate and Michael and Betsy Kelleher.
"We were so ecstatic to dip our bikes in the Mississippi," Estes said. After a few minutes they wondered what's next.
"We'll find something," he said. "We'll see."
First, however, is training camp later this month.