December 24, 2005 Leave a comment
Note: This article originally ran in the October 22, 2002 issue of the Indiana Baptist, the official news journal of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana.
Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works; Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much more, as ye see the day approaching. – Hebrews 10:23-25
Many a devout Christian upon arriving home from a Sunday morning of worship and fellowship at their church, will relax and turn on the television to watch football. They will put their feet up and settle in to root for the team of their choice and never once consider the fact that these men have already been at work since early in the morning. Preparing for a game in the National Football League is a full-time job and Sunday is a workday.
Players, coaches, and trainers all have a lot of preparation to do before kickoff. By the time the television is turned on teams have already put in hours of work. Which means, of course, they didn’t have opportunity to put on their Sunday best and attend church.
In Indianapolis, the home of the Colts, a lot of hype has surrounded the hiring of a new head coach. Fans have been made aware of Tony Dungy’s coaching background. As the former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he is the winningest coach in that franchise’s history. He led Tampa Bay to the playoffs in four of his six years there. In 1999 he guided the Buccaneers to their first NFC central division title since 1981.
Nine players earned Pro Bowl honors in 1999 under his leadership. Between 1998 and 2000 the Buccaneers accumulated the second highest number of wins in the entire league. He was selected as the Professional Coach of the Year by the Maxwell Football Club in 1997.
What hasn’t received quite as much coverage is the fact that Dungy has a reputation around the league as a devout Christian. He is known as a man who lives his convictions without apology. It’s a lifestyle that had its beginning in his childhood.
“I was fortunate,” said Dungy. “I grew up with a lot of spiritual background around me. Two of my uncles were Baptist ministers and my mom taught Sunday School. So I accepted Christ early, as a young kid.”
While his salvation came early in life and he enjoyed a strong foundation in spiritual things as a result of a family that cared, it wasn’t until Dungy became a player in the NFL in 1977 that he really began to grow in his spiritual life.
“I went to Pittsburgh with the Steelers my rookie year when I was 21,” he said. “and it was there I got around some guys who were strong Christian athletes. That was the first time I really understood what it meant to be able to deliver in the professional end and still have your Christian attitude be the most important thing. So it was really at that time when I started growing in my faith.”
In fact, according to Dungy, it is precisely because he would no longer have opportunity to attend church on Sundays the way he had in the past that, with the help of his teammates, he became serious about his faith.
“I saw these guys were a little bit different from me,” he said. “They were heroes. They had been to Super Bowls and they were all at the top of their profession. But they took me under their wing and invited me to Bible studies and chapel services and different things. I could see these guys really put their relationship with Christ first. It wasn’t football first, it wasn’t school first, or career or anything. It was what you are doing for the Lord, how you are living your life.
“That was unique to me because I thought the only outspoken Christians were ministers or church leaders or older people. This was an eye opening experience for me. It changed my life.”
Perhaps it is because of the positive influence other players had on his life that Dungy has taken steps to make sure his teams have an atmosphere that fosters spiritual participation.
“I just try to make the atmosphere as conducive as I can to help people to grow in their faith,” he said. “We have a chaplain here and I try to give him as much access as he needs. We try to facilitate Bible studies, chapel services and make sure that it all is available.”
From the very beginning of his tenure as Colts head coach, Dungy has made his priorities known. In the earliest team meetings he made it plain how he was going to conduct his team. In fact, one of the very first things he did after begin hired was contact the team chaplain, Ken Johnson.
Johnson, who has been Colt’s chaplain for 12 seasons, is the director of Helping Hand Group, Inc., an Indianapolis based ministry that helps meet the needs of inner-city children. He is a former urban director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, has sung with the Gaithers, and had a national speaking ministry. Dungy heard Johnson speak a few years ago and, according to Johnson, became very excited when he found out the same Ken Johnson was the chaplain of the Colts.
“He gave me a call and said, ‘you may not remember me but we met a few years ago when you were speaking,’” said Johnson. “Now here’s an NFL head coach who remembers me very well and he’s wondering if I know who he is. Remarkable. But that’s the kind of man he is. Humble.”
The two men met to discuss the spiritual goals of the team for the coming year.
“What we’ve tried to do, in order to foster an environment of spirituality here, is to meet on Tuesday mornings with the coaches for Bible study,” said Johnson. “We meet with the team on Thursday nights in what we call ‘Family Night.’”
Chapel services are held four and one half hours before every game.
“Chapel used to be seen as kind of a good-luck charm,” said Johnson. “But now …
“We don’t have many lukewarm Christians who come to chapel. The Word beats them up. Chapel is uncompromising.”
According to Johnson there have been coaches on the staff who, while they attended chapel services regularly, did things to completely destroy their witness. Dungy, by contrast, is genuine in his faith and leads by example.
“When he came things really took off,” said Johnson. “Everything hinges on leadership and when you have a guy like him taking the lead it makes all the difference. If you are going to have men conduct themselves on the field with respect, in an ethical manner, and with character, you have to have men leading them who know where that comes from.
“Some of our past coaches had the perspective that, even though God and religion are important, football comes before your family and your religion. With a guy who emphasizes lordship you understand the Lord is first, then your family, and then football.
“If you have a wife who is having a baby, this man says, ‘You go take care of your family, your profession will be here when you get back.’ To have a man who understands that is major. Do you know how rare that is today? Not just in football, but in all professions.”
Hunter Smith, the Colts starting punter, is one player who follows Dungy’s spiritual leadership. Smith grew up in a Christian home in Sherman, Texas and is a member of a community church in Indianapolis. According to him, Dungy’s coming to Indianapolis has already made a big difference.
“It’s a huge change spiritually,” said Smith. “Everyone here knows where coach Dungy stands spiritually on this team.”
Like Dungy, Smith has found that working in the NFL does not necessarily mean one will struggle spiritually.
“I find it not to be a difficulty in the least,” he said. “We have Bible studies every week. We have worship. On Sundays before we go to the stadium we have chapel service. I find it not to be a struggle at all.”
On the contrary, rather than finding the NFL to be a negative, both Smith and Dungy have found it to be a remarkable positive in one respect. Their high-profile positions afford them ministry opportunities they otherwise would not have.
“My position as a football player may afford me opportunity to get into places, but it won’t bear lasting fruit.”
According to Smith, that lasting fruit only comes with his relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a message that he shares every week during a Bible study he started in Westfield to minister to high school kids. Kids may come because they think it would be cool to have a relationship with a NFL football player. But they come back because Smith lets them know the best relationship is the one they can have with the Lord of the Universe.
Dungy takes a similar approach.
“We get invited to go places and speak to people that the average citizen doesn’t get the chance to do,” he said. “We get invited to schools, we get invited to youth groups, prisons, a lot of places I go because I am the head coach of the Colts. So, I try to take advantage of that and introduce people to God’s Word.
“In a position like this you get asked about different things on TV or radio interviews that are seen nationally after games. You get a chance to witness to people you would never meet in the normal course of your life.”
Of course a lot of high-profile sports figures have reputations as spiritual people. But Dungy wants it known that he is not merely a “spiritual person” but a Christian.
“I think as a Christian that is something you have to make clear because there are so many thoughts about religion now, so many avenues people want to take.” He said. “Whenever I’m asked to talk about it I make sure people understand my affiliation as a Christian, that I follow Christ and Christ’s teachings according to the Bible.”
His is a lifestyle whose impact is not lost on those who work around him. Radio broadcaster Bob Lamey, the “Voice of the Colts,” said of Dungy, “He is a good man, a good coach, and a good role model for these players to be around.”
Johnson calls Dungy, “The real deal, all the time. It’s not a front, he is genuine all the time.”
Smith, one of those most directly influenced by Dungy, said, “He is an encouragement. A lot of people start strong in their faith and don’t finish that way. Coach Dungy started strong and he has been strong all these years in his faith. And he is going to finish strong, there is no question in my mind. I want to model, in a large degree, my life after his in that respect.”