Thideology News of the Day

• Praise God! The Sudanese woman who was in prison under a sentence of death because she became a Christian has been released. However, as this article points out, her life may still be in real danger. Continue to pray for this sister.

• There are students in Brazil right now sharing the Gospel with people from around the world who have come to that country to witness the World Cup of soccer. Pray that many of them will be saved and go back to their home countries bearing witness to something infinitely more important.

• The folks at The Mission Ball, an organization dedicated to using the world-wide popularity of soccer to spread the Gospel, recently announced the development of The Mission Ball in Hausa. This language, which is spoken in Africa, represents the 31st language in which the Gospel has been translated onto The Mission Ball.

Turning down the NFL for…what?

Congratulations Coach Dungy!

bildecropped.jpgLast night the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17 in the Superbowl. In the weeks preceding the game much was made about the fact that the Colts’ head coach, Tony Dungy (pictured at right with Colts’ quarterback Peyton Manning), and the Bears’ head coach, Lovie Smith, were the first two African-American head coaches to lead teams to the Superbowl. After the Colts’ victory Coach Dungy was asked about the significance of being the first African-American head coach to win a Superbowl. Coach Dungy made it clear that the more significant aspect of the evening was how he and his friend Coach Smith (both outspoken Christians) had shown that it is possible to lead a football team to victory at the highest level of the sport by doing it “God’s way.” The humble spirit exhibited by both coaches truly honored God — you can read more about Coach Dungy’s view on the matter here.

This did not come as a surprise to me. When Coach Dungy first arrived in Indianapolis in 2002 it was my privilege to interview him for a story entitled “When Sunday is a work day,” which ran in the Indiana Baptist. I was given more time to visit with Coach Dungy than other reporters because, it was explained to me, they only wanted to talk about football. I came to ask him about Jesus. I knew then that he did not define his career or life on whether or not he would ever win a Superbowl as a head coach. The man I met that day was completely satisfied with Christ Jesus.

Congratulations Coach Dungy for reaching the pinnacle of your profession. And thank you for giving God the glory all the way.

When Sunday is a workday

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.”

Coach Tony Dungy

Note: Today it was learned that Tony Dungy’s oldest son died in his Tampa, Florida apartment. I had been working on an article for Thideology about Coach Dungy. I did not want to write about his success as a coach in the NFL but about his character. Now, in light of this terrible family tragedy, this article seems so much more appropriate.

I had already heard of Tony Dungy before he was hired as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts. I had heard he was a man of integrity. One who had his priorities straight. One who knew that there are more important things in life than football. I had heard he was a man of uncompromising faith who, without apology, believed in Jesus Christ.

This is why I was so excited to learn, in 2002, that he was coming to Indianapolis. I had been living in Indy since 1998 and was already a die-hard Colts fan. I was excited to have such a man come to coach “my” team. But I also began to speculate about the possibility of interviewing him for the Indiana Baptist, the official news journal of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana, of which I was editor. I wanted to write a story about the challenges a Christian faces when Sunday is a workday. How does a believer remain spiritually fed when 16 Sundays a year (sometimes more) access to the preaching, teaching, and fellowship of the local church is limited?

Of course, when a new coach comes to town he is inundated with interview requests. When I contacted the Colts office I was given instructions on how to make an official request for an interview. I had to submit, in writing, the publication for which I was making the request, the circulation, and the nature of my proposed story. I could expect to wait a week to two weeks for a response after they received my request. When I explained I was the editor of a relatively small religious publication I was told my chances of being granted an interview were slim. So I was extremely surprised when a couple of days later I received a telephone call informing me I’d been scheduled for an interview with Coach Dungy.

I was invited to attend a practice at the Colts complex so I could take pictures. Radio broadcaster Bob Lamey, “The Voice of the Colts,” was my personal guide through the facility.

“After practice,” he told me, “The members of the media gather at one corner of the field to meet with Coach Dungy. He gives them five to ten minutes and that’s about it.”

I made sure I was near that spot at the end of practice. I did not want to miss my chance. As Dungy approached I started to gather with the other reporters when Lamey stopped me with a tap to my arm. “Not you,” he said.

I watched Coach Dungy answer questions (pictured at left) about the strength of the Colts’ offense, the weakness of the defense, special teams play and so on. After about ten minutes Coach Dungy thanked everyone, excused himself, and walked in my direction.

“Is this him?” Dungy asked indicating me.

“Yes,” Lamey replied.

After we introduced ourselves to one another I followed Coach Dungy to his office where we visited for the better part of an hour. This amazed me. Here I was, sitting in his office chit-chatting while every other reporter had to hurry through their questions for fear of running out of time.

I wondered why he would spend so much time with me, the editor of a publication I’m sure he’d never heard of before, and so little with the others.

Because, it was explained to me, all they wanted to talk about was football. You came to ask him about Jesus.

In my next entry I’ll share the story I wrote as a result of that interview.

Note: I have enjoyed this NFL season more than any I can remember. “My” Colts have finally added one of the best defenses in the league to an already potent offense. They stand poised to make a run through the playoffs at the Super Bowl and are considered by many to be the favorite. Today’s news has changed that for me. If the Colts don’t win another game this season I won’t care. The loss of Dungy’s son has reminded me that football is just a game. It’s also reminded me of the main reason I root for the Colts…they are led by a man whose priorities never let him forget what’s important. I have no idea the pain Coach Dungy and his family must be enduring now. But there is One who does. My prayers are with him. May the God he openly professes as Lord grant him grace and peace.

As the Colts play out the rest of their season I will root for them harder than I ever have before. The ironic thing is this, after considering the character of the man who leads them and his current situation, I will probably care less than I ever have before about the outcome on the field.

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