Blanton

Menu Close

Category: Uncategorized

Journey Man

Former University of Alabama and NFL Quarterback Brodie Croyle is writing another chapter in his life that has nothing to do with football. What he says might astound you.

by AL BLANTON

A mile or two down a picturesque road, not far from Big Oak Girls’ Ranch in Springville, Alabama, there is a marquee sign above Red Hill Missionary Baptist Church. You might miss it, if the aging barns, the haphazard ponds and undulant hills begin to weave their spell on this land-lovers drive. The sign reads:

Bama 101 K
Auburn 84 K
Sunday school 25
Enough Said

Brodie Croyle passes by this sign on his way to his new job at the 300-acre ranch that his father built in 1974 for children needing a chance. He has heard the full-throated fury of that 101 K strong, their white-and-crimson shakers snapping back and forth on Saturdays in autumn like heated pistons. He has worn the armor; his blood and sweat are forever soaked in that sublime turf. And if anyone understands how football can become an idol, it’s Croyle.

The aw-shucks boy Alabamians watched grow up is now a man. Today, Brodie is dressed in a tan field coat, blue jeans, and boots. The sunglasses around his neck dangle from a set of Croakies (he’s still got a bit of college boy in him) but his hair is cropped more neatly than that machismo swoosh of his days as Alabama quarterback. He’s a retired NFL star at only 30. His football career is over, and he is busy assembling the rest of his life.

If you didn’t have a clue that he was a quarterback in a former life, you’d think he was just another guy. There is not a speck of pretention in him. He’s got a Cadillac grin, tinged with boyish mischief. He listens to George Strait. His favorite place to eat is Guthrie’s Chicken in Tuscaloosa (“tough to beat” he says). And he swears he doesn’t miss it, football that is. “Only a fool stumbles on what’s behind him,” he quips. “When that chapter closed, it was time for another.”

The book he’s already written is an awfully good one.

Chapter 1: I was brought home from a hospital in northeast Alabama and raised on a ranch. My dad was a football star at the University of Alabama, but decided not to go to the pro league. Instead, he built a ranch for kids who needed structure in their life. Growing up, some of them were my best friends.

Chapter 2: I was a quarterback. Dad never pushed me, but said if I was going to play, he’d support me in anything I did. He wanted me to be my own man. There was never any pressure from him to play. He never yelled. He was always an encourager. Sometimes, he had to rein me in. He always told me to focus on the good and learn from the bad and strive to be my best.

Chapter 3: I got a scholarship to play quarterback for the University of Alabama. I was hurt a lot, but I gave it everything I had. We won a few ballgames while I was there. My most memorable one was when we beat Florida at home in 2005. They were a bit proud of their ranking, but that day, they ran into a buzz saw. The stadium that day was as loud as I’ve ever heard it.

Chapter 4: I played for five years with the Kansas City Chiefs and retired as an Arizona Cardinal. I threw 319 total passes in the NFL, even started a few games.

Chapter 5: I gave up football a couple of years ago and decided to come back to Alabama to work for a timber company. But the Ranch was calling me home, the place I was raised, and I moved back in 2013. I now serve as Associate Executive Director. I married my wife Kelli in 2007 and we have a boy, Sawyer. We’re expecting our second child any day now. I am blessed beyond measure.

Now Croyle’s script—the part about reinventing himself post-football—has everything to do with going back to where he came from. As a child, Big Oak Ranch’s roots ran deep in him. They were vast and accommodating. Yet they did not spill out token entitlement, but instead fed the aches of the soul. Brodie’s father, John, has spoken to thousands upon thousands of people on parenting across the years. But his greatest testimony, his greatest proof that his theory is sound, is how he raised his own children, the kind of success they’ve had as they walked across the coals of life.

Brodie will say that three lessons from his father stand out above all else. He learned the value of hard work. “Anything freely given quickly loses value,” Brodie says. “My dad taught me to earn what you get. There are no handouts. He taught me that I need to be the first one to get there and the last one to leave. That applies in football, in life, and as a parent.”

The second is commitment. “People use that term loosely. Everybody’s got New Year’s Resolutions—lose ten pounds, quit stuff, start working out. People love to commit to an outcome. My dad taught me that what makes a man is a commitment to the journey. My journey in football was nothing like I thought it would be. My outcomes were to win the Heisman and win the national championship. But God had a different plan. If things would have gone differently for me, I might not be sitting here right now. Football is not why I was put on this earth.”

The third is courage. “Courage is being willing to go against fear,” says Croyle. “It’s about making tough decisions. It’s the ability to overcome what you’re scared of. Not going the easy route.”

As much as John might have instructed otherwise, a lesson Brodie had to learn on his own was how to prioritize, for it is easy to get sucked into the vortex of the 101 K strong. He got distracted by the high-wattage of lights and the smoke of applause. “I wanted to play in the NFL since I was 12 years old. But football became my God, my idol, and my master. In Matthew, it says that you cannot serve two masters. Here I was, putting football ahead of everything else in my life.”

Croyle says that he began to get out from under this mindset when he met his wife, Kelli. “I married a Godly woman, and I got to watch her live it. Football was my job and my life, and I would leave at dark and get home at dark. Every night, she’d be in bed, reading her Bible. I finally came to the realization that this isn’t about football, and this isn’t about me. I guess it was my way of learnin’; I’m hard-headed and it took me a lot longer. It was a gradual learning process.”

That stubbornness often manifested itself on the football field. Croyle played through four years of tumult at Alabama, three head coaches, and nagging injuries. He didn’t have the luxury of playing pain-free under the tutelage of One Nick Saban. He may not have had the best coaches in terms of winning, but what he saw in one of them perhaps transcends notches in the record books. “I don’t think people realize how good a man Coach Shula is. He wasn’t too high or too low. He was the same guy every single day. This has really helped me in my family. Just to be the same guy every day.

“Coach Shula’s favorite phrase was ‘You can’t go broke takin’ a profit,” says Croyle. “Well, my comeback to that was ‘you can’t get rich makin’ minimum wage.’”

Croyle always had an affinity for throwing the deep ball, and at times zeroing in on an intended target (there’s that outcome-based mindset again) came back to bite him, such as the two-overtime game against Arkansas his sophomore year. “I threw a pick in overtime. I remember the play. It was Deuce Right Jam RIP 438 Run It H Fake Cross. I had predetermined that I was going to throw it. They intercepted it, and man do I regret throwing it,” he says.

Alabama lost 34-31 that day, but Croyle passed for 204 yards and three touchdowns.

Since finding his own Shangri-La back at the Ranch, Croyle says he doesn’t think much about football. He’s still an Alabama fan and might catch a game or two, but he’d rather let the new players have their time. Croyle also believes it’s easy to lose perspective when you get caught in all the glam. “The life expectancy of a player in the NFL is less than 2 years. That’s a short period of time in the grand scheme of life. It’s an easy world to get caught up in. You can get caught up living that kind of life. But having a foundation, a base, is the key. I don’t want football to define me,” says Brodie.

While the Ranch does not have the window-dressings of the NFL—the high-salaried gladiators of the arena and skimpily clad pom pom girls—one could easily argue that the Ranch is making a more profound impact on humankind. Instead of zipping a pass to a wide receiver, Croyle will be passing off life skills to an emotionally-wrecked teen. Instead of handing the ball off to a running back, Croyle will be giving a hot meal to a hungry child. Instead of throwing passes across the field like frozen ropes, he will be tossing children a lifeline.

Rarely does a man who achieves greatness in one field find something of greater value in another. But Brodie has found something in Big Oak Ranch that has eternal ramifications; he is investing in the lives of children who desperately need to be given a real chance at living.

Brodie Croyle will never be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He will never hoist a Super Bowl trophy above his head. He will never bring home the bronze-built Heisman, never gaze at the shine of a national championship ring on his finger. But as he sorts out his life, as he thinks about who he’s become, he says with that boyish grin, “I’d much rather be known as a great man than a good football player.”

Enough said. B

Note: This article was originally published in 2014 on 78mag.com.

Photo by Al Blanton

The Note on the Door

Philip Lutzenkirchen’s life may have ended abruptly at 23, but his father is carrying the Auburn Tight End’s legacy and message to high schools all over the South

by AL BLANTON

 

 

A note was on the door.

It was a Sunday, and Mike Lutzenkirchen and family had just gotten home from 8 o’clock Mass when he found it.

“The note had a number on it, and said to call this number from Troup County,” recalls Mike. “The first thing I thought was that Philip did something stupid.”

His son Philip, the behemoth Tight End for Auburn from 2009-12, had been slogging in the trenches as an unpaid volunteer coach at St. James School in Montgomery. Settling on his future, #43 had just informed his father in a phone conversation on Wednesday that he wanted to be a coach.

“I asked him, ‘Have you talked to Coach Malzahn?’” Mike says. “He said, ‘No, Dad. I wanna be a high school coach.’ He loved kids.”

A gentle, benevolent giant, Philip became famous for his game-winning grab and like-feet-afire celebratory dance against Alabama in 2010. His injury-riddled career prevented him from playing for the St. Louis Rams, who signed him to a free agent contract after the 2013 NFL draft.

That Friday, Mike asked Philip to go with them to the family lake house in South Carolina, but Philip had plans to stay in Auburn for the weekend. Philip also informed his dad that he had been asked to emcee an event in July. That was the last time Mike Lutzenkirchen talked to his son.

Puzzled about the note on the door, Mike went out back, to his deck, and punched in the number. A nameless man on the other end answered and said: “I need you to call this number.”

“Can you give me any details?” inquired Mike.

The man couldn’t.

So Mike dialed another mysterious number. Voicemail. He called the first number back. This time, he was more forceful.

Can you tell me what’s going on?” Mike snapped.

“I can’t tell you,” the stoic voice said. “Talk to that number.”

Before Mike could dial the second number, the phone rang. It was the Troup County coroner. Mike sensed something was terribly wrong.

“He was very candid,” remembers Mike. “He said, ‘This morning, Philip was in a single vehicle accident, and he didn’t survive.”

For a moment, imagine hearing those words. Imagine their nightmarish reverberations.

Imagine it being your son.

Mike plunged to his knees, as the full weight of his 240-pound body and the news of a lost son came crashing down on that deck in Marietta, Georgia.

“Philip’s dead! Philip’s dead!” Mike wailed.

Now outside on the deck, his girls let out a scream. Soon, the next-door neighbors would arrive. Later, the world.

Mike brushes the tears from his eyes as he tells the story of losing his only son. It’s been almost a year since Philip Lutzenkirchen’s untimely death, and Mike is still crippled at the thought of it.

Like his son, Mike is a very large man, constructed like a heavyweight slugger. But unlike his son—who had a tendency to cut-up, act silly, and perform mischief—Mike is a very serious man. Chicago-born and raised Catholic, Mike worked for IBM, married, and had three daughters and a son before moving to the South. Georgia could not blot out his native Chicagoan dialect, as his accent is forever barbed with a commanding, Soldier-Field-grit. He describes himself as “bullish,” but is not afraid to display the grim artwork of his sensitivities and emotional struggles.

The news spread quickly. Later that night, Auburn Athletic Director Jay Jacobs and Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez arrived separately at the Lutzenkirchen’s door to console Mike and the family.

But as the night waned, the crowds fizzled. The next morning, Mike woke up to this cruel finality: his son was not coming back.

Mike needed to be alone, so he drove down to Leita Thompson, a nearby park with a two-mile walking track meandering through verdant, tree-shaded acreage.

At first, Mike took a stroll, but as he began to reflect on his son, his cadence picked up. He was soon in an unbridled run.

“I just ran,” Mike says. “I almost went around that path twice.”

In his time of reflection, Mike began to think of words that described his son. Now glistening with sweat, he hurried to a local Starbucks and jotted down the words—43 of them—corresponding with the number on the back of his son’s football jersey. Many of those words are now used as a curriculum for the Lutzie 43 Foundation, a nonprofit that Mike and family started after Philip’s death.

A funeral and memorial service followed, and the Lutzenkirchens buried their son. Social media was inundated with tributes to 43, and soul-level candlelight vigils were offered. But no one mourned like the family.

In a state where football is a godlike beast, Philip’s death made people forget about rivalries—at least for a little while. Most fans realized that matters of life and death put football in perspective, and while the Auburn family grieved, Alabama grieved with them. And amid all the din and smoke of sorrow, a perfect message emerged from Philip to all of us:

“I know God’s working, so I smile.”

Mike’s three girls soon approached him and said, “Dad, what are we gonna do? People need to know how great a person Philip was.” Mike had left a successful career with IBM, and had been working with high schools to help with fundraising for athletic programs. That provided a perfect segue into the Lutzie 43 Foundation.

Speaking engagements followed. Mike, who admits that he has never spoken to groups consistently, was soon in front of Mark Richt and the Georgia football team. Then he was in front of Dabo Swinney and the Clemson football team. A documentary on Philip’s life was produced by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi and featured on College GameDay. Speaking requests began to pile up, and Mike hit the highway.

Back at the Foundation, the girls and Mike continued the tenuous hammering out of the details of their mission. Forty-three of Philip’s mentors and friends were asked to write a one-page testament to the words that Mike wrote down that day at Starbucks. They have been collected, typed out, and laminated.

“Joy” was written by Rinaldi.

For months, Mike drove Philip’s hunter green Ford F-150 (nicknamed “Lady Hulk”), before transitioning to a crimson van that took on four-lanes and two-lanes, traveling to schools to deliver the message that was burning like torches in his heart. At each school, hundreds assembled. Mike, often tearfully, encouraged kids to “Live like Lutz, Love like Lutz, and Learn from Lutz.”

The “learn” part was birthed when the family learned of the details of that fateful night. Mike admits that his son’s blood alcohol content was “astronomical,” and refuses to extend blame for any cavalier decisions that were made that night/morning other than his son’s. What distresses him more than anything was that not one person in the group was willing to look out for one another.

“In sports, we don’t have a problem getting on to our teammate if we miss a tackle or a double play at second,” Mike says. “But that night, no one had the courage to stand up and say, ‘You’ve gone too far’.”

That’s a teachable point for young kids–adults, too.

There is a bit of selfishness in his travels, Mike will admit. The road is therapeutic to him, a time for reflection and remembrance. As he drives from school to school, honoring his son and delivering life lessons to young kids, he hopes that somewhere along the highway, he’ll find solace.

Because Mike spends a lot of time away from home, family and friends worry that Mike will burn out. From week to week, he zigzags across the state, from Pelham to Fayetteville, Brewer to Falkville. At each place, classrooms empty and auditoriums fill. Mike shares simple little lessons of life. Lessons like:

Wear your seat belt


Make good decisions


Be available


Prepare and be aware

Live like Lutz. Love like Lutz. Learn from Lutz.

So who was Philip Lutzenkirchen?

Mike describes his son thusly:

“I think about when we lived in Carmel, Indiana. He was a goofy kid who just loved life. When he was five years old, I remember he was posing for a baseball picture and it was cold and raining. He just stood there and held the bat with tears in his eyes. One time he was a ring bearer in a wedding and he wanted to wear a white Nike hat with a black swoosh. He had a soft heart and was very protective of his sisters. He loved Auburn. When Coach Tuberville resigned, he wasn’t himself. He broke down and cried. Philip didn’t see black and white. He saw everyone, regardless of color, as a brother. He was the guy that Auburn wanted recruits to meet. He knew he was going to succeed.”

Mike uses the term “phenomenal” a lot to describe things. He believes in God winks. He says that God has spoken to him audibly. He says his faith in God has strengthened since Philip’s death and the time he spends in prayer and study has increased. He even says that he cries a lot in the van, and that the whys and what ifs still haunt him.

What could I have done different in parenting?


What if he would have gone to the lake with the family that weekend?


What if he would have never gotten in that car?


Why did this to happen to my son?

But along the way, he believes that God is leaving him little notes on the door. Notes to remind him that, although horrific things are going to happen in this life, God is working things out for the greater good.

That God knows what it’s like to lose a son.

“I don’t want to put myself on a pedestal,” Mike says. “I’m not the only one who’s gone through this. But I’m going to fight like hell to one day sit next to my son and ask God why all this happened. The Bible says that God protects the chosen ones. I wonder what God knew? I pray for people who want to blame God. I think if you asked Philip right now for a mulligan—for a chance to come back—he wouldn’t take it.”

The event that Philip had been asked to emcee was a Fellowship of Christian Athletes gala in Auburn that July. Philip was elated. Yet somehow, he ended up on a farm in Georgia and never made it to the event.

But Mike has stood in for him. Mike does it because he knows there is purpose in his talks. He has taken the sting of Philip’s death and turned that into comfort for other people. He says that in the past he’s kept his faith close to the vest. Now he won’t stop talking about God, whether it’s in front of ten or ten thousand.

“I just see faces,” Mike says.

When others might have caved, Mike built a congregation. While others might have grown bitter, Mike grew a ministry. While others might have cursed God, Mike ran to him. While others might have closed the book on a life, Mike decided to write another chapter.

“Life dug a hole for me and my family,” Mike says. “The world says you can live in this hole. But God says I have a will and a plan. From time to time, He speaks to me. And I hear him saying, “ Slowly, you’re getting it. Slowly, you’re getting it’.”

How do you measure a life?

Perhaps not by the length of it, but by the breadth of it. B

This article was originally published in 2015 on 78mag.com. Al Blanton writes inspirational stories of men and women all across the United States.

HEEEERE’S BOBBY!

Birmingham’s favorite son Bobby Bowden reflects on Deion Sanders, Steve Spurrier, THE U, Bear Bryant, political correctness, and the faith that’s carried him through the years

By AL BLANTON

 

Shorty White leaned up against a streetcar and watched Ann Estock prettily ascend the steps in her heels and long, white dress. Shorty thumped his toothpick to the ground, slung himself around the railing, and hopped inside. It was the fall of ’48, and the pair were headed to see a picture show in downtown Birmingham. Life was good. Ann’s “steady”—unaware of these pleasantries—was fifty miles away in a dorm room in Tuscaloosa.

Two days later, Paul Crumbley informed the steady—who eventually grew up to be a pretty dadgum good football coach—about the unusual pairing on the streetcar.

“Bobby, you not goin’ with Ann anymore?” inquired Paul.

“Yeah boy, we’re still steady. Why?” said Bobby.

“Well, I saw Ann this weekend with Shorty White.”

What? You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me? Shorty White?

“Yessiree. I saw the both of them on the streetcar together!”

“I couldn’t stand it,” says Bobby Bowden now, sixty-six years later. “I couldn’t stand the thought of Ann being with someone else.”

The reason why Ann was with someone else was that Bobby and a few buddies (including Shorty) had slipped off to the Promised Land—Panama City, FL—for a few days that summer and had gotten friendly with a few of the girls. That fall, when Ann found out about the festivities, she wasn’t happy.

Bobby begged his case to Ann, maintaining his innocence. Ann forgave him (and ol’ Shorty was quickly out of the picture). Bobby knew he wanted to marry Ann but there was one problem: it was orthodox law at Alabama that you couldn’t be on a football scholarship if you were married. Bobby had come to Alabama to play quarterback. So he was faced with a choice: stay in school in Tuscaloosa, or move back home to marry Ann.

The rest is history.

When Ann and Bobby eloped in April of ’49, they found a preacher to marry them just outside of Rome, Georgia. When the preacher opened the door, he was eating a piece of fried chicken.

They’ve been together ever since.

There have been two things consistent in Bobby Bowden’s life. His marriage and his faith. Even with as much success as he’s had on the football field, not all of his seasons produced winners. At West Virginia in 1974, he went 4-7. At Florida State in ’76, he went 5-6. He lost to Miami 20 times. He lost to Florida 18 times.

Bowden has won a lot, too. He holds the record for most wins in college football (377), he won 22 bowl games against 10 losses, 12 ACC championships, and his Seminole teams ranked in the top five for 14 consecutive years. In the 1990s, FSU went 109-13 with national championships in 1993 and 1999. Across six decades, he won over 74 percent of his games. That’s considered great by today’s standards. A man who has found that kind of success shouldn’t have to worship anything, right?

Wrong.

Bowden, a devout Christian, worships a being whom he believes is more than 74 percent right. Call it hokey. Call it old-fashioned. Bowden simply believes the Bible, and he believes God. You see, the pair made a deal together a long time ago when Bowden was stricken with rheumatic fever as a young boy.

“God, if you will heal me, I promise I’ll serve you the rest of my life,” he said.

It was a classic example of a foxhole prayer–only Bobby meant it. He has kept that promise and has shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with every player that has ever walked through the broad gates of Bowdenland. “I just felt like God was the number one priority,” he says. “I was going to do what He wanted me to do. What He put me here for. God created us. And He has a purpose for us. My purpose was to serve Him, using the Bible as my foundation.”

It’s not braggadocios; he says that he simply did what he felt called to do.

The Bobby Bowden Story is a tale of deep moral fiber, commitment, hard work, and the refusal to back down from a challenge. If the Bible were written in today’s world, Bowden’s story is perhaps most akin to David’s. Like David, Bowden is not a large man in terms of physical dimensions.  His weapon was not a slingshot, but rather a flaming spear. While service to the Almighty could have occurred in a variety of arenas, Bowden’s threshing floor was the American football field, slaying tiger and gator, battling hurricane. Here’s how it all went down:

Bowden grew up in the Woodlawn section of Birmingham during the Depression, and the first sounds he remembers were the popping of leather helmets just beyond his backyard. “My house backed up to a field, and there was an alley—did y’all have alley?” Bowden says. “There were some big bushes, but on the other side, I could hear them practicin’.”

“Them” was the great Woodlawn football team, with stars like the gallant, near-immortal Jimmy Tarrant. “My dad would get on top of the garage, and I’d climb up the ladder with him and watch practice,” Bowden recalls.

Eventually, the family moved to the Eastlake community, to a house that, fortuitously, was at the bottom of a hill just below Howard College’s football field. “We’d go over and play on the tacklin’ dummies and climb on the goalposts,” Bowden recalls.

Bowden also became an avid radio listener, fascinated with Frank Thomas’s Red Sea of Tuscaloosa and Frank Leahy’s Catholic boys of South Bend, Indiana. Dreams of playing football for these teams began to dance in young Bobby’s mind, so he suited up for Woodlawn in hopes of one day making it to the big time. But that was before Ann Estock appeared in his life.

After leaving Tuscaloosa, Bowden enrolled at Howard College (now Samford University) and played quarterback and halfback on the football team. He stayed at Howard and served as assistant coach for two seasons (’54-’55) before landing his first head coaching job at South Georgia College in Douglas, Georgia. In 1960, he returned to Howard as the head coach where he established a reputation as a hard-nosed instructor with his “mini-Junction” practices conducted in Cook Springs, Alabama, where conditions were Spartan and water was a rare commodity (summer letters “fudged” on the swimming and fishing possibilities).

“That swimmin’ pool was filthy,” Bowden laughs. “We’d practice three times a day.”

Bowden’s Howard boys directly benefited from the indefatigable coach’s web of networking. He would often slip over to Tuscaloosa to catch practice under Bear Bryant, or spend a few minutes picking assistant coach Gene Stallings’s brain. Bowden even convinced Green Bay Packers and former Alabama quarterback Bart Starr to help out for a spring.

“Shug Jordan and Bear were my big heroes,” says Bowden.

In ‘63, after getting introduced to Coach Bill Peterson at a Touchdown Club meeting in Atlanta, Bowden was hired to coach wide receivers at Florida State, where he developed future NFL Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff. He took the offensive coordinator job at West Virginia in ‘66, eventually becoming their head coach in 1970.

Bowden cites the Pittsburgh game in ’70 as The “Job” Moment of his career. Trailing 35-8, Pittsburgh rallied in the second half to defeat the Mountaineers 36-35. “That was my worst loss in coaching,” he says, even with “Wide Right” I-IV to consider.

The ’74 campaign saw the walls of Jericho come tumbling down (in a bad way), as the Mountaineers descended to a low altitude of 4-7 and Bowden’s image being hung in effigy. But even with all the negative flak, Bowden says that he still had the confidence of WVU administration.

“They didn’t fire as quick back then,” he laughs.

Bowden turned things around in ’75—a Damascus Road year—going 8-3 and securing a Peach Bowl win against N.C. State.

“I couldn’t stand losing,” says Bowden. “Losing hurts more than winning feels good. But my faith saw me through. If we got beat, I knew that God was still in control.”

Florida State (and bluer skies) lured him back to the South in 1976, and he served there for 34 years until his retirement in 2009.

Bowden2

Photo courtesy of The Jeremiah Castille Foundation

When Bowden arrived at Florida State boasting sideburns and polyester, the Seminoles had performed pitifully in the two seasons under Coach Darrell Mudra (4-18). Making matters worse, games with Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, and LSU—a “Murderers Row” of away games—loomed in the future. Never flinching from a challenge, Bowden instead used this brutal scheduling to his advantage, growing Florida State into a national powerhouse by marching into the Valley of the Shadow of Death at away cathedrals, where he fussed with the titans of the world.

The key? Recruit, recruit, recruit. And my, could he! Consider this: an aging folksy Baptist swayed players like Deion “Prime Time” Sanders (who would go on to have more rings than a Mafia Don) to Florida State University. How did he do it?

“I just tried to be myself,” says Bowden. “In a recruiting visit, I’d try to talk about everything but football. I’d say, ‘Come to Florida State where the sun is always shinin’ and the beaches are 25 minutes away.’ And I’d tell their parents I was going to take them to church.”

And it worked! Deion Sanders. Michael Boulware. Warrick Dunn. Charlie Ward. Darnell Dockett. Peter Tom Willis. Ron Simmons. Just to name a few.

“Deion was the best athlete I ever coached,” says Bowden. “His last year at Florida State, he signed with the Yankees and lived in his own apartment. But the players loved him because he practiced, sweated, and suffered with them.”

Often, across the recruiting table were Bowden’s in-state nemeses, Florida and Miami. These two dissimilar rivals would prove to be a perpetual thorn in Bowden’s side that the Lord wouldn’t seem to remove. The difference?

“We got along with Miami,” says Bowden. “We didn’t get along with Florida. Florida is the prestige job of the state, especially in terms of resources. But my relationship with [Steve] Spurrier is good. The press tries to make it sound like its not. I have the utmost respect for him.”

If there were no Florida or Miami, one might wonder how many national championships Bowden could have won. “If we’d have kicked the ball straight, we’d have won more,” Bowden grumbles. Perhaps the fact that he played such fierce games says more about the man than whether or not he won them all.

Bowden will admit that his initial “life goal” was to coach at Howard, but his life became an example of God’s bigger plan (Think: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…. -Ephesians 3:20). That “immeasurably more” includes becoming one of the greatest college football coaches of all-time, impacting thousands (millions?) of people for Christ throughout his life.

So why did God lead a Birmingham boy to Florida State?

“Well, look at all that’s happened!” Bowden says.

Fair enough.

His few “sins” include a jonesing for chocolate, and a small golf addiction. He watches The Military Channel and enjoys books on World War II. He loves music—“In my car, I get all the songs. But I like the ‘Big Bands’ of the 40s and 50s.”

 

BowdenBW

Bobby Bowden by Al Blanton

In his white-carpeted parlor at his home in Tallahassee, Florida, remnants of his coaching days are strewn throughout the room. A coaches award here. Framed game programs there. Books are heaped neatly on a coffee table (the one on top is about a coach) and a few trinkets rest on a sideboard. A black folding screen with Japanese images juxtaposes the rose-and-white themed room. A placard reading BOBBY BOWDEN on his small antique desk hails the old Seminole logo—the open-mouthed Chief Osceola with a ribbon of war paint arcing across his cheek.

Behind that placard are three cards. Two of them are sketches of Jesus; the other is that famous European-looking Jesus painting that graces so many living rooms and churches throughout America.

Bowden understands that these cards depict something that will never turn to rust and dust—unlike trophies, awards, and even championships, which so often have a tendency to do. It matters more than whether or not a ball went wide left or wide right, or went straight down the middle. It matters more than wins and losses, or whether or not Florida State beat Florida this year.

Because Bowden was a small player, he often had to develop trick plays to gain an edge on his opponents. He often used that same strategy when he was coaching, employing the patented “Fumblerooskie” when necessary. Bowden will submit that the only strategy he used in his personal life was following Christ, a way of life that he first learned at Ruhama Baptist in Woodlawn, Alabama.

“I’d rather be spiritually correct than politically correct,” he once said.

Spiritually correct often means demonstrating faith, showing grace and mercy, and offering forgiveness.

Even to Shorty White.

“Woo boy!” Bowden howls. “Yeah. I’ve forgiven him.” B

 

Article originally published in 78 Magazine. Al Blanton is the owner of Blanton Media Group and writes profiles of inspiring men and women, all across the United States. 

The Lord and Gene Stallings

by AL BLANTON

Probably not much has changed over the last 25 years on Avenue F in Ensley, Alabama. There are a few sagging car washes, row after row of bungalow houses with leaning porches, and nightclubs with naked awnings stripped of their canvases–like a skeleton. There is a church called Serenity Chapel (with a sign written in sort of a half-calligraphy that says “A new concept to an old tradition”), brownstones with boarded-up windows and zig-zagging fire escapes, showy VIP lounges, yellowed Pepsi signs, and barbershops galore. But 25 years ago, there was one distinct difference: the town of Ensley was abuzz because of a football player named David Palmer.

Over the last fourteen years, it would seem that David Palmer has faded into obscurity. His name is not at the forefront of discussion when Alabama football is mentioned. His life beckons a “Where are they now?” segment on ESPN’s Outside the Lines—though there has never been one. He’s been quiet—awfully quiet—since retiring from the NFL at age 28, and most ‘Bama fans wouldn’t have a clue where he is, what he’s doing, or if he’s doing well.

But today, David Palmer walks onto the dead autumn grass on the football field at his alma mater, Jackson-Olin High School, wearing an Alabama Dri-Fit shortsleeve, charcoal windpants, untied Nikes, and a curved-bill Atlanta Braves cap. His haggard facial hair battles patches of grey, and he is an older facsimile of the player who once came in third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Charlie Ward and Heath Shuler in 1993.

Most fans remember Palmer affectionately as “The Deuce.” The 5’9,” towel-flapping phenom, donning long(er) sleeves and shoulder pads as wide as a Datsun, added an electrifying element to an otherwise businesslike Tide offense (Toss Sweep Left, Toss Sweep Right). Deuce, synonymous with the number 2 pressed on his jersey, coaxed nightmarish images for opposing teams, as they watched him run, catch, and throw with the grace of a gazelle (seeing mostly the back of his jersey as he gashed the field like a Ginsu knife). He was the X-Factor, Hard Copy, Dallas, and Grand Master Flash all rolled into one. They (football aficionados) didn’t have a position to aptly describe his threat, so they simply called it “All-Purpose.”

When Palmer got the ball, fans would robotically rise to their feet and watch something they believed to be supernatural, a fleeting joy in pads that came to bless them, if only for a while. After the play, the legion of 70,000 strong would assent to his greatness, chanting in a long, low bass, “Deuuuuuuuce.”

The Deuce, simply, had a penchant for the spectacular.

Beginnings

David Palmer grew up in Ensley, watching his brother Robert play football for the Ensley Colts, a local Little League team. “I really learned how to play football by watching my brother,” Palmer says. “He was basically my role model.”

Palmer says that he developed his “moves” when Robert would often block him from getting into the house at supper time. “I gotta eat,” says Palmer. “So I had to dodge him to get in the house.”

Palmer also grew up watching the NFL, becoming particularly enamored with Raiders football (watched it with his uncle), and the Dallas Cowboys’ great bulwark running back Tony Dorsett. At age six, a spindly-legged Palmer would emulate Dorsett at Ensley Park, where he became one of the best players to ever come through the system.

“I’m still in the Little League record books,” Palmer laughs.

Palmer’s mother, Peggy, a single mother, worked two jobs to support Robert and David.

“Aw man,” Palmer reflects. “She had to do so much. She did all she could. We ate well. We never went homeless. My grandma was there, too. And she helped out. My uncle stayed with us also, which gave me a male figure in the house.”

Palmer decided to attend Jackson-Olin High School because he believed he could change the culture of an abysmal football program. The team practiced on a sodded field next to a horticulture building and played their games at Legion Field, the Birmingham Fairgrounds, or Lawson Field because they did not have a stadium of their own.

“J-O was always 1-9,” Palmer says. “I thought I could come in and change things.”

He did. By his senior year, the Mustangs were 9-2 and Palmer was being recruited by a flock of schools that included Florida State, Auburn, Arkansas, Pitt, and Alabama.

As his high school career came to a close, Palmer had whittled his choices down to two: Florida State and Alabama. “I chose Alabama because I wanted to get on the field and play my freshman year,” says Palmer. “Bobby Bowden at Florida State was talking about redshirting me, but I had three kids by the time I graduated high school. So I wanted to go ahead and start playing so I could take care of my kids.”

Palmer was recruited by first-year coach Gene Stallings, who would become an important figure in his life.

Alabama

In Palmer’s freshman year at Alabama, the team went 11-1 and beat defending champion Colorado in the Blockbuster bowl, 30-25. Its only loss came on September 14, a 35-0 throttling against Florida in Gainesville. But Palmer believes that this ’91 team was perhaps Alabama’s best in his three years at the Capstone.

“The ’91 team was really the better team,” he says, comparing against the 1992 National Championship team. “We had a lot of in-house problems before the Florida game and we weren’t focused.”

That year, Palmer gobbled up 1,113 yards of offense and scored 7 touchdowns.

The year 1992 was a signature year for Alabama football, as it crowned a century of football. Anticipation was high and palpable, as several of Stallings’ recruits looked to pay dividends.

“We had our sights on a championship,” says Palmer.

Palmer believes that at the time conferences such as the Big 10 garnered more national respect, and that the SEC wasn’t viewed as THE power conference that it is today.

‘We were playing for reputation, for pride,” says Palmer. “After we won it, many of the guys got their ring sized for their middle finger, ‘cause they felt disrespected.”

As Alabama was enjoying an outstanding fall, shredding the SEC, things got dicey for Palmer off the field. Palmer drew attention for another “deuce”—by getting not one, but two DUIs (his second charge coming only two days after appearing in court on September 4 for the first charge.)

Now 42, Palmer is a man reflecting on those trying, long-ago events that seemed to hang too long in the minds of naysayers. “I couldn’t handle success,” he says. “I didn’t know what it meant to be a top athlete at UA, that people were going to watch whatever I did. I was there to play football. I didn’t think that people were watching me when I went out in public.”

Third-year coach Stallings held Palmer’s future in his hand. But Stallings had already gained experience with discipline for alcohol, watching Bear Bryant’s much-anguished suspension of star quarterback Joe Namath in 1962 from his vista as assistant coach. But instead of dropping the hammer on Palmer, Stallings suspended him for three games.

“If it weren’t for him, my career might have been over,” Palmer says of Stallings’ relative leniency. “People wanted to give up on me, but Coach Stallings wouldn’t let that happen. The whole thing cost me a whole lot, caused me a lot of off-the-field stress. But I owe a lot of my success to Gene Stallings.”

Palmer says that Stallings knew that if he had given up on him, Palmer might end up on the streets. And that wouldn’t have been good for a father of three with a potential future in the NFL. “He was like a father to us,” Palmer says. “He was there to show us, teach us, and lead us in the right direction. I have nothing bad to say about Coach Stallings.”

“[David] needed a little help,” says Gene Stallings, now retired and living in Texas. “We all need a little help from time to time. I think at the time, he needed my supervision. But I’m glad that he has gone ahead and done extremely well. He was a great player and is an outstanding person.”

During the ordeal, Stallings was quoted by the Orlando Sentinel: ‘I really think, in David’s career right now, he needs us,” Stallings said. ”He needs me, and I’m not going to turn my back on him. In all my coaching career, I don’t believe I’ve coached a player as gifted and talented as David. I think he’s got a problem . . . we’ve got to help him overcome. I know how important football is to him.”

So football went on, and David went on. Tennessee. Ole Miss. LSU. Mississippi State. All casualties.

That year, winning Alabama’s first championship in 13 years also meant defeating the axis of: Auburn, a Shane-Matthews-led Florida (in the inaugural SEC Championship Game), and the Evil Empire of Miami—in succession. The Miami game, played on January 1, 1993 at the Superdome in New Orleans, pitted ‘Bama’s defense against the daunting aerial attack of Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta and the near-elastic wide receiver Lamar Thomas.

Before the game, the much-lauded and defending national champion Hurricanes displayed a thick swagger both on TV and on Bourbon Street. “We saw them joking around in practice,” remembers Palmer. “And we’d run into ‘em on the strip. They thought they were going to shut us down.”

They didn’t. Once the game began, Alabama, a severe underdog, relied on a 38-yard punt return by Palmer after Miami was stuffed on their first possession.

“The butterflies was gone after that,” says Palmer.

The key to ‘Bama’s success, though, was a defense coarser than Stallings’ tweed jacket. Bulky bookends Eric Curry and John Copeland, linebackers Derrick Oden and Antonio London, cornerbacks George Teague and Antonio Langham clotted together to field perhaps the best defense in the history of its program, so Palmer would argue. Perhaps Miami’s severest transgression was that they failed to realize that the defense can score, too (its okay at this time to smile at the thought of George Teague high-stepping into the end zone.)

Offensively, the ’92 Tide was essentially a mistake-free, one-dimensional running juggernaut until passes were necessary. “We had a lot of talent on that team. We had a hell of a running game,” says Palmer. “We may not have had the most high-powered offense, but when it was time to make plays, we did it. Jay [Barker] didn’t turn it over. He took care of the ball. That’s fantastic football. We shocked the world.”

The highlight of Palmer’s career at Alabama came in 1993 (a 9-3-1 campaign for the Tide) against Tennessee. Mired in inertia across three quarters, the Tide offense couldn’t muster any more than three field goals, and the Vols led 17-9 going into the final quarter. Many fans had already exited Legion Field, giving up hope that the Tide could extend its seven-game winning streak against Tennessee. But the Tide galvanized a drive, finding itself within Tennessee’s 5-yard-line with Palmer lined up at quarterback. Outside the stadium, fretful fans gathered around small, grainy TV sets and watched The Deuce whip around right end to tie the game and add another 365 to UT’s misery.

Which begs the question in 2014: “Thinking retrospectively and considering the movement of college football to a more fast-paced, quarterback-oriented ground attack, does David Palmer think he would have still played receiver today?

“I probably would have still played receiver,” he admits.

NFL

Palmer decided to forego his senior year for the NFL Draft. He was drafted as a receiver in the 2nd round by the Minnesota Vikings and Coach Dennis Green (before his famous “We let ’em off the hook!” quote). His seven seasons under the bright lights of the Metrodome were festooned with hard arcing spirals from quarterbacks Warren Moon, Brad Johnson, Jeff George, Randall Cunningham, and Dante Culpepper. Palmer also ran back punts for Brian Billick’s offense with the same rampant wattage as the days he lit up Legion Field. Palmer played alongside NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Chris Carter and the fast, leggy ball catcher Randy Moss. Palmer says that all of the players on the Viking team were “great guys” but there weren’t enough footballs to go around to keep the receivers content.

And Minneapolis? Well, Minneapolis was a loooong way from Ensley. “It was a great city,” says Palmer. “A beautiful place. It was definitely cold. I learned that when I was done with practice, if I had anything to do, I better do it, because I’m not going back out that night.”

Post-NFL Career

Since retiring from the NFL in 2000, Palmer has been active, volunteering for several high schools to coach baseball and football. He also helps children with Down syndrome, yet another passion left in Stallings’ wake.

“I got to spend a lot of time with Coach Stallings’ son, John Mark, and ever since then I fell in love with kids,” Palmer says. “I’m blessed to work with them. I try to help them in any way I can.”

Palmer is also pursuing the bachelor’s degree that has eluded him for twenty years. He hopes that this degree can help him to achieve his new dream: being a high school football coach.

“I’d like to come back to J-O one day and try to teach kids how to play the game,” he says. “Lead them in the right direction.”

David Palmer

Reviewing his still young life, Palmer gives a bit of advice for today’s young athletes. “Watch your environment,” he says. “It will carry you a long way. Keep your nose clean. Listen to your parents, teachers, and coaches. They are teaching you things you need to know for your future. And keep God first, keep God first.”

Palmer was raised in church (at New Zion Bible Way) and says that his grandmother was a very Godly influence on his life. During the whole DUI saga (his valley of the shadow of death), Palmer says that his faith was critical. “God helped me through that whole situation,” he says. “I had to get on my knees and pray. The Lord kept me sound and humble.”

There is one last lesson Palmer teaches us, that if we don’t grab, we’ll surely miss as he zips by: Don’t drop the opportunities you are given.

When David Palmer was playing football, the ball wasn’t thrown to him every time he ran a route. At Alabama and for the Minnesota Vikings, he often wasn’t the number one option. “I didn’t get as many opportunities as some people,” Palmer says, “but when I did, I didn’t drop ‘em.”

Through the drops and fumbles of life, Palmer has learned a lot about mercy. He’s learned a lot about second chances, and appreciates those who have allowed him to lift himself off the turf and chase the goal line again. Those who never gave up on him. The Lord. Gene Stallings.

After spending a few minutes on the phone talking about the “David Palmer Incident” that occurred twenty years ago, Stallings, hanging up the phone, offers one last suggestion for this article: “Be kind to David.”

After all these years, the ball coach is still looking out for his players.

As David Palmer gazes out onto the new football field at Jackson-Olin High School in Ensley and the sun’s yoke spreads across the afternoon sky, he says, kind of to himself, “I wish I could have had this field to play on.”

He’s been to the apex of the sporting world, but he still knows where home is.

“This is where I’m gonna be,” he says in a low voice.

Not much has changed. B

 

 

All photos by Al Blanton

Article originally published on www.78mag.com

 

 

 

The Affirmation of Mike Gottfried

 

Former college football coach and ESPN announcer Mike Gottfried has found a new arena, helping to plug up the heart hole for thousands of fatherless young men

 

 

In 1989, the phone rang at the Pitt football office.

A young Pittsburgher was inquiring about a job, and the secretary put him through to Head Coach Mike Gottfried. After a few minutes into a gauzy, unremarkable pitch, the aspiring coach said something Gottfried would never forget.

“What are you doing now, son?” Gottfried asked.

“Well, right now, I’m working on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.”

“I wish I could help you, but we don’t have a job right now,” Gottfried said. “But…send me your resume and we’ll keep it on file.”

The next day when Gottfried arrived at the office, his secretary informed him that the same young man was waiting for him.

“I said send your resume, not bring it by,” Gottfried told him. But the young man’s persistence made such an impression on the coach that when a coaching position came open at Pitt, Gottfried hired him.

That man’s name is Mike McCarthy, head football coach of the Green Bay Packers.

Almost thirty years later, Mike Gottfried sits in his war room at the Team Focus office in Mobile, Alabama, answering an array of cell phone calls and meeting with glowing staffers who pepper him with varying requests. Though his trademarked, Caesar-like hair is graying and his speech is compromised from what one doctor believed was a mild stroke, it seems as though nothing can slow the 71-year-old down. He dresses for a workout. Today, he’s wrestled into a lime Under Armor pullover, gym pants, and black, thick-soled tennis shoes. He shuffles around the office like a bee visiting several garden flowers, pulling t-shirts, books, and pamphlets out of boxes and tossing them to guests. Extra large? Large? Behind him, the Team Focus game plan is inscribed in red EXPO marker on two massive whiteboards the size of a Mazda. Four deflated, half-white footballs, still in their plastic bags, sit on a long table like caught trout, and there are cardboard boxes with unnamed contents choking the ceiling.

The fruits of Mike’s ministry are the relationships

A self-described “connector,” Mike invests much of his day introducing people, stuffing a cell phone into various ears and saying, “here, talk to this person.” Mike casts a wide net of influence and his interests are far ranging, from boys who need a father figure to a budding project for Israel. Southern life has yet to blot out his native Ohioan dialect, which rises to a euphoric, kidlike falsetto at punch lines of stories.

Team Focus is the culmination of Mike’s lifelong struggle to heal from the untimely death of his father. It’s his “More Than Conquerors” effort strung together like a long, continuous vigil. The goal of the organization is to provide a comprehensive mentoring program for young boys, ages 10-18, who find themselves in unfortunate circumstances with no father present in their life. The tagline is “Guiding Young Men to the Ultimate Victory” and the labor is unashamedly Christian, centering on Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

For Mike, the crucible began on April 3, 1956.

Fritz Gottfried was a railroad engineer in the small Midwest town of Crestline, Ohio. An old photograph displays a man with deep-set eyes and tight coils of brown hair lapping against the top of his forehead. His wife and three sons squint at the camera, but Fritz seems disaffected by the sun. His middle boy, Mike, holds a toy six shooter in his hand.

Fritz worked hard on the railroad and often came home late at night. “Just lay here with me ‘til I fall asleep,” a rail-fatigued Fritz would often ask Mike. Fritz was interested in the boys’ athletic pursuits and, as Mike described it, was the “family coach”—teaching them baseball, basketball, football, and bowling. It was apparent to all who lived in Crestline that Fritz loved his family dearly.

But in the wee hours of April 3, Fritz complained to his wife that he wasn’t feeling well. He crawled out of bed and started down the hall. Mike was in the next room and, oddly, hadn’t gotten a wink of sleep, even though it was 3:30 in the morning. Then the eleven-year-old heard the most horrifying sound of his life—the loud thump of his father’s body against the bathroom floor.

The whole family snapped to Fritz’s aid. Mike’s mother instructed the eldest boy Joe to get the doctor, who was five houses away. Mike retrieved a washcloth, wetted it and placed it on his father’s forehead. Then he climbed into the floor, holding his father’s head in his hands and praying for God to save him. Fritz was moaning with agony as the youngest, Johnny, stood at the doorway, too young to comprehend, eyes agape, looking at Mike and his dying father incredulously.

Fritz Gottfried was but 41 when he died in that Ohio home on April 3, 1956.

Mike’s world was rocked, and he spent the next few months trying to comprehend the twist of this cruel poetry.

“Why now?” Mike often asked the heavens.

But no answer came.

When the Gottfrieds were forced to relocate, Mike’s mother soon sent him to live with distant family, the patriarch of which was a very serious man by the name of Bill Harbaugh. Young Mike viewed the elder Bill as a strict disciplinarian, and Bill didn’t disappoint. “Mike, eat everything on the plate,” Harbaugh instructed at the dinner table. “And you’ll drink no liquids.” (Harbaughology suggested that drinking liquids during a meal might stunt the growth of a young athlete, who needed to pack in as much food as possible.) However unorthodox the method, Mike insists that his six months at the Harbaughs was just what he needed.

GottfriedHarbaughPicture-2

Mike with the Harbaughs

A local nun, who intimated to the moving-wayward boy that his ship was getting off course, instilled further discipline in Mike’s life. She shared with him the famous verse from the Book of Jeremiah, one that Mike now says is something you hold onto when things are looking bleak.

Mike soon turned to sports as an outlet to cope with the loss of Fritz. Crestline was a Cleveland Indians town. This was around the time of slugger Rocky Colavito and fireballer Bob Feller. Mike remembers applying for a batboy job with the Indians and boarding a train to Cleveland (our parents let us go!) with several of his friends while the Yankees were in town. “I remember we went to the hotel where the Yankees were staying,” Mike recalls. “We kept calling up to the rooms, trying to get ahold of Moose Skowron.”

Back at home, a towering local figure left a more indelible impression on Mike than any of the men in pinstripes. Merle “Coach” Hutson was the Driver’s Ed teacher and swimming coach at Crestline High School. The town dandy, Hudson attracted you with his soft panache and gentlemanly example: doting on his wife, speaking to everyone on the street, and attending church every Sunday.

“I wanted to be like him,” Mike says. “We revered him.”

In Hutson, Mike saw a target life, and made mental notes to that fact.

High school football in Ohio was a big deal, and for nearly a decade, the Harbaugh boys had dominated the quarterback spot at CHS. Brothers Jack and Jerry, and cousin Joe, were the quarterbacks in respective order, and it seemed a mere formality that Mike would follow suit. But his junior year, Mike got beat out for the position by a boy named Ray Pry, and the chain of family at the quarterback position was unhinged. Mike would eventually start and received his lone scholarship offer to Morehead State in Kentucky.

His freshman year at Morehead State, Mike guided the Eagles to a conference co-championship by throwing two touchdown passes in the final game against Eastern Kentucky. But it was a game in his senior year that he would never forget—and one that would put him in the record books.

Against Western Kentucky, Mike’s errant throws led to four interceptions in the first half. Each time, he came off the field to a colder sideline.

“Nobody would talk to me,” Mike said.

The team walked into the locker room down only 3-0, despite the mishaps. But the silence continued. “At halftime, nobody would come around me,” Mike laughs.

In the second half, Mike threw his fifth and sixth interceptions in short order. This time, as he came to the sideline, taking his helmet off, Coach Earl Bentley grabbed a fistful of shoulderpad.

“Coach, take me out,” Mike said somberly. “I don’t have it today.”

Bentley squinted his eyes at his deflated QB and quipped, “Mike, if we had anybody else, you’d been gone a long time ago!”

Mike went back into the game and promptly threw his seventh interception, setting an NCAA record for most interceptions in a game.

After graduation from Morehead State, Mike coached high school at Roseville High School and later St. Paul High School, accumulating a 50-19-1 record across five years. In 1975, he was hired as the associate head coach at the University of Cincinnati under Tony Mason. It was during this time that the “Big Red Machine” was blistering its way to a World Series championship with the likes of Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Johnny Bench, and Joe Morgan. While in Cincy, Gottfried met Rose and the two men hit it off immediately. Since then, the pair has maintained a forty-year friendship.

After a short stint at the University of Arizona, Mike got his first head coaching job at Murray State University in Kentucky. He spent three seasons with the Racers before taking the head coaching position at Cincinnati in 1981.

And on October 23, 1982, Gottfried saw God.

That day, the Cincinnati Bearcats were pitted against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Legion Field in Birmingham. Before the game, the team manager, affectionately known as “Speck,” alerted Gottfried in the bowels of Legion Field that “Bear Bryant is looking for you.” Dr. Smith, a mentor to Mike since his Morehead days, happened to be smoking a cigarette nearby when he heard this exchange. Looking up from a tug he jibed, “Time for you to go take your medicine.”

Although Mike’s Cincinnati squad lost that day, 21-3, Mike gained a fond memory: coaching against Bear Bryant in his last season at Alabama (Bryant would coach only five more games in his career).

So what was it like for a young coach to look across the field at immortality in the flesh?

“I was thinkin’, ‘I wonder what he’s thinkin!’” Mike says. “But no, Bear Bryant was great.”

Gottfried later coached at Kansas for three seasons (’83-’85) and the University of Pittsburgh for four seasons (’86-’89). And because most young people remember Mike Gottfried for his stint with ESPN as a broadcaster for college football games, many have forgotten how successful he was as a football coach. During his tenures at Kansas and Pitt, Mike defeated teams led by Barry Switzer, Lou Holtz, and Joe Paterno. Many of Mike’s assistants went on to have successful careers in their own right, including John Fox, Mike McCarthy, Ron Zook, Frank Beamer, John Harbaugh, Paul Hackett and Mike Solari. In addition, thirty-five of Mike’s former players moved on to the NFL, including Craig “Iron Head” Heyward. Gottfried also had the opportunity to work alongside several coaching greats, including John Calipari, who was an assistant coach at Kansas (’82-’85) and Pitt (’85-’88), and Larry Brown, who was the head coach at Kansas from 1983-88.

While at Kansas, Mike received an epiphany of sorts before the Oklahoma game in 1984. “I had a dream we were going to win the game,” he said. “I saw everything, how to do it.”

That week, Mike crossed Larry Brown in the hallway.

“What do you think?” Brown inquired.

“I think we are going to beat Oklahoma.”

Later in a staff meeting, Mike looked his coaches in the eye and said, “If you don’t believe we are going to win this game, you don’t need to be here.”

No one left, and Kansas won 28-11.

Although Mike’s Pitt teams stole victories in two of the most storied environments in all of college football (Notre Dame on October 11, 1986 in Notre Dame Stadium, and Penn State on November 12, 1988 in Happy Valley), perhaps his most memorable game was the 1989 edition of the artic-hearted “Backyard Brawl” versus West Virginia in Morgantown. Both teams were coming in undefeated, with Pitt ranked #10 in the country and WVU perched at #9. By halftime, Pitt was getting throttled and Gottfried was tasked with addressing his beleaguered team in the locker room.

“If they can score 100, they’ll score 100,” Gottfried suggested. “We need to relax. Loosen up.”

Quarterback Alex Van Pelt had been particularly anemic, throwing several first half interceptions. After another interception in the second half, Van Pelt came back over to the sideline, expecting ire from his head coach. But instead of chewing on his quarterback, Mike remembered a lesson he’d learned from a speaker named Tom Arington while at a conference in Cincinnati. “Some days you win, some days you learn,” Mike told Van Pelt.

Then an old memory came flooding back. “Alex, I want you to stay in,” Mike said to his morose quarterback, pulling him back. “Because back in 1965 I threw a record seven interceptions and I want you to break my record.”

“He looked at me like I had two heads!” Mike laughs, his voice rising to a Barry Gibb altitude.

Although WVU led 31-9 at the end of the third quarter, the levity seemed to steel Van Pelt, as the Panthers furiously charged back to earn a 31-31 tie on a last second, 42-yard field goal (worthy of a New York Times write up).

Concluding a 7-3-1 regular season campaign, the Panthers and Gottfried seemed poised to make a run at the Miamis and the Florida States of the world by 1990. But Gottfried had gotten into an imbroglio with the Pitt administration, and by the December 2 contest against Rutgers in Dublin, Ireland, it was clear that Gottfried would be ousted. “I challenged authority,” Mike says. “They wanted to raise the academic standards and the president got tired of me. I should have gotten fired.”

Gottfried was dismissed on Thursday, December 14 and was replaced by assistant Hackett, who would later become the head coach at USC. Now battling a new narrative that he didn’t cotton to academia, Mike found it difficult to get another coaching job, though Kentucky, LSU, South Carolina, UAB, and Louisville all flirted with the idea. The truth was that Mike wasn’t anti-academics; he simply didn’t want the standards to be so high that he would not be able to compete on the football field.

Mike prayed that God would give him the desires of his heart, and suggested that the desire of his heart was to remain a coach.

“Lord, open the door, or close it,” Mike prayed.

Little did he know that the Lord was doing a new thing.

Though Mike’s only experience in front of a TV was his regular appearance on The Mike Gottfried Show while at Pitt, ESPN needed a game analyst and soon came a-calling. Mike signed a five-game contract, but quietly planned to get back into coaching after the 1990 season. Because Mike’s new job with ESPN allowed him considerable flexibility, he chose to move his family to Mobile, AL.

In his first game, Mike, getting his bearings, had trouble navigating his earpiece when the producers instructed him on what to say. “After the first touchdown, the producer says in my earpiece, ‘Tell the country why that play worked.’ I said, ‘OK.’ He said: ‘You just said ‘OK’ to 6 million people. You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘All right,’” Gottfried once told The Cincinnati Enquirer.

After those initial gaffes, Mike settled down to become one of the best color commentators in the game. At the time, ESPN was competing with the big three—CBS, ABC, NBC—and was “known but wasn’t as respected” as Mike says. Over time, Mike noticed that ESPN was climbing the mountain to gain equal footing with the big boys. Mike Gottfried’s analysis was a large part of that success.

College football analyst Mike Gottfried

Mike says that calling the games and traveling from town to town was nice, but the camaraderie was the thing Mike liked best about broadcasting. Working with men like Mike Patrick, Sean McDonough, and Ron Franklin made sportscasting a fun affair. “It was not a job to me,” Mike says. “I loved the guys at ESPN.”

One story exemplifies the type brotherhood these men enjoyed. It was common knowledge inside ESPN circles that Mike enjoyed breakfasting on pancakes and a grilled cheese sandwich (on whole wheat bread) while on the road. During one particular road trip to Tallahassee, Florida for an ACC contest, Mike was awoken in his hotel room at 5:30 a.m. by room service.

Room service? Mike grumbled to himself. I didn’t order room service.

Nevertheless, Mike was happy to receive his pancakes and grilled cheese sandwich (on whole wheat bread).

Several minutes later, the doorbell rang again. “Sir, we have your order.”

Pancakes and grilled cheese sandwich.

Now wait.

Several minutes later, it happened again. By the third order, Mike had enough food for the entire staff. Later on, Mike discovered that the triumvirate of Mike Patrick, Mike Tirico, and Jerry Punch had pulled the clever prank.

But it wasn’t all fun for Mike Gottfried at ESPN. Starting in 2006, Mike discovered that he was having problems with his speech. “We were in Reno, Nevada, and I could not get the word out,” Mike remembers. “When I got back home, I said to my wife, ‘My speech—something’s wrong.”

Fans noticed it, too. Message boards were flooded with questions: Does Gottfried drink? Is something wrong with him? Does he have Parkinson’s?

So Mike called the family doctor and told him that he was concerned about his job. After a few tests, the doctor informed Mike that he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “I don’t have ALS,” Mike retorted. “Don’t say that.”

Mike soon went for second and third opinions. One doctor diagnosed Parkinson’s—yet another diagnosis with which Mike disagreed. “I told him, ‘I don’t have Parkinson’s,” Mike said, holding his hands out as steady as a bridge.

A third opinion suggested he’d had a mild stroke. But the verdict was clear: Mike’s time at ESPN was limited.

It was a slow ride into the sunset for Mike. The network eventually took him off of the Saturday game and repositioned him to ESPN2. In 2012, Mike retired from broadcasting, and was able to concentrate on his ministry full-time.

Mike and Mickey

In 2000, Mike’s wife Mickey suggested that they take some underprivileged boys out to eat. “No,” Mike said. “I want to spend time with my own children.”

But Mickey was unrelenting. Soon Mike realized that this could be the beginning of a ministry—something that could be truly extraordinary and have a lasting impact on young men in this coastal Alabama town. Besides, Mike needed something to reinvigorate his zest for life. He was getting restless. He admitted he felt “put out to pasture.”

Enter Team Focus.

Mike and Mickey eventually did pick up a few boys—sixty of them, to be exact—by inviting them to a camp called “Camp Focus” that was funded by proceeds from the GMAC Bowl. Campers were taught to say, “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am,” to balance a checkbook; they were taught how to tie a tie, eat at a nice restaurant, and ask a girl out on a date. Hooks were plunged into ponds and prayers were said over these young men—things that, Mike believes, fathers should be teaching their children.

Mike and Jajuan

As the program progressed, Mike and others surmised that it was possible, not to replace, but to “fill the gap” left by a father’s absence or indifference. Mike also hoped that manhood might grow out of this brokenness.

“True manhood is serving people, honoring people, and loving people,” Mike says. “Being a good Christian, following the Bible, and walking in the destiny that God gave you.”

God took Mike out of the coaching arena, molded and prepared him through broadcasting, and slowly unfurled His mysterious, divine plan for his life over a number of wilderness years. Then God affirmed Mike by giving him a much bigger arena, one whose rim does not encompass the mere length and breadth of a football field, but rather one that circumnavigates the country. Team Focus now serves over 1,000 at-risk youth from satellite offices in Austin, Mobile, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Lexington, South Florida, and Ohio.

P062107SC-0083.JPG

Mike and former First Lady Laura Bush observe a Team Focus activity

“Since 2000, Team Focus has served over 4,000 young men without father,” Mickey says. “They are at-risk because they do not have a father, but not ‘at-risk’ in every sense of the word. We accept young men without fathers and raise up leaders.”

Empathizing with these young men who have a hole the size of a father’s love in their heart, Mike literally pours his life into each one of their lives. He knows their names; they have his cell phone.

Through this ministry, God gave Mike the desires of his heart. It just took him a long time to understand what those desires were. Those thousand boys might not have a father, but Mike Gottfried is the next best thing.

There’s an old saying that goes, “It is doubtful whether God can use a man greatly, until first He wounds him deeply.”

Perhaps the answer to “Why Now?” is that Mike understands perfectly how an eleven-year-old feels without a father. Perhaps Mike knows best the patina of ache from a fatherless household.

“I still mourn for my father,” Mike says. “But I think I’ve healed.”

Through it all, Mike Gottfried has learned the biggest lesson about healing:

Love is the best remedy for wounds. B

 

 

Mike Gottfried has authored three books: Coach’s Challenge, Wisdom from Winners, and Friend of the Court. He also helped to found the GMAC Bowl. To support Mike and his ministry, please visit www.teamfocususa.org.

*Coach John Calipari hosts the Team Focus camps in Kentucky, while Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, and Mark Gottfried are yearly speakers.

Cover Photo by Al Blanton

All Team Focus photos courtesy of Team Focus

Mike and Tony with several of the boys from Team Focus

 

 

 

 

Finding Home: The Story of Jack Norris

By Al Blanton

“Don’t let anyone look down upon you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” 1 Timothy 4:12

It is morning still and the droves have yet to arrive at Bernard’s Store for Men. A half pot of coffee is snoring in the back as Jack Norris emerges. The music, which he no longer notices, plays weakly in the background.

Today, Jack is tieless, wearing an open-collar plaid button down and slacks. Not his usual couture. A beard, worn unswervingly throughout the winter, jackets his milky, angular face. His gait is a smooth saunter—like Andy Dufresne across the prison yard—and if it seems that Jack has something on his mind, that’s probably because he does.

Any Joe off the street might easily dismiss Jack upon initial meeting. Jack is quiet, young, and unassuming. He doesn’t call attention to himself or cause any kind of ruckus. He doesn’t proffer a big story. He’s not gregarious or super social—at least, in a business setting around folks over double his age. But anyone who takes the time to talk to this young man will soon discover that within Jack Norris is a profound depth of character, a selfless regard for his fellow man, and a deep, battle-tested faith that marches like armies through the years.

Born in Farmstead, Jack grew up in a Christian home where family and faith were important considerations. He lived with both parents, two brothers, and bedrock values. An added bonus was that Jack enjoyed the pleasantries of extended family, as his grandparents, remarkable influences on his growing up, lived next door. “There was a big emphasis on the Bible, religion, and Christianity,” Jack says. “It shaped who I was, and who I became.”

Starting in the eighth grade, Jack began giving sermons at church competitions held at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville. “One of my biggest fears was public speaking,” Jack says. “That was beat out of me at an early age.”

When Jack approached the podium for his first sermon, he was nervous as a cat. He trembled through the first few minutes, but then disaster struck. “I dropped my speech,” he says. “It was in the middle of the speech. I thought the world was coming to an end.”

But outside of a few podium blunders, Jack’s boyhood was idyllic. The middle child, Jack loved spending time outdoors and playing sports with his two brothers, Jake and Logan. “I started playing basketball at age four. I had a little tikes goal in the basement, and I was a baller,” Jack jokes.

Jack continued to play basketball throughout the tenth grade, when he decided to hang up his sneakers for a chance to go to work. Through the co-op program at Walker High School, Jack snagged a job at Bernard’s Store for Men, placing his loafer in the fresh footprint of his brother, Jake, who worked at the store before moving off to college.

But Jack didn’t come to Bernard’s because he loved clothes. He came because he needed the money. “I kept thinking I needed the gas money,” Jack relates. “I didn’t want to go out on dates and be broke.”

Thrust into the machinations of the men’s clothing industry, Jack was awkward, shy, and green. He wouldn’t have known a side vent from a center vent, had it hit him in the face. As a result, he puttered through sales. A shirt here, pair of slacks there. “I was new, and I hadn’t worked with the public before,” Jack says. “I didn’t really want to talk anyone.”

Luckily for Jack, he was learning under the Rock Star of the men’s clothing industry, Rusty Richardson. As Jack began to pick up on the business, he matured through Trial by Public, learning a terrific art form under Rusty’s tutelage: how to treat people.

“Rusty taught me that if someone walks in front door with pair of overalls, you treat them the same as the person who walks in in a three-piece suit,” Jack says.

Jack initially found gratification in these “little successes.” “Little successes are very important,” he says. “If you don’t appreciate them, you can get really depressed.”

Good thing, because it would be months before he bagged the elephant.

Jack Norris 2

In the men’s clothing business, the sale of a suit is the coup de grace of sales. It is often the most expensive item in the store, and the most coveted. Men are most particular about their suits, and Jack would have to fight several smaller bouts before stepping into that arena.

But eventually the day came, and Jack wrote up his first “big ticket” purchase. “Rusty gave me a pat on the back when I sold my first suit,” Jack says. “It is the pinnacle of business—I mean, a suit is a suit. It’s the Holy Grail of product. I felt ecstatic.”

Over time, Jack gained confidence in his abilities as Rusty brought him along like he would a young thoroughbred. Jack liked working at Bernard’s and enjoyed making friends with customers. He was getting it. But as high school graduation approached, Jack had to make a decision about his future. He could stay in Jasper, go to school at the local junior college and work for Rusty part-time, or he could take a scholarship offer from a school in Tennessee. Jack eventually chose the latter, and in the fall of 2012, Jack enrolled at Freed-Hardeman University, just outside of Jackson, Tennessee.

Jack assimilated quickly at the school, made friends, and even took part in a few hijinks at the dormitory. While on semester break, Jack came back home and worked at the store. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Spring Break. But over the course of a year, Jack began to grow weary of being away from home. Even with a scholarship, school debt was mounting, and Jack began to calculate the eventual balance for a four-year commitment—a numeral north of $75,000.

Jack wrestled with his decision to put Tennessee in his rearview or gut it out for three more years. During this time, he devoted great chunks of time to prayer.

In the summer of 2013, Jack came home. But Jack was not prepared for the trial that awaited him like a roaring lion.

Still tottering from his exodus from university life, Jack had reached a crossing. He was back at Bernard’s full-time but was listless and searching. An interior war raged. His thoughts rambled to the meaning of life and his purpose on this earth. He began to doubt everything he’d been taught, and set out on a spiritual quest that he hoped might liberate him from the bondage of religion and uncertainty.

Because of his Christian roots, Jack had always been intrigued with First Century history. During this time of searching, he began to dive deeper into this era, sponging up several secular, scholarly works that dismissed the authenticity of the Gospel, while conveniently ignoring those that pointed to its veracity. “I only looked at one side,” he says. “On my quest to become open-minded, I actually became closed-minded. I had completely thrown out anything that might come back to the Cross.”

The candle of Jack’s faith was reduced to a flicker. He was burned out, spent, and faith-weary. Moving dangerously close to agnosticism, Jack’s internal fury continued as he pondered the “big questions” of life: Is there such thing as truth? What do I believe about the universe? About God?

For the first time in his life, he was able to step out of the box of religion and think for himself. But there was a risk in all of this. If the Gospel were untrue, indeed he would be throwing away the very fabric of faith that had shaped him and made him the man he was for twenty-plus years.

As Jack continued on his journey to truth, something struck him. As he was studying the life of the disciples, Jack discovered that all or nearly all of Jesus’s disciples died a horrific death. Jack surmised that these men would not have gone to their death for something they had made up. They would not have been crucified for fiction. Indeed, they were so convinced of Jesus’s reality that they were willing to die to salvage his story.

“As for the disciples, we have every reason to believe they existed,” Jack says. “These men existed and they all died for their faith.”

Because of these men, because they were willing to die for the story, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been shared the world over. And somehow, through the cruel and beautiful corridors of time, across centuries and obstacles, that story miraculously reached Jack Norris, who was free to accept or reject the notion that Christ died for the sins of mankind, was resurrected, and now sits at the right hand of God the Father to judge the quick and the dead.

Our spiritual journeys sometimes go through the detours of doubt. But the true seekers, the true seekers find. For Jack Norris, his faith journey led him away from the Cross and then back again. Now his faith is stronger than ever.

“My faith not only defines me, it defines who I want to become,” Jack says. “I’m not there yet, but it’s a good goal. I’m in need of God’s grace every day. I think it’s a refining process. He helps me through life, to filter through the lies and arrive at truth. I’ve just got to keep trusting, studying, praying, and growing. God never fails me.”

Jack Norris 3

Rusty’s prized lieutenant has been at Bernard’s five years now, and it would be hard to imagine the store without Jack. Jack has become Rusty’s right-hand man, his vice-president, his sidekick. He keeps the machine running if Rusty and his wife Elizabeth want to slip off for a weekend in the Florida panhandle, or an afternoon at the lake, if the weather agrees. Jack believes that God has installed him in this position, and he’s glad he’s found his way home. “I believe God led me to Bernard’s to move out of boyhood into manhood,” Jack says. “I believe He brought me into the store to learn about life from an amazing, Godly man in Rusty, and to be encouraged by amazing co-workers. I also believe he led to Bernard’s to have a ‘safe haven’ growing up during high school and junior college. A safe haven to grow into a man, even during storms and trials of life.”

William Shakespeare once wrote, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win, by fearing to attempt.”

Faith is life’s great attempt at good. It is the belief that something good happened to us. It is the hope that something good will happen to us, that there is life beyond the dusty grave.

“The cornerstone of the Christian faith is the resurrection,” Jack says, “and I believe with all my heart that the tomb was empty.”

This brave young man, once a skeptic, looked doubt in the face and had the courage to face his deepest fear: that this life means nothing. He stood on the point and looked out to the endless rolling hills of doubt, where questions led to more questions but never to hope. He surmised that even then, it all came back to faith. Faith in something, or faith in nothing.

And at this crossroads, Jack chose to believe. B

 

Photos by Al Blanton.

Al Blanton is a biographer who focuses on profiles of inspirational men and women.

Hello world!

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start writing!

© 2020 Blanton . All rights reserved.

Theme by Anders Norén.