Lord, help us to grow in your ways, to be upright and faithful in following your paths so that we will reach eternal happiness with you. Amen.
You may have heard the expressions “winning is everything” or “nice guys finish last,” but, for several reasons, this year’s Super Bowl seemed to turn that attitude upside down.
This year, the NFC-champion Chicago Bears, coached by Lovie Smith, faced off against the AFC’s best, the Indianapolis Colts, coached by Tony Dungy. The Colts ultimately walked away with the glory, with 29 points to the Bears’ 17.
Many journalists commented on the fact that the two coaches in the game were African-Americans — a first in the history of the Super Bowl. And their personal friendship —which long preceded this year’s Super Bowl — is also unusual in the highly competitive atmosphere of the NFL.
But for many viewers, the most noteworthy dimension of this year’s game was the way it showcased the personal character of two men whose lives, on and off the field, are shaped by their Christian faith.
Smith and Dungy have also inspired us through their perseverance in refusing to let the obstacles in their lives deter them from achieving success.
But how did the two coaches react to their place in history? Perhaps more importantly, how did they get there?
Dungy: A Man of Faith and Determination
Tony Dungy, a former professional football player who hails from Michigan, expressed his pride at representing African-American coaches, but immediately after his victory, he stressed even greater pride in his religious faith.
“I’m proud to be the first African-American coach to win this,” Dungy said to the media during the presentation of the Vince Lombardi Trophy ceremony. “But again, more than anything, Lovie Smith and I are not only African-American but also Christian coaches, showing you can do it the Lord’s way. We’re more proud of that.”
Dungy and Smith are both Protestant. Protestants and Catholics are Christians. Protestants and Catholics agree on many basic points of doctrine, but disagree on others. For example, both Protestants and Catholics agree that Jesus Christ is truly God and that the Bible is the inspired word of God, but Protestants do not agree with Catholics on the authority of the Pope and on other matters. The Catholic Church has great esteem for Protestants and hopes that one day through respectful dialogue we can form one Church.
Dungy, since his days as an NFL player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, has always held fast to his faith by placing his trust in God. “Dungy, a devout Christian, believes no matter what happens that all things work together for good for those who love the Lord,” wrote ESPN’s Michael Smith in an article: “Tony Dungy: Amazing Grace.”
“We’re talking about a man who views it as a blessing that Pittsburgh moved him from quarterback to defensive back in the mid-1970s, because it was only then that he got to room with Donnie Shell, with whom Dungy would study the Bible as much as they did the Steelers’ playbook.”
Dungy applied that same faith when he was cut by the New York Giants during training camp in 1980 and decided to go into coaching. He also relied on it when he went from the career high of being the youngest assistant coach, at 25, of the Steelers, to the subsequent low in 2001 of being fired as head coach from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after four trips to the playoffs in six years.
Still, Dungy maintained his grace.
The next year, he moved on to the Indianapolis Colts, where he made a name for himself as a kind, compassionate coach who was more a father than a hard-driving boss. Coaches need to be leaders in inspiring players to perform their best both individually and as a team. Many coaches do this through threats and intimidation. Dungy, driven by his religious beliefs, has chosen a different model of leadership, refusing to curse or raise his voice to his players. This approach to leadership is based on a strong sense of respect for others, acknowledging that every person has value and dignity. A true Christian treats each person as if he or she were another Christ. Another unique aspect of Dungy’s leadership is his humility in understating his own achievements while focusing on the accomplishments of his team.
Though his professional success with the Colts continues to this day, and is now enhanced by a historic Super Bowl triumph, Dungy is not immune to loss.
Less than two years ago, Dungy’s oldest son, James, an 18-year-old college student, hanged himself in his own apartment. Though Dungy was, and is, deeply troubled by the loss of his child, he persevered and returned to coaching the Colts after one week. He led his family in accepting James’ death, donating his son’s organs so that others might live, and speaking to groups to help keep a tragedy like this from striking other families.
When asked how he could maintain clarity and calm during this troubling time, Dungy’s reply to ESPN’s Smith shows us the essence of religious faith in placing our trust in God: “I’ve said all along that God is in control. I have to believe that he’s in control here, too.”
Lovie Smith: Family Support, Hard Work and Faith
Bears fans have long since fallen in love with Lovie Smith, a gentle, soft-spoken coach who is now mentioned in the same breath as the legendary, but fire-breathing, coach Mike Ditka of the 1985 Super Bowl-winning season. But Smith, born in the small, impoverished area of Big Sandy, Texas, came a long way in order to become a successful, Super Bowl-bound coach. He was born to a hardworking mother and alcoholic father, who, though he loved his son, was unable to contribute to the family’s meager income.
Though his father later stopped drinking, alcohol took a toll on his health. It was Lovie who had to step up and be the man of the house, while his mother — a longtime diabetic — worked as a hospital cook and in a furniture shop to support his four other siblings. Though his mother, Mae, could not provide her son with fancy clothes or schooling, she instilled in him and his four other siblings a sense that he could do and be anything he wanted.
Mae and her husband, Thurman, placed importance on religion and education, telling the whole family they could achieve anything they wanted through hard work and “by treating people the right way, regardless of skin color — not always an easy thing in East Texas in the ’50s and ’60s,” Forth Worth Star-Telegram journalist Rick Herrin wrote of Smith’s upbringing.
“I told him he was going to be a coach some day,” Mae Smith told Herrin. “I kept telling him it was my dream for him to be the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.”
In an interview with Yahoo! News, Smith reflected on the influence of his mother on his life. “Like all sons, I loved my mother dearly. At a young age, she let me know that I could do whatever I wanted to do, not to use being poor or where I came from as an excuse for what happens to me in life. She taught me to not feel sorry for myself and she preached to me about hard work. She told me to not set my dreams too low, but shoot for the sky, and I’ve had a chance to see her persevere. I’ve had a chance to see her fight diabetes that has taken her sight, but she doesn’t complain. Every day, her glass is half full.”
Smith took his mother’s words to heart and began his career as a coach of high school teams after his own playing days ended at the University of Tulsa. In the mid-’80s, he broke into the NFL with an assistant coaching job offered to him, ironically enough, by Tony Dungy, who then headed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The men shared a similar religious faith and philosophy about treating players with respect.
Like Dungy, Smith is known for never cursing at his players.
“I had my philosophy on life and football before I met Tony, but it was good to see someone like him have a similar philosophy on life and football,” Smith told CBS News about his time with Dungy. Discussing his religious faith with Jon Robinson of IGN.com, Smith commented: “My relationship, first, is with Jesus Christ, and he is the center of my life. I try to live a Christian life. I would like for guys to know my faith based on what they see on a day-to-day basis. I had a chance to see that on a daily basis with Tony Dungy. I had a chance to see Tony through a lot of storms, and he has been the same guy all the way.”
As the media focused on their sports success, both men have shown courage in pointing to the deepest value in their lives: their relationship with Jesus Christ. They appeared in an ad together talking about their faith and, as we have seen, have also spoken about it in many interviews. They know that their short time in the spotlight can be an opportunity to sow seeds of faith in the lives of others. Helping to spread the Good News about Jesus Christ is called evangelizing. We Catholics are also called to evangelize.
But both coaches also realize that their example is what ultimately convinces others. Here’s how Lovie Smith describes his witness: “God is the center of my life. He controls all that I do. I hope I don’t have to spend my time telling my players I’m a Christian. I hope they see it in my everyday life.”
Coaches Dungy and Smith have faced significant setbacks and adversity throughout their lives, including poverty, professional failures and, within their families, suicide and alcoholism. All of us have faced, and will continue to face, obstacles and challenges. Dungy and Smith show us how, through determination, hard work, perseverance, respect for others and religious faith, we can overcome the challenges of life and succeed in achieving our goals.
Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.
1 Corinthians 9:25
But as for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who, when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance.
So whatever you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31
“Sports is a discipline that, when practiced with respect for the rules, can become an educational instrument and a means of transmitting important human and spiritual values.”
(Pope Benedict XVI, Sept. 21, 2005)
“Sport, properly directed, develops character, makes a person courageous, a generous loser, and a gracious victor; it refines the senses, gives intellectual penetration, and steels the will to endurance. … Sport is an occupation of the whole person and, while perfecting the body as an instrument of the mind, it also makes the mind itself a more refined instrument for the search and communication of truth.”
(Pope Pius XII, July 29, 1945)
898 By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. … It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be effected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.
905 Lay people also fulfill their prophetic mission by evangelization, that is, the proclamation of Christ by word and the testimony of life. For lay people, this evangelization … acquires a specific property and peculiar efficacy because it is accomplished in the ordinary circumstances of the world.
1808 Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good.
Saints and heroEs
A Teacher Who Led by Example
Blessed Maria Romero Meneses (1902-1977)
Born in Nicaragua, Maria Romero Meneses had an upper-class education as a child, but she soon developed a heart for the poor in society. She joined the Daughters of Mary as a young woman and went to teach in Costa Rica at an upper-class girls’ school. By her example, she inspired her students to help her in serving the poor. She not only founded schools, food pantries and recreation centers, she organized whole new villages with homes for the homeless poor. Her example led many others with fortunate backgrounds to serve others.
Leadership through charity
Blessed Alberto Marvelli (1918-1946)
Alberto Marvelli grew up in Rimini, Italy. A boy of great energy and determination, Alberto excelled at sports, especially cycling. After serving in the army, Alberto became an engineer and worked for Fiat, a famous car manufacturer. When the German army destroyed his hometown, he returned to help the people left injured, homeless and hungry. He traveled all over by bicycle delivering food, clothing and medicine. His tireless works of charity earned him such a reputation that local authorities asked him to lead the committee for rebuilding the area. He oversaw building projects and managed large sums of money for those in need. He made the most of his responsibilities by founding a university, soup kitchens and an association for construction workers. Alberto enjoyed serving people through political action. He became a candidate for political office in the new government. Unfortunately, Alberto was struck by a military truck and killed on Election Day while riding his bicycle to the polling station. Even his political enemies mourned the loss of this sincere, courageous young man. n
Adversity — condition marked by misfortune, calamity or distress
Character — moral strength; self-discipline, fortitude, etc.
Devout — sincere; heartfelt; very religious
Doctrine — something taught as the principles or creed of a religion
Evangelization — sharing and preaching the Good News about Jesus Christ; preaching or sharing the Christian faith
Faith — confidence or trust in a person, thing or God.
Humility — modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank, etc.
Immune — exempt or protected
Leadership — to influence or inspire others toward an action or belief
Perseverance — Trying hard and continuously in spite of obstacles and difficulties
Respect for others — showing full appreciation of the worth and dignity of others; living by the golden rule: Do unto others as you would want done unto you.
Subsequent — occurring or coming later or after
- For each coach, list the virtues they, and members of their families, have lived out in their lives.
- Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy have had to overcome difficulties and setbacks in their lives. List some of these difficulties.
- How do you think their Christian faith helped them to deal with these difficulties? What other human and Christian virtues are necessary for overcoming obstacles?
- Do you know of anyone personally or in public life who has had to overcome great challenges in life? How did they do it? What virtues did they tap into in order to succeed?
- What is unique about Dungy and Smith’s method of leading their respective teams? Does this stand out to you? Why or why not?
- Smith and Dungy are not ashamed to be known as Christians. They not only mention their faith in public at times, but they also make sure their actions match their beliefs. Is it easy to be a witness to your faith in this way? What are some times when it’s easier NOT to show your faith? How can you make a good decision at those times?
- Extra credit could be offered to students who research and report to the class on any of the several organizations of Christian athletes. For example, Catholic Athletes for Christ (see CatholicathletesforChrist.com) has an article on Father Nick Marro (chaplain for the Chicago Bears) and Father Peter Gallagher (chaplain for the Indianapolis Colts).
- The Catholic Exchange Web portal is currently producing a new series of videos called Champions of Faith (championsoffaith.com). The first edition is about Catholic professional baseball players and coaches, including many well-known stars. Do a report on this video project and its goals.
- Not everyone has athletic ability, but everyone has times when they are required to exercise self-discipline in order to accomplish something. Describe such a time in your life. What gave you the inner strength to accomplish the goal?
- Do you feel you have identified a particular gift or talent that God has given you? Have you thought about how you might offer it in the service of your faith? Write about what it might lead you to do in future years.
- Thomas O’Toole, Champions of Faith: Catholic Sports Heroes Tell Their Stories (Sheed & Ward, 2001, 230 pages).
- Rudy (1993 film starring Sean Astin; true story of how an undersized player’s sheer desire and strength of character led to a spot on the University of Notre Dame football team).