Godly gridiron giants

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans

It's Super Bowl Sunday, which means today is a super day to discuss coverage of faithful football coaches. Although, in this case it's two former Super Bowl winning coaches. One, Tony Dungy, is taken on a new role of mentor to troubled players. The other, Mike Holmgren, is the new czar of the Browns and the second biggest macher in Cleveland, right after King James. Both Dungy and Holmgren recently received major profiles on ESPN.com and in the Plain-Dealer, respectively. What was wonderful about both these reports was the degree of attention they directed at the Godly motivations for both these men. Let's start with the Dungy piece, where the Godtalk was teased in the "Higher Calling" feature head:

Dungy, whom close friends have called a messenger of God, cuts a different figure from many of his peers, one born of faith, the loss of a child and commitment. He believes deeply in his powers to reach and rehabilitate by listening, by extending to others in ways that seem to expand his borders beyond the self while also feeding it. It seems as though his reclamation projects are not the only people Dungy is attempting to make whole again. ...

He cannot, of course, provide redemption. Messengers do not have that power. Although it is a role he says he has never actively sought, it is also one Dungy does not discourage. He has accepted the mission, and the rare and subtle combination of nationwide respect and moral authority have transformed Dungy into one of sport's most powerful figures, and he is at once aware that he must gauge whether those seeking his help are only using him to launder their soiled images or truly desire redemption.

"The people I've tried to invest in, whether they are famous or unknown, it has always been with people who are going to try to do the right thing," Dungy said. "There may be some people I chose not to work with and they may have been willing to do the kind of work I didn't think they were capable of, and thus I was wrong about them. But there hasn't been that person yet who fooled me, who I was willing to put my time into and then found out they weren't willing to make any effort."

At the top of that list is Michael Vick. This past fall there was also Oregon's star running back LeGarrette Blount. Reporter Howard Bryant asked Dungy whether he talked about Christianity with his mentees. He did, but said that wasn't a requisite to his counseling.

The article, which builds up the theme that Dungy is the sporting world's moral messiah, ends with a section referring to him as the very noble successor to Arthur Ashe. It's a reference lost on me, but, as a fellow Bruin, I have the utmost respect for the late great Ashe.

This closing section makes some passes at the manifestations of Dungy's faith, which I had been waiting for, and takes a swipe at his conservative politics. But it doesn't really answer the religious background questions in the way I would have expected a profile of this depth -- especially one that is so keyed into the religious import of Dungy's life and work. This seems to be a recurring problem in stories about Dungy's faith.

In fact, this is a general problem sportswriters have. Even when we're talking about Kurt Warner.

That's what made the Plain-Dealer's profile of Holmgren so remarkable. First, if you had forgotten that Cleveland was a football town and that the Browns were once football royalty -- under Otto Graham they made 11 straight championship games, winning eight -- just read the 2,000 article welcoming Holmgren to town:

For the 6-5 hulk of a man with a gentle, embracing glow about him, it's family and faith, friends and then football, in that order.

Technically, I think that is slightly out of order, and not because football should be first. But Bill Lubinger goes on to give us a decent window into the religious underpinnings of a football giant:

"These are very grounded people," said family friend Sue Gost, director of events at North Park University, a Christian liberal arts college on Chicago's northwest side.

Owned by the Evangelical Covenant Church, in which generations of the Swedish-bred Holmgrens have been devout members, North Park is where Kathy Holmgren, Mike's wife of 38 years, their four grown daughters and two sons-in-law graduated. It's also where the five-sport, $4 million Holmgren Athletic Complex stands as a tangible sign of their significant financial contributions.

The Holmgrens, who have six grandchildren, met at 13 while on their families' annual church summer camp vacations in the Santa Cruz mountains. They professed their mutual interest by writing their names on a water tower.

He jokes that zeroing in on his life's partner so young proves his eye for talent. Their union in 1971 also cemented their faith in the Covenant Church, which not only guides the Holmgren family spiritually but their involvement in international missionary work. They recently attended a service at Bethany Covenant Church in Lyndhurst, where the pastor is a North Park graduate and family acquaintance.

"In life it can get to be too hard sometimes and I don't know if you don't foundationally have something to hold on to other than just being, I don't know how people do it," he said. "I guess I don't wear it on my sleeve. I'm not out there banging the pulpit all the time, but it is who I am."

The more I read this story, the more I liked it. That may be because it was structured how I imagine I would have structured it. The writing is good and though some questions go unanswered, and you long for a little more depth, Lubinger gives about as much detail about Holmgren's religious life as one could hope for in a story of this nature.

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