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Good Coach, Bad Dad: The Price of Success in Today’s NFL

I can’t write a column about the modern NFL without first pointing out that Roger Goodell is NOT the Antichrist … but if the NFL was the book of Revelation, he would be the Whore that rides the Beast! That being said …

As a Dallas Cowboys fan born and raised in Chicago, I never cared much about the career of Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, that is, until it came to an end. As a guest on ESPN Chicago radio, just days after his announced retirement, Urlacher was probed with the typical question that every retiring player is asked, “When are you going to get into coaching?” He answered immediately – “I’m not!”

Initially it took me by surprise but then as he explained why, it sparked an epiphany.

Urlacher went on to say that he may coach his son in the lower levels, but he would never coach in college because he doesn’t want to sit in living rooms schmoozing as a recruiter.

But his reason to forego coaching in the NFL is what truly floored me – “I won’t coach in the NFL! Coaches get there at six in the morning and don’t leave until midnight. I want a life. I want to see my family.”

Urlacher’s clarity underlined a truism that had been lurking at the back of my mind since the retirement of Miami Dolphin’s coach, Jimmy Johnson: NFL coaches are lousy husbands and worse fathers.

There, I said it. I said it and it hurts.

The NFL has been my passion since the third grade. Like every other kid, I looked up to the players but the coaches? They were like something from Mt. Olympus. Landry, Knox, Knoll, Shula, and my favorite coach of all, Vince Lombardi, these were my victorious generals. I collected their maxims, I read their books, and I followed their every word. I revered them like a geek does Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, only more! I love Lombardi most of all – more of a philosopher/priest then a mere X’s and O’s guy. Though, I remember a comment his son once made about how Vince rarely if ever played catch with him growing up and how his dad’s players were regarded more his children than were he and his sister.

Jimmy Johnson stood in front of his mother’s casket devastated. He turned around to see his two grown boys and he nearly fell to his knees. His oldest son confided that he hadn’t received a kiss from his father until that moment, at the age of 35. In his pursuit of excellence as a coach Jimmy Johnson had sacrificed his most meaningful relationships.

“He hadn’t been a good father or good son or good husband because he’d been too consumed with being a good coach,” writes Dan Le Batard. “Johnson had always prided himself on being a football-first mercenary who didn’t celebrate Christmas or birthdays, didn’t care to see his sons grow up and even waived his first wife. That kind of coldness made him a champion in football. It didn’t help him much at his mother’s funeral.”

After years of reflection, Johnson has said that his happiness out of football was due to the opportunity to reacquaint himself with his dad and his sons and to enjoy time with his longtime girlfriend whom he has since married.

And that’s just it – how can you have a relationship when your work consumes you for 18 hours a day! It doesn’t mean that you’re not a “loving father,” but it does mean that you’re a lousy father. Love that doesn’t find expression may as well be indifference. The convict isn’t present in the home either but he doesn’t have the choice. He may be a loving father as well, but he’s just not there. So why would a married man with children volunteer for a foreign legion? What loving husband and father would choose to be absent?

In July of this year, Golfer Hunter Mahan withdrew from the Canadian Open though he held a two-stroke lead before the third and final round, because his wife went into labor. He walked away from a probable victory and a million dollar payday to fly home to Dallas to be with his wife, Kandi, for the birth of their first child.

A few days later, retired NFL coach, Herm Edwards was interviewed on ESPN’s “Mike and Mike In the Morning.” When asked if he would miss the birth of his child for a game, he responded, “Oh, yeah; because I signed on for that. You have that conversation with your wife before all this stuff happens. I’m playing boys, I signed up to play I’m playing! I’m not missing no games, sorry! – Never missed football practice as a coach or a player.”

While I admire the coach’s “old-school” work ethic, I must say that I’m shocked that Herm didn’t realize the irony in his description of a great player: “One thing I always tell players, all players are coachable. They say, ‘Aw coach, I’m coachable.’ That’s not the problem, are you available? Availability is the key; can you continue to stay available? I never missed a practice!”

If “availability” is a key ingredient in the making of a great player, then is it not also a mainstay in the making of a great husband and father?

Social scientists have warned Americans for decades on the effect of fatherlessness on society: rising crime rates, sexual promiscuity, perversion, poverty, substance abuse and rising suicide rates are not the sole propriety of the lower class. Over and over, whether it is in the business world, the political realm or on the sideline, we see the children of those that are consumed with building their empires suffer through alienation, depression, drug addiction and for some, even suicide.

Now before you burn me in effigy along with Roger Goodell, ask yourself the following questions: Would I want my son to be away from his family 18 hours a day, seven days a week? Would I want my daughter to marry someone who was? Would I want my children to grow up only knowing their father through the sports pages? Would I want to sacrifice the most precious moments in time for a fleeting charge of personal accomplishment? What sacrifice is worth passing up my parents, neglecting my wife and never seeing my children grow up?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling for congress to interfere with labor laws, I’m simply pointing out something that may be worth learning from a retired Chicago linebacker. Something that Jimmy Johnson found out at the edge of a casket and that Hunter Mahan already knew at the edge of a hospital bed: that meaning in life is to be found in relationships! And that I never met a man, who, on his deathbed, regretted that he spent too much time with his loved ones.

By all accounts, Jimmy Johnson has a great relationship with his sons, now. But imagine for a moment just how special Zoe Olivia Mahan will feel when she finds out that her dad forewent a bit of fame and a chunk of fortune to be present at the birth of his “Million Dollar” baby?

*Zoe is the Greek word for “Life” and in Japanese means “uniquely different.”

Image: Former NFL coach Jimmy Johnson; source:; author: SRA Felicia Juenke; public domain

John Kirkwood

John Kirkwood is a son of Issachar. He is a Zionist, gun-toting, cigar-smoking, incandescent light bulb-using, 3.2 gallon flushing, fur-wearing, Chinese (MSG) eating, bow-hunting, SUV driving, unhyphenated American man who loves his wife, isn't ashamed of his country and does not apologize for his Christianity. He Pastors Grace Gospel Fellowship Bensenville, where "we the people" seek to honor "In God we Trust." He hosts the Christian wake up call IN THE ARENA every Sunday at noon on AM 1160 and he co-hosts UnCommon Sense, the Christian Worldview with a double shot of espresso on He is the proud homeschooling dad of Konnor, Karter and Payton and the "blessed from heaven above" husband of the Righteous and Rowdy Wendymae.