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February 26, 2000
Column #965

TOM LANDRY: A MAN OF GOD AND FOOTBALL

     When I read of the death of Tom Landry, 75, who led the Dallas Cowboys to 20 straight winning seasons, 13 division titles, five Super Bowl appearances and two championships - my mind went back to 1983 when I had the privilege to interview him just before one NFL championship game.

     To the millions of Americans who watched him on TV, Landry always seemed in control of the situation. Dressed impeccably in a tie and fedora hat, he was always extraordinarily calm, whose face seemed absolutely emotionless. Why? ''My players had to believe I was in control,'' Landry once told the AP. ''It would hurt them to see me losing it.''

     But often he was not invincible. For the three years before my interview, the Cowboys lost the championship game needed to get into the Super Bowl. For these reasons, his attitudes on winning and losing were particularly interesting.

     He gave God credit for victories, but never gave Him credit for losses!

     ''I believe that my talent comes from the Lord, and whatever success I've had is because of my belief in God,'' he told me. ''I believe He has a plan for my life, and uses my influence to further His kingdom. But God doesn't take sides on football games.''

     How then, does God work?

     ''I rely on Him to give me concentration and to be prepared to do as well as I can.'' For example, in the middle of a game, ''something will come to mind and I'll make a decision to call a play. I don't know where the idea comes from - whether God placed it in my mind or not. But I know He prepares us to meet the trials of life.''

     According to Rev. Leighton Farrell, his pastor at the time, when people asked Coach Landry if he prayed for victory, he replied, ''My prayer is not to win, but that every person might play to the best of his ability, and that there be no major injuries.''

     The day before I saw Landry in Dallas, Philadelphia's head coach, Dick Vermeil, who led the Eagles from mediocrity to the Super Bowl, resigned though he had years left on his contract. ''I am emotionally burned out,'' he said after a losing season. Asked about that, Landry said, ''If you put your whole priority on winning football games, you can be burned out when you lose.''

     Before he committed his life to Christ in 1958, winning football games WAS Landry's highest priority. During a Bible study in the off-season, at his home, he decided to transform his nominal church-going Christianity ''where God got lost in the shuffle,'' to a point where Christ would be the No. 1 priority in his life.

     He said, ''I did not have a flash on the road to Damascus'' (a dramatic conversion, like St. Paul). And the impact was gradual. But in reading the Bible daily for 15-20 minutes, he developed a new way of looking at people, his family and at winning and losing. He was no longer as excited by either victory or defeat, and began exuding a calm confidence that inspired others.

     And he created an atmosphere in which players could grow spiritually as well as physically. First, he invited players and their wives to join a tea Bible study. And a chapel service was organized before every game.

     The approach worked. Former star quarterback Roger Staubach testified at his funeral, ''He was our rock, our hope, our inspiration. He was our coach. Probably there were some players that didn't love him, but all respected him. He was committed to us and you don't find that type of commitment in life very often.''

     His son, Tom Landry, Jr., told the congregation filled with Pro Football Hall of Famers and Super Bowl champions, ''Tom Landry was everything the world believed him to be. He was a man of virtue, of high moral character, a man whose talents and hard work propelled him to the top of his profession. Tom Landry never strayed from his ideals. He remains a consistent shining example to all of us.''

     Shortly after I interviewed Coach Landry, the team lost the championship to the Washington Redskins, led at the time by Coach Joe Gibbs, another committed Christian. After the victory, every Redskin fell on his knees on national TV and recited the Lord's Prayer, led by Gibbs.

     A day later, I called Landry and asked him if he had prayed for victory. He laughed and replied, ''There's nothing wrong with praying for victory, but God might get divided if there are Christians on both sides!''

Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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