Twenty years after he became Baylor’s only player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the famed linebacker reflects on how setbacks, faith and forgiveness lifted him.
Born in 1958, Mike Singletary was the youngest of 10 children growing up in Houston. If not for an unhappy childhood, including watching his father leave his mother, Singletary might have never found a path toward success.
My father was a Pentecostal pastor. We had a lot of restrictions as to what we could and could not do, and football was one of them that we couldn’t do. We were sort of living by the law, rather than grace. And my mom and dad really just kind of struggled throughout their marriage. There were certainly some good times; but very, very small amounts of good times.
When I was 12, that’s when they divorced. My dad left my mom at that time and decided he wanted to marry somebody else. It was tough for my mom and it was tough for me, even though I was not a fan of my father. It was still something that I hated to see happen, because I know my mom loved my dad. I decided life is not fair, life is really hard, and I made a decision to basically just kind of be mediocre. I wasn’t going to put a lot of effort into anything, just move right along.
But his mother could see what was happening.
My mother sat me down and just began to talk to me and have me understand how difficult life can be — but life can be great; it depends on the choices that we make. And she asked me to be the man of the house. It was a challenge that I didn’t expect. But I thought if she believed I could do it, then I’m going to try.
I really don’t know what I was thinking, I don’t know why did it. But I walked in my room and for the first time all of the things that were in my heart, all the things that they were in my mind, I decided that I’m going to write these things down. I wrote out my vision statement. It was to find a way to get a scholarship to go to college. Get my degree. Become an All-American. Get drafted and go to the NFL. Buy my a mom a house and take care of her the rest of my life. Become an All-Pro and go to the Super Bowl and own my own business. So, I began to live my life according to those rules, to those standards.
His mother gave him permission to play football. Faith would play an important role.
I always believed that, and my mom told me at a very young age, I could do all things through Christ. And I took that to heart, the first scripture I learned.
There were times that I’d get up at night and go outside. We didn’t have air conditioning and in Houston it’d be really hot; and you lie there and fight the mosquitoes. And sometimes I would just get up and go outside, maybe 12, 1 o’clock in the morning. And I’d just start running up and down the road. There was a burning desire to be great, to get a scholarship, all those things that were on my wall. There was no, it’s not going to happen, what if it doesn’t happen.
There were times after I’d run, I’d go over there on the side of my house and I’d look up toward the sky and I’d say, Lord, I know you’re up there. All I’m asking you is to just give me the strength to run this race, give me the strength to finish. I want to do all those things and if you would just bless me, if you would just stay with me, I will promise to give you everything I have. And I believed that if I gave that to Him, that he would fulfill what was on that wall. So, I couldn’t cheat — I couldn’t cheat in practice, I couldn’t cheat in the game, I couldn’t cheat in life.
Then in high school, Singletary confronted skeptics.
I remember the line coach, when he saw me for the first time, he said, “Are you a Singletary?” And I said, “Yes, sir, I am.” And he said, “Well, all you guys, all you Singletarys, are big; I don’t know what happened to you. But all your brothers are big and all they did was get in trouble. I got my eyes on you.”
And the linebacker coach said, “Son, I don’t know if you can play linebacker, you’re a little small. You might want to think about playing safety or corner or something like that.” And I said, “Well, sir, all I know is I’m a linebacker and I know that I can play that if you give me a chance; just let me do it.” Thankfully, I just worked harder, I just made it work.
Singletary excelled enough to win a scholarship to Baylor, where he played from 1977 to 1980. His head-first tackling style broke 16 of his helmets. He set a team record with 232 tackles as a sophomore. He made All-America as a junior and senior and won the Davey O’Brien Award as the top player in the Southwest Conference both years. But it wasn’t as though he was welcomed on the football field as some sort of hero by head coach Grant Teaff or the late Corky Nelson, the linebacker coach and defensive coordinator.
I will never be able to explain how thankful I am to have a father figure like Coach Teaff as my head coach. At the same time, I will never have the words to explain how Corky Nelson taught me everything I know about linebacking. But he was a guy I could not stand. Every day, the man cursed at me, kicked at me, spat at me. I just thought, what did I do to deserve this guy?
But one day, I realized he was just trying to make me better. I called him after probably 10, 12, 13 years just to say thank you. I said, “Coach, I apologize, I am so sorry; I didn’t understand.” I said, “Why couldn’t you do something to show me that you cared anything about me?” And he said, “Mike, I just didn’t know how. I didn’t know how to be your coach and how to have a relationship with you at the same time; you were very difficult to deal with.”
Corky and I were very much like my father and I. We began to develop a relationship and I began to really appreciate him for who he was. And had it not been for him, I don’t know if I’d ever done anything significant in the NFL, or college.
In 1981, Singletary was drafted by the Chicago Bears of the National Football League; he played all of his 12 seasons there. He missed playing in just two games. He was selected to play in a Bears-record 10 Pro Bowls and was All-Pro eight times. He led the 1985 Bears to a win in Super Bowl XX. And yet he recalls that time as the lowest in his life.
I had done all those things, but yet I was very unhappy. And so I thought, What the heck is this, God, if I’m doing all this and I’m not happy, what’s the problem? At that time the Lord showed me that I needed to forgive my father. I began to understand that forgiveness is never for the other person, it’s for you. But I did not want to forgive my dad. I despise my dad; I didn’t want to have anything do with him.
One day, I just picked up the phone and called him. I hadn’t talked to him in a long time. It didn’t start well. I told him, “Dad, I want you to know I thought about it and I just want you to know that forgive you, I made up my mind to forgive you.” And he said, “Forgive me for what? Son, I put a roof over your head, I put food in your stomach, I put clothes on your back. What else is there?” And for the next hour and a half, we yelled and screamed and cried everything else and when I hung up the phone, something was different.
Not long after that, I flew to Houston from Chicago to sit down with him and began to work through all of the pain and the hate and the hurt. Over the next couple of years, we became very close. I began to understand that my dad could not give me what he didn’t have. He just didn’t have the tools. And I began to understand in life that, as a parent, if you don’t give your kids the love and understanding and grace, and if they can’t see Christ in you, then they’re going to stumble.
One of the last times I saw my dad, my dad was laying down and he wasn’t feeling very well; he had Parkinson’s. I said, Dad, I know you’re not feeling very well, but I want you to do something for me. I want you to bless me; I want you to give me the blessing. And my dad sat up on the side of the bed and I knelt down on my knee. And he put his hand on my head. And he began to pray for me. And he blessed me with the prayer of Abraham. That was a wonderful, wonderful day.
So many people live life without ever really giving thought to what’s in them; and you’re trying to get somewhere, but you don’t know that there’s an anchor tied to all the junk that’s in your life. And many times, we’re trying to move in this boat and not realizing that all we’re going to do is move around in circles because we’re tied to all the junk. But when I forgave my dad, I was released to begin to really live life at a whole new level.
In 2002, Singletary began coaching in the NFL as linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens. In 2008, he was named interim head coach, and then head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, before being fired after the 2010 season. He then served for three years as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Vikings. Then there was a break from football. In the fall of 2018, Singletary will coach his first season as head coach at Trinity Christian Academy, a high school in Addison, Texas, near Dallas. And he’s taking on a second job as head coach of the Memphis franchise in the Alliance of American Football, a professional league that’s scheduled to start play in 2019. Even after all the coaching he did in the NFL, only now does Singletary truly feel prepared for coaching.
I believe that now I’m at that point to where I’m ready to begin to be everything that God has called me to as a coach. He didn’t call me to just be a coach; he called me to change lives, he called me to change the game, and really to represent him as a coach.
So, I’ve had to do the work. There’s a lot to learn in coaching and so I’ve had to go travel around the country and talk to coaches I respected most and get that information. It’s been tough, but the price is worth it because I don’t need anybody to tell me that I’m going to be a great coach. I know that I’ve done the work. And I am going to be what God has called me to be as a coach.
Tom Kertscher is a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. His reporting on Steven Avery was featured in Making a Murderer. He’s the author of sports books on Brett Favre and Al McGuire. Follow him at TomKertscher.com and on Twitter: @KertscherNews and @KertscherSports.
1958: Born Oct. 9 in Houston, the youngest of 10 children. During his childhood, his preacher father left the family (and preaching) for another woman, and two of his brothers died in accidents.
1977-1980: Played football at Baylor. His head-first tackling style broke 16 of his helmets. Established team record with 232 tackles as a sophomore. All-America as a junior and senior. Won the Davey O’Brien Award as the top player in the Southwest Conference as a junior and senior.
1981: Drafted by the Chicago Bears of the National Football League and played all of his 12 seasons there. Missed playing in just two games. Selected to play in a Bears-record 10 Pro Bowls and was All-Pro eight times. Named NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1985 and 1988. Led the 1985 Bears to a win in Super Bowl XX.
1991: Inducted into the Baylor Hall of Fame.
1992: Played his final season in the NFL.
1995: Inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
1998: Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, becoming the first and only Baylor alumnus enshrined there.
2003: Began NFL coaching career as linebackers coach with the Baltimore Ravens.
2006: Won the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award, which recognizes former student-athletes who completed successful collegiate careers in various sports 25 years ago and went on to excel in their chosen professions.
2008: Named interim head coach, and then head coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Fired after the 2010 season.
2011: Hired as an assistant coach for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, where he served through the 2013 season.
2018: Hired as head football coach at Trinity Christian Academy, a high school in Addison, Texas, near Dallas. The announcement was made March 28. On May 10, it was announced he had been hired as head coach of the Memphis franchise in the Alliance of American Football, a professional league that’s scheduled to start in 2019.
MORE SINGLETARY SIDEBAR
Book: Singletary on Singletary, with Jerry Jenkins
Book: Calling the Shots: Mike Singletary, with Armen Keteyian
Book: Mike Singletary One-on-One with Jay Carty
Book: Daddy’s Home at Last: What It Takes for Dads to Put Families First with Russ Pate
Video: Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement speech
Video: A tribute on YouTube that has more than 140,000 views
Video: Speaking at the dedication of the statue for Baylor football coach Grant Teaff
Video: “Winning the Super Bowl led to my lowest point”
Article: “Samurai — Complex Man, Simple Goal: To Be The Best. Ever,” Chicago Tribune
Article: Mike Singletary: “’Christ Means Everything,’” 700 Club
Article: “Baylor Football Legend: Mike Singletary,” BaylorBears.com