Colts coach Frank Reich's journey from preaching to coaching | Free Press from USA

Colts coach Frank Reich’s journey from preaching to coaching

Colts coach Frank Reich's journey from preaching to coaching

ZIONSVILLE, Ind. — Frank Reich is seated on the church’s stage, thumbing through his Bible, a microphone running to the earpiece in his left ear.

The Bible is worn, the pages a little rough, the brown leather binding loose enough that he can fold it over on itself when he finds the passage he wants.

Reich has been speaking for 45 minutes about his journey from NFL player to seminary president, from pastor to coach, from Super Bowl disappointment in Buffalo to elation in Philadelphia, from an assistant who wondered if he’d ever get his shot to head coach of the Indianapolis Colts.

But Reich is shifting gears now, from the public to the deeply personal, to the self-doubt left over from a decision he made more than a decade ago.

The emotion causes his voice to crack.

“For someone who has made this a priority, a huge struggle for me — I’m probably still not completely over it — is the feeling that I failed God, that somehow I didn’t have what it took to go into full-time ministry,” Reich says. “That I took the wrong turn.”

On this Sunday, Reich leads different flock

Reich pulled himself out of bed at 5:30 a.m. on a cold, rainy April Sunday morning for this, a church volunteer reveals, to get to Eagle Church in Zionsville hours before taking the stage.

Eric Simpson, Eagle Church’s lead pastor, is a Colts chaplain, but the Indianapolis head coach did not have to show up for Simpson’s 8 a.m. meeting or offer a word of encouragement to each group of volunteers arriving early to make sure the service runs smoothly. A lot of guest speakers would have simply arrived in time for the service.

Reich wanted to reach as many members of Simpson’s church as possible.

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He has spent nearly half of his life making guest appearances like this one. These kinds of speaking engagements were the spark that led to vocational ministry.

Reich was raised Catholic. Brought up in church, taught the key pillars of Christianity, but in his words, he didn’t really know Christ until his final year at Maryland. Football, Reich says, was his god, and until a separated shoulder in his senior season knocked him out of action and cost him the starting job, he hadn’t deeply considered a life outside of the sport.

“He was getting my attention,” Reich said. “To put Him first.”

Football was far from over — he reclaimed the starting job by directing college football’s greatest comeback against Miami, and the Buffalo Bills picked him in the third round of the 1985 draft — but the sport had become secondary.

Turning ‘The Comeback’ into bigger message

And he wasn’t shy about it. When Reich directed The Comeback in Buffalo in 1993,when he put his lasting mark on NFL history, he opened his news conference by reciting the lyrics of “In Christ Alone,” a song about how earthly achievements pale in comparison to Jesus. 

Churches around the country took notice.

Reich was asked to speak at Sunday morning services, at father-son breakfasts, at conventions across the country. He was typically asked to give his testimony — the story of how he came to faith in Christ — but he wanted to be able to do more.

Reich has an inquisitive, meticulous mind, a love of reading and a scholar’s devotion to learning a subject in its entirety. His faith was far from unexamined. For years, he had been learning how to study the Bible under the tutelage of Detroit pastor Kent Clark, Buffalo chaplain Fred Raines and Mark Householder, who is now the president of Athletes In Action.

By then, Reich was living in Charlotte, N.C. He wanted to be able to bring the expertise of a pastor to the messages he was giving to congregations across the country.

“There’s a seminary right down the road,” Reich said. “I didn’t know anything about it. I just walked in and said, ‘I want to learn and grow. What classes do you have to offer?’ ”

Becoming a pastor wasn’t the goal. Not at the time. He simply wanted to learn, and Reich started by taking two classes at Reformed Theological Seminary in the offseason.

Those two classes turned into two more the next offseason. His wife, Linda, joined him the third year, and they each began pursuing a Master of Divinity, the degree most pastors earn on their way to the pulpit. For years — and even now — a date night for the Reichs is staying in the house and reading the works of renowned theologian C.S. Lewis to each other; taking classes together gave them even more to talk about.

“You just enjoy studying the same things, bouncing things off and challenging one another, digging deep in some truths we were learning,” Linda Reich said. “It was an exceptional time.”

Frank Reich: ‘I’m wired to be a teacher’       

When Reich retired after the 1998 season, he had a job in football waiting. Bill Polian wanted him to become the quarterbacks coach in Indianapolis, mentor a young passer by the name of Peyton Manning.

But Reich wanted to spend more time with his three daughters, and he was still taking classes at the seminary. Searching for his post-football calling, he spent a couple of years writing for a Christian website, Crosswalk.com, before devoting himself to speaking engagements, making 75 to 100 trips a year to speak at churches around the country.

A lot of those trips were made with Ric Cannada, then the president of Reformed Theological Seminary.

Cannada spent his Sundays fund-raising for the school at churches all over the South. Reich often went with him, offering the perspective of a student. The two men spent hours together driving to churches, eating dinner, getting to know one another.

“Because I’m inquisitive by nature, I’m asking him questions about the seminary,” Reich said. “How did it start? What’s the budget? How does it all work?”

The seminary was getting ready to expand. Reformed Theological Seminary had three campuses; the school was adding two more. Cannada became the chancellor.

Charlotte’s campus needed a president.

Cannada chose Reich, a student who hadn’t completed his degree yet and hadn’t served as a pastor. From the outside, the choice seemed unorthodox; to Cannada, it seemed obvious.

“I needed a real leader,” Cannada said. “There’s an integrity and character to him that is obvious over time, as you get to know him. That inspires respect, and people to follow him.”

Photo gallery: Frank Reich through the years

Reich initially said no — he didn’t think he was ready — but eventually agreed, albeit with the proviso that they re-evaluate his presidency after three years.

When Reich’s introductory period ended, Cannada was pleased with the way his protégé was handling the seminary, but Reich had realized he wasn’t a good fit for the role. There were dozens of chances to speak, but there were also too many meetings, too many duties that felt out of step with his gifts.

“It was too much administration,” Reich said. “At my core, I’m wired to be a teacher.”

He had spent the better part of a decade watching student after student prepare for a career as a pastor or a missionary, talking to people who’d devoted their lives to their congregations.

Reich felt a call to get back to what he does best.

Teaching runs in the Reich family. His father taught metal shop, wood shop, drafting; his mother taught physical education and health. As Colts head coach, Reich often speaks in parables, drawing on an eclectic array of real-world analogies to explain what’s happening on the field. He learned that from his dad, a master storyteller, and he made it a part of his preaching.

But the storytelling is only a small part of Reich’s DNA. 

“His gifts, really, are unearthing the best in other people,” Linda said. “No matter what he was doing. … It was always serving humanity first, and then once we’ve served humanity in the way they should be treated and respected and loved, then we will get the best out of them.”

‘I felt called,’ Frank Reich says

Cornerstone Presbyterian Church, a Charlotte congregation of about 100 people that Reich knew well from the seminary, needed a pastor.

“I felt called, I felt like it was the right thing,” Reich said. “I didn’t do this thinking ‘I’m going to try this out.’ I did it thinking this was probably going to happen, this was the next step.”

Reich’s gifts seemed perfect for the pulpit.

A pastor’s job, especially in a small church, is so much more than just a sermon on Sundays. A pastor is also a counselor and friend, ready to step in when a family falls on hard times financially, when the doctor’s diagnosis is terrifying, when a member of the congregation dies.

“I like the teaching part, I like getting into the messes of people’s lives and meeting them at their lowest point, meeting them in difficult circumstances,” Reich said. “I embraced that part of it.”

The congregation, like the Reformed Theological seminary community, responded to Reich’s people skills.

“Very approachable, easy to be around, easy to talk to,” said Rob Kelley, a member of Covenant Presbyterian, now Ballantyne Presbyterian, who was on the search committee that hired Reich. “Always very thoughtful in the messages he prepared. … Always theologically sound and easy to understand.”

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The hard part of pastoring was the rest.

A pastor’s primary focus should be the people, but the job is also administrative. A pastor is often in charge of the budget, the facilities, communications, tasked with setting the organizational structure and managing the desires of the congregation, especially at a smaller church. At a place like Eagle, a church with 15 staff members listed on the website, some of those duties can be delegated, but at a small church like Covenant, the pastor must have a hand in all of it.

Reich began to realize the pulpit might not be a perfect fit after all.

“The job of a pastor,” Reich tells Simpson shortly after he takes the stage at Eagle Church, “is the hardest job in the world.”

Back to coaching: ‘Tell me. Did I mess up?’ 

To see Reich speak — to his team, to a group of fans at a Colts-sponsored event, to an entire congregation — is to see a transformation. The affable, intellectual bearing he has in conversation gives way to the passion of an orator, energy bursting from him, Reich suddenly seeming even bigger than his 6-4 frame.

Reich is speaking with that kind of energy now, in a room in the lower levels of Eagle Church, encouraging the volunteers of the children’s ministry about the importance of their work. The story he’s telling, about moving an enormous pile of dirt across the Reich family’s yard in high school, is designed to illustrate the importance of every act, no matter how small it seems. Whether it’s changing a child’s diaper or delivering a sermon in front of thousands, Reich is saying, it’s making a difference.

The message matters deeply to Reich.

When he decided to leave Covenant and get back into coaching, Reich spent a lot of time praying, a lot of time in conversation, weighing the possibility that he might be able to find a better fit in vocational ministry against the strong pull he felt to get into coaching. A few people, Linda revealed, left the impression that Reich was abandoning the ministry for the secular world.

Not the people Reich trusts most.

“I’ve sought counsel from people that are mentors to me in the faith, I’ve said, ‘Tell me. Did I mess up?’ At one point, I was begging people to tell me God’s mad at me,” Reich said. “Nobody would tell me that.”

The reason was simple.

Reich already knew it, had been hearing the doctrine since his early days at seminary. There are some denominations, some branches of Christianity that put pastors, missionaries and other leaders on a pedestal, and even in branches that do not, it’s natural to sub-consciously place an added importance on the person preaching at the front of the church each Sunday.

The Reformed tradition pushes back firmly against that tendency.

“God gives different gifts and callings to different people,” Cannada said. “Being a pastor is not more important than being a janitor or a football coach or whatever. If the Lord has given you certain gifts and talents and called you to that area, you’re to use those talents the best you can.”

Reich had learned all of this, preached it, internalized the belief.

But faith is not always a matter of merely understanding a principle and always getting it right after that. Faith, Reich admits from the Eagle Church stage, is sometimes a struggle.

‘My whole life was a ministry’

“What helped me was seeing my whole life was a ministry,” Reich said. “When I left the vocational ministry, I wasn’t really leaving the ministry. I wasn’t failing God. I was going to the next season of my life, the next calling on my life.”

The way Reich sees it now, the way the members of his congregation see it, is that his time as a seminary president and pastor was always meant to be fleeting, a season of life that helped prepare him for what he’s doing now.

“We were the right call for him, at our church, at that point in his career,” Kelley said. “And it was the right place in our church for him to be our pastor.”

Pastoring a church is a lot like coaching a football team. A coach has to be able to inspire, to lead a group of people on a mission, to find new messages and new ways to reach a group of people used to hearing his voice.

“Really, what it’s about is people,” Reich said. “Connecting with people.” 

Reich, 57, is no longer as outspoken about his faith as he was as a player, not likely to open a news conference by reciting the words to a worship song. Part of that is professionalism; Reich was hired to be a football coach, and people aren’t always looking for a football coach to be a preacher in every moment.

But that doesn’t mean his ministry is over. Reich’s coaching career has taken him to four NFL cities, given him a chance to reach a lot of different people. While he’s not going to push his faith on a player who believes differently, Reich has built a lot of close relationships, particularly with the quarterbacks he coached in Philadelphia, a group he still cherishes. In Indianapolis, he’s part of a Bible study of more than 30 coaches and players, and he’s still more than willing to step into the gap when somebody’s at their darkest point.

That’s why he’s opening up about his doubts on a cold, rainy Sunday in April, offering a congregation of thousands a window into his own walk with God.

After Reich finishes speaking, Simpson says the Colts coach is willing to stick around after the service, to talk to anybody in the middle of their own personal struggle and pray with them.

The final song of the service ends, and Reich steps down in front of the stage, a line forming to meet him. Individuals step forward, couples, entire families. A few ask for a photo; many more have a struggle to share, and Reich listens, calm and unhurried, praying with them before they walk away.  

“I know I’m doing the right thing, but I do miss getting the opportunity to do that as much as I used to do it,” Reich says later. “It’s like nourishment to my soul.”

The sanctuary begins to clear, the worship band packs up its instruments, conversations wrap up and people head off to lunch, but Reich stays in front of the stage. Never glancing at his watch, never picking up his pace to move the line along a little faster. 

For 46 minutes, Reich stays.

Until the work is done.

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