Joe Gibbs' third act: Evangelist
NFL legend, NASCAR team owner shares faith journey
Joe Gibbs moves through pit row at Dover International Speedway with purpose. On this clear day he has three NASCAR teams competing under the banner of Joe Gibbs Racing. The NFL coach and Hall of Fame legend barks encouragement as his teams gather in their fire suits in front of racks of tools.
"We're due one today! Let's go!"
Then the team members put their hands together at the center of a circle, Gibbs slaps his on top with the sun catching his Super Bowl ring, and bows his head in a sudden moment of calm before the high-octane storm. "Father thank you for this day," he begins to pray.
The white hair under his logo covered ball cap is an oddity here. The pits of NASCAR are a young man's world. Top speed, quick reflexes and raw power are prized.
The drivers are the captains of the cars, but speed and precision of their pit crews -- leaping over walls, changing tires and filling gas tanks -- is often the difference between winning and loosing.
So what is the 72-year-old Gibbs, well past retirement age, doing amid the chaos and thundering noise?
The same thing Gibbs has always done: He's calling the shots.
"To me, life is so exciting. To me, life is always trying to beat someone in something competitive. It's kinda been my whole life," Gibbs explains while sitting in the sprawling Joe Gibbs Racing Complex in Charlotte, North Carolina, after a recent race.
He sips on a large green tea, nursing a sore throat he claims is from allergies but is more likely from all the hollering over the racing weekend. Dressed in a polo shirt tucked into khakis, he is fit and trim, likely in better shape than most men half his age. He says he's as excited now about all he is doing as he was when he was young.
"I really think I am," he says with a wide, convincing grin.
The rise of Joe Gibbs
Gibbs' rise to sports superstardom began in the 1980s, when he took the struggling Washington Redskins, a team with few stars and even fewer playoff hopes, to not one but three Super Bowl championships, earning the respect of the league and the adoration of fans.
As the cold February rain poured down on fans who came out for the team parade after the 1983 Super Bowl, Gibbs praised their dedication with the enthusiasm that has long made them love him. "There's no other fans in the world who would come out in weather like this except in Washington, D.C.!"
A young mustachioed CNN sports reporter, Keith Olbermann, reported a half-million fans braved the weather for a glimpse of the team, Gibbs and the gleaming Lombardi trophy that day.
"Each one of you has a small piece of this trophy today," Gibbs yelled into the microphone, pumping the Super Bowl prize for the roaring crowd.
Less than a decade later, he stunned those same fans by turning from football to auto racing, setting up shop in his native North Carolina with admittedly little knowledge of what he was getting into. "I was kind of a novice," Gibbs said while touring the floor of the JGR workshop. "I was scared to death, you know, 'Can we do this?' "
But Gibbs applied his formula: He worked around the clock, hired great people and relentlessly pushed for perfection. Soon enough the championships started rolling in for his racing teams, too.
In 2004, Redskins owner Dan Snyder lured Gibbs out of the pits and back to the sidelines. He coached the 'Skins for a four-year stint, helping them get back to the playoffs. But by 2008, Gibbs was ready to go back to racing and he walked away from football for good.
As an owner, Gibbs' teams have won three NASCAR Cup Series Championships. He talks a lot now about being a small business owner. His racing enterprise employs 450 people and includes the 250,000 square foot facility complete with state of the art garages, offices and gym.
That success in racing makes his latest career turn so unusual, because now he is talking perhaps more than ever before about losing.
When winners are losing
"When people look from the outside, they see you've won Super Bowls, NASCAR championships," he said. "But what people miss when they look from the outside is, they miss the heartaches and the defeats and the mistakes you've made. And my life is full of them."
In a new edition of the New International Version of the Bible, "Game Plan for Life Bible, NIV: Notes by Joe Gibbs," and a book of biblical devotions, "Game Plan for Life: Chalk Talks," Gibbs writes frankly about many of his failures, about how just as his coaching career was soaring he was facing private calamities including a bad real estate deal that had him losing $35,000 a month and spiraling into bankruptcy.
"Bad, bad decisions. Really bad," he explains. "I was broke."
Years of neglecting his health were followed by the startling news that he had developed diabetes, which he's now had for two decades; years of choosing work over family led to strained relations. Asked if he would do it all again and sacrifice his relationships with his family, he frankly and quickly says, "No. I look at that as probably one of the biggest mistakes I made in life."
A few years ago he said he took his sons out to out dinner and told them, "Don't do what I did."
"I could have organized that a different way. I could have found a way to spend more time with them and I think that'll be one of the things I really second guess ... at the end of my life."
Finding his faith again
Gibbs says he found comfort amid the turmoil in a renewal of his faith. A life-long Baptist, Gibbs says he's not fond of denominational distinctions and says he and his wife have always gravitated toward, "Bible-believing churches."
He became a Christian at a young age, "I made that decision when I was 9 but I spent a part of my life drifting, you know, I was on God's team but I wasn't playing for him."
He says spiritual mentors like a Sunday school teacher in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and some of his Redskins players helped him get back on track with a deeper, more meaningful Christian faith even while the struggles were at their worst.
"Part of playing the game of life is you're going to have some losses," he is fond of saying.
That is why he is sharing his private trials in this public way: so others can understand his belief that even winners lose when they lose their way. He regularly tours the country speaking about his faith at Game Plan for Life Outreach Breakfasts, designed so he can present his faith and help men by "getting off the sidelines and into the game," the organization says.
"I really want to spend the rest of my life getting out this word, you know, 'What is the right way to play the game of life?' You and I are the players, God's our head coach and we're all playing the biggest game of all."
Those struggles have all made him more introspective, more humble and more inclined to leave the office a little earlier for family time. He now has eight grandchildren.
"If I keep God first in my life, if I keep my family and friends as second, and then I keep my occupation third," he said, "that's when I've found success."
But make no mistake: Joe Gibbs still preaches the gospel of winning and he still thinks that's part of God's plan for him, too.
Ask him how long he'll keep coming to the office, stomping through the pits and sharing his testimony, "I think you're asking the wrong guy on that one. I think you need to ask the Lord on that one. I think you know at some point I'll probably run out of gas, but man, right now I feel like I've still got a full tank. I'm still going."
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