A Father’s Life Lessons
We asked a dozen men in the NFL—players, coaches and executives—to share the best thing they’ve learned from their dad or an influential father figure. Here’s the wisdom that’s been passed on by mail carriers, businessmen, high school coaches, Hall of Famers, construction workers, educators and military veterans
Ike Taylor, Steelers cornerback
Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney taught me that status doesn’t mean anything. My father was a rolling stone, as they say. When I was drafted, I learned that Dan Rooney had an open door policy for his employees. During my third season I went to his office to share my feelings, but I was so exhausted I fell asleep on his couch. He told his son, the president, I was going to take over his office and he turned off the lights and left. I think I napped for two and a half hours. We’re talking about a Hall of Famer, an owner, who treats everybody like family. With him, it doesn’t matter who you are—we’re all human.
John Fox, Broncos coach
Ron Fox taught me the importance of teamwork. My stepfather, now 79, came into my life when I was 11 and later I decided to take his last name. He went to Ohio State and became one of the original Navy SEALs. As a boy I watched him train in everything from water jumps to mini-sub exercises. I saw a couple of Silver Star presentations for bravery, and through hearing the tales behind the honors, I learned how important it was to him to take care of a teammate. I can’t share those stories, but the memories will stick with me for the rest of my life.
Gus Bradley, Jaguars coach
Roy James Bradley taught me that everything you do is a reflection of you. He passed last October in Minnesota at the age of 85. I had a lawn-mowing job as a teenager that also required me to trim about 35 trees. One day after I had already come home, he drove by tree number 13 and saw that it still had tall grass around it. He took me back out to the spot and had me fix it. “If you have a job to do,” he said, “do it to the best of your ability, because people are always watching and trying to find out what you are all about.” I try to meet those standards every day.
Joe Staley, 49ers tackle
Butch Staley taught me to enjoy my job. My father’s been a mail carrier in Michigan since I was born. He’s 53, and grew up in a coal mining town outside of Pittsburgh with an alcoholic father. My dad was the opposite. He’s an example of how to be a great father and a great husband. Every day is fun to him. He knows the families he’s delivering to, and they get excited to see him on his route. I take pride in my job, but I don’t let the pressure overwhelm me. A lot of guys take it way too seriously and get bogged down, but I never have. I think that comes from my dad.
Clark Hunt, Chiefs Chairman and CEO
Lamar Hunt taught me that it is important to treat others with respect and dignity no matter their station in life. When I was a boy, my dad was working on the AFL and interests in soccer, tennis and basketball, but despite all that he made an effort to be at my games. He would fly back from wherever he was to be there. It’s fun for me today, seven or so years after he passed away, to run into someone with a Lamar Hunt story. A man told me he was 22 years old and was sitting in an airport when he recognized the man sitting beside him as the owner of the Chiefs. My dad struck up a conversation, and they spent the next 15 minutes talking about what was going on in the young man’s life. It’s nice to have that reminder of how important it is to treat others well.
Brian Cushing, Texans linebacker
Frank Cushing taught me to fear no one. He pitched in two College World Series and he made me a warrior through baseball. When we were taking batting practice and I was crowding the plate, he would throw at my head. He never hit me, but he came close enough to get the message across. All those parents who questioned his methods look at me now like, Wow, he knew what he was doing. Dad believed that there was nothing worse than wondering if you could’ve or should’ve tried harder. I’ve gotten hurt sometimes while doing it but there isn’t a day that goes by I regret because I know I’ve gone after everything 100 percent. That’s because of him.
Gunther Cunningham, Lions senior coaching assistant
Garner Cunningham taught me how to fight. My stepfather was an Air Force sergeant who brought me to this country at the age of 12, with my mother. I was born in Munich in 1946—a year after WWII—and I knew as soon as the teacher read my name during attendance I would become a target. During that first year in Greenfield, Massachusetts, I fought constantly. One fight with four boys came to my front yard. My stepfather opened the door and said, “Son, you’d better win.” And he locked the door. The night he died two years ago, I asked him, “Why didn’t you help me?” And he said, “Son, if you were going to make it in this country, you had to learn to fight for yourself, to take care of yourself, to make something of yourself.” That experience drove me in school, as a football player, and darn sure drove me as a coach. Maybe that would be wrong for some people, but for me it was the right medicine.
Rick Smith, Texans general manager
Dr. Franklin L. Smith taught me to learn and grow from my mistakes. My father always emphasized the importance and value of education. He was superintendent of the Dayton Ohio Public School system, so his signature was on my high school diploma. At Purdue, I was on the dean’s list as a freshman and enjoyed a role as a part-time starter and special teams contributor. Yet by sophomore year I was declared academically ineligible to play football. When I planned to tell my father, we met at a Denny’s following his monthly public school board meeting. “I made a mistake,” I said. He responded, “You are not judged by your mistakes—you are judged on how you respond to them and grow.” It gave me strength, determination, and inspiration and it was one of the most powerful and pivotal moments of my life. Dad, after all these years, I hope you know I was listening.
Philip Rivers, Chargers quarterback
Steve Rivers taught me that if you’re going to do something, you better do it all the way. He was a high school football coach in Decatur, Alabama, for 30-some years before retiring recently. I loved being around it as a kid and hearing his QBs call plays. I couldn’t wait to be his quarterback. In the fall, when we’d rake the lawn, we had to get every last leaf. I would tell him, “Dad, more are gonna fall!” And he’d say, “Well, we’ll get them too.” He treated the third-team tackle same as the quarterback. And he would bench me like anybody else, but he didn’t let a bad practice ruin dinner. I asked him once on the field, “Do I call you Dad or Coach Rivers?” And he said, “Shoot, call me dad.”
Dennis Allen, Raiders coach
Grady Allen taught me that I can’t control everything in my environment, but I can control the way I respond to that environment. I lost my father two years ago at 66 years old. Growing up in Hurst, Texas, he was a guy who was always there for me. He coached all of my Little League teams and he impressed upon his children a desire to be the best in everything that you do. He taught me the value of hard work. After playing five NFL seasons with the Falcons, he became an industrial chemical salesman. When I was a boy, he’d take off for the road on a Monday and say, “I won’t be back until Thursday, so I’m going to miss your game on Wednesday.” But, invariably, he was at every single one of my games.
Jake Matthews, Falcons tackle
Bruce Matthews taught me if you commit to something, you’re not giving up on it. It was unbelievable to see his energy every week, the amazing way he played on the field and then came home and had all the love in the world for us. Late in fifth grade, I told my dad, “I think I’m going to play baseball instead of football this year.” He didn’t even make me feel bad and say, “No, you have to play football,” but we had his relentlessness, because he left everything on the field. Naturally I came back and said, “I can’t quit football. Let’s do both.”
Ryan Grigson, Colts general manager
Jeffrey F. Grigson taught me to never feel sorry for myself, and how to fight for those you love. My father was a 6-foot-3, 250-pound former Marine, college defensive tackle and construction worker. To me, he looked like the Incredible Hulk. I lost him to brain cancer when I was 9, and yet, I still have many fond memories of him. He still found the energy to help coach my first football team, referee my basketball games and take me and my friends to the movies and the park. He never stopped being a dad. Years after his passing, I asked my mom if he ever had any weak moments with her. She said he never once complained or ever even said, “Why me?” The example he demonstrated in the face of severe adversity has given me strength whenever I’ve encountered challenges. My father only lived to 33, but in our nine years together he gave me plenty of vivid examples of what it means to be both a father and a man.
Photo Credits: Garrett W. Ellwood for SI (Fox); Wesley Hitt/Getty Images (Bradley); Courtesy Photo (Staleys); Paul Sakuma/AP (Joe Staley Gatorade); Wade Jackson/Icon SMI (Hunts); Courtesy photo (Cushings); Scott Halleran/Getty Images (Brian Cushing); Amy Sancetta/AP (Cunningham); Courtesy photo (Smiths); Courtesy photo (Rivers); Paul Sakuma/AP (Allen); Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports (Matthews); Joe Robbins/Getty Images (Grigson)