Working with professional athletes has been the most challenging opportunity I’ve ever had. I’ve worked with pros in basketball, baseball and tennis and golf over the years. Today I am the Chaplain for the Dallas Cowboys Football organization, and I can tell you that football is a whole lot different on the 50-yard lines. It’s an intense, injury prone activity, but all the padding, physical training and good technique in the world can’t protect these players from the deepest kind of injuries.
When athletes can perform at the NFL level, it’s very likely that they have been pampered and catered to as they’ve come along. I know that many have very challenging upbringings. They have been very well coached to develop as athletes, but often they have not been coached in developing as human beings. Many don’t have the basic interpersonal skills that most of us take for granted, like how to carry on a mutually respectful conversation.
This is in part because they have never really had anyone come along side them to help understand their individual constraints--the things that hold them back and keep them from being the best people they can be. They’ve almost never had a coaching plan to overcome the constraints to developing as husbands, fathers, or men who nurture deep relationships with friends.
These young men have often found it difficult to trust people, so you can understand why they come to the idea of being counseled with a stiff arm out. To even hope to have an impact on them, one of the things I have to do is to build trust. I have to let them know that I want nothing from them. I never ask for a ticket, I never ask for a photo or an autograph. If they feel you are just like everyone else, they are not going to open up to you and you will not be much value to helping them develop as a person.
The chaplaincy is a volunteer position, but it is a serious commitment of time and resources. During the season, I’ll be at two practices a week. For away games, I travel with the team, doing studies in the hotel before the game. Home weeks, I speak to them 30 minutes the night before the game, and then spend all day on game day. Of course there is preparation time as well. If someone wants to visit with me personally—I am on call all the time. It all goes back to building trust.
The organization is more than the players. I also have the opportunity to deal with the coaches, the trainers, the equipment manager and anyone else. I try to learn their backgrounds and families, and where their needs are so I can help where they have a need. My responsibilities go all the way up to the owners. They have become dear friends of mine and several are involved in activities that help men grow in their life and faith outside of the organization. It’s a privilege to serve God there.
John Tolson, a nationally renowned teacher and speaker, has spent more than 30 years making a profound impact on the lives of others. As Founder and Chairman of High Impact Life (formerly The Tolson Group), Dr. Tolson oversees a collection of ministries across the country that specializes in outreach and discipleship training for adults and students. Tolson was Chaplain of the Dallas Cowboys football organization from 2008 to 2011 and is the author of The Four Priorities: Life is Too Short to Get It Wrong.