“My dad died in my arms from a massive heart attack. I was 11 years old and grew up with a father-shaped hole in my heart. There were mentors, coaches, and teachers in my life who stopped me from spinning out of control. One day I would do the same thing for other fatherless boys.
I coached football for 24 years and was a head coach at four different universities. I was tough and pushed players hard. We won, but I wish I had been a wiser coach who enjoyed the wins. You couldn’t stop and pat yourself on the back or you would get caught the next Saturday. There were only 12 games a season and the losses stung because they were a missed opportunity. I was a bad loser until a few years ago. I heard Tom Arrington say it is not ‘some days you win or and some days you lose’ but ‘some days you win and some days you learn.’ That hit me like a brick in the head. There is so much to learn from the losses.
After receiving a lifetime contract with the University of Pittsburgh, I was fired after a disagreement with the chancellor. Pitt defeating Rutgers in Ireland was the last game of my coaching career. ESPN hired me and said I could live wherever I want. My older brother said to come to Mobile because he was living here. I told my wife, Mickey, we were only staying in Mobile for a year because I was going back to coaching. I didn’t get involved or put down roots because I believed I was moving on soon. Mobile was a break and a chance to get out of the spotlight, but I started moping and being reclusive. I felt put out to pasture.
In 1998, Mayor Mike Dow asked about bringing a bowl game to Mobile and I reluctantly agreed to do some research. I made it clear that was all the help I would give. The research showed a bowl would work but I didn’t want to admit to getting excited about the project. I also realized money from the bowl game could make a significant contribution to the community and based my involvement on that. I set the goal of giving away $50,000. The Mobile Bowl was immediately successful. After donating to more than 15 area charities, we still had $15,000 left. My wife suggested we use that money to start a camp for boys without dads. She helped plant the seed that it was time to spend time with boys with histories like mine. Team Focus was born and about 60 boys joined us for our first camp in 2000.
In Mobile, I finally had time to pursue God’s plans. He changed the desires of my heart and the direction of my life. I found something I didn’t know I was looking for. I was tested once by a head coaching job offer at Cincinnati, but my wife reminded me of my commitment to walk with boys. I turned the job down and said I was coaching in a different way and it is time to do things that are more important than winning football games. We have been here for 29 years and the people of Mobile have been good to us.
Team Focus provides a year-round program of support, encouragement, and Godly values that foster the development of life skills in young men ages 10 to 18 without a father figure in their lives. We bridge the father gap and support the family structure. Children from father-absent homes are five times more likely to live in poverty, three times more likely to fail in school, two to three times more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems and three times more likely to commit suicide. The chief predictor of crime in a neighborhood is the percentage of homes without fathers. We are in a battle. The devil is trying to steal the destinies of fatherless young men. When my dad died I knew the devil was trying to step into my weak place. We can’t replace a father, but no boy needs to grow up without a positive role model.
More than 5,000 guys have gone through the Team Focus program. There are MIT graduates, firemen, and soldiers. You name it we have it. I know each boy’s name and they all have my phone number. Our team checks on them for homework and behavior at school. We help them work through problems with grades and discipline. We attend their games, band concerts, and activities and provide help where we can. We see potential in the boys that maybe doesn’t happen at home. We offer summer camps with activities and speakers. Nick Saban speaks at the Mobile camp each year. We teach manners and how to tie a tie. We have a formal dinner where they dress up and use what they learn. There are mini-camps during the winter. We take boys on trips and to the other camps, giving some a chance to fly for the first time. We teach interview skills and help them find jobs. There are also chapters in Austin, TX, Jacksonville, FL, Las Vegas, Moorhead, KY, and Westerville, OH. We have more than 80 guys in Mobile that are in Team Focus. They will one day make a difference in the campers that come after them.
We have a book club that meets every month and are starting a monthly checker game to teach decision making and strategy. We also have monthly mother meetings with uplifting speakers because there is so much on single mothers. We teach the boys to do chores around the house and do their share. We have a Valentine’s dinner where the guys serve the moms. These boys owe their moms everything.
When I was a kid, I wondered why God took my dad. Maybe Team Focus and filling in that gap for fatherless boys is why. These are my boys and I will stay in touch with them throughout their lives. They live all over the country and know they can call me any time. If they had dads, their dads would answer. I tell each one the dad-size hole in your heart will always be there. You’re not going to get over it, but we will help you will get better.”
If you want to join Team Focus, volunteer, or donate, call 251-635-1515 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This is the fourth story in the series “The Souls of Mobile,” with people nominated because of the good they do for the city. Their faces will also be a part of the mural “The Souls of Mobile” that Ginger Woechan is now painting on Hayley’s Bar. This mural is a collaboration with the Mobile Arts Council.
An Unveiling: Celebrating the Souls of Mobile by Ginger Woechan and block party Is Sunday, December 8th from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. with music by the Excelsior Band and Harrison McInnis.)