I have been extremely fortunate to have many unique experiences in my life. I grew up on a farm in Iowa where I learned the great American work ethic demonstrated by my father and grandfather. I was able to attend a military academy where I learned the importance of character, integrity and service. I was able to serve our country as an Air Force A-10 fighter pilot in the first Gulf War. I experienced fame as a member of the Dallas Cowboys during the Super Bowl run in the 1990s. But all of these experiences pale in comparison to being a father.
As Thanksgiving approaches, I thank God that I have had the opportunity to be a dad to my kids, Chase and Brenna. I will be the first to admit that my parenting ability often came through trial and error and I made mistakes. But in spite of it all, my kids have grown into caring, responsible and productive young adults.
Like all families, we have had our challenges; some greater than others. The one ordeal, though, that defined our family was when Chase became extremely ill when he was two and a half years old with what was eventually diagnosed as an autoimmune illness.
It came just weeks after we, as the Dallas Cowboys, won our third Super Bowl in four years. I was on one of the greatest highs of my life professionally. But my whole perspective began to change about what is important and what it truly means to be a dad. As we sought medical attention and answers, I experienced for the first time in my life the frustration of not being able to overcome an obstacle and fix the situation. As a father, I felt helpless and hopeless.
What my kids wanted most from me was not all the material things that I was working to provide – they wanted me – my attention, my time and, most important of all, my love. I learned that this was the greatest gift I could give them.
In spite of the pain of the trial, I look back now and I can say I am thankful for the experience. I realized that I am a fallible being and that I couldn’t do it all. I had to rely upon God and others to walk through life. I learned humility. I learned that what my kids wanted most from me was not all the material things that I was working to provide – they wanted me – my attention, my time and, most important of all, my love. I learned that this was the greatest gift I could give them.
This year, my youngest left for college and now they both are on to their next phase of their lives. It has been an adjustment for our family. But I am so thankful that my kids “got it.”
I am thankful that all the guidance, the discipline and the praise we gave them as parents has taken root in their lives and they “own” who they are. They have a strong identity as to who they are as Christians, as Americans, and as young adults. They have found that transformational moment in their lives where they are defining the “why” they do what they do. And as a parent, that has been the greatest joy.
Chad Hennings, a former fighter pilot in the Persian Gulf and three-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys, is the co-author with Jon Finkel of “Forces of Character: Conversations about Building a Life of Impact.”