CUP: A Higher Calling - Joe Gibbs Winning More Than Races

Article by Kris Johnson,

Every year, NASCAR Illustrated presents its Person of the Year award to the individual in the sport who has had the greatest positive impact on or off the track.

This year’s winner, Joe Gibbs, has succeeded on both fronts.

On the track, Joe Gibbs Racing, which began competing in 1992, made a serious run for its fourth Cup championship, with Denny Hamlin finishing second.

Gibbs, whose team also has 88 career Cup victories, has thrived in NASCAR just like he did as head coach in the National Football League. A three-time Super Bowl winner with the Washington Redskins, Gibbs was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1996.

His accomplishments at the highest level of two professional sports are laudable. But numbers don’t tell the full measure of the man.

Not unless you count the number of lives Gibbs has influenced in a positive way.

In 2010, his “Game Plan For Life” ministry, born from the book of the same name, has touched the lives of thousands.

With football as the primary metaphor, Gibbs’ book establishes a faith-based blueprint for success that he hopes will inspire men from all walks of life.

But Gibbs has done more than write a book. After the release of “Game Plan” last July, he embarked on a barnstorming tour that reached full steam this year.

Gibbs likes to joke that he’s playing in the fourth quarter of his own life, but he shows no signs of slowing. By year’s end, he will have logged more than 4,000 miles for 12 “Game Plan” events concentrated largely in the Southeast.

Gibbs made one such visit to Turbeville Correctional Institution in the hinterland of South Carolina in August. One major pillar of Gibbs’ ministry is outreach to prisons – he’s been to six different facilities spanning the Carolinas, Ohio and Florida.

Passing through the medium-security prison’s steel holding gate armed only with a Bible, Gibbs worked the sun-baked prison yard as if it were an NFL sideline. Sweating through a button-down blue dress shirt, Gibbs gave his testimony with more vigor than you might expect from a 69-year-old grandfather of eight.

“You and I,” Gibbs bellowed into a handheld microphone, “we serve a God of second chances.”

With his voice reverberating off stark white-washed buildings rimmed by barbed wire, the echoes called to mind Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium. Turbeville is home to 1,400 inmates and a majority of them were seated around Gibbs on a blindingly bright day.

Turbeville Division Director of Inmate Services Gary Boyd called the appearance by Gibbs a “big-ticket event” that helped improve both the population’s morale and behavior.

“Act out, you don’t go,” Boyd told inmates in the days leading up to the event. “You need to get your act together.”

Former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who wrote the foreword to “Game Plan For Life,” visited the prison in July. Gibbs, in typical self-deprecating style, referred to himself as the “second string” speaker in the wake of Dungy’s appearance.

“There are probably a few race fans here and probably a few NFL fans here,” he continued. “Now if I can get just a few boos I’ll feel right at home.”

In khaki uniforms with “SCDC” on the back, the inmates laughed as prison guards clad in bright red uniforms stood around them. Security was not an issue but the mere threat of an uprising might affect a man of lesser faith.

Bob Dyer has seen Gibbs in this environment before and still marvels at his demeanor. Dyer, who joined Joe Gibbs Racing as team chaplain in 1996 after working at Motor Racing Outreach, recalled a February “Game Plan” event staged in Orlando. Held at the Central Florida Reception Center, it was the first prison appearance of the 2010 tour – and one that spurred Gibbs’ interest in visiting more of them.

“There were 1,300 men there and they gathered around him in the yard. Every prison is so different, it’s hard to get a feel for what is going to happen,” Dyer said. “But he is so good with people, you just never know how they are going to respond. He rolls with the punches. He’s out there shaking hands and signing autographs. And I’m thinking, ‘Should he be doing this?’”

The answer, according to Gibbs, is never in question when it comes to winning souls.

“God does it, I don’t do it,” he said.

Somewhere in the sprawl of Turbeville prisoners was a 46-year-old inmate named Jerome, whose last name cannot be disclosed for legal reasons. Jerome said afterward that he’s due to be released from Turbeville in a year. He was asked what Gibbs’ message meant to the prisoners.

“To know that they can be better, that they can be great. They can be successful,” Jerome said. “We need more volunteers that will come and advocate for those who have been broken, to bring hope to a population that is in desperate need. To let them know that there’s someone that cares.

“This is what I’ve been praying for since I’ve been in this yard.”

Seven years of prayer, Jerome believes, helped deliver Gibbs and a life-changing realization.

“We’re not inmates; we’re not criminals. We are broken-hearted men that have lost our direction but today we find our destiny,” he said.

It was not the first time Gibbs has had that effect on someone. In fact, it wasn’t even the first time that day Gibbs had moved people.

Four hours before the prison visit, Gibbs spoke in front of an entirely different audience. He descended upon the resort town of Myrtle Beach before dawn after a short flight from North Carolina. With the 1991 Super Bowl ring on his left hand and a Band-Aid plastered near his right ear (following a mole-removal procedure), Gibbs gazed out the window of his plane deep in thought. A full day lay ahead.

Gibbs utilizes a grassroots approach to set up “Game Plan” events. Instead of advertising in local media, he partners with local church leaders to recruit attendees personally. That helps to ensure a more receptive audience and a more meaningful experience overall. There is no fee to attend and each person receives breakfast and a free copy of Gibbs’ book.

With no advance media or promotion, a throng of 1,000-plus awaited Gibbs at the Alabama Theater.

“If there’s an interest there, we go to the city and say, ‘All we’re looking for is somebody that will partner with us so we can have this event,’” Gibbs said. “We’ll contribute half of the resources to it if you can get a committee to supply the other half. We’re not asking for anything, we just want to give. That’s the whole idea.”

The crowd in Myrtle Beach consisted mostly of middle-aged men and others approaching Gibbs’ age. There was a smattering of Redskins jerseys featuring the last names of franchise greats like Jurgensen, Taylor and Portis. Gibbs’ 45-minute speech was very close to the one he would give at the prison, and it began and ended with a standing ovation.

A central part of Gibbs’ presentation is about his own failures. As a young coach, unsure of his future, Gibbs invested heavily into a real estate partnership in Norman, Okla., with disastrous consequences. Left penniless and on the verge of bankruptcy, Gibbs recalled crying and falling to his knees for help. It took nearly five years for him and his young family to recover from being $1.2 million in debt.

His biggest failing had nothing to do with money, though. Gibbs still struggles with all the time he spent away from his family during those years of building the Redskins dynasty. His workaholic tendencies led him to sleep on a cot in his office up to four nights a week during the football season. His wife, Pat, along with sons J.D. and Coy paid a heavy price. Gibbs still shows traces of emotion when talking about that today.

In a quiet moment away from the crowds, Gibbs shared his remorse.

“I made a lot of mistakes with my kids. I was gone so much and I’m not wanting to do that with my grandkids. Every day I’m home, I’m trying to do something with them. You make mistakes in life. I told my boys, ‘I’m sorry for all the time I was gone.’ I told both of them, ‘Don’t do what I did. Make sure you stay close,’” Gibbs said.

The disappointments – and his willingness to share them – help make Gibbs appear more human and less heroic to those in the audience. In the autograph session that followed his speech, attendees streamed down the theater’s stairwell and most had a story to share with Gibbs. The Super Bowl ring came off the coach’s finger to make the rounds for anybody who wanted to try it on for size, too. All of this made for a fairly slow procession, but Gibbs was seemingly blessed with preternatural patience. Before the day was over, he signed in excess of 2,000 autographs (a conservative estimate) and posed for countless pictures all while listening to the stories.

One man said he “still watches racing every week” and the next relayed that he was an usher at RFK Stadium for 17 years.

“Twenty-six years I had season tickets,” another said.

There were different motivations for them being there, but the hope was they all took away a shared message of hope.

Matt Rothged (pictured with Gibbs near left), 40, held a stack of cards and books that Gibbs signed with aplomb.

“Believe me, there aren’t that many people I’d get up to see at 5:30 a.m.,” said Rothged, who was working on three hours of sleep. “I was 11 when he became coach. He changed my whole life.”

More than one person told Gibbs that this event had been a life-changing experience. They were real men with real problems, the “average Joes” Gibbs tries to reach through his program.

“Those are the ones that always stick with me and particularly a couple of them came up this morning and were real emotional. They appreciate you being there. I gave them our phone numbers so they can stay in touch with us. You hope there’s more of them,” Gibbs said.

Dyer said as many as 30-40 percent of attendees make some type of “spiritual movement” after a “Game Plan” event. They are monitored through response cards and will remain in touch with local committee leaders. Still, the scoreboard isn’t as easily read in the competition for hearts and minds.

“We may never know all the results and that’s OK,” Dyer said. “We’re not into scalps on the belt, but rather how we encourage men in their relationship with God. It’s a lot more low-key. We don’t want to come across preachy, or hitting people over the heads with Bibles or be judgmental.

“Joe is a catalyst. He has a platform and opportunity to influence men and how they think and view the world.”

Therein lies Gibbs’ greatest achievement despite all that he’s accomplished on the race track and football field.

“I’m wanting to compete and beat somebody,” Gibbs said. “That’s kind of been my whole life. But if you can help one person, you’re saving a life. What’s that worth? It’s so much more than winning football games or races for eternity’s sake.”

– This story originally appeared in the December issue of NASCAR Illustrated. • Jimmie Johnson’s fifth consecutive title another one for the history books