A little over 20 years ago, I learned one of my most valuable lessons about fatherhood … the hard way.

It was a cold, winter night and I was carrying my sleeping, two-month-old son across a parking lot when suddenly, I lost my footing on a patch of "black ice" and went airborne. I landed hard, hitting my head first before landing solidly on my back. It was at that very moment – lying there motionless, in pain, and embarrassed – that the significance of my role as a father hit me.

You see, I was flat on my back and vulnerable, but my little son was safe, secure, and, surprisingly, still asleep in my arms. That is what being a father is about. Taking the hard hits, taking the pain, the embarrassment, taking all of it, but making sure that, above all else, you protect your children.

About three years ago, I was reminded of this experience after seeing Chris Gardner -- the subject of Will Smith's new movie, "The Pursuit of Happyness" -- on an ABC 20/20 interview, where he shared the story of how he had fallen on hard times and ended up penniless and homeless with his toddler son.

Though knocked "flat on his back," Chris persevered with a determination to protect and provide for his son that took him from rags to riches as a top stockbroker and eventually a millionaire owner of his own Chicago-based brokerage firm.

Even before the 20/20 interview ended, I knew that I had to meet Chris, and fortunately, I was to be in Chicago the following week.

I called Chris' office and he graciously agreed to meet with me. Indeed, we struck a quick and easy friendship, no doubt, because we had much in common. We were two black men who grew up without our fathers and who were determined to be the kind of fathers for our sons that we wished we had.

And we were two fathers who could have easily "cut and run." I was a (nearly) teen dad who resisted temptation and chose to stay and make my "baby mamma" my wife; Chris was a father who was down but never out of hope for better days for him and his young son. These flat on our backs experiences steeled us and taught us both that the truest measure of a father was not what he did for himself but rather what he did for his children.

Therefore, it is of little surprise that I left our first meeting convinced that Chris was a true example of responsible fatherhood, and thereby worthy to receive the National Fatherhood Initiative's 2003 Fatherhood Award, along with other notable fathers like James Earl Jones and author Dr. Stephen Covey.

Now, the world knows Chris Gardner's story because of the new film about his life starring Will Smith. I am convinced that Chris' story will be remembered for a long time, and not just because Will Smith delivers what may be an Oscar-worthy performance in the movie. His story will be remembered because it communicates the hope-filled message to fathers everywhere, in every circumstance, to never give up.

It will also remind them to be encouraged, because some of their best fathering may start when they are flat on their back. After all, success in life, and in fathering, is less about how many times one falls, but rather, about how many times one gets back up.

Because only in the getting up is "happyness" found.

Roland C. Warren is the president of the National Fatherhood Initiative.