A CSJ Conversation with Mike Singletary

Mike Singletary is hands down one of the greatest linebackers to play the game. Not only was he an eight-time All-Pro and nine-time All-NFC selection, Singletary was also selected to 10 Pro Bowls and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in both 1985 and 1988. Of course, Singletary is most noted for his 1985 championship run with the Chicago Bears and an iconic stare that struck fear into the hearts of opposing quarterbacks.

In this extensive CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee talks about the ’85 Bears, his trademark intensity, why he got into coaching, and how a deep depression after winning the Super Bowl led him to discover his true purpose in life.

National Football League Hall of Fame star Mike Singletary addresses the audience at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, during the Secretary of Defense Holiday Show 2000, on December 17th, 2000.

Chad Bonham: How often do you reminisce about the 1985 Super Bowl championship team in Chicago?

Mike Singletary: It’s amazing. A lot of the guys that I played with in that ’85 season still get together for the games sometimes. And it’s always a walk down memory lane when you get together with them and there’s so many things that you’ve forgotten about that they just bring back to the forefront. There’s nothing like being with those guys.

Bonham: What made that team special?

Singletary: First of all, you start with Coach (Mike) Ditka. He was a unique individual to begin with. Then you look at Buddy Ryan, the coordinator. He’s a personality all on his own. He’s got a million one-liners. Then of course, you’ve got Jim McMahon. You had the Fridge (William Perry). You had Steve McMichael. This list goes on and on. There were some guys on that team that a lot of people didn’t even know about that were just really interesting characters. I didn’t even mention Walter Payton. It’s pretty amazing that you gather a group of guys like that together and you’ve got a building that can hold all of them. It was really unique. There were a lot of colorful guys.

Bonham: When did you start to recognize that the Bears had the makings of a championship team?

Singletary: It was early in the 1984 season and we were talking about being a playoff team. We were going to go to the Super Bowl. But then we had some things happen in our season and it just wasn’t happening. We didn’t look like it. We didn’t think like it. We didn’t play like it. We didn’t talk like it. We had just lost a game to the Dallas Cowboys and I was on my way out to the practice field and several guys had talked to me in the locker room before going out and they just said, “Mike, I don’t know. I think we’re a year away. We’re just not there yet.” I knew what I believed in my heart and my mind and my soul. We were ready. We just didn’t believe we were ready. We had a fear of success. At practice, the five team captains stood before the team and led the warm-up exercises. The first couple of guys went and it was pretty dry, pretty stale. Coach Ditka was trying to figure out what was going on. We had begun to believe the lie that we weren’t ready. It came my time to lead the team in pushups. As I looked at our guys, I began to cry. I felt like there was this opportunity in our hands and we were letting it slip through our fingers. I made a decision at that moment that I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t give up on it. I wasn’t going to give up on it. I made a speech to the guys. I told them that I was refusing to go home early that year. I was tired of going home. I was tired of watching others teams in the playoffs. I wanted to see us play. I wanted to hear my mom talk about her son going to the Super Bowl. I wanted to hear my dad and my sisters and brothers talk about the Chicago Bears. I wanted to hear people talking about the Bears playing on Monday Night Football, because you had to be pretty good to do that. So I wasn’t willing to let that go. So I cried out to the guys. I said what I had to say. When I was done, it was very quiet for what seemed like a long, long time. And then one of our guys, Dan Hampton, started clapping and then everybody started clapping and all the guys agreed with me. “We’re not going to go home! We are going to go to the playoffs!” We had a great practice that day. I remember Buddy Ryan coming up to me afterwards and saying, “You know what son, I heard your heart. I appreciated that.” We ended up going to the championship game and we went to the Super Bowl the following year.

Bonham: Where you did your intensity and that trademark “look” come from?

Singletary: Honestly when I look back at it, I think I got the intensity from my mother. When she and my dad divorced, I was 12 years old and I just remember the way she worked and the way she had to go and provide. And she always talked to me about whatever I did that she wanted to make sure I did my best. I really didn’t know any other way to do it. I’m the kind of person that I took everything literally. To this day, if someone says that if you do this, this is going to be the result. I would do whatever that was because that was the formula. If I got out there on the field and just everything that I could give every play and if I studied really hard and knew and could anticipate everything that was going to happen, then I had a great chance of being a great player. And I wanted to be a great player. I wanted our team to go to the Super Bowl. I guess that’s kind of where it comes from.

Bonham: How did you manage to turn it off and on?

Singletary: That’s another thing that my mom talked to me about. When you’re in Rome, you act like you’re in Rome. If I’m in the classroom I want to learn. When I’m on the football field, I want to play. I want to win. There’s a time and a place for everything.

Bonham: How special was it to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

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Singletary: That was huge. Number one, the first thing I thought about were all the people that told me that couldn’t happen; all the people that told me that I was too small and too slow and too short. That was the first thought that popped into mind. What if I had listened? They really helped me to get me where I wanted to go. That was sort of the engine to get me there initially. The other thought that came about was I so thankful for all the people that believed in me and took the time to help me develop. They saw something in me and were willing to give of themselves to make a difference in my life. When I found out that I was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, rather than waiting for people to call me and congratulate me for doing such, I began to call to people. I began to call my teammates. I called my mom. I talked to my wife. I called all of my coaches and just thanked them for what they had done in order for me to do that.

Bonham: What led you to get into coaching?

Singletary: I was out of coaching for 10 years. During that time I was in business. I was teaching leadership and teamwork building. I was speaking and teaching diversity training. Somebody called me from Baylor University about being the head coach. I thought about it. My wife and I prayed about it and we felt it was time to get back in the game. They ended up going with a guy by the name of Guy Morris. Obviously that was the right decision for them. But I’m thankful for that situation because it allowed me for the time in my life to be open to coaching. As that opportunity afforded itself, my wife and I just knew we were going to be coaching. We put our house up for sale. We prayed about it. We knew that the Lord was leading us that way. We didn’t even know where we were going to coach. We just knew we were going to be coaching.

Bonham: Are you as intense as a coach as you were as a player?

Singletary: I try not to be. The coaching is done in practice. You’re out there in practice. You’re coaching the guys. You’re giving them the tools. When the game comes, you more or less want to stand back and allow them to play. For me, it’s almost too late to try to coach them then. You can kind of tweak them. It’s almost like when you’re playing golf. Teach me how to play golf when I’m taking lessons. Once I get out there on the course, let me play. So when it comes to game time, I’m very calm.

Bonham: How did you experience in a single parent home shape the person you are today?

Singletary: My mother and I were very close. We always talked. She talked to me about life and what it was going to take to be successful in life. She talked to me about being the kind of man that would make a difference. She began talking to me about being a husband and a father when I was 12 and 13 years old. She told me how to treat my wife, how to look for a wife, how to be gentleman, how to weather the storms of life when they come, how to close your mouth and how to listen, how to act, how to respect your elders. All of those things went into who I was. But she always taught me what life was all about. That was what we talked about all the time – sometimes from the time I got home from football practice until the next morning.

Bonham: Does your experience help you speak into the lives of players that may have grown up under similar circumstances?

Singletary: All the time. For me, it’s just a matter of looking at the guys that I coach and really feeling where they are and having the opportunity to build into their lives as they allow me to. I don’t sit down and go, “Let me tell you how I did this.” I give them my very best every day. I let them know that I’m concerned about them and they can always come to me. I don’t pry into their lives. When they come to me, I always tell them, “If you want me to be honest, ask me the question.” I will not come to them giving them all of this advice if they don’t ask for it. But if they want to know something and if they ask me, I will be honest with them if they’re ready for it. That’s kind of the relationship that we have.

Bonham: What did you learn from your up-and-down experience as a first-time head coach at San Francisco?

mike_singletary_vs_bearsSingletary: First of all, the number one lesson that I’ve learned is whenever you have a setback, how you look at it is so important. You have a choice to become bitter or better. It’s simply making the decision to trust God and say, “Lord, I know that this is part of the journey.” I don’t like being in the valley, but I understand and all I can say is that I trust God. For these times when you’re on top of that mountain, you don’t shout out how you feel or how you think things should be. You’re listening. It’s time to regroup. It’s time to review. It’s time to really look at those things and ask all the questions that you can from people you trust and love. Take your medicine and make sure that it’s medicine that can make you better and nurse you back to health and make you strong again. You have to make sure that you become twice as good, twice as strong as you were before. You really learn from it and then prepare to move on. It really is a journey. I refuse to let anyone put a period at that juncture.

Bonham: At what point in your life did you begin actively seeking a personal relationship with God?

Singletary: It was 1986. It was several months after the Super Bowl. I was very frustrated and very angry. I was almost depressed after the Super Bowl because I was trying to figure out why I wasn’t happy. I was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year. I’d gone to the Super Bowl. We were 15-1, the whole nine yards and I wasn’t happy. Everybody was coming up to me saying, “Wow. You guys are the Chicago Bears. You’re great. The defense was outstanding.” And I’m sitting here thinking, “What is wrong with me?” And as I began to look at it, I began to understand that the Lord was calling me to a higher call. At that time I was lukewarm. I was a Christian around Christians and I was somebody else on the football field. I was somebody else at home. The Lord was just calling me out and allowing me to see myself for who I was. God was saying, “You need to walk with me or get the heck away from me.” And I took that challenge. I began to look at myself and recognize that I was hypocritical and that I was judgmental. I was very shallow. I had to deal with those things. I had to talk to my wife. I had to talk to my father and go through that whole process of forgiveness and really come to grips with the ugliness of my life. And as I began to do that, the Lord and I began to trade. I gave Him my ugliness in exchange for His wholeness and beauty and all of the things that He created me to be. At that time, I began to receive those things. I began to go through the process that He led me through to look at my life and how I needed to change.

Bonham: Why did it take reaching the height of success before you realized how much you needed God?

Singletary: You just get to that point to where you think you’re going to be happy and it’s just the opposite. You wonder, “What else is there?”

Bonham: When did you first start to learn biblical principles?

Singletary: My father was a pastor. We were always in church. It was a Pentecostal church. But my dad was up and down, which is where I was going. And the Lord just told me that wasn’t going to work.

Bonham: You had a rocky relationship with your dad but you eventually reconciled back in 1986. How important was that for you personally?

Singletary: I tell you what, that was huge. It really changed my life and it allowed me to experience love for the first time in my life. I was now able to begin to free myself and begin to understand what Jesus had really done on the Cross. I began to see my dad for who he was through God’s eyes and not through my eyes. And that made all the difference in the world.

Bonham: What are some things you’ve learned about leadership from a spiritual perspective that have helped you in your most recent return to the coaching profession?

This is a 2009 photo of Head Coach Mike Singletary of the San Francisco 49ers NFL football team. This image reflects the San Francisco 49ers active roster as of Monday, June 28, 2010. (AP Photo)

Singletary: There is no teacher that compares to Christ. The greatest lesson I’ve learned about teaching has come from just reading about His life. The words He said challenge me every day. The words “Follow me” are very simple, but that is very hard as a leader. If I could tell my group here with the team that I’m coaching or the group I’m leading at home what I really want and what I really expect from them, I need to be able to say, “Follow me.” I’m telling them that by watching me, they will see everything the need to know. That’s extremely difficult for me to tell a kid to put away their stuff because that means I have to put away my stuff. If I want my son to be a gentleman, then that means I had to treat my daughters and my wife that way so he can see what it looks like. Not everything that Jesus spoke was accepted. He spoke the truth. People don’t always want to hear the truth. We have to be mature enough to know who we’re talking to. Jesus had such wisdom. He didn’t talk a lot but what He said had a lot of weight. He had the wisdom to know when someone was trying to catch Him in something. Not everybody who asked a question really wanted to know the answer. That’s the same with us. People don’t always want an answer. Sometimes they want you to screw up. The greatest impact to me is when I read about the last days of Christ. The people that put Him on that donkey and praised Him ‘Hosanna!” were the same people who a few days later had Him crucified. That helps me understand that as a teacher, when I get it right, I’m not always going to get an A. I want my kids to understand that sometimes in the world’s eyes, it looks like you got an F but just know in your heart that you passed the test and from God you got an A.

 

(Photos: AP Photos via NFL Images; Maria L. Taylor; Jose Martinez Pavliga; BrokenSphere)

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