THE MAN'S NAME IS MIKE MURPHY. HE'S AN ASSISTANT COACH WITH THE DETROIT LIONS. A FEW WEEKS AGO HE SPOKE IN A SMALL MEETING ROOM OF THE HOLIDAY INN-EAST IN ANN ARBOR, MICH., AND HIS AUDIENCE DID NOT MOVE. HE TOLD HIS STORY WITHOUT FRILLS: THE DEATH OF HIS WIFE, THE DEATH OF HIS FATHER, THE APPROACHING DEATH OF HIS MOTHER. THE WORDS CAME DIRECTLY FROM HIS HEART, AND HIS AUDIENCE DID NOT MOVE THE MEMBERS OF THE AUDIENCE WERE MOSTLY COLLEGE STUDENTS—FOOTBALL PLAYERS. THEY filled their chairs, big kids with their heads down in concentration. Who was this guy? They listened to every word he said.
This is an article from the Nov. 13, 1989 issue
Already there had been five hymns. The kids had sung Amazing Grace with an off-key male beauty, no accompaniment needed. They had listened to one of their teammates, Mark Smith, a red-faced offensive lineman, talk about his difficult relationship with his father before his father died of a stroke. Smith had spoken haltingly, respectfully. No one had even coughed. The next guy, Murphy, went further.
He told how his wife had died in August of cancer. How she had loved Jesus. He told how he had talked to his sick father and tried to convince him to embrace Christ and had failed. He said he had been embarrassed because someone else was in the hospital room, and he and his father hadn't witnessed together, and the next day the old man was dead. He told how with his mother he had succeeded. His mother is dying of cancer. He had talked to her on the phone, and she had accepted Christ as her savior. "I have learned," Murphy said in a New York accent. "I have learned from the past. I wasn't going to mess up this time."
A squadron of police cruisers, sirens screaming, could have arrived outside the hotel doors. No one would have noticed. This man stood in the midst of strangers and laid open his soul. He shared himself. He said at the end of his talk that he'd been afraid he was going to cry and was glad he hadn't. Heads stayed bowed. He looked straight at Smith, the young offensive lineman who had been so nervous about speaking.
"Mark," he said, "my wife didn't know anything about football. She didn't know if a football was stuffed or blown up. The other coaches' wives had to tell her why the markers were being moved for a first down. She is going to be at your game tomorrow; I know she is. And she is going to need help. A proud man is going to come down because his son is playing. He is going to watch the game and tell my wife what is happening. They are going to be there, together."
"I want all of you to do two things tomorrow," Murphy said. "After the introductions, after the national anthem, I want you to look up and say hello to the people who have come to watch you play, special people. Then I want you to reach down—Eastern Michigan is big, very big, a giant—I want you to reach down and pick up those five smooth stones. I want you to slay the giant."
Was he finished? Everyone was silent. Then the clapping began.
A wide receiver called for a prayer. The players around the room held hands, black hands and white hands, big hands and small hands, a ring of hands. Barriers did not exist. The Liberty University Flames clung to each other. Gladly. Hopefully.
"I have never seen anything like this," Murphy said later. "And I've been in this business 22 years."
If football is a team game, then the Flames, whose 1989 record is now 6-2, are the ultimate team. Soldiers of Christ. Jerry Falwell's team. Charging into the night.
Liberty University is located in Lynchburg, Va., on a 5,300-acre campus carved out of a mountainside where Falwell hunted squirrels and rabbits as a child. There, in the last 12 months, a stadium has risen from the ground. It has 12,000 aluminum seats; synthetic turf stretches across the red clay. Sam Rutigliano, former coach of the Cleveland Browns, has been hired as coach. His mission is to move Liberty into the big time of college football. Play Notre Dame someday. Play Brigham Young. Grab the best young fundamentalist bodies in the land and play for the Lord against the best.
At times it all seems like fantasy—Liberty? Liberty University?—but it has a momentum of its own. Today the 12,000-seat stadium. Tomorrow the 24,000-seat stadium. Or maybe the 36,000-seat stadium. Computer printouts suggest the possibilities. How many fundamentalists live in the U.S.? How many of those brick-walled Baptist churches are there, especially in the football South, with everyone praying? How many of the fathers and mothers in those pews would like to send their born-again 250-pound sons to a place where no one drinks or smokes or does drugs or goes to see A Nightmare on Elm Street or listens to Bon Jovi in concert on a Saturday night? How many of those sons can play football?
"We have lofty goals," Falwell says in his familiar cable-television voice. "I said when we started football here that I wanted to play Notre Dame. My athletic director soon told me I spoke too strongly, but I can dream. I may be on crutches, they may have to wheel me out on a stretcher by the time it happens, but that is a goal. I know Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. He is a fine evangelical Christian, you know. I have an idea he'd schedule us when we were ready."
When Falwell's school, then known as Lynchburg Baptist College, opened 18 years ago, classes were held in an abandoned high school. Falwell was a local minister, just starting to ride television's magic beam from his church on Thomas Road toward political controversy and national prominence. He would bring the term moral majority into cocktail conversation. He would lead the fight against abortion. He would outrage minorities by calling South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu a "phony." He would try to put the confused house of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in order.
Liberty was part of Falwell's emergence, a building block of his Christian empire. A spiritual boot camp (his term).
Sports were always part of the vision. As a 170-pound fullback and safety, Falwell was captain of the football team at Lynchburg's Brookville High; he is still proud that he once played all 48 minutes of a game. As a baseball player, he tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals when they held a weeklong camp at Lynchburg City Stadium. He played basketball at Bible Baptist College in Springfield, Mo. He sees sports as a medium for reaching young people. What most attracts the attention of youth? Sports and music. There's no rock music at Liberty; rock is an ally of the devil. There are sports.
"I've always had an interest in sports," Falwell says. "I've always liked the New York Yankees, though I must say Brother Steinbrenner has been trying my patience of late. Jerry Jones seems to be falling into the same situation with the Dallas Cowboys, another one of my teams. The Celtics have been a special favorite—Larry Bird is just the best player ever to play the game—but they look like they're done, too."
The arrival, in 1974, of the school's first baseball coach, Al Worthington, gave an indication of how its athletics would develop. As a 29-year-old pitcher for the San Francisco Giants in 1958, Worthington attended a Billy Graham crusade at the Cow Palace. He was intrigued by the sight of people walking to the stage to witness for Christ. He went back a second night and found himself walking to the stage. The words that went through his head were, Lord, I am coming to live my life for You. He became, as far as he knew, the only born-again Christian in baseball.
"I didn't know of any others—if there were any," he says. "I was the odd guy. I was alone. Who was doing this? Me and some missionaries in foreign countries. I was even thrown off a couple of teams for being a Christian. A manager with the Giants, I remember, once told me not to bring my religion onto the field. I told him I bring my religion everywhere."
By 1973, Worthington had retired and was the pitching coach of the Minnesota Twins. He heard Falwell speak about his school on the radio. It was enough to change Worthington's life again. He called Falwell and located him in a hotel room in Portland, Ore. Worthington said a new Christian college should have a good Christian baseball coach. He wanted the job. Money was not a problem.
At the end of the season, Worthington left the big leagues and arrived in Lynchburg to coach a baseball team that had no field and not many baseballs. "If I'd known that, maybe I wouldn't have come so fast," he says. "I wound up with all the equipment in the trunk of my car. We practiced at this little Colt League park in town. The field was so bad, I rigged up this broom to drag from the back of my car just to smooth out the infield. We had no facilities. None."
Worthington is now Liberty's athletic director. He has a corner office in a building with a weight room in the basement that's big enough to keep four dozen Schwarzeneggers happy at the same time. The school has grown to 55 buildings and 6,500 conservatively dressed students (shirts and ties for men and skirts or dresses for women before 4:30 in the afternoon; after that they may wear jeans, T-shirts and sneakers). There's a tidy little baseball stadium named Worthington Field. The baseball coach is Bobby Richardson, the Yankee second baseman of the 1950s and '60s. A hole in the ground marks the start of a 10,000-seat field house that will be completed next year. Liberty competes on the highest NCAA level in every sport except football, which it plays in Division I-AA. And in football it's on the rise.
Liberty is checking off the NCAA requirements for I-A football certification, one after another, starting with its new $2 million Willard May Stadium, donated by an Amarillo, Texas, millionaire. "It's amazing, sure," Worthington says, "but nothing will amaze me as much as when the road was paved right through the middle of this campus. I was here when it was dirt."
Falwell, 56, attends most home football games and many on the road. He's a frequent visitor to practice, too, driving onto the sidelines in his GMC Suburban. His political drive has waned. Liberty football has become the push. This is where the cameras are. Haifa dozen big-city newspapers already have sent correspondents down the backroads to this largest city in America (pop. 70,000) that's not located next to an interstate. Falwell wants more.
"I recruit for our teams, sure I do," he says. "I'm the last voice on the telephone. 'Hello? This is Reverend Jerry Falwell calling. I understand your son, Billy, is a good Christian and wondering where to go to school....' I recruit on television. I'll have Bobby Richardson as a guest on my show and say, 'Bobby, if God could grant you one wish, wouldn't He send you a 6'4" lefthanded pitcher who can throw the ball 100 miles per hour and know where it's going?' "
"What if Bobby Richardson asked for something else?" Falwell is asked. "Like world peace?"
"Well, I guess that would be all right, too," Falwell says. "Either that or the pitcher."
The signing of Rutigliano was Liberty's biggest football accomplishment. NFL coach goes to coach at small school? The headlines came easily. Rutigliano is a dynamic, well-spoken man, last seen on the sidelines of Cleveland Municipal Stadium and in the broadcast booth wearing an NBC blazer. He is 57, and in 33 years of coaching he has moved 19 times, bought 10 homes and sent his kids to 23 different schools. This is his last stop.
"I look at my life now and I say that if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn't do it," he says. "I got to where I wanted to go, which was great, but it wasn't worth it. If I lived my life over again, I would stay the coach at Greenwich [Conn.] High School for 25 years and retire on Cape Cod."
He was offered other jobs after his 6½-year run with the Browns ended the way most coaching runs end—he was fired in 1984. He could have coached two other pro teams. He could have coached at big colleges. The job at Northwestern seemed interesting for a while, but his wife talked him out of it. "She said. Think about what it's going to feel like when you have to walk across that field and shake Bo Schembechler's hand after he beats you 56-10.' " Rutigliano says. "And she was right. That's the way it would have been. My wife didn't want me to go back. She was very much down on coaching. She said she didn't like what it did to men. She had seen too much."
The plan was to give speeches, do some television work, coast. Rutigliano was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, having become a Christian in 1962 after he fell asleep at the wheel and his four-year-old daughter was killed in the ensuing crash. He had gone to religion for help and found it. His five years away from coaching gave him time to speak more about his faith. He never was a fire-and-brimstone guy—more of a conversationalist. A quiet believer.
"I was on one staff in the NFL where every road trip, all of the other assistants would go out," he says. "They'd have their dancing shoes on before the plane landed. Wild. Every time, about three in the morning, they'd send either a prostitute or the bar bill to my room. I'd open the door and some waiter would say. "The bill is for $600.' I finally figured out the way to stop it. I just never answered my door."
A trip to speak at Liberty brought Rutigliano together with Falwell. The two men talked in general about what was needed to boost the school's football program. Later they met at LaGuardia Airport in New York. The discussions became specific. Rutigliano was offered the job.
This time his wife said he should accept. He had talked in the past about going back down the ladder, giving some of his experience back to the game. The Christian setting seemed right. "Some of my good friends, godly men, told me not to do it, not to go with Reverend Falwell because I'd be labeled," Rutigliano says. "I thought it over. The man has been pastor of the same church here for 33 years. If you could be labeled, that's not a bad label. If some things had happened in the past, well, if you had a bad meal, you don't stop eating."
There was an embarrassing bit of business to conclude: Liberty already had a coach, Morgan Hout, and his 1988 team had finished with an 8-3 record. Falwell didn't blink. He said Hout was not the man to lead the school to the next level. Last December, he offered Hout a cash settlement or a job as assistant athletic director. Hout took the cash settlement to Waco, Texas, where he's an unpaid assistant at Baylor. Falwell said there might even have been some perverse good in firing a coach with an 8-3 record. It drew more publicity than firing a coach with a 3-8 record.
Rutigliano was on the phone by Christmas Eve, calling each of his players and talking about plans for the new season. A pro offense was coming. A pro coach was coming. "This is where I'm supposed to be," he says. "It energizes me. These kids are really something. Everything they do is to glorify the Lord. Not once have I heard a kid swear on the practice field. Do you know how different that is? Swearing is a language the NFL is very fluent in. The first home game? No swearing. No cigarette smoking. No drunks; I mean my mother-in-law once had her handbag stolen at a game in Cleveland."
His players go to chapel on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. They go to services on Wednesday night and twice on Sunday—the entire student body stuffed into the gym. They pray before practice. They pray at the end of practice. Television sets are not allowed in dorm rooms. No sneakers in class. The televisions in the student center are tuned perpetually to the school's closed-circuit station: a sign above each set says: PLEASE DO NOT TURN TELEVISION SET OFF.
This is a total Christian environment. Visits to the local quadriplex are forbidden, so selected films are shown on campus. The movie one recent weekend was Oliver and Friends, a full-length Disney cartoon. A notation on the poster announcing the showing of the film said the movie was EDITED FOR LIBERTY UNIVERSITY. What could have been edited out?
"Probably cuss words," senior quarterback Paul Johnson said. "I don't know."
At Liberty, men live in men's dorms, women in women's dorms. The curfew is midnight, when all overhead lights must be turned off. A 4½-foot-high white marble monument off to the side of R.C. Worley Chapel is inscribed: IN MEMORY OF THE MILLIONS OF ABORTED BABIES THAT HAVE DIED IN AMERICA SINCE JANUARY 22, 1973 (the date of the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade). The Liberty Way, the school guidebook, lays out strict rules about dating. There are strict rules about virtually all human activity. Players on other teams sometimes call the Liberty players "Jerry's kids."
"It's not a school for everybody," Rutigliano says. "If you don't want to live this way, you shouldn't come here. We have a player who chose between here and Princeton and decided to come here. How do you decide on a college if you're an athlete? You use three criteria: academics, athletics, social situation. O.K., academics: You have to say Princeton; it's an old and famous school. Athletics: A toss-up, maybe. Social situation: If you're a Christian and want to live a Christian life, you pick here. Because here you're not different. At Princeton, you'd be different. Here, you're with people like you. Everyone's a Christian."
The recruiting list for next year supposedly contains more than 800 names. It's different from the recruiting list of any other school. Ministers send in names. Born-agains send in names. The scope is nationwide. Love Jesus? Love football? Doors might not be open at other schools, but they're open at Liberty. The black Christian so far has been as recruitable as the white Christian. Have you been saved? What is your time in the 40-yard dash? What do you bench-press? Come. All that is required is a C average, a high-school diploma and a belief in Christ.
The Eastern Michigan behemoths were unbeaten at 5-0-1. Liberty also was unbeaten, 4-0, but it was a Division I-AA team meeting a I-A opponent for the first time in its history. The crowd of 14,127 at Rynearson Stadium in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Oct. 14 was the largest ever to watch Liberty play. This was also Band Night. Thirty-eight bands played nonstop secular music, a seemingly perpetual rendition of Louie Louie.
The odds were stacked against Liberty. Johnson, the starting quarterback for three years, was out with a knee injury. He was replaced by Robbie Justino, a nervous freshman.
The Flames also were not allowed to wear their towels.
"Why is that?" asked Liberty senior guard Barry Rice.
"NCAA rules," someone explained. "No messages on towels except the name of the school."
Half of Liberty's players had towels hanging from their pants during warm-ups, each towel inscribed with a favorite scripture or religious message. Rice's was a full bath towel on which he had written JESUS IS LORD with a felt-tip pen. Defensive back Brian Woolfolk had a cross shaved on the back of his head. The towels went. There was nothing the NCAA could do about Woolfolk's head.
"When we finish the game, we each witness," star tight end Eric Green said, noting another religious practice the NCAA could not control. "Win or lose. We each pick out a player, maybe the guy on the other team who plays the same position. We explain how we played for the Lord. We ask, 'If you died tomorrow, do you think you would go to Heaven?' Sometimes guys listen. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they just say, 'Get out of my face.' "
The game followed an uneven course. Justino did fine in the first half, keeping the Flames within two points of Eastern Michigan, 21-19, but in the third quarter and early in the fourth, his nerves betrayed him. He threw three consecutive interceptions. Rutigliano said the kid's eyes looked "like grapefruits," they were so wide. Liberty's defense kept the score close by stopping two Eastern Michigan drives on fourth down.
With 5:01 left, the Flames, now trailing 24-19, had the ball on their own 34-yard line. There was time for only one drive. This would be it: They would score or they wouldn't; they would win or they would lose. Of course, they prayed. Not to win but to play for God's glory. To let You shine through me, Lord. Let me praise You, Lord, with my work. The players on the sidelines held hands.
"I thought about my dad," said Smith. "I thought about Mike's wife. I said, O.K., now my dad's going to explain to her how we win the game."
The explanation was simple enough. Liberty marched down the field in 10 plays and scored the winning TD with :11 left. Justino handled his nerves and the Eastern Michigan pass rush. Green, the tight end, seemed to be everywhere. Finally, he was in the end zone. Justino passed, a defensive back tipped the ball, and Green turned and caught it with reflexes he didn't know he had. Touchdown. The Flames won 25-24 and began celebrating.
First they leaped onto each other. Then they sang a hymn. Then they trooped across the field to shake hands and talk religion with the losers. "I was looking for the other tight end," Green said. "And I found him. He didn't want to talk."
Five smooth stones.
Rutigliano told his team that this win meant as much as any in his career. A sign with the words RED RIGHT 88 written in orange-and-brown letters had been hung at one end of the stadium. This was a knock on the coach, since Red Right 88 was the play that had ended the Super Bowl hopes of Rutigliano's Cleveland team when Brian Sipe threw an interception in the end zone of the Oakland Raiders in an AFC divisional playoff game in 1981. All that seemed long ago.
"I'm the most peaceful I've ever been," Rutigliano said. "I don't know how peaceful I'd be at 0-5, but...."
A week later the Flames opened their new stadium and whipped Towson State, 37-18. The Christian soldiers were still on the march. Amen.