This article first appeared on January 19, 1999 in Chicago Magazine.
Mike Singletary is a standup guy. He says so clearly in his book Singletary on Singletary: “If you have a contract with me, written or oral, I will honor it. End of discussion.” Given that resounding assurance of reliability, I am a little surprised that this standup guy appears to have stood me up. An hour after my interview with Singletary was supposed to have started, I am still waiting for him in the lobby of a Barrington restaurant.
Everyone remembers Singletary as the Bears’ Rasputin-eyed linebacker, diving for loose halfbacks in Soldier Field with an expression that recalled Jack Nicholson chopping down the door in The Shining — and a banzai screech that earned him the nickname Samurai. Since he retired from knocking people over, Singletary, 41, has built a lucrative career as a motivational speaker for corporate America. And on the side, he has become a one-man Hull House, aiding athletes at the end of their rope. Sometimes he takes Jesus along to help. In other words, he used to love hitting people; now he loves healing them. In the last weeks of Walter Payton’s life, Singletary spent hours at the dying man’s bedside, praying and reading the Bible to guide his old teammate’s passage into heaven. Two years ago, when Alonzo Spellman melted down and barricaded himself inside a house, Singletary parted the row of police, went in, and came out with his arm around the broken defensive end. Singletary’s power to heal has grown so widely renowned that the Atlanta Braves called him in last spring to talk about the baseball team in the ugly aftermath of John Rocker’s xenophobic remarks in Sports Illustrated. “It was the very best thing we could have done,” says a grateful John Schuerholz, the Braves’ general manager.
All those good works — but no sign of him at the Barrington restaurant. When I get home, though, there’s an apologetic message on my voice mail and an explanation: “I didn’t bring my schedule book with me, and my wife called and asked if I wanted to have lunch across town. I’m so sorry. Give me a call and we’ll see if we can reschedule.”
Even though I’ve been stood up, I’m impressed. The day before, I’d finished reading Singletary’s book Daddy’s Home at Last, a polemic exhorting corporate-climbing fathers to spend more time with their families. Singletary seems to heed his own advice.
I don’t hear back from him for a week and a half. I’m about ready to give up on the story, until I recall these words from Singletary on Singletary: “Don’t be defeated by one defeat. Don’t be discouraged…. Keep your eye on the prize and be obsessive about it.” I decide to purse Singletary with Singletary-like fanaticism.
Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon, I get a terse message: “Meet me at the Marriott O’Hare, 4 p.m.” Singletary will be there to tape an interview for an ESPN special on Payton. At the hotel, I wait in the lobby until he has finished the interview; then we walk out together to his brand-new Silver Acura. He tells me that he’s just flown back from Houston, where he grew up. I’ve been reading about Enron Field, the Astros’ new ballpark, and I pepper him with a few facts about the 315-foot fence in left, the hill in center field. Singletary cuts me off. “I hear it’s nice,” he barks.
Singletary is not in a bad mood. He’s just a man with no talent for, or interest in, small talk. Bill Glass, a pro football player turned prison evangelist who has taken Singletary along on visits to the Cook County Jail, calls him “as serious and intense a guy as I’ve ever seen. I’ve tried to loosen him up a little bit, and he doesn’t loosen. It’s not that he’s angry, but he’s — ‘I’ve got a lot to do, and I want to be with other people who’ve got a lot to do, too.'”
Inside the Acura, Singletary slips oval sunglasses over those eyes that could beat a snake in a staring contest, turns off the radio in deference to my tape recorder, and wheels out of the parking lot. Singletary’s height surprises people — he is just over five feet ten — but his shoulders block out half the horizon, and he’s got thick, neck-snapping hands. He seems monastically self-controlled, able to regulate every emotion, every word that emerges from his monolithic body.
A car interview is perfect for Singletary: It doesn’t steal time from his family, and, because he wears hearing aids — he’s had significant hearing loss in both ears since he was young, caused perhaps by working construction withn his father — it is easy for him to pick up questions from the passenger sitting nearby to his side. I ask about the Rocker meeting with the Braves. Singletary had reportedly drawn thoughtful stares from the team’s white players when he got a black player to talk about being pulled over by suburban cops on the way to a party and forced to kneel in a mud puddle. But Singletary also asked the clubhouse to be tolerant of Rocker, a 26-year-old who had been naÃ¯ve and tactless enough to express his racism in front of a reporter. “Basically, we were just having the team be aware that this is not something that’s going to go away,” Singletary says in his deliberate, deep-as-the-ocean voice. (His precise, profound pronunciation would make him perfect as the voice of the New Testament for Books on Tape.) “Rather than looking at Rocker and saying, ‘This guy, I don’t want to play with him, he’s stupid,’ I just asked them to really think, to be honest with themselves: ‘He said some things; there’s no doubt about it. But how many of you have thought them?'”
When our conversation turns to Walter Payton, Singletary’s words come more sparingly; the long silences between sentences are filled with the swish of highway traffic. As Bear teammates the two had not always been close. The author Jerry Jenkins, who wrote books with both men, says Payton sometimes chafed at Singletary’s evangelism. “Those guys on the Bears almost looked at him like a clergyman,” Jenkins says. “I think it alienated him a little bit more from Walter because [Singletary] wanted to have a little bit more spiritual impact than Walter wanted.”
Singletary says he tried to give Payton his privacy as he was dying. So many people were calling and writing that “I felt I was getting in the way.” But with a few weeks left, Matt Suhey, a former teammate of both men, came to see Singletary. “You need to be over there,” Suhey told him. “He wants you over there.”
“[Payton] asked me, ‘Mike, I want you to read Scripture with me,’ and I was very excited about that,” Singletary recalls. “He definitely believed in God, and he believed in Christ. Walter wanted to be able to talk about faith, things that he should be doing right now. He wanted to talk about fear, overcoming that.” From then on, Singletary and Payton read the Bible together two or three times a week and talked about the world to come. Payton found particular comfort in Isaiah 53:5, a verse that prophesies the sacrifices of Jesus: “But he was wounded for our transgressions,” it reads, “he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
Suhey acknowledges that Singletary “challenged people spiritually.” But Payton was ready for that, Suhey says. “I think he felt Mike was very trustworthy, and was of the confidence that his beliefs would be kept to themselves,” Suhey said. “I think the spirituality and the honesty represented something that Walter would be comfortable with.”
Alonzo Spellman, another Bear who got a visit from Singletary at the worst moment of his life, didn’t know Singletary well. They had played together for one season, and Singletary remembered him only as “a big kid, a nice guy.” On March 9, 1998, Singletary was driving home from the post office when he heard on the radio that Spellman had barricaded himself inside his publicist’s house. He called the Bears to confirm the story and was told, “He’s in the house, surrounded by a SWAT team. I don’t think he has any weapons.” Driving straight to the scene in Tower Lakes, Singletary talked the police into letting him go inside. He didn’t know for sure that Spellman was unarmed, but, he says, “I wasn’t concerned at all. I just feel like, if God is saying ‘Go,’ then I’m protected.”
Inside the house, Singletary persuaded Spellman to go to the hospital. “He said, ‘Well, I’m not going to leave unless you leave with me,'” Singletary recalls. “If you go with me to the hospital, that’s the only way I’ll go.’ So he and I prayed together before we went outside, got in the car, and went to the hospital, and then we prayed some more.”
Today, Spellman has straightened himself out and plays for the Dallas Cowboys.
Singletary is just as likely to act as spiritual confessor to strangers. When he is flying to a business meeting or a corporate speech, Singletary often gets into conversations that start, “Didn’t you used to play for the Bears?” Eventually, he maneuvers the talk to what he calls his Million Dollar Question: “Are you happy?” Most of the time, he says, the answer is “No, not really.”
Since Singletary flies first class, he says, his seatmates usually “lead a corporation. I start asking questions. ‘What in your life right now do you really like about your life? What would you do differently, do over again?’ Nine times out of ten, something comes up: ‘I’ve got a mother who doesn’t talk to me.’ ‘I’ve got a son, I know we had a bad relationship when he was a kid, and I just hurt him. He doesn’t want to call me.’ It just goes on and on. Some, we pray together on the plane. Some receive Jesus Christ.”
Every evangelist has his audience. Singletary’s is the man who has everything but Jesus. He talks glancingly of his work with prisoners and inner-city children, but he walks in the corporate world: He lives in South Barrington; he’s a consultant to Fortune 500 companies; he earns roughly $20,000 a night as a motivational speaker.
Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports in Evanston, has brokered dozens of speeches for Singletary. After a year and a half of working with him, the wary Singletary trusted Williams enough to reveal his deepest ambition: He wanted to be the best sports speaker in America. Then you’ve got to be funny, Williams told him. “Years ago, he had no humor in his speech,” Williams says. “He knew he had to do that to get to the next level.”
They said Singletary was too small to play linebacker, but he went to ten Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998. They said Singletary was as humorless as the Spanish Inquisition, but he learned standup. I saw him speak to a meeting of drug company executives at another hotel near O’Hare. When he told a story about the moment he realized that his sweet bride, Kim, had turned into a wife, guys were laughing and high-fiving each other with wedding-ringed hands.
“When we got back from our honeymoon, I realized something was different,” Singletary began. “I grabbed a basketball and was going down to the gym to play ball with the guys. She said, ‘Where are you going?’ It was something about the tone of her voice. ‘What time will you be back?’ I felt like I was home again, like I was a three-year-old. I thought, I’d better nip this in the bud. I said, ‘I’ll be back when the game is over.’ ‘No, you won’t. Dinner is at five, and you’re going to be here.'”
The speech — which swung from Cosby-like riffs about marriage to sobering stories of Singletary’s childhood, when he was the youngest among then brothers and sisters — was about commitment, excellence, goals, relationships, vision, blood, sweat and tears. All the things a drug company needs to defeat its rivals. One topic Singletary didn’t touch was religion. He leaves that out of his corporate speeches, although his audience can always tell that he is a believer from the way he talks about family and relationships.
Early on in his speaking career, Singletary says, he “came very close to just totally speaking to churches, and that’s it.” But later he decided to branch out. “I felt like the Lord said, ‘I’ve got people preaching to the choir. I need you to talk about faith and family and forgiveness to people who might not be getting that message every Sunday morning at 11.'”
Recently, Singletary joined an organization called Firm Foundation, a group of suburban businessmen who want to dismantle the welfare system and replace it with church-run work programs. His picture is in the brochure, and a recent meeting, he testified about his mother’s refusal to take welfare after his father walked out on her and the ten little Singletarys. That’s the same self-reliant attitude Singletary wants to encourage.
If welfare can make people shiftless, can’t wealth — a more common affliction in Singletary’s circle — turn them into golden idol-worshipping materialists? Absolutely, says Singletary, who criticizes the wealthy for isolating themselves. This could sound fatuous coming from a South Barrington millionaire, but Singletary has tried to give his seven children a taste of his common upbringing. He actually moved from a larger to a smaller house — it’s 8,500 square feet — so that none of his children would have his or her own bedroom. Growing up in Houston, Singletary shared a room with four brothers.
He also refuses to hire a lawn service. “The thing is not to get sucked into a lifestyle,” he says. “We cut our own yard. Our kids, last year they said, ‘Dad, why do we cut our own yard? Nobody else cuts their yard.’ I told them, ‘I just want you to understand, this is building cameraderie. We pray together, we work together.'”
Ten years ago, when Jerry Jenkins was helping write Singletary on Singletary, he watched his coauthor drill the children to be Christian soldiers. Like a church Singletary’s family has its own creed: Love Jesus; love one another; obey your parents; pray for one another; and put family before friends. And like a business, it has a mission statement, which hangs in the foyer of the house: “This is the home of champions,” it reads. “As Singletarys, we will always strive to do our very best in all we do.” “He was saying something about how his goal is to fill the children with spiritual wisdom every day,” Jenkins says. “I said, ‘How old is the oldest one?’ He said, ‘Four and a half.'” But, adds Jenkins, his kids “just idolize him. They look at him like he’s God.”
Singletary gets off Interstate 90 at the Barrington exit, then drives down a long road that looks as if it leads to a subdivision. In fact, it leads to Singletary’s church. Willow Creek Community Church is one of the immense evangelical houses of worship that have sprung up across the country over the past two decades; in a 1999 article, The New York Times called it “the most influential megachurch in the United States,” and it was here that President Bill Clinton made his public repentance in August. Every week, 17,000 people attend one of its services, which feature pop music and mini-dramas to illustrate the gospel. Singletary is here today to drop off a tape — a recording of him crooning a song called “Twenty Years Ago.” Some of the church’s musicians will dub in instrumentals, and the resulting mix will be a birthday surprise for Singletary’s wife, whom he met at Baylor University in the early 1980s.
As Singletary walks the halls, no one rubbernecks at him. He’s been attending Willow Creek for nearly two decades, since the church’s pastor, Bill Hybels, led prayer sessions for the Bears. Singletary leads a “small group” of eight or so members who read the Bible and discuss spiritual problems. He volunteers in the nursery. The church tries not to abuse his fame, but he does speak at a men’s breakfast and, once a year, to the Sports and Fitness Ministry.
“I think our church had really responded maturely, giving Mike and Kim love, and not expecting him to be a celebrity,” says Hybels.
My visit with Singletary ends at the same place I was first supposed to meet him for lunch: the Millrose Restaurant. Singletary stops in front of the door and tells me the maitre d’ can call me a cab for the ride back to Rosemont. Before I’m dismissed from the car, I ask Singletary his own Million Dollar Question: “Are you happy?”
“Ah, heck yeah,” he rumbles. “I’m so thankful that I’m not lost, that I have a vision, that I know where I’m going and what I’m doing. I’m so thankful that I’m married to a woman who loves me for who I am, and I love her unconditionally. I’m so thankful that I have seven kids that I can teach and mold and help to grow and come into their own. To be great moms and dads and to raise families and to continue to carry on what their mother and I have done.”
I get out of the car. Singletary spins his Acura out of the parking lot and speeds away home. You can understand why he’s in a hurry.