When the New York Times featured Nathan Whitaker last October for partnering with sports figures like Tony Dungy and Tim Tebow to write about how Christianity guides their lives, he posted his biggest disappointment about the article on Facebook.
“The photo doesn’t capture the cool jeans I was wearing.”
Despite the unglamorous photo, the article did a fair job of detailing Whitaker’s unconventional journey from lawyer to best-selling author and how he became part of a new phenomenon in the publishing world identified as “muscular Christianity.”
“Leave it to the New York Times to have a name for it,” Whitaker said in a telephone interview. “Things have a way of working out the way God has planned, but the lesson I want to teach my daughters is if God gives you a passion, then you follow it.”
Faith and sports
Religion was planted in Whitaker at a young age and he was raised to embrace Christian values. Whitaker grew up in a Methodist congregation and accepted Christ at age 12. He credits good examples, especially his father and a couple of influential athletes he knew at the University of Florida, for teaching him the true meaning of humility, character and integrity. Another source of inspiration was “In His Steps,” a book authored by Charles M. Sheldon in 1896. “In His Steps” encourages readers to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?”
“I’m not sure anyone has a stranglehold on truth,” Whitaker said. “Faith has helped me keep rooted to what is important. It’s helped me remember that ‘This too shall pass,’ good or bad. It’s helped me keep an eternal perspective.”
Whitaker’s religious beliefs motivated him as a high school baseball and football player. He kept a piece of tape on his bathroom mirror with the old Oakland Raider phrase, “Commitment to Excellence.”
“My thought was if I’m going to hold myself out there as a Christian I need to do the most I can; I need to work hard academically,” he said. “If (God) gave me these gifts, I would set about doing something, go as hard as I could.”
Whitaker’s competitive drive led him to play baseball at Duke University. He also walked on the Blue Devils’ football team. But life as a non-scholarship punter/kicker was challenging.
“I literally kicked off twice in four years,” he said.
At one point, he considered transferring to Princeton or Vanderbilt, but ultimately decided to stick it out. As a result, Whitaker gained valuable life lessons and is proud to say he was a member of Duke’s 1989 ACC championship team under coach Steve Spurrier.
“I learned to take risks,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid to try things that might have been beyond my abilities and talents. Walking on was entrepreneurial, like writing a book. It was all about stepping out in faith and seeing where it led.”
A leap of faith
His playing days over, Whitaker graduated from Duke in 1991 and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard in 1994. He clerked for a federal judge for two years and accepted a job with a law firm in Greensboro, N.C., but left the firm in 1998 to manage football operations and budgeting for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Two seasons later he moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he crunched NFL salary cap figures and assisted in player contract negotiations. While working in Tampa, he met head coach Tony Dungy.
Dungy was rumored to be on his way out after a disappointing 9-7 season in 2001, but he impressed Whitaker with his consistent, professional approach and Christian values.
“Public Tony was the same as the private one,” Whitaker said. “His actions reinforced his words.”
Dungy was equally impressed with Whitaker.
“I soon learned he was more than a numbers guy,” Dungy told the Deseret News in an email interview. “He has a faith and a concern for people that was evident.”
When Dungy moved on in 2002, the two remained in contact.
Following the 2003 season, Tampa Bay general manager Rich McKay left for Atlanta and new GM Bruce Allen let Whitaker go. Whitaker had job offers elsewhere, but felt impressed to pursue a different idea. The salary cap specialist didn’t have any journalistic or literary experience, but saw a compelling story in Dungy. Drawing on the same courage he developed as a walk-on kicker, Whitaker approached the coach in the summer of 2004 about writing his biography. Dungy’s answer was, "No thanks."
It would take three years of persistence to get the coach to crack.
Fruits of faith
Finally in 2006, Dungy reluctantly agreed to be part of a book by Whitaker about four coaches. That plan changed when the Indianapolis Colts won the Super Bowl in 2007. Suddenly Dungy was a hot story, and publishers and experienced writers eagerly offered their services. But Dungy remained loyal to Whitaker, who then had about 30 days to write the book for Tyndale House, a prominent Christian publisher.
“I did not want to do a biography and wasn’t sure the impact it would have,” Dungy said. “But Nathan had the vision and the belief and I’m grateful to him. He also has a work ethic like a football coach.”
Eventually their efforts resulted in “Quiet Strength,” a memoir that describes how the Lord strengthened Dungy during times of professional disappointment and family tragedy, not how the Colts won the big game. The book soared to No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list in 2007 and sold more than 1.5 million copies. Not bad for a first-time author.
“The biggest challenge was having the patience to stick with it. When one month turned into two years and I still hadn’t come close to publishing anything, I realized my career path wasn’t leading anywhere, but my wife wouldn’t let me quit. It would have been easy to pull the plug,” Whitaker said. “The second challenge came when Tony agreed to do the book and we had 30 days to write it.”
Exercising muscular Christianity
Since “Quiet Strength,” Whitaker and Dungy have partnered together to publish several best-selling books with the most recent title being a daily devotional called “The One Year Uncommon Life Daily Challenge,” released last October. (Whitaker and Dungy have also co-authored two children’s books).
“I think we’ve both enjoyed doing these projects that hopefully help people look at living out a Christian walk in today’s world,” said Dungy, now an NFL analyst for NBC.
Whitaker has also co-authored biographies with award-winning sportscaster James Brown (“Role of a Lifetime”) and Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (“Through My Eyes”). All of Whitaker’s books have been categorized as “muscular Christianity” — faith that is both spiritual and manly.
“There are some aspects of life where we don’t talk about faith, but I think sports is one of those areas where people can talk about faith,” said Whitaker, who also represents college and professional coaches and administrators, in addition to writing. “The one danger in muscular Christianity is that the results shouldn’t define us. (At one point last year), Tim Tebow was 6-1 as a starter. Tim’s faith is no less real, and he is no less loved by God, than if he was 1-6.
“We have to strive to use our gifts to the best of our ability and glorify God in the process. Sometimes that brings worldly success, sometimes it doesn’t, but it doesn’t impact our walk or place in the family of God.”
Mixing football and faith is nothing new. Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach and head coach Tom Landry were devout Christians. Retired quarterback Kurt Warner, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers have all spoken about their faith in the media. Defensive lineman Reggie White, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers, was known as the “Minister of Defense.”
Brown, a host of Showtime’s “Inside the NFL,” remembers White as "tough and tenacious on the field but very loving.
"L.T. (Lawrence Taylor, N.Y. Giants linebacker) said he would knock you down, then help you up, dust you off and say, ‘I love you very much,’” Brown said with a laugh. “Reggie was a wonderful friend, example, role model and he influenced a lot of people.”
Brown is also an ordained minister who is often invited to speak to Christian congregations around the country. He respects all men who show faith by their works.
“One of the tenets of our faith is to be light in this world,” Brown said. “Well done is better than well said.”
As for athletes like Tebow being outspoken about their faith, Brown admires that, too.
“Some don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to be teased by their peers," Brown said. "I am glad they are being frank about it. For those who have a faith background, to recognize in their heart of hearts that a foundation of bedrock principles is what enabled them to persevere and to overcome, it would be hypocritical to deny that. I’m not sure where the line is, but if it’s the truth, then speak the truth.”
That’s one of the messages Whitaker hopes readers take away from his books.
“God has given us all different passions and platforms and no one is better than anyone else. God has you in a certain place and time for a reason so you can impact those around you,” he said. “If God gives you a passion, then you follow it. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, but that doesn’t mean God didn’t put it on your heart to try to follow that path.”
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