Developing character from a Christian perspective matters to Mike Gottfried.
Gottfried is best known for his work as a college football analyst on ESPN and his own time on the sidelines as a coach. In 2000, he took his passion for Christ and his leadership skills to create Team Focus, a Mobile, Ala.-based program designed to reach fatherless adolescent boys.
Mickey Gottfried first planted the seed for the ministry in her husband’s mind in the mid-’90s. At that point Mike Gottfried had been with ESPN for a few years. He was also a few years removed from a coaching career that started at the high school level in 1966 and ended after parting ways with the University of Pittsburgh as its head coach in 1989.
“At that point when my wife first asked me, I had coached all those years spending 18-hour days watching film and spending a lot of time with other families’ sons. It wasn’t the right time,” Gottfried said.
His wife was surprised he said no, but the idea never left either one’s mind.
In 2000, his association with the GMAC Bowl in Mobile created an opportunity to follow through on the idea. That, and being at the right point in his life for service, began what started out as an experiment.
“I thought I could do it for a year and see what happened and it just took off,” Gottfried said. “I had this feeling that the Lord kept telling me to try it, try it, try it and for a time I remember thinking, ‘Can’t you get somebody else?'”
He chuckled, “I’m glad I finally listened and did it.”
By connecting with schools, churches and community organizations Team Focus identifies boys between 10 and 18 years old without a father in their lives. Summer leadership academies in seven states and Washington, D.C. start a process of follow-up and follow-through as the tweens and teens progress toward adulthood.
The summer program covers age-appropriate academic and social enrichment from working on reading and math skills to career planning and interview preparation. Graduates of the camp are invited to events throughout the school year in their local areas in the hopes of establishing a long-term mentoring relationship.
“We call them once every two or three weeks just to see how they are doing and see how we can help,” Gottfried said. “We don’t just see them for a while during the summer and then that’s it. We’re available for them and their families as a resource long-term.”
Gottfried’s interest in developing boys’ leadership skills comes from his own background as much as it does from coaching. His father died of a heart attack when he was 11 and he experienced first-hand not having a consistent positive male role model directly involved during the years of greatest growth and turmoil.
“When I had been coaching a while I always noticed the guys who hadn’t grown up with a father,” Gottfried said.
“I saw that affirmation from a man really meant something to them. When you look them in the eye and tell them, ‘You’re going to make it, you’re alright no matter where you started from,’ that means a lot to kids who may have never heard that before.
“There’s a certain authority that goes with coaching where you have to show them how to walk the walk and talk the talk and that there are certain rules they have to follow or else they can’t be there. Young people want discipline. They can say what they want to about having their own way, but they want (discipline) and it shows when they follow through.”
Team Focus is beginning a pilot program for girls in Mobile as well while looking to expand the ministry in other avenues. For example, Gottfried spoke to Everyday Christian while his staff was setting up for a weekend fundraiser for a Tanzanian orphanage.
The expansion will pull Gottfried out of the ESPN booth this fall as he seeks a more permanent role in Christian broadcasting circles. His connections to the game will still serve the ministry, as is evidenced by the appearances of high-profile coaches at Team Focus events including Bobby Bowden (Florida State), Ron Zook (Illinois), Nick Saban (Alabama), Mack Brown (Texas) and Phillip Fulmer (formerly at Tennessee).
“Most coaches I’ve come across really have that care and compassion for their players,” Gottfried said. “Certainly sometimes incidents happen in different places. When you have 120 football players on a roster coming and going, it’s impossible to keep track of everyone.
“Of course they care about wins and losses, they have to in order to keep their jobs. I know they care about the lives of their players.”
From a Christian perspective Gottfried encourages boys to understand God’s forgiveness, that no matter what they may have done wrong they are still accepted through their faith. (Acts 13:38-39) It makes it easier too by using high-profile Christian athletes as role models, including quarterback Tim Tebow of the national champion Florida Gators. Tebow is a frequent missionary, openly praises God and routinely writes Bible verse names on his eye black.
“When you look at a guy like Tim Tebow, sure he’s going to make mistakes, but here’s a young guy who’s got it together,” Gottfried said. “He gives thanks after every game. He’s the kind of player you tell boys to look at, particularly if you’re embarrassed about sharing your faith; you know you don’t have to be.”