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Family Room

Fisher DeBerry

For 23 years, Fisher DeBerry prowled the sidelines for the United States Air Force Academy football team, coaching the Falcons to win after improbable win. Though Air Force was rarely as big, as fast or as talented as its opponents, the Falcons managed to beat the likes of Texas, Tennessee, Notre Dame and a host of other top-flight college programs, often landing the program in the Top 20. Led by DeBerry, the squad went to 12 bowl games and compiled a 169-107-1 record, making DeBerry the most successful coach in Air Force history.

But this coach knew his biggest job wasn’t to win football games; it was to help shape men, soldiers and leaders. His real legacy is writ on the players themselves and the influence he had on them, which is documented in a compilation of essays written by former players entitled The Power of Influence: Life-Changing Lessons from the Coach. Oddly, DeBerry insists he didn’t want his old players to write about him, but rather about the people who influenced their lives the most. That so many of them wrote about their old coach perhaps illustrates what an effective role model DeBerry was during his tenure. Plugged In talked with DeBerry about the book, the men he coached and, most importantly, what it means to be a role model.

Troy Calhoun [one of the first players DeBerry coached, and DeBerry’s successor] wrote an essay in your book saying that the thing he remembers most about you is your commitment to "family, friends, community, church, players, coaches and country. The man gives every bit of his heart to all." Sounds exhausting. How did you have the energy to constantly put in that kind of effort?
Well, I’ve been blessed. God has given me good health and a lot of energy, but I do have a sensitivity for others, and I felt like the job at the Academy was multifaceted. I didn’t think it was just coaching football. I thought if you expected the community to support your program, then certainly you needed to be involved in the community. And certainly church means an awful lot to me. I tried to keep my priorities right in life, and that was faith, family and football. Sometimes I got these priorities out of order and, when I did, I really screwed things up.

Can you give us an example of when your priorities got messed up a little?
I’d just say it happened on an almost daily basis. A lot of times you’d have so much on your mind about the job and preparing for the next opponent that you’d forget to tell you wife how much you love and appreciate her, and you might not find time to stay in the scriptures as much as you should or acknowledge that nothing happens without God’s blessings. It’s very easy to get caught up in who you might be playing and make it more important than it really is.

The Academy has special challenges that other programs don’t have, such as its rigorous academics and four-year commitment to the armed forces after college. One of the things your old players repeated quite a bit in the book is how they weren’t as talented or as fast as some of the teams they played. But they still had this drive to succeed. Do you think you played a role in that?
I hope so. We didn’t have many so-called five-star recruits in our program—you know, how rivals.com and some of these recruiting services rank kids these days. But most of our kids had five-star hearts, and that was one reason they wanted to come to the Academy. They wanted a challenge, and we tried to present football as a challenge. The fun in coaching is getting kids to believe in themselves and realize, "I put my uniform on the same way they put their uniform on, I’m smart and I know what I am doing, I play hard and I play smart, I can compete with anybody." That was our approach.

The title of your book is The Power of Influence, and the writers praise you quite a bit. But the essence of the book is really the importance of mentorship, isn’t it—the impact that parents, teachers and coaches can have in kids’ lives?
There are so many other evil forces out there competing for the attention and time of young people, and I think more than ever young people need our encouragement, our mentorship, our example. So that’s sort of the purpose of the book. As a matter of fact, I instructed Mike [Burrows, who helped DeBerry write Influence] as we gathered testimony from the players, that I didn’t want it to be a testimony to me. I just wanted them to share who in their lives had been an influence on them, whether it was a high school coach, English teacher, or Mom or Dad or a grandparent. I thought maybe that would be contagious, that maybe people who read it would realize, "Hey, I do have a responsibility to be a role model, to set an example with my life." Had it not been for my coaches—having grown up in a single parent family and a mother working all the time—I don’t know the way I would have ended up.

Tell us a little about your foundation.
My wife and I started the Fisher DeBerry Foundation (fisherdeberryfoundation.org), which is for kids in single-parent families. Statistics tell us today that one out of four young people in this country lives in a single-parent family, and 87 percent live with Mama. And you wonder sometimes where the dads have gone. But at the same time there are usually three or four other kids in the family, and often the older kids have to go to work to help Mama meet needs. So they’re often denied opportunities that some of us had. Our purpose is to help them have those opportunities and see the real essence of life. That’s why I called the book The Power of Influence. We never know the seeds we sow or the influence we’ve had until many years later, so we need to be conscious in our daily walk.

You mentioned that your coaches were some of your earliest and best influences. How did they influence your life?
I think they realized that I didn’t have a father figure. They somehow saw something worthwhile, and they knew I loved the game. I wasn’t a great athlete, but I was a competitor and I hustled, and I think any coach likes and respects that. They took a lot of personal interest in me and encouraged me, and I think that was the main reason, Paul, that most people go into coaching. Sure they’re paying some really good salaries now—a lot more than they did when I was in it—but I don’t think anybody goes into coaching to make money or for an ego trip. They go in to make a difference in kids’ lives. It’s a different profession than it was 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, because the coach today might be the only father figure in many of these kids’ lives. Coaches have more of a responsibility for mentorship than we had a few years ago when family life was a little more stable. It’s an awesome responsibility. The team today might be the only family that a lot of kids have.

Do you think there are fewer real role models now?
We are somewhat of a "me" society now—"me first," "what’s in it for me?"—and I think very often athletes feel it’s not their responsibility to be a role model. But they’re probably where they are in the first place because someone influenced them, whether it was the coach, a minister, teacher or parent. You just wish and hope that everybody felt that way, and that we would have a good perpetuation of mentorship and role-modeling forever and ever and ever.

If you could give folks advice on how to be a good mentor, what would it be?
One, I think just remembering and telling stories about their own personal experiences—who and how people influenced their lives, and talking about the impact they had. And then I think we can always learn from others. We go to coaching clinics to learn to be better coaches. We go to corporate seminars to learn how to be better administrators or better salesmen or whatever. So we can learn from others. Reading books, tending and supporting organizations like Young Life, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and youth organizations through churches.

Obviously, faith is pretty instrumental in all of this.
Your faith is all about serving and giving and supporting. That’s what the Master Coach did for us; He gave the ultimate, His life. The motivational thing is to give back and care for others and give to others, and we feel we’ve been so blessed in our own lives that the least we can do is create some opportunities for others. I think that’s what faith is all about—giving back and serving.

What do you hope people remember most about your time at the Academy?
I would hope they’ll just remember that we cared, that our desire was to serve and that we’re proud of the fact that we won a few games but realized that was not the most important reason we were there. I had my philosophy on the wall: Success in coaching was not measured in the number of wins and losses, but the real success in coaching was measured by the men your players became. I just hope they know I loved and cared for them, and that I love my family. Most importantly, that my daily walk with our Master Coach was very evident, and how much I loved Him.

Fisher DeBerry’s book is available at powerofinfluence.org. Proceeds go to Fisher DeBerry’s foundation.

Published November 2009