People of Faith: Jeff Fisher
- By Sandy Smith Contributing Writer
- 2003 16 Jan
Jeff Fisher has seen much success in more than 20 years with the game of football. As a college player at the University of Southern California, his team went to the Rose Bowl. As a player with the Chicago Bears, his team went to the Super Bowl, and his record for longest punt return in Bears history still stands today.
As a coach with four NFL teams, he has experienced several playoff games, and in 1999, as the Tennessee Titans' head coach, he led his team to Super Bowl XXXIV. But when you sit down and speak with Jeff and Juli Fisher you soon find that it has often been shortfalls that have had the greatest impact on their lives.
In 1999, that shortfall was just one yard. Three feet. 36 inches. So close-but far enough to keep the Titans from winning the Super Bowl. And still close enough for the couple to see that good can come through disappointment.
"The Lord poured out such blessing on us," Juli says. "In God's economy, it didn't matter who won that game."
This is not just spiritually explaining away a defeat. The Fishers have learned that sometimes the best things happen when things don't work out the way you expect.
Their life together began, naturally enough, through the game when Jeff played for the Rose Bowl-bound University of Southern California. Among the festivities surrounding the prestigious college game, both USC and Michigan participated in "The Beef Bowl" at Lawry's Restaurant-a prime rib eating competition.
As Jeff walked into the restaurant, the Tournament of Roses court was already seated. He sat next to one of the princesses, Juli, who would eventually be his wife. And so they began their life together, which now includes three children-Brandon 15), Tara(13) and Trent(10).
After four seasons with the Chicago Bears, an ankle injury ended Jeff's playing career. But this setback as a player turned into an opportunity for a transition to coaching. In 1986 he joined his former coach, Buddy Ryan, with the Philadelphia Eagles. After five years with the Eagles and achieving much success on defense, Jeff was regarded as one of the great young defensive minds in the NFL.
In 1991, Jeff headed west to be reunited with his college coach, John Robinson, as defensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams. Jeff and Juli were going "home" to California. They bought Juli's "dream house" and, as always, location was crucial. "My sister was 1.3 miles away," Juli says. "My mom was around the corner. Jeff's family was 25 minutes away. Everything was wonderful. "
Then, after just 10 months, Jeff was let go as the team's defensive coordinator. He had several significant opportunities with other NFL teams, but opted for a lesser role as secondary coach with the San Francisco 49ers to be a part of that successful organization and to learn a different defensive system. But God had other learning experiences in mind-for both of them.
Juli was invited to her first Bible study by another coach's wife, and learned for the first time that she needed a personal relationship with Jesus. "Within a month, I had invited Jesus into my heart, " she says. Looking back, they realized that the jolt of being fired in Los Angeles set them up for this; it was the first time they 'd see the realities of God 's scorekeeping.
Nomads of the NFL
After two years in San Francisco, the Fisher family moved to Houston. Midway through the 1994 season, the Houston Oilers fired their head coach and gave the job to Jeff for the final six games. Despite winning only one of those six games, Jeff convinced ownership he was qualified to lead the team on a permanent basis and secured his first head-coaching job in January 1995.
Prior to the 1996 season, the team's owner entered into an agreement to move the Oilers from Houston to Nashville. Only the Lord knew what was in store for Jeff and the organization over the next four years. Before the Oilers could leave Houston, the team would play two more years in a town that no longer supported them.
In 1997, the team moved to Nashville, though the city had no stadium and the new Coliseum would take two years to complete. For the next two seasons, the "homeless" team played first at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, then in Nashville at Vanderbilt University's Dudley Stadium.
Considering the circumstances, the team displayed great effort and character while achieving an 8-8 record in both of those first two seasons in Nashville.
"I look back on those four years like we were the Israelites wandering in the desert," Juli says, quoting Deuteronomy 8:2: "'Remember how the Lord your God led all the way in the desert these 40 years to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart.' That was what was going on."
In 1999, they got a fresh start. For the first time in four years, the team was in its own stadium in a town that enthusiastically embraced it. Even so, during their family vacation before the start of that season, Jeff was faxed a newspaper article entitled "Playoffs or Pink slips," in which the team's owner stated that playoffs were a must or changes would be made.
"After everything we had been through and all Jeff had done to hold the team together, I was very disappointed," says Juli. "The Lord taught me a lot of things through that process, most of which was to trust in Him. It's never about me and what I can do. It's about Him working through me during that time of testing."
For Jeff, though, it was a time of merely continuing to walk on the path he knew would someday lead to success. "I had confidence in the players and the staff," he says. "I knew it was eventually going to work out. Any changes would only suggest that I didn't believe in our winning philosophy."
One Little Yard
Of course, it did begin to work, and work well. The Titans had 13 wins, three losses; three playoff wins later, the team was in the Super Bowl. Then came that dramatic ending-one yard short.
"Though we didn't win that game, we didn't lose it, either," Jeff says. It was Jeff-and not the coach who left with the Super Bowl ring-who appeared in a national "Got Milk?" ad campaign. The Titans were given a parade in Nashville. And the game was listed among the most thrilling ever.
Still, bigger things were at work. Quarterback Kurt Warner led the St. Louis Rams to the win, then used the spotlight to share his faith. "What a great story and an amazing man of faith," Juli says. "He was handing out cards with his testimony at the end of the game."
In many ways, Jeff had experienced victory in his Atlanta hotel room, hours before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXXIV. Packing up to leave his makeshift office, he found a fax from a dying man's nurse. The man, a longtime fan of the team, wouldn't live to see another Super Bowl. The nurse never expected Jeff would have time to do what she asked: "If you can find a moment, can you call him?"
He did. "The man couldn't speak, but he could hear," Jeff remembers. "As I hung up the phone, I could hear him crying and moaning. I sat silently for a moment and things suddenly were in perspective. The game, only hours away, that had seemed bigger than life ... really wasn't."
Heading Toward the Cross
The lessons football has taught didn't end in the closing seconds of the 1999 Super Bowl. Before last year's "Monday Night Football" match-up between the Titans and the Ravens, Juli gathered a group of friends to pray on the field.
During this game, the Titans would attempt to avenge their playoff loss to the Ravens, which had ended their 2000 season Super Bowl hopes. Juli planted a small cross in the south end zone at the base of the goal post, tucked behind the television cable that carried the game to the world.
"We knelt and prayed that the Lord would use this team and this game as a reflection of Him as it televised the game to the ends of the earth," Juli says.
Jeff knew what his wife had done. When it came time to choose which goal to defend in the third quarter, Jeff chose the one with the cross. His reason was simple: "I wanted to be going toward the cross in the fourth quarter."
With less than two minutes on the clock, the Titans were losing, but began heading toward that cross. "I knew there was no doubt we were going to win that game," Juli says.
As the clock ran out, the Titans scored. Then, the officials-who, just seconds earlier had signaled a touchdown-took the points off the board. They had interpreted a rule in such a way that had never been used before and probably would never be used again. The end result: The Titans lost.
To many, it seemed as if the victory had literally been stolen. But in interviews after, Jeff exhibited his life verse, Isaiah 30:15: "quietness and confidence shall be your strength."
"The way he handled himself with such integrity, and it was televised to the world, blessed me so immensely," Juli says. "We laid in bed that night and I said to Jeff, 'Does it make it more difficult for you to believe that the Lord did what He did because we lost that game?' And he said to me, 'No. It's my faith that gets me through.' Therein lies the victory. On Christ this solid rock we stand-our faith had not been shaken. In the world's eyes, the victory is in winning the game, but God did something so much more."
This article originally appeared in FaithTalk Magazine, a publication of Salem Publishing, located in Nashville, Tennessee. (c) 2002, Salem Publishing.