American football: Mike Singletary - 'Deep down every young man wants to be great'

American football legend Mike Singletary, a Hall Of Fame linebacker who now coaches the San Francisco 49ers, tells Chris McGrath in an exclusive interview that evangelism goes far beyond the pitch

Two conversations, a dozen years apart, both with men who would be killed in car wrecks. The first was the turning point. The other, until now, Mike Singletary had all but forgotten.

Together, however, they span the flowering of a spirit that could easily have choked in the run-down Houston precinct where it all began.

In 1971, Singletary was 12. The youngest of 10 children, he was still in shock after the desertion of their father, a Pentecostal minister, for another woman. His oldest brother, at 23, recognised a new obligation to set Mike an example. But Grady also sensed himself being dragged into the whirlpools beneath the stagnant life of the streets around. "I don't ever want to hear you say some of the things I'm saying," Grady would tell his kid brother. "I don't ever want to see you do some of the things I'm doing. I'm making bad decisions. But you're gonna make the right decisions."

One evening Grady seemed different, somehow. Normally he was tough, jabbing: "Hey – you do this." This was softer. "Take care of your mother," he said. "And whatever you do, always make sure you do your best." Then he asked if he needed a couple of dollars for anything. "That was big," Singletary reflected this week. "For him to ask if I needed any money. He didn't do that. And that was the last thing he ever said to me." He paused. "It was an interesting series of events that day."

Grady climbed into his blue Chevrolet Malibu and drove away. A few hours later a hospital called to say that he was in a coma after a pile-up of half a dozen vehicles, hit by a drunk driver. He never recovered.

Singletary cannot account for Grady's portentous change of tone. "I don't know," he admits. "Sometimes you get to a place in life where you feel you've made some choices, and maybe they weren't the right choices, and that it's all coming to an end. That it's just a matter of time. Because the person that's not going anywhere, that's not striving to do anything great, he's just fitting in. You just kind of drift. You don't really know where you gonna end up. And that was the one thing I couldn't do."

Spool forward to December 1983. Singletary, already one of the most destructive battering rams ever to break out of college football, is on the touchline in Minnesota. The Chicago Bears are on the rack, and their defensive hub, the man who broke 16 helmets at Baylor University, is having a hand wrapped in bandages. His middle finger, all but cut away, had been stitched together by Fred Cato. "You done a good job out there," the trainer said, nodding out towards the marauding Vikings. "It's a long day."

Singletary's stare through the grille of his helmet could keep quarterbacks awake all night. "I didn't come here to watch the game," he glowered. "Do what you got to do, wrap it up, whatever. But I'm playing."

Cato tried to argue. "Go back in, you could lose the finger."

"Fine. Let's go."

He marched straight into the Vikings huddle. They were in a position to take the game beyond reach, and calling the next play. Singletary looked round his astonished opponents, and slowly pronounced: "You will not score."

Uproar. "What you doing, man? Get out of this huddle."

"I'm just telling you. You will not score."

They started complaining to the referee. "Ain't you gonna do something? That's a penalty..."

"You will not score."

Then the Vikings guard Dave Huffman turned round to Singletary. "OK," he said. "Tell you what. Betcha."

Singletary, now 51, shakes his head as he recalls the incident: "To make a long story short: they do not score. They drive four times. They get down on maybe the half-yard line. But we stopped them. And we came back, and won the game. Yeah, it was stupid. That's the only thing you can call it. But thankfully it worked out. And that was a big day for us. We grew up as a team."

Some time later, he received a silver dollar in the post from Huffman. "A man of character," Singletary remembers. In 1998, he was saddened to learn that Huffman had died in a car accident.

So how did the boy addressed for the final time by Grady turn into someone capable of this incorrigible, inspiring stand in Minnesota? In boyhood, Singletary had been physically feeble. He was often in hospital with bronchial problems, remembers sleeping in an oxygen tent. Sometimes his mother looked at the runt of the litter and sobbed. At the same time, however, he always had an aura about him. As early as five years old, people were telling him that he would some day be a leader of men.

"But I was the class clown," he remembers. "I was afraid to step into who I was. I saw the light, I saw that spot, but I kept thinking it was too big. And finally there were things that happened that left me no choice. Either I step into the light, or I disappear. Meaning that you find me in jail, or on the side of the road. But not in the parade. I'm just watching the parade go by. So I had a choice, and really it wasn't much of a choice."

His mother had already lost another son, who died inhaling toxic fumes in his sleep from a faulty coal furnace, but she rallied courageously. And there were always mentors, filling the paternal gap. Pastors, coaches, teachers, professors would pull him aside, tell him he was special. In seventh grade, for instance, it was Coach Miller. "Son," he said. "I see something. Nobody else can see it, but you need to get your suitcases ready. You're going to do great things in life." And from that day he addressed him as "Suitcases".

When all this duly came to pass, he would instead be nicknamed "Samurai" by his fellow Bears, who saw him make 885 solo tackles during a 12-year, Hall Of Fame career – 109 during their epoch-making 1985 campaign, when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. It wasn't a matter of simple bulk, either. Singletary is no more than 6ft tall. Rather it was obsession: in preparation, ambition, execution.

When he retired, in 1992, Singletary disappeared to devote those energies to raising seven children with his college sweetheart, Kim. (He had sprawled his books all over a table in the library, and she asked for some space. He assumed she wanted to flirt with potentially the greatest linebacker in history. She, having no idea who he was, asked for help with her calculus.) There was spiritual renewal, and reconciliation with his father. After several years away from the game, however, he ventured into some coaching work, at first with the Baltimore Ravens and then joining the San Francisco 49ers as an assistant coach in 2005. He then took the top job in 2008.

Singletary sets himself and his men exacting standards. In his playing days, he would tell the referee when he had broken a rule, and not been penalised. Nowadays he readies his men for the new season with a notoriously gruelling hill camp. Two dimensions of the same honesty. He wants to honour the example of those who once spurred him to glory – to coach the man, not the player.

"Everyone that's doing something worthwhile, none of us has come to this place on our own," he says. "There's been someone there, who believed in us when we didn't really believe in ourselves. Calling us, challenging us. Now I sit and talk to these young men, and sometimes they look back at you, and you can look right through them. But sometimes they get it. And all of a sudden there's something different in the way they walk, the way they talk. To see them come around, when maybe others have been saying: 'This guy, he's no good, get him outta here', to see them stand up and be men, that's exciting."

Whether as a father, or father figure, it is safe to assume Singletary commands awed attention with his safe-cracking gaze and rich, measured tones. That much is obvious even in our relaxed chat in a conference room at the NFL London office near Oxford Circus where he is promoting his team's match with Denver Broncos at Wembley in October.

Certainly he made an immediate impression in his first game as 49ers coach, reportedly dropping his trousers during a team talk to show what he thought of the performance so far. And when Vernon Davis was penalised for slapping a defender, Singletary publicly bawled him out, ordering him to the locker room. The team, he told Davis, was better off with him in the shower than on the pitch. In the press conference, he made a defining, fire-and-brimstone statement of intent. People who were in it for themselves, rather than the team? "Cannot play with them," he exclaimed. "Cannot win with them, cannot coach with them – can't do it. I want winners!"

Singletary had set out his stall. And Davis "came back, worked his tail off, and became an All-Pro the next year". You wonder how some of our more precious soccer stars would handle such treatment. Singletary, of course, has the insight of one who found wealth from the wrong side of the tracks. (In his own case, he tried to move his mother into a smarter neighbourhood. She refused to leave her friends behind, so he had the old house knocked down and built a new one on the same spot.) "It is my belief that every young man, deep down, wants to be great," he says. "And certain circumstances through life make him begin to give up on that dream. Maybe someone told him when he was a kid that he wasn't very good. Maybe Mum and Dad told him he wouldn't amount to anything. But every now and then he comes to a place where someone believes in him again. Then he has to make a choice: 'Do I really believe this person? Do they really believe in me, or are they trying to use me?' I want to tell my players the truth, at all times, and I think they can appreciate that: 'Are you cheating yourself? Are you cheating the team? Are we who we say we are?'"

You could call this man any name under the sun before you called him a hypocrite. You listen to Singletary, and think of the old Bill Shankly line, about football as a matter of life and death. It is only ever reprised as a joke, really. But here is someone who shows young men, earning fortunes in essentially trivial pursuits, how the principles that give meaning to their lives are measurable in absolutely everything they do.

"I think a man becomes less than a man when he begins to compromise on what he believes is right," Singletary says. "So that is the thing I'm always searching for, the truth – about who I am, what I'm doing. And what I know to be true, I'm not going to compromise. That's something I'm willing to die for. And unless you have something you're willing to die for, then there's not a reason, really, to live."

During his Chicago days, Singletary became intrigued by the things he was hearing and reading about Ross Perot. This was long before Perot's maverick challenge for the presidency in 1992, when he won 20 million votes. Singletary's business partner back in Texas knew Perot, arranged a meeting, and the football star flew home to Houston. The tycoon had a sculpture of an eagle in his office, and talked about how eagles are always alone. Singletary was engrossed.

"It's OK to be different," he explains now. "Most people in our society succumb to the pressure. It's like I tell my kids. The people willing to swim against the current, they're the ones that society says: 'There's something wrong with that person, something defective'. When, in all honesty, it's those people who save society. Because they recognise something's wrong. I've an eagle in my office now, too, with the same words on it. Eagles don't flock."

Singletary's life in Gridiron

Born: 9 October, 1958, Houston

Playing career

A hard-tackling linebacker, Mike Singletary made his starting debut for the Chicago Bears in 1981. He remained with them for his whole career before retiring in 1992, missing only two games in 11 seasons. His 172 starts included a Super Bowl victory in 1985 when he was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He made the NFC All-Star team in nine successive seasons, and was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.

Coaching career

Singletary embarked on his managerial career with the Baltimore Ravens in 2003. He then joined the San Francisco 49ers as assistant head coach in 2005 and was promoted to the top job in October 2008, after the team's disastrous 2-5 start to the season resulted in the sacking of previous coach Mike Nolan. In 2009, Singletary's first full campaign, the 49ers finished with an 8-8 record, the first time they had won as many games as they had lost in a season since 2002.

Ollie Wright

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