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Growing up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Frank Reich learned from his Christian parents, both of whom were teachers and coaches, to have a reverential view of God, full of awe and respect.
But on this particular Sunday in November 1984, Frank sat in church near the University of Maryland campus, angry and disillusioned. Overcome with emotion, he left the worship service early.
“My view of God at that time was like a judge, and I thought He was punishing me for not being the person that I should be,” Frank described to Decision.
The previous week, Bobby Ross, head football coach of the University of Maryland Terrapins, told the senior quarterback he would not be starting following his four-week recovery from a separated shoulder. Backup quarterback Stan Gelbaugh had the team on a winning streak. Ross didn’t want to risk altering the team’s momentum even though he had promised Frank he would reclaim his first-string status when he was healthy again.
Frank questioned God’s fairness at the thought of possibly losing his opportunity to be drafted into the National Football League.
“Why God, why is this happening to me?” he mused.
“I’d backed up this guy, Boomer Esiason, for several years. I felt like I had waited my whole life for this one opportunity and it was being taken away.”
Still seeking answers in his dorm room that Sunday evening, Frank re-read a “Four Spiritual Laws” booklet he had received from a mentor with Campus Crusade for Christ and realized he didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus.
“This wasn’t some mystical salvation experience,” Frank recalls. “This was a ‘repent of your sin and receive Christ as your Lord and Savior’ experience. And so, I just remember vividly going through that repentance part of it. Like, ‘Lord, I’ve gotten my life misaligned. Football has become my god.’”
Frank’s girlfriend, Linda, was the first person he told about his decision for Christ. They had been close friends while students at Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon and had dated since his sophomore year in college. Linda, a registered nurse at the time and now his wife of more than 30 years and the mother of their three daughters, had committed her life to Christ about a year earlier and had been praying for Frank to receive God’s gift of salvation.
The first game following Frank’s demotion to second-string QB, he watched from the sidelines as his Terrapins fell behind 31-0 in the first half to the defending national champion Miami Hurricanes.
During Coach Ross’ halftime speech, he threatened that if his team lost the game, his players would have to run 100-yard sprints for every point they were outscored. Then Ross announced Frank would start at quarterback to begin the second half.
Frank threw three touchdown passes and ran for another to help lead his team to one of college football’s most improbable comeback victories, 42-40, in Miami’s Orange Bowl stadium.
“I certainly give God glory for that,” Frank says. “All the glory. Not some of it. All of it. I certainly can’t explain why the Lord worked it out in that way where I was converted and then we had this great come-from-behind victory the next week, but that’s just what happened.”
That season Frank quarterbacked the Terrapins to three more comeback victories, including a 28-27 Sun Bowl win over Tennessee after trailing 21-0. His late season come-from-behind heroics impressed the Buffalo Bills enough to draft him in the third round of the 1985 NFL Draft.
A 14-year career as a second-string quarterback in the NFL followed, including four consecutive Super Bowl losses with the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s. Fast forward to 2020. Frank is entering his third season as the head football coach of the Indianapolis Colts. He was the Colts’ second choice, after New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels accepted their job offer in 2018 and then reneged on the agreement.
Frank’s first year as the Colts’ head coach got off to a rocky start as the team lost five of their first six games. Then the Colts won nine of their next 10 games to make the playoffs. The rookie coach was named 2018 AFC Coach of the Year.
Not a bad way to follow up the previous season, when as the Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator, Frank helped coach Eagles backup quarterback Nick Foles to a 41-33 victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.
Throughout his college and professional football careers, Frank has distinguished himself in the record books by making the most of his opportunities. When thrust into action as Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s backup for a decade with the Bills, Frank played in some of his team’s biggest games.
In the last game of the 1992 regular season, Frank threw two interceptions after Kelly injured his knee. The Bills lost to the Houston Oilers 27-3.
The next week, Frank started his first playoff game in a rematch against the Oilers in the AFC Wild Card Game. As an injured Kelly watched from the sidelines, Frank engineered a thrilling come-from-behind victory known in the annals of NFL lore as simply “The Comeback.” With the Bills trailing 35-3, Frank and his offense suddenly caught fire in the second half. In a legendary offensive display, he threw four touchdown passes en route to the Bills’ 41-38 overtime stunner. It is still considered the greatest comeback in NFL history.
During the nationally televised postgame interview, Frank recited the lyrics from a contemporary Christian song titled “In Christ Alone” that he had listened to repeatedly the previous week and again several times the morning before the playoff game.
“In Christ alone will I glory, though I could pride myself in battles won. For I’ve been blessed beyond measure, and by His strength alone I overcome. … In every victory let it be said of me my source of strength, my source of hope is Christ alone. … Now I seek no greater honor than just to know Him more. And to count my gains but losses to the glory of my Lord.”
The next week, Frank started again—with Kelly still sidelined by a knee injury—and led the Bills to another playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Three weeks later, he replaced Kelly after he re-injured his right knee early in the second quarter against the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, California.
Trailing 14-7 when he entered the game, Frank says he already knew what he was going to say in the postgame interview. “We’re going to come back and win, and then after the game, I’m going to stand at the podium after the Super Bowl, and I’m going to share the Gospel,” Frank envisioned.
Instead, the Bills lost 52-17 to the Cowboys in one of the most lopsided defeats in Super Bowl history, and Frank set the record for the most fumbles (three) by a quarterback on the game’s biggest stage.
Once again, he found himself asking God, “Why?”
“We got hammered, and I didn’t play very well,” he says. “But what I didn’t realize at the time until I started playing that song ‘In Christ Alone’ again was that God honored me with the opportunity to test my faith to see if my relationship with Christ was something that was real, not just in the good times when we had come-from-behind victories, but in the down times as well. And so that was a huge defining moment in my life.”
Frank played backup QB roles with the Carolina Panthers, New York Jets and Detroit Lions before retiring in 1998. Throughout his NFL career as a player and coach, he says he’s had an insatiable appetite for studying God’s Word. Frank especially enjoys studying and reading through books in the Bible, chapter after chapter, verse after verse.
“Reading the Bible is primarily first and foremost an intimacy thing of me getting to know who God is,” Frank says. “One of the best ways for me to get to know God is through Jesus because Jesus is the Word who became flesh.”
During his retirement from professional football, Frank earned a master of divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, while preaching about 75 times a year as an itinerant evangelist. He also served as president of the seminary for three years and pastored a Presbyterian church in Charlotte before sensing God leading him back to the gridiron.
Two former Indianapolis Colts head coaches, Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, gave Frank his first opportunity to coach in the NFL, first as an intern, then offensive assistant, and quarterbacks and receivers coach, from 2006–2011.
“These are two really strong Christian men who were really great football coaches, and who I have an immense amount of respect for,” Frank says.
Coaching stints with the Arizona Cardinals, San Diego Chargers and Philadelphia Eagles preceded his return as the Colts head coach—an opportunity he embraces as God’s divine calling on his life much like pastoring or serving as a seminary president.
“A coaching role involves coaching the whole person,” Frank says. “And so, you get to know these men as people, and we get to grow together. And when you get close to guys you talk about everything. … So, if I’m intimate with God through Christ, then that should overflow in my life. It should overflow in my speech, my countenance, in the work that I do, and in my relationships with other people.”
That’s what happened in his relationship with Kelly. As teammates and longtime friends, Frank faithfully shared the Gospel with the Bills former starting QB and cancer survivor. But it would be several years after Kelly retired from professional football before he committed his life to Christ.
“Jim always says to me every time we see each other, ‘I wish I would have listened to you a lot sooner,’” Frank says.
Yet with all of Frank’s victories in the game of football, it’s the losses he finds equally if not more significant.
“And it’s that Super Bowl loss and the devastating defeat that in many ways, I believe, has enabled me to connect more with people and share the Gospel in a more meaningful way because of that experience,” he says.
Photo: AP/David J. Phillip
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