By Gail Wood
He was an unemployed winner. An unemployed champion.
Seemingly, even when Trent Dilfer won, he lost.
He was the quarterback with the Super Bowl ring, with the 15-game winning streak as a starter. He was the quarterback throwing the game-winning touchdowns. He’s the only Baltimore Ravens quarterback to ever raise a Super Bowl trophy above his head.
He had the championship. But he didn’t have a job.
Finally, six months after leading Baltimore to a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV, Dilfer found a team that wanted him — the Seattle Seahawks. Yet they didn’t want him as a starter. They wanted him as a backup behind Matt Hasselbeck, a quarterback who had attempted just 29 passes in his brief NFL career.
From starter to released to benchwarmer.
Rather than fuming, Dilfer, the quarterback who had reasons to be cocky, listened to the criticisms of his new position coach, Jim Zorn. Rather than resisting, Dilfer adapted, accepting corrections to what he had been doing his entire career.
“It’s obviously been difficult,” says Dilfer, 34 and a first-round draft pick in 1994. “It hurt. As much as anything I allowed God to work on my heart, mold me and take me where I felt He was taking me. That was hard.”
Hard because since he was a high school quarterback in California struggling to get a college scholarship he had defined who he was by success.
Dilfer grew up in Aptos, Calif., a small coastal town south of San Francisco. His stepfather was an offensive line coach at Cabrillo College and his mother taught physical education. Out of high school, Dilfer chose Fresno State University because it was one of the few schools that recruited him as a quarterback and not as a linebacker.
Dilfer, with the toughness of a linebacker, led Fresno State to a 20-9 record and won a conference title as a three-year starter. It was during his sophomore year that he understood what it meant to be a Christian.
“It was then that God revealed himself to me,” Dilfer says. “I do believe I was saved at a young age, but there was just no cultivating of that. It was a very shallow understanding. But in 1992, I got serious.”
It’s a decision that’s helped shape Dilfer’s life and his career as an NFL quarterback, during the good and bad times.
“When I was down in my career, I sensed people were encouraged by my faith,” Dilfer says. “When I’ve been on top, I see more people impressed by my faith. I think there’s a difference.”
Dilfer sees his setbacks as an NFL quarterback as times for personal growth.
“It was an opportunity to do a lot of self-examination,” Dilfer says. “What I saw was a real lack of spiritual maturity. It was a time to grow my faith. Now, looking back, I can be thankful for that growth and maturity.”
Dilfer says being a Christian is easier when life is going well, when he’s the starting quarterback on the Super Bowl team. But he’s found that becoming a Christian doesn’t guarantee a problem-free life.
Dilfer’s hardships haven’t occurred only on the football field. In April 2003, Dilfer’s 5-year-old son, Trevin, died of heart failure after being hospitalized for 40 days with a viral infection in his heart.
In a statement released after his son’s death, Dilfer said, “We grieve, but not as those without hope.”
Two months later, a somber yet eager Dilfer reported to the Seahawks mini-camp, encouraged by his wife to return.
“Today was a big step,” Dilfer said that day through tears. “Because this team is my family as well. These guys and this team meant a lot to Trevin.”
Whether he has exulted over a Super Bowl championship or agonized over his son’s death, Dilfer has retained an unquestioning faith.
“There are opportunities to grow in success, but I think it’s a different kind of growth,” he says. “It’s hard to grow in times of success. I have learned and continue to learn that trials are when God is going to sharpen us.”
Success, fame and wealth as an NFL quarterback have had their own distractions for Dilfer.
“I think it’s very easy to be distracted by the world,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing I fight. Being in such a worldly profession. But God calls us to something much greater, more demanding than what everyone else is doing.”
With that perspective, Dilfer, despite all his winning, has accepted the role of backup again. Just as he did at Tampa Bay and early on at Baltimore. In Seattle, Dilfer is again the backup without the attitude, careful not to upstage Hasselbeck. When reporters came to him for interviews early in the 2001 season, he refused, saying, “This is Matt’s team.”
“No question, he’s had to have some humility,” Zorn said. “It was very difficult to be on a Super Bowl team then let go. We talked about that.”
Dilfer’s behavior, attitude and support of Hasselbeck haven’t gone unnoticed. Dilfer, while not a starter, remains a leader.
“I’ve never seen a backup like him,” Seahawks center Robbie Tobeck says.
Dilfer’s Christian faith has nurtured his resilience.
“Part of Christianity is living a balanced lifestyle,” Zorn said. “Having your spiritual life in order directly impacts you emotionally, mentally and socially.”
While open about his faith, Dilfer says the end-zone prayer after a touchdown is only a superficial statement.
“I think a much greater statement of faith is to live an authentic life,” he says. “To me, that’s a much greater statement of faith than what you do as a token sign of appreciation.”
Dilfer does have a gesture he uses in a game to show his appreciation to God. After a big play, he raises four fingers then one, signifying “For You, God.”
“That’s something a buddy and I started in college,” Dilfer says. “I personally want to make sure I recognize Him.”
Dilfer’s faith is based on Bible studies and daily prayer, not on a dipped knee or pointed finger to the sky in the end zone.
“I think some Christian athletes have really devalued their faith on the football field,” the quarterback says. “They’ve made it shallow. God doesn’t need us to point up to Him when we score a touchdown. I think we need to get on our knees and look up to Him daily.”
Gail Wood is a freelance writer living in Washington State.
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