Sit back and think for a moment about some of the most memorable names in football history. Maybe your mind goes to Johnny Unitas and “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Or Don Shula and those legendary Dolphins of ’72. And who could forget Vince Lombardi, unsurpassed in football lore? If you’ve been around long enough, you may even have your own stories about these titans of the sport. Bill Curry sure does, because he knew all three.
Curry and his grade-school-sweetheart-turned-wife, Carolyn, have moved 35 times during Curry’s decorated playing and coaching career. He snapped to Bart Starr in Super Bowl I, coached in a Sugar Bowl at Alabama and helped start a Division I program at Georgia State. Curry has seen it all.
But despite all the ups and downs and stops and starts of Curry’s football career, God’s steadfast love has always been Curry’s rock against the waves.
When Curry was a young boy in Georgia, some of his best friends invited him to Sunday School. One time, his father – an Olympian weightlifter, a World War II hand-to-hand combat instructor and a religious skeptic – visited the church to see what all the fuss was about. The Godly people who had been teaching Sunday School to Curry began to tear down his father’s walls and show one of the strongest, toughest men in the world that he too needed Christ.
“Within six months,” Curry said on the Sports Spectrum podcast, “my dad saw the light.” The fountain of Christ’s love washed away the elder Curry’s sins, and with them went the hostile exterior that previously defined him. He was made new.
“It was just such an utter transformation,” the younger Curry said. “I have never been tempted to challenge the reality of Christ and what He does in people’s lives.”
On the football field, Curry’s talents at the center position landed him a spot on the Georgia Tech roster headed by another coaching pioneer, Bobby Dodd. Despite Dodd’s 165 career wins, all with the Yellow Jackets, what Curry remembers most about Dodd was his emphasis on education.
“The only reason I graduated college is because my coach loved me too much to let me self-destruct,” Curry said.
Dodd may have saved Curry’s education, but Curry credits assistant coach and fellow believer John Robert Bell with developing him into an NFL-caliber center. When other assistant coaches doubted Curry, Bell devoted time to helping him practice. Curry went from a benchwarmer to a starter to an NFL draft pick of the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi.
Curry’s impeccable memory and storytelling acumen are well known in sports circles. About Lombardi, he has many. They serve to humanize the man yet reveal what made Lombardi’s legendary name synonymous with football success. Under Lombardi’s tutelage, Curry and the Packers won the first Super Bowl ever played. Yet inside the locker room, things weren’t always so rosy for Curry.
“I was just horrified [of Lombardi],” Curry said. “I was hostile toward him because I couldn’t forgive him for not being Bobby Dodd. I thought he was abusive, and I was wrong.”
After Curry left the Packers, he told reporters how he felt about Lombardi. Yet as he matured, Curry realized his mistake. Curry visited Lombardi on the revered coach’s deathbed, asking for forgiveness. Lombardi forgave, and asked for a simple prayer of healing.
“In the moment when I least deserved it, [Lombardi] forgave me,” Curry said. “That’s what’s expected of each of us. I pray that when I face my moment of truth like that, that I can be half the Christian that [Lombardi] was.”
After his time with the Packers, Curry found his way to Baltimore to join the Colts led by Johnny Unitas and Don Shula. Curry’s time with Shula renewed his confidence and resurrected his career.
“[Shula] did for me what John Robert Bell had done years before,” Curry said.
Curry was on the Colts team that lost to the New York Jets and Broadway Joe Namath in Super Bowl III, but he was also there when the Colts redeemed themselves with a victory in Super Bowl V over the Dallas Cowboys.
After that last hurrah in the 1970 season, Curry’s career began to wind down and he would never again reach the apex of the NFL world. He could transition into his coaching career as a two-time Super Bowl champion and a two-time Pro Bowl center.
Curry got his first shot as a head coach in 1980 back at Georgia Tech, his alma mater and the program that Bobby Dodd built. Yet things didn’t start quite as planned for Curry, as his first two teams combined to go 2-19-1.
Carolyn was the first to see the problem — Curry was trying to be like Bobby Dodd. Dodd’s method worked for him, but it wouldn’t for Curry.
“The first lesson you learn is that you have to be yourself,” Curry said. “You can’t be Don Shula or Vince Lombardi or Bobby Dodd; there was only one of those. And there’s only one of you.”
After Curry embraced his true coaching style, things began to look up. Curry slowly but surely returned Georgia Tech to national prominence. His 1985 Yellow Jackets posted nine wins.
Stints at Alabama and Kentucky followed. With the Crimson Tide in the 1989 season, his team appeared in the Sugar Bowl and he won the Bobby Dodd Coach of the Year Award, named for his beloved former coach.
Curry’s coaching career ended in the state where it all began. He accepted the challenge to help Georgia State launch a Division I football program and he guided them through their first three seasons. It may not have been in the football limelight to which Curry had grown so accustomed, but he was OK with that. He’s scrapped alongside Vince Lombardi in Wisconsin and sweated with the Tide down in the Tuscaloosa heat. And he’s been pretty much everywhere in between.
He’s had many homes, but one place he’s always abided is in Christ’s love. When he tries to rebel, it is Christ who always calls Curry back to Himself.
Now, Curry recognizes what each of his coaches, teammates and players contributed to his career in their own unique ways.
But ultimately, it was God at work in Curry’s life since those early days in Sunday School.
“[God] gives us each a great gift,” Curry said. “Every human being is unique. Every human being has a talent that the rest of humanity does not have.”
Curry recognizes his gift for playing and his gift for teaching, and indeed his gift for storytelling, all come from God. Curry has been enshrined in the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, but eternally more important to him is that God has written Curry’s name in His Book of Life. Curry will join John Robert Bell, Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi and all other believers in Heaven, singing God’s eternal praises.
Curry admits he’s still a work in progress. At 75, God isn’t finished with him yet.
“He makes me remember that every day,” Curry said, “and I’m so eternally grateful.”
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