Why Frank Reich once traded a chance to coach Peyton Manning for life in the seminary

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Imagine finishing a 14-year career as an NFL quarterback and being offered the chance to coach quarterback Peyton Manning. Never mind you have no coaching experience. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stay in a game you’ve loved since you were a little kid.

The Indianapolis Colts offered Frank Reich that opportunity in 1998.

Reich instead chose a different path: the seminary.

“He said, ‘Gee, thank you. I’m honored,”’ recalled then-Colts president Bill Polian, who knew Reich from their time together with the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers. “You know how polite he is. And he called me back and said, ‘Bill, I can’t do it right now. I’m committed to these people, and I gave them my word, and as enticing as it is, I can’t go back on my word.’

“And then seven or eight years later, he called out of the blue and said, ‘I’m ready to go into coaching. I’ll do anything you want me to do, including volunteer work with no pay just to get my foot in the door.”’

Reich, 61, initially chose the seminary to follow a call that had been building during the second half of his playing career, when he held Bible studies with teammates and shared his spiritual journey.

“As a pro athlete for 14 years, there were a lot of opportunities to go to churches and father and son banquets and give a testimony [of my spiritual journey],” Reich said. “I really enjoyed doing that — and in doing that and seeing the positive impact.

“So I felt like if I went to seminary, I could get a more formal training that would help me … I wanted to be able to go deeper than that, and explain the ‘why’ behind it.”

Seven years at Reformed Theological Seminary, buried in the tall pines and azaleas of South Charlotte, helped shape Reich into who he is today as Carolina’s sixth head coach.

It was also during those years, after he completed his divinity degree and served as pastor at a Presbyterian church in the Ballantyne area of Charlotte for three years, that Reich realized he could serve a larger and more diverse audience in the NFL.

Reich believed, as several at the seminary recalled, he could fulfill his vision for ministry as a coach rather than a preacher.

Now, 25 years after passing on the chance to mentor Manning, he will mentor the No. 1 overall pick of the 2023 draft, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.

“I learned things during those years that I literally use every day as a coach, in relating to people, in teaching and instructing, universal principles that you learn in seminary that apply to everyday life,” said Reich, who was Carolina’s first starting quarterback 28 years ago.

“I found seminary was for everyday living, including being a football coach.”

POLIAN WASN’T SURPRISED when Reich turned down his offer.

Having known Reich’s dedication as a player with the Bills (1985-94) and Panthers (1995), Polian would have been more surprised had the offer been accepted.

“He’s always been a person that focused on doing what he told people he would do, following up on commitments,” Polian said. “And when he decided to come back [with the Colts in 2006], and I said you’re going to have to start as a coaching assistant, typical of him, ‘Hey, whatever it takes, I’ll do.”’

Those in seminary quickly saw Reich’s humble and unselfish work as a student.

“Frank is a man, first, who wants to make the right and good choices for himself and his family,” said Dr. Richard Pratt, a former Reformed Theological Seminary professor. “He’s not after promotions and getting ahead.”

Current RTS president Michael Kruger, who was a professor when Reich was earning his Masters of Divinity degree, believes that earned Reich respect from his peers in seminary and from NFL players today.

“Every time he spoke in chapel, the students really paid attention, and I don’t think it was just because he was a famous football player,” he said. “He had a way of connecting with his audience, and bringing the text of the Bible alive to those he was speaking to.”

But there were those occasions when Reich, the 6-foot-4 football player, stood tall on campus no matter how hard he tried to blend in.

Dr. Rod Culbertson, now the dean of development, saw that the day about 20 students convinced Reich to play football.

“One of them, after it was all done, comes in,” Culbertson said. “He was from Buffalo. He says, ‘I caught a touchdown pass from Frank Reich!”’

DR. RIC CANNADA, who established the Charlotte Reformed Theological Seminary campus in 1993, often asked Reich to speak at events because he was older and, in some ways, more advanced in his understanding of theology than most students.

It was during car rides to events he noticed the qualities he believed made Reich, even as a student, the right man to replace him as president in 2003.

“I knew his heart, and I knew he was a leader,” Cannada said.

As president, Reich quickly surrounded himself with older administrators and professors, some of whom had been candidates for the job he got. It was not much different than the way he built his current staff at Carolina with 68-year-old Jim Caldwell (his first boss with the Colts and the first to interview for the Panthers’ head-coaching job that Reich landed this year) and 72-year-old Dom Capers, Carolina’s first coach.

“Guys that have been through the wars, they’ve been through the ups and downs, they’ve learned how to solve problems, they’ve learned how to work with players of all types, work through issues,” Reich said of his Panthers staff. “Guys who know how to collaborate together, work through issues as a staff, who have a strong conviction but no egos.”

That’s what Reich did in building his first seminary staff.

“What I watched in those early meetings was that he already was a coach,” Culbertson said. “He realized he didn’t know everything about everybody’s job, but like a head coach, you have to trust everybody under you and make them feel appreciated.”

Frank’s wife, Linda, calls his approach to team building the servant leader (leading with the innate desire to serve his team’s needs), which grew during his time at the seminary.

Reich calls it being smart.

“We’ve all learned from Day 1, when you’re trying to put together a team, try to surround yourself with the best people,” he said.

Caldwell called that servant leadership something special. He saw it when Reich joined him in Indianapolis in 2006 and helped the Colts win Super Bowl XLI with Manning.

“He knows and preaches often that it’s not about him,” Caldwell said. “He knows there’s a bigger mission involved.”

Reich insists his experience as RTS president — building a staff and working with students to help them expand their theological knowledge to perhaps become pastors — prepared him more for being a head coach than anything.

“It was just like being the head coach of a football team,” he said. “Where the players are the real stars of football, the professors and students are the real stars of the seminary.

“The rest of us are just there to bring leadership, to bring a team together around a common mission.”

IN THE SAME way Reich often used football terminology during meetings in seminary, his talks to the football team often are like sermons. He refers to the Bible as his playbook with both.

Culbertson recalled how when recruiting students to seminary as the president, Reich always referred to something former Buffalo Bills coach Marv Levy said during their time together.

“Whatever we did, Frank said ‘We win as a team and we lose as a team,”’ he said.

It wasn’t as easy to use biblical terms with football players.

“It’s hard to mention God in meetings when there’s guys of other religious beliefs,” said quarterback PJ Walker, who was with Reich and the Colts in 2018 and 2019. “But you knew where Frank stood and you knew what he believed in. You knew if you wanted to go talk to him about things like that, you could.”

That’s another reason he chose seminary over coaching in 1998.

“I had a desire to not just give a testimony and tell what I’d experienced, but to actually teach or to use football terminology to help coach from the playbook, the Bible, the things that were impacting my life,” Reich said.

Caldwell first noticed that depth with the Colts during Tuesday morning Bible studies when Reich replaced the chaplain.

“You could tell that when Frank had his opportunity, he wasn’t like the rest of us, a novice in that area,” Caldwell said with a laugh.

Carolina running backs coach Duce Staley, who also was a coach with the Eagles when Reich was the offensive coordinator, can’t recite Bible verses, but he understood that Reich’s faith fueled his leadership.

“When Frank spoke, he spoke from the heart and everybody in that Philly organization — everybody — listened,” Staley said. “You hear players talk about his leadership and the man he is and what he brings to the table. That’s his faith. That’s his belief.”

Knowing how important a playbook is to a player, the depth of Reich’s faith really hit home to Staley when he heard Reich refer to the Bible as his personal playbook.

“As a player, you’ve got to know the playbook like the back of your hand or you can’t play,” Staley said. “That right there, when he says the Bible is his playbook, tells you how well he knows his playbook.”

IN A WORD, it was agonizing when Reich, then the pastor at Ballantyne Presbyterian, began to feel drawn back to football.

“I didn’t want it to feel like I was quitting the ministry,” Reich said.

Linda added, “It was probably the hardest decision he’s ever made in his entire life.”

Cannada helped him put it in perspective, reminding him that Reich’s father helped as many or more people as an attorney as he did as a minister.

“Frank knew from the things we taught him at the seminary that he could serve the Lord effectively in coaching,” Cannada said. “So Frank felt comfortable in the end.”

Reich, acknowledging how tough the decision was, said the choice to leave the ministry was ultimately “really freeing.”

“To understand, no, this wasn’t me quitting the ministry,” Reich said. “This was me understanding where’s the right place for me to have the biggest impact and do things that are consistent with my faith.”

Former NFL wide receiver Torrey Smith, who played for Reich in Philadelphia in 2017, saw the impact Reich’s faith had on players, regardless of whether they were believers.

“It’s literally who he is and how he lives,” Smith said. “He’s definitely one of the best men I’ve ever been around. He’s one of the best communicators I’ve ever been around.”

Staley said Reich was the first person he went to for guidance or advice in Philadelphia, just as he was the first he recently went to after the death of his grandmother.

“Frank knows how to help you get through it,” Staley said. “I can’t really explain it. … When you’re a problem solver, in my opinion, you’re a man of faith.”

REICH’S FAITH CAME into play more than ever when the Colts fired him last season, the day after they fell to 3-5-1 with a lopsided 26-3 loss to the New England Patriots.

He’d helped Indianapolis and the Eagles win Super Bowls after being a part of a Buffalo team that lost four straight Super Bowls (1991-94).

Being dismissed was more personal, but to Reich it was another test.

“There was horrible disappointment when he was fired,” Linda recalled. “Horrible disappointment. And you know, like anything else, we realized God had a plan.”

That plan, which convinced him to pass on coaching Manning, the No. 1 pick in 1998, has come full circle, as he will now coach this year’s top pick, Young.

But to get here, he had to lean on much of what was emphasized at seminary — that in football and life, things don’t always go your way.

It’s why, when Cannada always introduced him as the quarterback of two of the biggest comebacks in college and NFL history, Reich always would respond, “But let me tell you another story.”

Then Reich would share how he and Bills starting quarterback Jim Kelly were part of the 1993 team that committed a record nine turnovers in a 52-17 loss to Dallas in Super Bowl XXVII.

“Understanding that, you know, just because you have faith in God, that doesn’t mean everything is going to go perfect,” Reich said. “Sometimes it doesn’t and you get fired.

“But it’s a question of finding strength and resolve in those moments to grow in the learning and get better from it.”