From Dreams of Being the First US Pope to Becoming a NFL Coach

Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Linebacker Coach Mark Duffner changes vocational goals, but maintains Catholic identity.

(photo: Bucs Report Twitter)

As a young boy, Mark Duffner aspired to the priesthood — and the papacy. The Annandale, Virginia, native wanted to become the first pope from the United States. However, being introduced to football in high school would usher in a change to his life goals.

Duffner, 63, started coaching as a graduate assistant for Ohio State legend Woody Hayes in 1975. His next 21 years would be spent in the collegiate ranks, including a highly successful tenure as head coach at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Duffner’s NFL coaching experience began in 1997, with the Cincinnati Bengals, and it continues now with the 5-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who upset the 7-3 Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, 19-17. Prior to  the game, Duffner spoke about this season and his preservation of core religious beliefs.


What do you think of the season so far, and what do you think of what lies ahead?

We’re a work in progress. When I say “we,” I mean the defense, specifically. We’ve had our ups and downs, so need to work to become more consistent and productive. We like to have an attacking defense, where we dictate to the offense, rather than waiting to see what they’ll do. That’s what can really help with consistency and productivity — having your own standard of play that is not determined by what the other team is doing.

That’s the ideal, but it will be tough for us the rest of the season, since we have teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, Seattle Seahawks and Dallas Cowboys to contend with. We have a very competitive schedule, so it will be especially important to take it one game at a time.


What are your most favorite and least favorite things about coaching?

The best thing about coaching is the influence you hopefully have on the players you’re working with. It’s particularly true with college players, but also with professionals. As a coach, you’re connecting with them in personal ways that can make them better players, but also better men.

The most challenging thing about coaching is trying to get players not only to get the game plan down, but to execute it on a regular basis. Ideally, you want to get the best out of your players every time they play, so that means you have to be at your best before that happens. You can’t go at it halfheartedly; you have to prepare, instruct and make good decisions, showing the players that you mean business and are there to help them be the best they can be.

At the same time, there is a temptation to make football more complicated than it is. Yes, you have to get things right, but it’s not necessary to work late into the night every day of the week to make that happen. Putting in more hours will not necessarily mean better results. You can get grouchy and less sharp in decision-making, which can easily mean worse results. There is something to be said for keeping things simple and taking appropriate rest.


Growing up, did you always want to become a coach?

For a long time, I wanted to become a priest, and then the first American pope. I served as an altar boy from fourth through 12th grade, mostly at the Latin Mass. I butchered Latin worse than anyone at St. Michael’s in Annandale, Virginia, but I looked up to the priests and wanted to do what they did.

However, when I got into high school, the football coaches exerted a strong influence on me, and coaching became my goal. I thought in high school that I would go to college, play football, get a degree and then return to high school as a teacher and coach. When I got to the College of William & Mary, though, the coaches there also exerted a strong influence on me, which drew me toward college coaching specifically.

After completing my undergraduate degree in physical education, I went to Ohio State University to pursue a master’s degree in the same subject. I was blessed to be a graduate assistant for a legendary coach. I learned so much from him, and also from Lou Holtz, who recommended me to Coach Hayes because of our interaction at William & Mary when he was an assistant and I was playing.


Have you always been able to connect faith and football?

I always have in one way or another, but there have been times when it was more obvious than others. When I was head coach at Holy Cross, a Jesuit school, we had a Mass before every home game and also before every road game. Our chaplain traveled with us, so there was always a sacramental presence near the team. That reminded us of what was most important. Yes, we did have a lot of fun playing and winning — going 60-5-1 from 1986 to 1991, when I was head coach — but the presence of a priest was a constant reminder and avenue of the saving work of Christ.

At most colleges, you have to go off the campus in order to get to Mass or go to confession, but at a Catholic college, those things are right there with everything else. There’s just something very special about having those things so close, because all your needs — physical, social, intellectual, spiritual — are met without having to walk more than a mile in any direction.

Holy Cross was an amazing place to coach a football team. I even thought I’d stay there the rest of my career, but ended up coaching at the University of Maryland and then in the NFL. The support we got from the faculty and administration at Holy Cross made it possible for us to do so well. What also made the experience so positive was the history of the school. NBA great Bob Cousy and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas are examples of Holy Cross alumni who went on to do extremely well at their professions.


Do you find that silent preparation and prayer help in the noisy atmosphere of pro football?

Jesus prayed before his major decisions, such as choosing apostles, leaving us an example. Preparing with prayer is essential to maintain a balanced outlook on life and avoid the pursuit of harmful things or irrelevant details that might hinder real work. Prayer, along with Bible reading, is something that I do every day.

I have here My Daily Catholic Bible: 20-Minute Daily Readings edited by Paul Thigpen. The readings are led off by a quotation from a saint, which helps to put them in perspective. The contents of the Bible are not meant to be just for those who lived during the time they were written. They’re meant for every succeeding generation, and the quotes of saints from various times make that clear.

One of the more recent saints quoted is John Bosco, who, along with Mark the Evangelist and Stephen the Martyr, is one of my patrons. He was an upbeat, funny and active priest who wanted the young men under this care, not just to stay out of trouble, but to become saints. He knew sports and recreation were ways to reach them, so he’s someone I easily relate to.

St. John Bosco showed that you do have to take your salvation and that of your neighbor very seriously, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy life. Interacting with others on a playing field can be something that, far from removing us from God, actually brings us closer to him. The joy experienced is a foretaste of heaven, where you’re taken up in something greater than yourself.


That perspective on sports wouldn’t have been possible without prayer.

No, and it wouldn’t have been possible for me without being raised by devout parents. I am very grateful for that, and for my uncle, Paul Duffner, who is a 101-year-old Dominican priest. His life and prayers have influenced me, and I’m amazed that he’s still around at such a ripe age. Maybe having a more rounded view of life, which includes recreation, has helped him last as long as he has.

My uncle’s prayers, my parents’ prayers and my prayers have made possible for me a “fuller” and “richer” life. One of the specific prayers — or series of prayers, really — that comes to mind is the Rosary, which has been so much endorsed by the Dominicans and which I have prayed so many times.

Football is a tough sport played by tough people, so a faith life helps to bring about the right perspective on this very competitive and aggressive part of life. With faith, the duties of coaching are executed diligently and thoroughly, but not in an overanxious or strained way. With faith, everything is put in its right place.


Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.

His book, Fit for Heaven (Beacon, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports

 interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.