Jake Kirkpatrick can’t help but laugh at the memory of when he first met Andy Dalton. Hind-sight’s clarity, after all, can be downright comical.
Kirkpatrick, an ox of a man at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, would go on to win the Rimington Trophy as college football’s top center in 2010. But in the summer of 2006, he was just a wide-eyed freshman at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. One day during preseason practices, he met Dalton, another frosh, in their dormitory. Kirkpatrick took one look at the scrawny 17-year-old with the blazing red hair and—to be honest—wasn’t very impressed.
“He was real skinny, and he didn’t look that athletic,” Kirkpatrick recalls, chuckling. “He told me he played quarterback, and I was like, ‘All right, whatever.’ Then you start talking to him and realizing that he knows football.”
Even then, Kirkpatrick had no idea what was to come. Over the next five years, the Red Rifle (as Dalton came to be known) would rewrite the school’s record books, spearhead possibly the greatest season in the program’s 117-year history, and etch his name into TCU lore. In fact, Fort Worth Star-Telegram sportswriter Mac Engel called for TCU to retire Dalton’s No. 14 jersey.
Even so, it seems greatness is a divisive topic when it comes to Dalton. Entering his third NFL season, the Cincinnati Bengals’ starter has experienced more success than most young quarterbacks—with Pro Bowl honors and two playoff appearances—yet he has as many critics as believers. Search the Internet and you’ll find an endless supply of pundits dissecting his first two professional seasons and opining about his future. It comes with the territory.
But true greatness, as Dalton knows, isn’t found in the fish bowl of NFL fame. He points to the biblical paradox found in Luke 9:48 (NIV): “…For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
So Dalton works hard at his craft and even harder at becoming a great man of God. Statistically speaking, he might not stand out (yet) as a great NFL quarterback. But, when it comes to real greatness, he is strikingly distinctive. He is one of the genuine good guys in sports, con-spicuous for his Christ-like character, kindness and humility.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he says, “if God didn’t give me so many things along the way.”
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Dalton’s life changed when Wisdom made a house call.
Dalton grew up in a Christian home in Katy, Texas, 30 miles west of Houston. Greg and Tina Dalton faithfully took their three children — Ashley, Andy and Avery — to First Baptist Church of Katy. Andy expressed a desire to become a Christian when he was in third grade, so his parents invited their pastor, Dr. Wisdom (no joke), to come over and speak with Andy. That night, Andy trusted in Christ as his Lord and Savior.
“Ever since then,” he says, “my faith has been growing stronger and stronger.”
Andy was your typical All-American boy: roughhousing with his neighborhood buddies, soaring on the backyard trampoline with his siblings and playing sports. He also liked dressing up as different characters. One day, it was Peter Pan. Another day, Davy Crockett (it’s a Texas thing). He often gravitated to the Man of Steel. When old reruns of the 1950s TV show Adventures of Superman would come on, Andy would stand on a stool, spread out his arms, and pretend he was flying.
“He had a good imagination,” Greg says.
Bringing It Home Devotional: Humble Servant
Given his position as an NFL quarterback, nobody would fault Andy Dalton for having a little swagger. He is, after all, one of only 32 people in the entire world who can claim to be a current starting quarterback in the league.
At first, Andy was anything but superhuman on the football field. He began his career at Katy High School as the freshman B team quarterback and didn’t become the full-time varsity starter until his senior year.
By the end of Andy’s junior year, the Daltons knew the clock was ticking on his college scholarship chances. Having split time that season as Katy’s starter, Andy didn’t have gaudy statistics and hadn’t yet appeared on scouting radars. Greg worried whether his son would get a chance to fulfill his dream of playing Division I ball.
Greg contacted Randy Rodgers, a friend of a friend and a local college recruiting consultant, to assess Andy’s situation. Rodgers watched Andy’s highlight tape as a 180-pound part-time starter and told the Daltons: “He’s a college prospect, not a college player yet.” The next day, Andy took Rodgers’ advice and quit his promising baseball career to focus exclusively on football.
Andy entered his senior season bearing the weight of his own aspirations and a community’s dreams. At football-mad Katy, lofty expectations are as plentiful as longhorns on the Texas frontier. The Tigers, a perennial 5A powerhouse, own seven state championships and are awaiting approval of a new 14,000-seat stadium plan because, well, their current 9,768-seat venue just isn’t big enough.
“It’s a community event,” Greg says. “Everybody wants to be a Katy Tiger. That was your goal as a kid.”
Andy responded to the pressure, guiding the 2005 Tigers to a 14-1 record with 2,877 yards passing and 42 touchdowns, earning The Houston Chronicle’s Greater Houston Area Offensive Player of the Year award. The only blemish on the team’s record was a 34-20 loss in the 5A Division II state final to mighty Southlake Carroll.
When Dalton committed to TCU that October, he had only two other Division I offers—Memphis and UTEP. He redshirted his first season as a Horned Frog and then won the starting job in 2007. Not bad for a late-bloomer whose major college prospects looked shaky at best just a few years earlier.
The legend of Red Rifle had begun.
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For the better part of a century, the good folks of Fort Worth had to search for grainy black-and-white film to relive TCU’s last truly great stretch of football success. Not since the 1930s had the Horned Frogs been a national power. As America crawled out of the Great De-pression, quarterbacks Slingin’ Sammy Baugh and Davey O’Brien helped revolutionize football with the forward pass and propelled TCU to a 44-11-4 record from 1934 to ’38, including the 1938 national championship.
Decades passed, and TCU never quite recaptured its pre-World War II glory. Then, like a swelling tornado sweeping across the Texas prairie, the Dalton era arrived.
After earning the starting job as a redshirt freshman in 2007, Dalton won a school-record 42 of 49 games over the next four seasons, broke every major TCU quarterback record, won two straight Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year awards, and guided the pro-gram to three bowl wins in four tries and three straight final top-10 national rankings—a first for TCU.
Dalton was a bona fide superstar in Texas, where “football is religion” is more fact than cliché. But he didn’t act the part. The Red Rifle was remarkably regular—so much so that, around campus, other students would nonchalantly greet him with a, “Hey, Andy, what’s up?”
“Andy was a star at TCU,” says Chauncey Franks, FCA’s area representative in Fort Worth, “but he was such a level-headed, down-to-earth kid, it never felt like rock-star status.”
Or, as Kirkpatrick says, “He’s just always Andy.”
Perhaps the only time Dalton brought attention to himself was when he stood in a high-foot-traffic area outside TCU’s library and announced Ignite, a wildly popular weekly Christian gathering on campus that he helped launch. “Hey, everybody,” he’d bellow into a megaphone.“I hope you’re coming to Ignite tonight at 9 o’clock!”
“I think that lasted two or three weeks before some professors said, ‘Hey, you need to take it easy on that,’” says Jeff Olson, one of Dalton’s former teammates and a close friend.
Dalton’s genuine faith was magnetic to those around him. He was a front-row attendee at Friday night chapels and church on Sundays, drawing others with him. Because of him, Franks said, 90 percent of the 2010 football team came to chapels.
Dalton’s collegiate swan song was a masterpiece. In 2010, he powered the Horned Frogs to TCU’s greatest season in 72 years (and maybe ever)—a perfect 13-0 record capped by a 21-19 win over Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl. (On top of all that, he got engaged to fellow TCU student Jordan Jones earlier that October; they were married the following July.)
The Horned Frogs finished No. 2 in the final rankings, and the only thing that kept them from having a shot at a national title was the ever-so-flawed BCS. In the midst of the hubbub, Dalton chose meekness. Following the Rose Bowl win, in a live interview with ESPN, Dalton quoted his favorite verse, 1 Peter 5:6 (NIV): “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
Dalton’s teammates marveled at his poise and steadiness that whole season.
“If the team was 10-0 or 0-10, he’s still the same,” Kirkpatrick says. “He’s a fiery guy who jokes around and knows when to take charge … Going into the NFL, you knew he was going to be successful.”
* * *
Plenty of NFL teams left the 2011 scouting combine unconvinced of Dalton’s professional future. His NFL.com profile offered a lukewarm review:
Dalton is [a] four-year starter and proven winner … Will have a difficult transition to the NFL … Undersized … Generally an accurate passer, however he will make some poor throws when his mechanics break down … Unclear if he can fit the ball into tight windows … Will need some time to learn a more complicated offense … Looks to be a mid-round pick.
The Bengals took a chance. One month before the combine, seven-year starter Carson Palmer threatened to retire if he wasn’t traded. So the Bengals chose Dalton in the second round (35th overall) and gave him a four-year, $5.2 million contract on July 31, two days after they placed Palmer on a reserve list of players who hadn’t reported to training camp.
Dalton won the starting job and became the NFL’s first rookie quarterback not drafted in the first round to start all 16 games. When the Bengals traded Palmer to Oakland on Oct. 18, Cincinnati was already off to a surprising 4-2 start and fully Red Rifle’s team.
Dalton made the Pro Bowl that season, throwing for 3,398 yards and 20 touchdowns (both franchise rookie records) and leading the Bengals to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth. Last year, he rallied the Bengals from a 3-5 start to a 10-6 record and another postseason appearance, marking only the ninth time since 1990 that an NFL team has accomplished such a turnaround. Cincinnati lost to Houston in the first round both years.
Statistically, Dalton improved in most categories in 2012, completing 62.3 percent of his passes for 3,669 yards, 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. His 47 touchdown passes through his first two seasons are third-most in NFL history, trailing only Miami Hall of Famer Dan Marino (68) and Denver’s Peyton Manning (52), who is certainly Canton-bound. Despite such a promising start, Dalton’s skeptics are plentiful. NFL analysts have questioned his arm strength and pocket presence, among other things.
Comparatively speaking, his statistics last year were pretty average. He ranked seventh among all starting quarterbacks in touchdowns, 16th in passing yards and 18th in yards per game. He tied Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick for the eighth-most interceptions in the league, and his middle-of-the-pack completion rate was two-tenths of a percentage point ahead of Minne-sota’s Christian Ponder. Plus, fair or not, the media will probably mention his ugly performance in last year’s playoffs—14-for-30, 127 yards, one interception—until he wins a postseason game.
And that will be quite a day in Cincinnati. With three playoff appearances in the last four years and a lot of promising young talent, the franchise can no longer be considered “the Bungles,” but they still own the NFL’s longest playoff victory drought. Not since 1990—when Boomer Esiason was still in his prime—have the Bengals won in the postseason.
This is now Dalton’s burden to bear. True, he doesn’t face the same pressure to win in the Queen City that quarterbacks do in, say, New York, Dallas or Chicago. But there is pressure.
“You’ve got to expect and trust in yourself to get your team to the playoffs and win a couple games and make a run at it,” says Dalton, who turns 26 in October. “You have to trust in your abilities and work ethic. I put in a lot of time at this sport to be the best I can be. My expectations are to get back there [to the playoffs] and win.”
Dalton’s faith keeps him grounded, but so does Jordan. When Dalton left his offseason home in Fort Worth for training camp in July, Jordan gave him a box filled with about 20 Scripture-filled notes of encouragement for him to read daily until she joined him in Cincinnati.
“To have someone so wonderful and encouraging by my side, it’s so helpful,” he says. “It’s a reminder of how I’m supposed to live, the man I’m supposed to be, the leader I’m supposed to be. The encouragement really helps me be who I am and not worry about what anyone else is saying and enjoy life.”
While football will consume most of his attention for at least the next four months, he knows end zones are not where true champions are made. So he invests in others. In 2011, he established The Andy & Jordan Dalton Foundation to provide rewarding experiences to seriously ill and physically challenged children in the Cincinnati and Fort Worth areas. Last March, Dalton raised about $80,000 during a fundraising dinner in Fort Worth.
“He’s real down to earth and super-giving,” Olson says. “You see a professional athlete and get a stigma in your mind, and he’s so far on the opposite end of the spectrum it’s not even funny.”
For now, though, there’s business to take care of in the AFC North, where the Bengals will attempt to wrest the division title from the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The once-skinny redhead from Katy has come a long way.
“It’s been a lot of fun to experience everything I’ve experienced,” Dalton says. “Not very many people get a chance to play in the NFL. To start—and start as a rookie—I feel so blessed. So many things had to fall right to be where I am. I thank God every day.”
Originally Published: September 2013
Photos courtesy of Cincinnati Bengals