Learning to Swim

    There was a time when Indianapolis Colts head coach Jim Caldwell used to sink in adversity. Literally. Caldwell was five years old when he, his six-year-old sister and his four-year-old brother convinced their mother to take them to the “Big Pool,” a neighborhood pool in Rockford, Ill., with a deep end, shallow end, high dive, low dive and even a slide (probably a little better than their inflatable pool in the back yard).

    “We told her we’d stay in the shallow end, so we did,” Caldwell remembers. “But I was a pretty adventurous kid.”

    Turns out, his adventurous side almost killed him. Caldwell couldn’t swim.

    As he climbed the ladder of the slide, he thought he’d be safe because he noticed a woman below catching the kids and guiding them back into the shallow waters. When he reached the crest of the slide, however, she was gone.

    He slid down anyway, triggering the scariest minute of his early life.

    His body struck the surface of the water — and then it sank — the momentum from the slide pushing him deeper into the undertow and away from the shallow end — five feet, six feet, seven feet, eight feet, 15 feet — until he was holding his breath, delaying death, sitting at the bottom of the deep end, helpless.

    Waiting…waiting…waiting.

    That’s when a kid jumped off the 25-foot high dive and came all the way down, his feet, miraculously, touching the floor of the pool right in between Caldwell’s legs. As the kid kicked off the bottom of the pool toward the surface, Caldwell reached out his hands and clinched his trunks, practically pulling them down.

    The kid looked down and must’ve seen the utter terror on Caldwell’s face, because the next thing he knew, he was swimming on his back with Caldwell resting on his chest above the water — gagging uncontrollably and coughing up water out of his lungs.

    Caldwell’s rescuer — a blonde-headed 17 or 18 year old, from what he remembers — took him over by the diving board and laid him on the side of the pool. Caldwell coughed a little more as the boy talked to him and made sure he was okay.

    That’s the last he ever saw of him.

    On the way home, Caldwell, still shaken from the experience, looked at his mother. “I almost died today,” Caldwell said.

    “I know,” she replied. “But the Lord protected you. He’ll watch over you because I’ve been praying for you.”

    That’s when it clicked.

    POWER OF PRAYER

    Caldwell’s family says that after the pool incident, whenever they sang, “Jesus is Mine” at church, the five-year-old Caldwell would get angry at those singing around him. He’d correct them and say, “No, he’s mine.”

    Yes, funny. And yes, cute. But it’s also remarkable — to think that at the mere age of five, he understood what an intimate relationship with Jesus was like. At the age of five, he claimed Him. He could feel Him. He was mine.

    Perhaps the root of his early religious intimacy was the lesson he learned about prayer at the pool. You see, Caldwell’s room was right above his mother and father’s room. And every night, he heard his mom calling out his name in prayer through the radiator. Not only did he hear his mother, but he witnessed a number of her requests get answered.

    It clicked. Prayer equals protection.

    “He labors in prayer because he saw what happened when his mom labored in prayer,” says former Colts punter and author of The Jersey Effect Hunter Smith. “It saved his life. He has such a beautiful relationship with God. And it’s all because of prayer. His impact is because of prayer. God uses those who remain close to him.”

    WHEN IT’S EASY TO SINK

    It’s Caldwell’s emphasis on prayer — something he’s valued since the age of five — that gives him a unique perspective on life rarely found in the National Football League.

    “As a young child, I began to pray myself for different things and believe in the power of prayer,” Caldwell says. “Most people don’t believe in it. But I had a true fundamental belief and have always had that belief. I pray for things and believe the Lord will answer them.”

    His 26-year-old daughter, Natalie, has noticed that his prayer-focused life has led to an unchanging personality — that no matter what the circumstance, he’s the same humble man of God. When he was fired from Wake Forest after compiling a 26-53 record in an eight-year span, she remembers crying in her bedroom. Caldwell, however, comforted her and remained steady. Little did she know that the firing at Wake would lead to Tony Dungy, then to Tampa, then to Indianapolis, then to a Super Bowl victory on a rainy Miami evening on February 4, 2007.

    “(His reaction to getting fired at Wake), to me, just speaks volumes to the type of person he is,” Natalie continues. “From that moment in 10th grade, his visit to my room has always stayed with me. Anytime I’m feeling down or something is too hard, I just think about my dad and everything he has gone through and the things he does.”

    This season, Natalie, her mother Cheryl, and her brothers Jimmy, Jermaine and Jared have witnessed Caldwell endure some of those same trials. So has the entire city, as he’s suffered through a season where losses have heavily outweighed wins with the Peyton Manning-less Colts, where he and his staff’s heads are on the chopping blocks and where one of the most successful organizations of the last decade has catastrophically tanked. Still, Caldwell’s perspective remains intact.

    “I just have too much to be thankful for to ever get to the point to feel sorry for myself,” Caldwell says.

    In a profession where wins and losses tend to define your worth as a person, as is the case in Indianapolis where many fans and pundits are pleading for change in the Colts organization, Caldwell’s reliance on prayer is more evident than ever…and it’s something he learned when he was five years old.

    “I know prayer is needed in my profession,” Caldwell continues. “My prayer life is what keeps me in balance. It doesn’t let me get out of wack. It’s about solitude and being on your knees.”

    Whether he’s 12-0 like 2009 or 0-12 like this year, a head coach or unemployed, in plenty or hunger, in abundance or need — Jim Caldwell, deeply rooted in prayer, stays afloat.

    By Stephen Copeland