Trent Dilfer spent 13 years in the NFL and played on five different teams. He was a Pro Bowler (1997), a Super Bowl champion (XXXV), and Bart Starr Man of the Year Award winner (2002). Dilfer now spends his time as an NFL Analyst on ESPN. We ran this story on Dilfer back in the November 1998 issue of Sports Spectrum…
The Counsel of Trent
It’s the third day of training camp. Trent Dilfer has just endured the day’s final two hours of practice in the Florida sun. He’s tired, the sun has scorched his head, and he misses his wife and two children, who are out of town. He doesn’t complain. You won’t hear him do that. His withered blue eyes tell the story.
He smiles and looks sheepishly at a reporter as they sit in the University of Tampa cafeteria. “Can’t we always do this tomorrow? I’m just really tired, and I’d like to collect my thoughts and do this right.”
Dilfer, who in 1997 enjoyed his first Pro Bowl season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, realizes that just about every writer in the greater Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and many from across the country, wants to talk to him about the most anticipated season in franchise history.
He offers to do part of the interview then and there, but continue the rest of it another day—when he’s better rested and at a time when he promises he’ll be a better interview.
QB With a Heart
The difference between Trent Dilfer and the average multimillion-dollar athlete is that he cares. He doesn’t tell you he won’t, he doesn’t tell you he can’t, and when something changes he asks, “Is that okay?” An unlikely response from a guy who makes more than $4 million a season and has the future of the NFL’s most resurgent franchise at his fingertips.
“The interviews aren’t that hard,” he says about his life as a football star. “Dealing with the kids and the autographs is not that hard. What’s difficult is dealing with the parents. The grownups are the people that really ruin it for us. They should understand what we’re going through in our busyness and our lifestyle, yet they continue to criticize us for not giving all of our free time to be with them and sign their autographs.”
Tired as he might be, Dilfer can still talk. And what he enjoys talking about most is his faith and the difference it makes in his life.
“Trent Dilfer has been saved by Jesus Christ,” he says. “And all of that other stuff really doesn’t matter. That’s where my value comes from, and that’s why I can handle being criticized in the media. That’s why I can handle people calling radio shows and lying about me. That’s why I can handle some of the adverse situations I face, and that’s why I can handle success.
“Throwing an interception does not change where I stand with God—it’s how I deal with the interception that counts. Winning a Super Bowl will not mean anything eternally—it’s how I deal with winning the Super Bowl that will make me the kind of person I am.”
It may sound as if Dilfer doesn’t care what people think, but he does. He cares what people—especially children—think. He’s already the center of attention, especially after last season’s franchise-record 21 touchdown passes, but being liked and accepted is something that’s important to him. It has been ever since he was a youngster.
Just listen to his mother. “When he was in high school and was probably a much better basketball player than a football player, the first time he was named Player of the Game, when they turned on the TV lights he was just like a natural,” says Marcie Lynch, who suffered through a divorce when Trent was just two years old. She married Frank Lynch three years later. “He’s always liked the limelight,” says Mom.
He grew up looking out for No. 1, but would do anything to become more popular. Dilfer was restless and although athletics brought him attention, he yearned for more. He was a self-described “show off.”
Trent says it was more about being liked than popular, but it’s a different story today. As far as his Buccaneer days are concerned, he says, he wants to be respected. “I want to do whatever it takes for them to achieve what we’re all trying to achieve, and that’s a championship. I don’t necessarily get caught up in whether they like me or not, because personalities conflict. But I want them to respect me and I want them to know I’m here for them. I really am. I will be selfless in order to win, if that’s what it takes. I’ll make the sacrifices, both personally and professionally to ensure our success as a football team.”
It’s a different perspective from the one he had as a rookie.
When Dilfer came into the league in 1994, coach Sam Wyche handed the Bucs’ top draft pick (sixth overall), the starting quarterback job over Craig Erickson early in his first year. Yet Erickson still had something that Dilfer wanted—the support of his teammates. Erickson’s demotion led the resentment in the locker room, not necessarily because Erickson was the better man for the job, but because the guys like Erickson. He had been known to buy drinks for the whole team and party all night.
Dilfer has learned that respect—not artificial friendship—is a better way to impress teammates.
Of Faith and the Family
Trent grew up in a Christian home and went to church, but although he played the game of being a Christian he didn’t allow matters of faith to influence his life until the summer before his sophomore year of college at Fresno State University. It was 1992, and Trent was at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes camp in Thousand Oaks, California, where he was a “huddle leader” for 10 underprivileged children. Even the camp leaders thought he was a Christian. At the camp, Trent ended up being the pupil instead of the teacher.
As he observed the other counselors, he was impressed with their love for Jesus Christ. He knew he didn’t have that love. “These guys just loved me to death,” he says. “I saw Christ through them.”
At that camp, where he had been brought in to be a counselor, Dilfer prayed a sincere prayer of faith, asking Jesus Christ to be his Savior. “I confessed everything to Him and made a decision to trust Him,” he says.
He returned home and told his mother that he’d had a change in his life.
“He lay on the sofa in the family room and cried,” says Lynch of her son. “He said he never really realized how much he had.”
Finally, he was experiencing real faith in Christ.
Trent’s life was changed in another way around that time as well. He had met and befriended Fresno State swimmer and classmate Cassandra Franzman before attending the FCA camp. Later, regular Bible study brought the couple together, and they married in July 1993. They’ve since added two more to the flock. Madeline was born in March 1996, and Trevin came along last November. Trent and Cass are expecting their third child in the spring.
“I want to raise kids that are blessings from God,” says Trent. “That’s the bottom line. That’s our goal as parents—to raise children who are blessings to God, who know Him personally, and who serve Him diligently throughout their life.
“The biggest people I want to be a witness to in my life are my kids. When they’re asked about their dad they can say, ‘Oh yeah, he played in the NFL,’ but I want them to say first, ‘He loves Jesus.’ That’s a great, great challenge.”
In the past, Trent and Cassandra’s Christian lifestyle kept Dilfer from being “one of the guys,” but now having the guys’ respect, and being a righteous man takes precedence.
He won’t change. He won’t go against his beliefs, but there’s still a big part of Trent that wants to be embraced by his teammates. He so much wanted to be accepted that in his second season he went with his teammates to a handful of bars, but he found himself feeling like a fish out of water. His prayer life, studying God’s Word, being discipled, and fellowship with other believers have helped him to achieve the consistency that is now so evident in his life.
“It’s hard, but I want to be real,” says Dilfer. “They all know where I stand and there are certain things I won’t compromise, but at the same I don’t mind being real.”
Since Trent was the son of a physical education teacher and coach, it would only seem natural that he would excel on the gridiron. As a pre-adolescent, he was a waterboy and ballboy for Aptos High School near Santa Cruz, California, where he understood the offense better than the quarterbacks.
“He was a student of every game he’s been involved in. He knew the offense better than my college quarterbacks,” says Frank Lynch, Dilfer’s mentor and stepfather, who coached both Aptos High and Cabrillo College, a community college in Aptos. “He and I used to banter back and forth about what to do in certain situations when we were watching games. He enjoys the mental part of the game and the logistics and dissecting the game.”
After a successful football career at Aptos High, where he was a two-time All-Conference selection in both basketball and football, Dilfer headed to one of the three schools that recruited him. Santa Clara and Northern Arizona also offered the four-sport letterman (golf, basketball, football, baseball) a scholarship, but Dilfer decided to play for the Bulldogs in the Western Athletic Conference.
At Fresno State, he got his first chance as a redshirt freshman when starting quarterback Mark Barsotti was injured. As expected, Dilfer was nervous, but he stepped in, started the final four games of the season, and helped his club to a berth in the California Raisin Bowl.
In Dilfer’s sophomore year, Fresno State was playing at San Diego State for the right to go to the Freedom Bowl. Fresno State led in the fourth quarter, but SDSU scored and took the lead with just 3 minutes left in the game. Dilfer drove the Bulldogs the length of the field before facing a fourth-and-goal on the 6-yard line with 10 seconds left. The sophomore then promptly tossed a perfect fade to Tydus Winans in the corner of the end zone for the winning score.
Former Fresno State teammate and current Buccaneer teammate Lorenzo Neal says, “In that play, he showed some leadership, and he showed poise as a sophomore and in a game of that magnitude, I was like, ‘Boy, this kid can play.’ To do that in that type of game and that type of environment you just say, ‘Hey, this guy’s arrived.’”
From there, Dilfer truly typified the excellence of execution. In 1993, his junior and final year of college, Dilfer set an NCAA record by throwing 318 passes without an interception. In just his second full season starting, he drew the interest of pro scouts by running the Bulldogs pro-style offense to perfection and throwing for 28 touchdowns with just four interceptions.
Dilfer’s first 2 years in the NFL weren’t so glorious. Doubts began to surface among some experts about his ability to get the job done in the big-time. But then along came Tony Dungy and the new “plan” the man brought to the team.
“We just wanted to build from the ground up,” Dungy says of his plan. “But there was a lot of foundation here. I just felt that if the guys believed in what we were trying to do, it would go well. We got some guys to believe that, and it’s starting to come.”
Dungy surprised Dilfer in their first year together by telling him that he would have to win the starting job in training camp, but that if he did he was their guy. He was the one they would stick with, win or lose. Dilfer respected that, and responded by recording career highs in passing yardage (2,859), completions (267), and attempts (482), even though the Bucs went 6-10.
Tampa Bay ended the 1996 season winning five of its last seven games, catapulting the Buccaneers and Dilfer into 1997, the most successful season in franchise history. The Bucs opened the season by winning their first five games, and the team went on to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years. The end came in a disappointing 21-7 loss to the Green Bay Packers, but Tampa Bay showed it had arrived when a league-high eight players, including Dilfer, were named to the Pro Bowl.
The Pro Bowl selection followed a year that saw Dilfer start every game for the third consecutive season, connect on 217 of 286 passes for a career-best 56.2 completion percentage, and throw a team-record 152 passes without an interception.
He keeps the numbers, accolades, and life in perspective.
“I’ve learned some very valuable lessons through football. I’m at the point now where I’m excited about how I’m going to grow spiritually,” says Dilfer. “I’m excited because I know the Lord’s going to make me richer spiritually. I don’t know if He’s going to be through failure, I don’t know if He’s going to do it through success—but I know I’m going to grow.”
By Buddy Shacklette
This story was published in the November 1998 of Sports Spectrum.