Convivium: Is your reputation as a highly successful Christian a benefit or an obstacle?
Wally Buono: When people ask you to speak at an event, whether it's a prayer breakfast or another event, then obviously your reputation is grown in the sense that people now realize that you're not just a football coach, or you're not just a businessman. There's more to you. A lot of people keep things private. Some people believe that they have a platform to be able to share the Good News. I believe that when you're put in this position, that's a responsibility.
C: You were born in Italy but grew up in Montreal. Did you go to Notre Dame de la Défense Church (in Little Italy)?
WB: [laughs] No, I didn't go there. I went to St. Pius X High School. I was raised in the Catholic Church. When I became a responsible adult, I discovered that you have to find your own way. I believe I found what salvation was all about. I know many people in the Church that are believers and that are saved. I don't want to say one is right and one is wrong, but the path I chose was a slightly different path. Through that, I believe I found salvation and I found Christ. I've tried to live my life that way since.
C: Did finding your own way, stepping away from the Church you had been raised in, require a period of searching outside the Church?
WB: Definitely. After high school I went to the States. I wasn't a church goer at that time, and then through certain things that occurred I started to look at the relationship with Christ slightly different and I started to see it as a more personal relationship. When I became a professional athlete, I made a commitment to Christ as Lord and Saviour. At that point, we just found a church that we were comfortable with. I've never become a member of any church, but I've always been what I believe is a loyal person in the church I’m attending.
Maybe I was always afraid to be committed (to a particular church). Even today, I go to a church and I don't have membership. I didn't have membership in the church in Calgary or Montreal, but we felt we had a home church and we always supported it financially and in other ways.
C: You mentioned there were things that moved you back to Christianity. Did you become involved with Athletes in Action or other groups of Christians evangelizing among professional athletes?
WB: That was part of it, but it had started in university. One thing that aroused my attention was when we went to Athletes in Action events and the person would stand and speak about his relationship with Christ. To me, that was part of the awakening to the fact that there's a need to have that personal relationship with Christ. You have to make that commitment. From there, you can continue to build your spiritual self.
I felt God was talking to me when I was 20 years old, okay? I didn’t become a Born Again Christian until I was 25 or 26. I went to chapel. I was at certain events, but I had to come to grips with what made you right before God. The Bible is very clear. It says that only through Christ can you be right with God. So I had to come to that determination. From there it's been a tough trip, but it's been a great journey.
I'm not sure without my relationship with Christ that I could have accomplished all of this. Seriously. My wife asked me, "If you weren't a coach, what would you do?" I said, "I don't think I'm good at anything else." I think God has given me this for a reason. Sometimes I pinch myself thinking about how, without my faith, I would have ever been able to do this. The answer is I wouldn't have been able to do it. God's done it through me.
C: Now they won't let you retire. The Lions brought you out of head coaching retirement in 2016 and….
WB: No, no, no. Don't listen to what they say. There's only one thing that's not going to let me retire, and that's God changing my heart. He did it once, so I'm going to be candid and say he can do it again, but.... And that's a big but.
C: We just have to look south of the border at what goes on in the NFL to see how troubled, and troubling, the world of professional sports can be. Some would say there are lifestyles that are not compatible with Christian faith, and they're evident in the sporting world. Has it been tough remaining steadfast to the Gospel?
WB: I would say you could make it harder than it is, and you could make it easier than it is. A lot of it is what you put yourself into. It's where your priorities are. For me it's always been about honouring our Saviour, respecting and honouring my wife and my family. For me to jeopardize that would be giving up a lot. As much as possible, you try not to put yourself in those situations when you can be attacked.
I remember reading Billy Graham's autobiography, and him talking about being really careful about putting yourself in a position to fall. He gave examples of things he would never do. It was guidance for saying “you're a man, there are certain things that stimulate you. Be careful about putting yourself in those positions.” It's a choice. It's a choice, and if you choose to walk that road, eventually I think you're going to fall.
C: St. Paul tells us, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." That's the essence of our faith, isn't it? It’s the source of our hope that we will always pick ourselves up and keep going on.
WB: God promises he'll always give you a way out if you choose to take the way.
C: You’ve said that as a coach, when you’re doing the Xs and Os diagramming plays on the blackboard, you can't be preaching to the players. But do you have to be cautious as well , for example, when a player does get into a jam? How do you negotiate, given both your position with the team and also with your history and your reputation as Christian, of coming across as judgmental or standing on a platform and looking down on people?
WB: My thing is that I don't judge you. I evaluate you. My job is very cut and dried. I’ve got to put the best product on the field, and build the best team. Those are two really different criteria. The best talent is not always the best person. With these players, I want them to help me feed my daughters, not marry them.
My way is that if you do judge them, you judge them on what they do when they're with you. Not what they've done in the past, just like me. Why would they judge me in the past? I've been forgiven for that. Maybe they paid the price for that. I don't know that, but I can then deal with them in the present. If their behaviour is not appropriate, I can deal with that. If it's an attitude issue, I can deal with that. If it's a discipline issue, I can deal with that. But my job isn't to judge who you are or who you were. It's to say, ”okay, today it's a new start. Here are my expectations. If you can meet those expectations, I don't have a problem.”
C: You judge on performance not….
WB: Well, I judge you on your performance and on your behaviour going forward. Like you said, we've all sinned. Yours might be more serious than mine, but God doesn't distinguish the two, so why should I?
C: How would you respond if a player did come to you and want to speak to you about matters of faith, want to get direction, counselling, a sense of what comes next in coming to the faith? I'm sure you must have sought that out when you were a young man as well?
WB: That's different than me putting them in a room where I control their destiny, and then I preach to them. I don't have that right. But as their head coach or as their GM or as an older person, they have the right to come to me and say, "Wally, can you give me some counsel on this?" Now whether they take the counsel or not, that's another issue. They have that right. That's a totally different relationship than me putting them into a closed room where they don't have the right to leave, and aren’t there to be preached to. When they come to me and seek advice, whether it's on spiritual matters, football matters or personal matters, they're the ones that initiate it.
C: So they're asking. You’re giving. You're showing love of neighbour.
WB: You want to show them that you care about them as more than just athletes. If you treat them as just athletes, then you're just using them to achieve your goals. But there’s also trying to help them to develop as men, and deal with issues that are very difficult.
C: Off the field, outside of the stadium, navigating ordinary life, do you find the world we live in is amenable to being a person of faith? Or do you find yourself constantly coming up against this, that, or the other aspect of real life, whether in political or social situations, where you have to bite your tongue about your faith? If so, how do you manage that?
WB: At times it can seem disgusting to think of what's going on. It really does. Yet the Bible is very clear that we live in a world of turmoil, and it will be constant turmoil until Christ returns.
We shouldn't be shocked or surprised, though we often are. They just found a 13-year-old girl in Burnaby murdered yesterday. You know what I'm saying? Why would that occur? Who would have the stomach or the mindset to kill a 13-year-old girl? I've got an 11 year old grandson. I just can't see why anyone would want to do that.
When you look at the stuff that goes on in our own country, in the world, it's.... But I guess what helps us get through is that God promises more than this, right?
C: The heart of the Christian faith is the recognition that human beings are capable of nailing God to a tree. We actually did, and we were there at the foot of the Cross along with everyone else. We helped drive the nails in. But that's not a source of cynicism or despair. It's a source of hope, because it was done with a purpose.
WB: Totally true. We know, the dark side and the light side, right? Within us there's both. When God opens our eyes and our ears, he opens us to the light, and hopefully he removes us from the darkness.
C: Our job is to keep our eyes and ears open.
WB: In a world of confusion, each one of us can only be right with God personally. It’s you that has to become right with God. It's not what your father did. It's not what your mother did. It’s not what your wife is doing. It's you. Until you become right with God, and I think the Bible is clear on what makes us right with God, life is going to be confusing. As confusing as it is even for believers, at least we have the faith and the promise that there's a life after this that's better.
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