The blocker and the shepherd

6-28-02, 8:30 a.m.


What hasn't Anthony Munoz seen on a football field in Cincinnati?

He saw Ken Anderson turn ice into sun with the wave of a magic right arm here in the Freezer Bowl. He saw Ickey Woods shuffle into pop culture here. He saw Jim Breech make every overtime kick he ever tried, Isaac Curtis pass the torch to Cris Collinsworth, and Norman Julius Esiason will a locker room out of strike and strife into a Super Bowl.

And he saw a kid raised dirt poor on the fringe of life and Los Angeles, robbed of a father by violence and heroin. A kid who could barely stay healthy for one year in college become the first Hispanic in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It takes all kinds of people from all kinds of places and races on a football field, which just may be the biggest reason they made Munoz the chairman of this latest happening.

But in 13 seasons, Munoz had never seen this.

Not on Thursday night with Paul Brown Stadium draped in the trappings of the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham's four-day mission. Graham bowed his unmistakable silver mane and made his call for the people to come out of the stands and commit to Jesus Christ in front of the stage.

Munoz looked across the field and saw a man with a cane begin an 80-yard struggle to get in front of Graham. Munoz dipped his head to say a prayer and when he looked back up, there were thousands of people

streaming behind the man. Coming out of the end zone on a drive with Christ. Blacks and whites. Seniors and kids. Wheelchairs and sweatsuits.

"When I come down here this year to watch games, that picture is always going to flash back," Munoz said. "It's going to be hard to ever see just two teams on the field here without remembering that scene. What a powerful image for Dr. Graham."

This was Munoz's flip side. The other side of the coin. Heads and tails. There have been two Super Bowls, 11 Pro Bowls, a Hall of Fame induction. And yet this was the moment for which he had been groomed 24 years ago. Back in the Montclair Peanut House restaurant, when he and his wife DeDe gave their life over to Christ.

Roughly 8 p.m. on a sultry, rainswept summer night. The people keep coming out of the stands and at one point, Graham, the 83-year-old national icon, muses into the microphone just that. For Anthony Munoz, a man who has seen much on a football field, this must be the greatest.

"It's funny," Munoz said later underneath the stands. "I looked over and he had in his book phonetically spelled out, 'Munoz.' Ever since we met (earlier this week), he's been telling me, 'I'm practicing.' When I looked over and saw his book, I thought he might give me a mention. . .Imagine him saying my name like that. That was a thrill."

Not only was America's most famous living shepherd prepared, so was the greatest left tackle who ever lived. That's how they made it on this stage. After years of blocking for Pete Johnson and James Brooks, Munoz on Thursday paved the way for Graham's speech with his 10-minute testimonial.

The left tackle and the icon spent about 20 minutes talking one-on-one on Tuesday. Graham talked about his grand kids. Munoz talked about his kids. Graham had somehow found out they had called him "Moon," briefly when he was a rookie. When they left, Graham asked him, "Now what should I call you? Tony? Anthony?" Then he paused and cracked a smile. "Moon?"

To DeDe Munoz, that chair next to Graham that seemed so impossible to two poor kids 24 years ago represented it all. Faith and nothing else had gotten them there.

They are a team sport and so as DeDe helped Anthony write the testimonial, she wanted him to mention that if he listened to everybody but God, he never would have made it. And then as the nerves began to build Thursday afternoon ("Kind of like getting ready for a night game because I was starting to put my game face on," Anthony said), DeDe as always hit just the right note.

She told me, 'Have fun. Let God lead you,'" Munoz said.

DeDe watched from a suite, courtesy of Bengals President Mike Brown after he offered his box for the weekend.

"He said it all," DeDe said of the 10-minute testimony about why he needed Christ and what it has meant. It's a speech he has delivered countless of times since that night in the restaurant with DeDe's brother and sister-in-law. But never before 35,000 people on two big screens next to Billy Graham himself on a tape that will eventually be seen by millions on TV.

"I didn't look up at the screen and there was nobody in front of me, so I was kind of looking back into the corners," Munoz said. "There weren't 10 guys next to me or 11 on the other side of me. It was kind of funny just being out there by myself."

Of course, it may have been easier than his testimonial at the prison in Lucasville. That was the time they never really stopped weightlifting or playing basketball while they glared at him.

But Thursday night was clearly the most important thing he had ever done.

"It has to be," said Damon Lynch Jr., the esteemed Cincinnati minister who has worked with Munoz these last nine months. "It's the second most important thing I've ever done. Next to leading my church. This and the Underground Railroad have to be neck and neck. You're talking about souls and lives."

No question, Munoz said. It was a more significant speech than the one he gave on the steps of Canton four years ago when he went into the Hall of Fame. But it was easier to write because it poured out of his heart.

"The thing about sports is that it's so temporary," Munoz said. "Two or three years later, 'What was the score of that game? Who scored that touchdown?' This is about eternity. Don't get me wrong. I still love watching games and watching the Bengals win games, but this has so much more significance."

The words came out of the heart Thursday again. The heart he says can only be filled by God. He knows this because after each of his 11 straight Pro Bowls, he would lie in bed "wondering after a week with the best, is that all there is?"

The other side of the coin.

"The world says you're successful if you're good looking, have a lot of money, are well educated, and have a position of power," Munoz told the crowd. "But God has taught me he wants to know how my heart is. . .about my relationship with my family and friends."

Munoz always plays well in Cincinnati. Douglass Cannon, 16, a student at Northwest High School, sat in a wheelchair while he watched the crowd disperse. He couldn't make it to the field Thursday night for his commitment because of the crush of people. But he plans to do it Saturday.

"I learned more about Jesus after hearing him," Cannon said.

William Robinson, 28, wore a Reds hat as he walked out of the stadium with his friend, Joe Hudson, 32. They are from the Cincinnati Restoration Church in the West End, where they are ministers to alcoholics and drug addicts. They came out of the stands to re-affirm their faith.

"It's a daily thing," Hudson said.

Robinson didn't know Munoz had suffered so many injuries and until five years ago, he didn't know he had been saved. The fact he had played in the NFL after committing to Christ helped inspire Robinson in his own faith.

"When he was talking about the flip side of the coin, that was very powerful," Robinson said. "You don't always realize these great athletes have problems, too, and the fact he's saying it gives me much more hope that I can get through to make it where he's at."

As Hudson said, "Reallly, nobody on that stage matters. It's your relationship with Jesus."

That made it a perfect night for Munoz. The best ever in a football stadium.

But maybe not all that different than the ones before.

Twenty-four years after leaving the restaurant, DeDe and Anthony had quietly thrown another block to help some people on their way.

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