024: Tom Flick on his Enter and Exit to the NFL, Overcoming the Hardships in Between, and on to Becoming a Change Leadership Speaker
Former NFL Quarterback Tom Flick, has garnered a reputation around the world as an authority on leadership by helping organizations like Google, Starbucks, Boeing and the Pentagon develop leaders, lead change effectively, recognize opportunities for growth, and increase teamwork and organizational performance in a faster moving world.
I’ve first met this guy, Tom Flick, when I was a freshman at the University of Washington really lost in the program as a football player. Tom was a senior. He was our quarterback. He was the leader. He was a Team Captain and he led us to the Rose Bowl at Pasadena. Then he went on into NFL.
We just go through and have this amazing talk about overcoming different things that he had to do. His dad actually crashed in an airplane, was completely broken up and survived it Tom’s senior year before he had this great season. I didn’t realize that because he didn’t show that. He certainly played fantastic that season. His mom went through cancer and later his dad got Parkinson’s. Tom’s enter and exit to the NFL and a Tommy John surgery he thought he’d never play again. Things like that that he actually had to deal, go through, feel it, and certainly from his point of view, came out the other end a much better person.
Tom Flick is one of those guys, he’s a Change Leadership Speaker now. He speaks all over the country. More than 3,000 speeches: Google, Microsoft, Starbucks, all the big boys want him. He’s one of those guys in your life that if you know Tom Flick, if you listen to Tom Flick, he makes you better. He makes you a better person. He’s just one of those guys. I’m very lucky to call him a friend. This episode was just a ton of fun to go through and reminisce and really go through his journey of life and what special words he has to impart on all of us.
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Tom Flick on his Enter and Exit to the NFL, Overcoming the Hardships in Between, and on to Becoming a Change Leadership Speaker
It’s Mark Pattison back again with another great episode of Finding Your Summit. This week, I’ve got a long-time friend, Tom Flick, joining the show. First of all, I want to say that I’m broadcasting from Hermosa Beach, California and beaming all the way up to Redmond, Washington, which is about ten miles east of Downtown Seattle. I first got to know Tom a long time ago when I was a freshman and he was the senior stud at the University of Washington on the football team. He was our star quarterback. Since then, he has gone on and done a lot of amazing things we’re going to get into: public speaking, playing in the NFL, Team Captain. Along with that, he has also had to overcome some things. Tom, welcome to the show.
Hey, Mark. It’s great to be with you. Thanks. It’s funny you brought up about your year at the University of Washington. You were a freshman and I was senior. We used to call you crash and burn, I don’t know if you knew that. That was your nickname. All the seniors, it’s a very fond moniker we gave you just because you went all out and every time you’d play, you’d catch it no matter what happened. It’s great to be with you on your interview.
Thank you. This is sincere. I was up in Seattle and I was up in Snoqualmie staying with Hugh Millen. Hugh, for those that don’t know, is another quarterback that came behind Tom years later. I went to high school with him. We were reminiscing about this association that we all have together as Husky Football players. We both agreed that if there’s one guy in the planet who makes you better at who you are that you want to get to know is Tom Flick. We both meant that with all sincerity. You’ve always been like that. This is a guy, we’re talking about you now, who when I came as a freshman, you go from being the highly-priced recruit which I was and you were back in your day as a senior. As a freshman, I came in and I was really lost. I wasn’t physically, emotionally, spiritually ready to play. You’re one of the guys on the team that made me feel great. You threw the ball and you wouldn’t turn around, you weren’t arrogant. You had a lot of reason to be and you weren’t. For that, I always really held close to my heart in terms of how I want to treat others going forward. A real tribute to you and I’m sure your upbringing and whatnot. Thank you for that.
Thank you for the compliment, Mark. That means a lot to me, it really does coming from you. As we have a chance to chat here, we’ll get into how we formed some of those thoughts and behaviors and so forth and how we end up living those things out, certainly through struggles and trials and tribulations but also through good friendships. I appreciate yours. Thank you.
Let’s go back just a little bit. Like all of us, you don’t just fall out of a tree and you become this great football player, a quarterback, went on to play in the NFL. My freshman year too, what a dream season. I go from Roosevelt High School in Seattle. We had a pretty good team but not a great team. In my first year, we end up going to the Rose Bowl led by you playing Michigan. What a dream experience. I couldn’t believe we’re standing there. For you growing up, I know you’ve got a number of siblings, brothers and sisters. I know one of them very well, Joe. What was that like for you?
I loved it. I’m one of seven kids. There are four boys and three girls. I’m sixth out of seven on the totem pole. When you have brothers and sisters that are good athletes ahead of you, and my dad was the Ski Champion in the Navy. He’s a test pilot. We’re gone all day. Joe is a great golfer and a great tennis player, great skier. I have one that’s a surfer, one that’s a basketball player. I love the football. I was actually a better baseball player but I love football so much. When I was in eighth grade, thirteen years of age, I decided I was going to be a professional quarterback. I just set my sights on that. I gave up my favorite sport, the best sport I played was actually baseball. I actually stopped playing it in ninth grade because I was a pitcher and I didn’t know two different throwing motions which is way ahead of being committed to one sport when you’re that age. You typically just play it all three. It was just a great experience, a very rich experience.
The neatest thing was my father who was raised in the depression, the silent generation, was never a man that demanded you to play well or had expectations. He just said, “Just give your best effort every time you go play and enjoy the experience.” He was a gentleman that worked six days a week and just a classic middle class family. I had this deep love. I had lot of great coaches along the way that just nurtured that desire in my heart. I was drafted. I was picked in the NFL and achieved the dream and you know what’s that like. It was a fantastic journey along the way.
[Tweet “Just give your best effort every time you go play and enjoy the experience.”]
I think when you have that many brothers and sisters, it doesn’t always have to be like that. Maybe they’re good friends that you hang out with. A very competitive environment that nurtures that drive and that you don’t want to be left behind. I’m sure that was part of that. It’s interesting what you say and you talked about your family and your dad in particular. My parents were very much the same. I just have one other sister so I didn’t grow up in a whole tribe like you did. Nonetheless, they were both school teachers and very middle class and just teaching you to do the right thing and work hard and never pressuring me to be more than what I wanted to be. I had to do something. Similar to you, you said you quit baseball, I retired from baseball. Maybe they threw me out, I’m not sure. It seems like my destiny was more bent around football. Probably like you, really felt like that just came more natural to me than any other sports.
I had a hard time hitting the curve too. I’ve got to be honest. I love football. I love the action of football. I love the leadership role of football. I was very aware of this at a pretty young age. I told my dad maybe at ninth or tenth grade, I said, “Dad, I can put a sticker on the top of everybody’s helmet.” It’s saying to me two things to me when I walk inside a huddle. They’re saying, “Please leave me or please inspire me.” One of those two things are saying. If you think about it, the job of a quarterback is focusing the attention of ten men. You’ve got all different various backgrounds. You have black, white, socioeconomic differences, religious beliefs that are different, experiences that are different. Yet when you step inside a huddle at any level, you’ve got ten sets of eyes looking at you saying, “Where are we going? Get us some place. Take us somewhere. Where are you taking us?” I love that leadership aspect of playing quarterback. That’s been with me since I’ve been a young boy. That’s huge in my life. It’s actually moved from my football playing days into my work now in corporate America. I speak on leadership and leading change, those two topics. That came and was born in me from a very young age playing quarterback in Little League.
I can tell that because I was one of those eyeballs looking at you as a receiver looking for direction. Of course, I was just a freshman in those days. Certainly, I was fortunate to play with a long list of great quarterbacks from Hugh Millen to Steve Fuller to Tim Cowan to yourself and then moving on and either practicing with guys like Warren Moon to Jim Plunkett. There’s a long list of guys. To me, the common thread of the guys who became great had and you have is that very calm demeanor yet that athletic arrogance in the right way that you’re going to lead us down the field and we have complete confidence that that’s going to happen.
When you’re young, you just love to compete. I’m not that competitive right now. I’m competitive in a certainly different way than in an athletic way. I think we have that born in us, most people do. I think we have that calmness that you mentioned, comes about by lots of preparation, lots of being ready for your break or for your time. I loved all aspects of playing sports. I was in the film room and working out. I had a unique experience, Mark. When I was in ninth grade, my high school football coach, his name is Rollie Robbins. What a great influence in my life. This is in high school. Your listeners can relate to somebody in their life that was a mentor; someone who inspired them, someone that they could go back right now in a split second in their mind’s eye and pick that man or woman or brother or sister, mom and dad, neighbor or a friend or someone who has spoke into their life. Who just was a role model that you wanted to live up to and aspire to be. It was Rollie Robbins.
Before I entered Interlake High school, his dear friend was a gentleman named Bob Peck, who is the head of Public Relations for the Denver Broncos. When I was in ninth grade, I flew down to Redlands, California. I was the ball boy for the Denver Broncos during Training Camp. I warm-up the quarterbacks, I throw the receiver outs or the receiver’s coach. I’m throwing to professional football players when I’m in ninth grade, then you go clean the locker room of course, you do all the dirty work. You get up and stand up and sing your fight song; they made you do that when I was a ninth grade. I got these great experiences.
One of the running backs that was there was a guy named Floyd Little. I think he’s a hall of famer, maybe might not be, but a great player. He said, “Tom, here’s what I suggest you do. Get a notepad, write down all the things that you do really well, throw in the out route, dropping back, reading things, whatever. Make another list of things you don’t do very well and spend 75% of your time on the things you don’t do really well.” I took that to heart in ninth grade and I started to make the list. I realize I throw the out route to the left and right fine but I have a hard time getting my head around on maybe a corner route or a deep comeback. I started to make all these lists. I’m strong in my shoulders, I’m weak in my legs. I started to put a lot of time and energy towards what were my weaknesses. I wanted to cover every weakness that I had. I wanted to make it in balance with all my strengths. That was a huge, huge tool for me. Along with the experience of throwing to men who were professional football players and just the confidence when these guys came back and said, “You’ve got a pretty good arm.” That just launched me into the stratosphere as far as my desire to play. That’s the pathway.
You’re talking about mentorship, first of all your head coach at Interlake. Then having that opportunity to go down and be around those types of players and see what’s that like and be inspired about where that path and that journey might take. Having the good fortune of actually living that dream out. It wasn’t just a dream. It was a reality for you.
It’s like you summiting mountains. I’m sure you’re reading and you had the chance to be with the person who has summited the Seven Peaks that was blind. Your listeners in business, they could be a manager or a director or somebody, but there’s someone who has already done the job and does it really well. Find them out. Seek them. Where are they? Get to know them. If you can, get mentored by them or at least observe them. I started to do that. What do great players do? What’s the habits and behaviors of really good quarterbacks? I started watching closely. It all started that year when I was in ninth grade. It was a great experience.
Your high school career, obviously you had a very accomplished one and you guys won. You were the quarterback of the team. How many colleges were out there recruiting you?
I started getting letters in my junior season from Colorado and Stanford and SC and so forth. I was a Washington Husky since I was a kid. I used to sneak in the Huskies games. If you don’t think I was fanatical, they used to have exhibition teams come in play in Husky Stadium before the Seahawks came to town in 1976. I would get my mother to drive me out to Husky Stadium really early on Saturday morning, the game was on Sunday. I would jump over the fence, get in the Husky Stadium and I wait there. The teams would show up to do their walkthroughs and I would go up to the team manager of whatever visiting team, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers. I said, “I’m the kid who won the radio contest from KGR to be your ball boy for this weekend. I’m here to start.” There was no radio contest, I just made it up. The guy would go, “Okay. Grab that box and follow me.”
I’m in a locker room. I warmed up Bradshaw as a freshman. I was with Dan Fouts on the sidelines. Jesse Freitas was the quarterback also with him. He was on the field playing with Dan and was taking stats. If you don’t know Dan Fouts who is, for your listeners, hall of fame quarterback. The equipment manager comes up and said, “Dan, tell Tom how you read coverages.” He’s telling me about sky and cloud and to zone a roll zone. I ended up backing the guy up in the NFL. I was Fout’s back-up. We went back and reminisced about that time.
I did all these crazy things. Another thing I did was one time a month, every month, I would set my alarm at 2AM, it had to be a rainy night or I wouldn’t do it and I would get up and run five miles, come back and shower, go back to bed for a couple of hours and go to school. I figured no one else is doing this. No one else would be getting up at 2:00 in the morning and go run five miles. They would be insane. I’m the only insane guy here so I’m going to go and do it. I just knew and I stepped on the field in high school and I tried to take this over into college. No one is prepared as much as I have been. That’s how I approach life. It’s funny, Mark, I’ve taken that same mindset and roll that now in my professional career. I do lots of things. I do lots of research. I care deeply about the clients and meet what they want, what they’re seeking. I don’t ever bring in agenda. I’m always building talks for them specifically. I’m really thankful and grateful to God for just giving me that mindset to persevere and be determined. I can’t juggle five or six things. I can juggle maybe one or two things. I’m more like a plow horse, Mark. You put me on a path and I’ll stay on that path until I get it done. That’s my make-up.
To me, everything you’re talking about is really about being purposeful. Actually, I was that way and I wasn’t that way when I was growing from the sense of I was always out, I always had a ball on my hands. I really hadn’t figured out discipline, hard work. A lot of the reasons why I hadn’t is because I really never had to because I was better than most people in those sports. That didn’t really kicked in for me until my freshman year at the University of Washington, really understanding Don James, the pyramid of success that he taught us, which is really a model that he got from John Wooden. At the very top was the Rose Bowl, the National Championship and down below is increase your strength and do good in classroom and all that different things that he had put. Every single week we review those different things.
The commonality of what you’re talking about is I would be out in the rain throwing the ball. I’d be running the stairs. I’d be doing jump rope. All these things, I would have done it for free and I did, like you did for most of the years. It was because of that love. For those people who can transition that process and becoming very purposeful on what they want to do in life. For me right now it’s mountain climbing. In fact, I do pay for it. I don’t have sponsors. And this podcast, I love doing them. Playing football and playing sports, that was just a true sincere love of the game. That is because you had a little bit of talent and was able to take that purpose combined with that talent and propel us both to where we ultimately got to, which was top of the rung in terms of professional sports and be one of those guys that’s out there. I totally relate to what you’re saying.
Thank you. It is a wonderful experience. We are inspired by things that inspire us and we love the effort and energy. I think also too great mentors spoke into my life. You had Don James as your coach as well. We got people that speak in our lives. If your listeners can seek those people out, that’s a critical thing. Even today, I’m trying to find mentors just because life being a solo sport is not the best way to go all the time.
Let’s get into UW. We go there and like myself like you, you had to play behind it, wait your turn and you finally got it. When you got it you seized it and you became the Team Captain. Now, I’m freshman and we win most of our games and we end up down at the Roosevelt in Pasadena. It’s just an amazing experience. Right before you were senior, you got ready to go into this and you’re mentally prepared and everything is ready to go. I think I read that your father was in a horrible plane crash. Talk to me about that.
My dad was a Chief Pilot for a navigational avionics firm called Sundstrand, which built the ground proximity warning system. It’s in every airline. It prevents planes flying into mountains. It’s an incredible device that saved thousands and thousands of lives. They’re in every aircraft around the world. He tested that device and was part of the process with the invention of it. He was testing a plane coming out of Boeing Field. This was about two weeks before Training Camp started in my senior season. I was at a Husky Football Camp. I was coaching with other coaches and players. I saw my dad’s co-pilot show up. It was up in Everett and I thought, “What is he doing here? What is he here for?” I hustled over and said hi to him. He said, “Your dad has just been in a plane crash. He may not live. I need to take you right now to Harborview.”
We raced from Everett down to Harborview. He was in this Emergency Room, I was asked to go in. My brothers and sisters were all showing up. My father, he broke his neck, his back, his arms, his ribs, his nose, he shattered his leg, his hip, his pelvis. His whole forehead was flayed back. He has hundreds of stitches. I remember seeing him and just becoming nauseous just at the sight of him, just how beat up and banged up he was. They didn’t think he was going to live. He ended up going into a full body cast for probably three months. By the grace of God, he made it out. Training Camp started and my mind was in football and my father.
It seems like it would be frazzled. I remember those times and somehow or another, you were able to put that in a bucket. This is my perception as a freshman. I can’t tell that something is going on.
It was going on but I did. Football was the great escape at that time. I found solace in the fact that I can get away from it from a moment. My father struggled for a good two, three months but then finally broke out of it and just said, “I’m going to live.” He just was such an inspiration. He was just historically an amazing man. He just weathered the storm and that was such a huge inspiration. He battled this thing well into my Rookie season. He almost died from a staph infection in my Rookie Training Camp. They were going to fly me home and said, “Your dad is on his deathbed.” It was a long process.
I remember specifically playing in Stanford. We were down in Stanford, we’re tied 24-24. If you can remember, we got a minute to go right about the 20-yard line. We made a drive. I think we had a minute and 24 seconds to go. We drove the length of the field. As we’re driving the length of a field, my father was sitting in a wheelchair at this very special place at the end of the end zone. As we march down the field, I can see him sitting right under the score board where all the wheelchair people were at. Every time we completed a pass or moved closer to the other end zone towards, I can see him there. It was a culmination right around that time that, “He’s going to be okay. He’s going to live.” Had the chance to walk out at that stadium and go see my father and just really be overjoyed having my dad still with us. He stayed with us for a number of years. Later contracted Parkinson’s disease and lived with us for the last seven years of his life in my family’s home. If you actually could come up and say, “Tom, you have a chance to exchange those seven years for a big lump sum of money or something else, would you do it?” I would say not in my life. It was one of the greatest experiences. Was it hard? Yes. Was it difficult? Absolutely.
I would encourage any of your listeners, Mark, to never miss the opportunity if that shows up because our patients are aging, if they show up at your door and they need your help. We were richly blessed by the experiences of talking to my dad and be enough my father those last seven years. As well as hopefully having his grandkids be at his knee all the time. Finding yourself, it’s always marked with these difficulties. They create our character and sharpen our belief system and make us who we are. Mark, I don’t think it’s six degrees of separation. You’ve heard that phrase or that term.
In my life, and I’m older than you by five, six years, it might be one degree of separation. I think the one thing that you and I have in common or anybody else, if I can sit down and break bread with one of your listeners or something, things that hold us together and knit us together are challenges, are difficulties. My dear mother-in-law passed away just two months ago from leukemia. My brother, Joe, who I love and you know really well who’s just an inspiration to me, has Parkinson’s. Every Friday he calls me. He’s upbeat and he’s encouraged and life is great. It’s not phony. It’s not this fake positivity. It’s just the reality that you get one day at a time. We’re more alike than we are different.
[Tweet “Just give your best effort every time you go play and enjoy the experience.”]
I appreciate that. I actually ran into him in Johnson Valley last April and I hadn’t seen him years. We just had a wonderful time. We came over to my hotel later and we sat down and we talked about life, our two kids, his girl, Rina and my daughter, Claudette. We played on the same baseball, soccer. We did those things for years and years together. We talked about what he was going through. I want to tie one thing back together that you said about your dad and how he was an inspiration to you, in particular that Stanford game as you’re driving down the field and you could see him in the end zone on the wheelchair down there.
My sense is that in a strange twist of faith, you may have been the inspiration for him to keep going because while he was going through that very difficult period of time, our team was rock and rolling. We won a majority of our games. You were the starting quarterback. A lot of great things were happening for you and the team that year. Like a lot of things, it helps you get through. Sports helps people. That’s your relief. Maybe for your dad, that’s what helped him keep going and going until he finally was able to shed that skin, the cast and get out of it and move on.
You make a great point. It was inspiring for him to follow the team and to watch. We were going to the Rose Bowl and we were getting to rent a motor home and come on down. He had staph infection and he was actually in the hospital the day that I was playing in the Rose Bowl. You’re absolutely right about how we inspire people at what we do. He loved everybody on the team. I keep trying to take what we’re talking about here and relating it to people. How do we leave this and be better human beings? How do we walk out the door from this interview where someone’s going to hear this one day and say, “What can I do?” I don’t think we realize how we live and how we behave. We’re modeling things to other people.
You’ve heard of unconditional love, but unconditional respect, how you serve people, treat people, look after people. I come from the idea of servant leadership is my big thing. When you come underneath people, your job is to lift them up, remove the obstacles in their way. Achieve their opportunities and it’s all about them. It’s not about us. We’re the privileged ones who get to lead people, who get to encourage people to help them succeed in life. That’s my big thrust.
You said something also and I do want to touch upon it because I haven’t really thought about it in this way but you’re right. You talked about the six degrees of separation. Now, you’re really talking about the one degree. I think one of the reasons why these pods have resonated with so many people in a very short period of time is of course we’ve all gone through something. If you’re in a room and you’re going, “Has anybody ever been through a rough time?” I’ve been through divorce and my father passed away. I’ve gone through my fair share of things too. If somebody is sitting in the room and they don’t raise their hand, then I think they’re lying. That knot and that tie that brings everybody together is that we’ve all been in the room. It’s just a matter of what degree of your adversity that you’ve had to overcome.
I’m talking to a guy that was born without any arms and legs. I ran into him at about 22,000 feet on Aconcagua down in Argentina. He’s literally crawling up the mountain. I’m sitting on a rock, tired and this guy is coming up. We started with twelve people, we’re down into six. People were being flown off left and right in high-rescue helicopter. Here comes this guy, just making his way up, crawling. I can’t even believe what I’m seeing here. His name is Kyle Maynard. It’s about perspective of whatever situation is and then paying it forward in terms of how you can help others after you have gone through something.
I can’t imagine that gentleman, his ability to do that, his mindset. A lot of my speaking is leadership of course but I put together executive teams. I’ve noticed from my playing days, I played for seven years and I played on a bunch of teams, I was traded around. The teams I played on weren’t really good, Mark. I played on the teams that made it possible for the other teams to go to the Super Bowl. I played on those teams.
That’s part of that servant leadership you’re talking about, right?
Yes, it’s true though. What makes a great team? If you could sit back and if your listeners can ponder these two questions, think of the best thing you’ve ever been on. What did it have and what made it great? If you could call those thoughts into one word, what would that one word be? The word that I come up with is the word trust. The trust word is not predictive trust. Let me explain what I’m trying to say. A lot of people, trust is, “Watch your behavior. I trust and believe that you’re going to continue the act or behave that way. I’ve seen your performance, you’re going to continue that arc of performance into the future.” That’s how guys get signed big contracts in the NFL. “You had a great season, next year I think you’re going to do well.”
The trust that I’m talking about is called the vulnerability trust. It means where you can bring your shortcomings, weaknesses to the team and you don’t lose anything. You don’t lose any self-respect or self-esteem. You don’t get crucified for it. What I found really happens in life is what really holds teams back is that people are too busy defending their weaknesses instead of living into their strengths. The great teams that I’ve been on have been really vulnerable teams. The guys are open. If you had known anything about the Seattle Seahawks, everyone can speak their mind, everyone can be their own person. There are guidelines and boundaries to keep it safe. Nonetheless, there’s this boundary. There’s a reality that there’s a trust. It’s called vulnerability trust. That’s the big thing.
I think what’s really interesting is we all have this one degree of separation. We all have challenges. We all have difficulties. Being able to share that with people and open up with people really creates friendships fast, really builds relationships quickly. You get down to all the stuff about posturing and maneuvering and about what I am and what you don’t have and so forth. We get down to the nuts and bolts, you and I are really a lot alike. We have a lot of connections. We can be friends pretty quickly here because we have these things that are in common. Typically, those things in common are challenges, difficulties. That’s why I love the title of your podcast, Finding Your Summit. I think if we’re just aware of looking for it first, that’s the key, then you’ll find a lot of avenues that open the world up to you.
I didn’t really figure any of these out until I was about 50. I’ve had some difficulty. I was going through this rough period of time in my relationship with my now ex-wife. I’ve gotten to the top of Kilimanjaro down in Tanzania. It’s 19,333 feet. Now, I’m coming back down and I just broke down in so many different ways. I haven’t cried since I was eleven years old. The more vulnerable that I can be, it actually exudes more strength. It just took me forever to understand that simple concept. Now, I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t have a problem talking about my weaknesses or what I’ve gone through. It’s just amazing. As soon as I open my mouth, it happened again to me last week with some guys. I had shared some things. This director from NFL Networks was just gabbing away things he’s going through and it’s just amazing when you open and when you share. You say, “I’ve got something going on too.” It’s a deeper way of being. It’s a more rich experience for me, at least, in life. The other point that you just brought up is it creates that closeness. You can bridge that gap so much quicker than if you’re over there trying to posture and all that stuff.
Life is good. We’re human beings and we make mistakes and we have shortcomings. The quicker we get to that acknowledgment, the happier and the more alive we become. I think that’s what God is calling us to be, is really to live this abundant life. I’m not talking about prosperity, I’m talking about in any situation. My brother Joe is a fantastic example. This guy has got Parkinson’s disease. I had never been around a guy that has been so upbeat and so encouraging and just takes life on. He’s been a great role model obviously, but just observing him has just been fascinating.
I know, he’s still out there skiing the slopes coming down the hill and he’s golfing. He doesn’t let it slow him down. Let’s talk quickly about your NFL career.
That can be short.
It is short. Mine was shorter. I went five, you went seven. I was talking to Hugh the other night, Hugh was almost apologizing for not making it ten years but then always seem to be behind Elway or Dan Marino or Troy Aikman one of those guys. What I told him is, “Still at the end of the day, you made it.” I made it and you made it. It’s still 1% of 1% of 1%. In the concept of team, unlike tennis or something, you’ve got to have role players. That all constitutes what a team is. If everybody was Troy Aikman, you wouldn’t have a great team because you’ve got to have your back so on and so forth.
There’s a thing that says you’ve got to be a good follower before you can be a good leader. There’s a Bible verse that says, “If you’re responsible on little things, I’ll make you responsible on the big things.” I’ve lived by that for a long time, which means you do what you say you’re going to do. Your yes means yes, your no means no. If you make a mistake admit it, apologize for it. It’s those little things that make a big difference in the world. We are role players and I was a back-up. This is fascinating. I was so geared on my goals. I had goals and I followed them. My goal was to make it in the NFL, to be drafted in NFL. Once I get drafted, it just was the win from the sales. I struggled in the NFL. For some reasons there was no pop, there was no deep hard drive. I worked hard, I loved it, I was where I wanted to be.
You were in Washington DC with Redskins, right?
I was drafted by the Redskins. Joe Gibbs drafted me. I backed up Joe Theismann. That 1% or 10% or whatever it is, that juice, just all of a sudden, I couldn’t find it. I set my goals to be drafted in the NFL, I got drafted. After that I was like, “Woah.” I played on five different teams. I was drafted, traded, released, traded. I learned a lot. The greatest part about it is I came to the knowledge of Jesus Christ as a Lord and Savior back in my third year after I get the mudhole stomped in me.
How did that come about? I was doing some research here and I think it was your third year, you came down with Tommy Johns, which is essentially you’re throwing your arm out, right?
Yeah and I got misdiagnosed by a New England Patriots trainer. I was with the Patriots, I was traded to New England on my third year. I was throwing my arm and I said, “My arm is getting numb and my fingers are getting numb.” He said, “Ice it.” That’s the one thing you don’t do with Tommy John’s surgery, you don’t ice it. It makes it worse. They kept putting me back out there and I came back and I said, “I’ve got an issue.” They sent me to Mass General. They said, “You’ve got an issue. We’re going to move your ulnar nerve to the other side of the bone. It’s called Tommy John surgery. You’re done.” I said, “I’d like to get a second opinion.” I flew back to Seattle to see our team physician. He confirmed the fact that was the issue. Before flying back, I had a buddy call me and said, “I’m going to a Bible study.” This isn’t religious. I don’t like to use that word. I went to church as a kid. I thought, “I’m a good dude. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke. I only cuss occasionally.” If there’s a cut-off line, I’m above it. That was the thinking in my brain.
I went to this Bible study and the guy shared the gospel of why Jesus came and died and rose on our behalf to save us from our sin. I was with 50 people I didn’t even know in this house at the U District. I just interrupted the guy and I said, “I’ve got a problem.” He goes, “What’s your problem?” I said, “I’m a sinner.” He just talked about it and I realized I’m a sinner, so how do I get out of this mess? I went up and I accepted Christ in front of all these people. I just asked Jesus to forgive me. I said, “I don’t know who you are. I’d love it if you’d come and live in my life and change me and lead me. I’ll just serve you.” For the first time ever in my life, pressure went away.
As a football player, how you played on Friday night, Saturday afternoon or Sunday in an NFL stadium determines how we basically live Monday through Thursday. That’s how we live. It just evaporated. I thought, “This is incredible.” Son of a gun, I prayed. My one prayer was, “Lord, if you want me out of football, take me out. I could care less right now.” A week later, my arm healed. I flew back to Boston. I was going in two days before my surgery and all the sudden I had all this feeling in my hand. They could actually take my ring finger and my little finger and they would poke it to draw blood. I couldn’t feel it. That was one of the tests they had to make sure you had ulnar neuritis. They would draw blood off your finger. You couldn’t feel it. Now they’re poking me and I go, “I feel it. I could grip a ball. I could throw a ball.” The doctor at Mass General said, “This is insane.” The Lord said, “ I want you playing football.” I said, “Great, I’ll go play football.” It’s a crazy story.
You can call it whatever you want to call it but for you there was a real story behind it. There was an action-reaction. It’s really miraculous. I think most of the time you equate Tommy John surgery with baseball players, pitchers.
Yeah, and not successful results either.
They’re done. Here you are, you have this thing, you’re a quarterback. Unlike a receiver, you still need your hands and catch and run and things. The one motion you need is that throwing motion.
It’s my bread and butter.
If that’s not working, you’ve got problems.
I just started to view things differently. What happened to me more than anything, Mark, is I started to be a person built for others. For the first 23 years of my life, 24 years of my life at the time, everything revolved around me. I was raised by great parents, great brothers and sisters, manners. You would say I’m a nice guy and a mannered person. But in my heart of hearts, my true self, it was about me. What do I get for it? How do I benefit from it? How do I make my way through this thing? What do I get? When I came to the knowledge of Christ and the relationship, and that’s why I don’t like the word religion, because I’m religious about flossing my teeth, I’m not religious about my faith. It’s a relationship. It’s like you and I have a relationship.
Things changed. I just became a different human being. I started realizing it’s about other people. It’s about serving other people, loving other people. Actually, I think I became a better football player at that, I really do. I think I became more focused. What happened when I fell on the wayside, I became a better performer because it wasn’t about my performance to satisfy 60,000 or 80,000 people or people that I assume I need to impress. I played for just the joy of the game and the love, for Jesus Christ to say, “Nice effort. Well done, my good and faithful son.” I became that.
Then I started to lead Bible studies. I just felt this urge. I would invite guys to a Bible study. I got mentored. I come to know Christ, I played out my third season, I get released, I signed as a free agent with Cleveland. I get signed, Sam Rutigliano, I’m going into the Cleveland facility in the off-season in February and there’s a guy waiting for me. His name is Ozzie Newsome, General Manager of the Baltimore Ravens. He said, “Hey, Tom. I just want to meet you.” I said, “Hey, Ozz. Great to meet you.” He said, “I’m going to tell you just a few things. One is we have Bible study on Thursday nights and we have chapel before the game. There’s a bunch of us most in the team. On Tuesday, we get disciple for our team. You’re invited to all these things.” I don’t know how he knows I’m a believer. He just met me there and that was the conversation.
We started Training Camp and he drew a cross on the toe of his shoe. I said after practice, “What’s the deal with the cross on your shoe?” He said, “I’ve got 30 seconds. It’s hot and humid here in Cleveland. I’m exhausted. We’re all beat. I’ve got 30 seconds to hear the plane, I look down at my shoe. This reminds me of what I’m playing for. That Jesus went died for me and he died or everybody. He loves us all. He wants to know us.” I started to grow and grow. That’s my journey through the NFL until I got to my eighth year. I was more prepared, Mark, than ever in my eighth season but I just mentally lost. You know that if you’re not mentally in the game, it’s a dangerous place to be. You can’t be there. It’s a scary dangerous place. Joel, my coach, said, “You’re just not with us mentally.” I said, “I can’t figure out why.” I got released.
The season starts, after the first opening day John Robinson called me from the Rams. He said, “Jim Everett got dinged up, our starting quarterback. Can you fly down here? If you throw the ball, we’re going to sign you into a contract.” I said, “Great. I’ll be down.” I threw the ball great on Tuesday. He told me, “We’re going to put you up in a hotel. I want you to come to all the meetings. We’re going to contract you on Friday.” I said, “Great.” I go to meetings, Friday comes and he called me, “We’re going to send you home because we need to activate Charlie White off the injured list.” I’ve got to go home. The weekend games come, Monday shows up. Houston Oilers called me. It was Jerry Glanville. He goes, “Tom, Warren Moon got dinged up. Can you fly down here?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be down there.” I threw the ball on Tuesday, Mark. You can see a pattern happening here. He says, “Come down to all the meetings. We’re going to contract you on Friday.” I said, “Great.” I showed up and he goes, “Warren has healed faster than we thought. He’s going to play so we’re going to send you home.” I’m sitting on a plane in Houston ready to fly home. I said, “Lord, obviously, you don’t want me in the NFL, it seems to me.”
I get home and I walk in to my apartment where my wife and I live in this little townhouse. The phone rings, I’m not kidding, probably three hours after I’m there. It’s my brother Joe calling me. He is crying. I’ve never seen my brother Joe cry. He’s gathering himself. After about 30 seconds he blurted, “Mom’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She’s been given just about three or four months to live.” He hung up. That was the call. My mom and dad were in the country of Ireland on a once in a lifetime trip. We’re not Irish but they had a chance to be over there. I got on a plane the next day. I got my passport and got on a plane and flew to New York City and then landed in Shannon, Ireland three days after I left Houston. I met my father who looked like he had aged about ten years, gave him a hug and a kiss. We jumped into a car service, a taxi and drove out in the countryside where they filmed the 1930’s movie called The Quiet Man with John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. It’s a classic little Irish town. Moved into a bed and breakfast, walked a mile into town to a three-story white-washed hospital. In the back room was my mom who had tubes and stuff coming out after her surgery, eight people in a room. Every day I’d show up at 8:00 and leave at 8:00 and that went on for about ten days.
The tenth day, my mom started to become somewhat coherent. She’s looking up at the ceiling and a troubled look. We’ve been talking the last couple of days. I said, “Mom, are you okay?” She said, “No, I’m actually scared to death.” I said, “What scares you?” She said, “I’m going to die soon.” I pulled my chair closer to her. I pulled the curtain partition around us and I grabbed her hands and I said, “Can I ask you a question, mom? If you’re going to die tonight,” and I swallowed hard on this. I said, “You know for certain you’re going to go to heaven. If you’re going to die tonight, spiritually you’re going to go to heaven. If you’re going to go to heaven, what would Jesus say to you?” “Why should I let you in, Jean?” “What would you say to him?” Long and short of it, I shared the gospel with my mother. Not fully sure she understand the good news. The nurse tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Tom, it’s time for you to leave. It’s 8:00.” I remember grabbing my coat and put it on, looked at my mother who has passed out, she was just so exhausted, she was in and out.
Long story cutting it short is I walked back to the bed and breakfast. I came back the next day and my mother is sitting up in her bed and she’s laughing and she’s crying simultaneously. She said to my dad, “Where have you been? You’re late.” It was 8:00 sharp. She said, “Come in here each of you and sit on each side of the bed and hold my hands and pull the curtain shut. I’ve got great news for you. I’ve got wonderful news.” She said, “Last night, I woke and I simply said, “Jesus, this is Jean. Would you save me?” I’ve been dancing with the Holy Spirit all night. I know that I’m going to die but it’s okay because I’m going to heaven. I know that I have been redeemed by the blood of Christ.” She said, “I just have joy in my heart because I know where I’m going.” You talk about a shocking experience if you want to get on the spiritual side of things about life and how crazy things happen. My mother got to live an extra month and she got to live one month to see our first child born.
She came back to the States?
We flew down a hospital Learjet out of Tel Aviv. They came and picked us up. We circumvented the globe, got back, she lived another month or two and then saw my son, Joe, born, who I named my son after my brother, Joe, and then she passed.
It’s actually a really beautiful story.
It is a beautiful story. To know the joy and just the deep, settled heart that my mother had from all of it was just a testimony that God’s real.
Not only did she get a peace of mind obviously, but it must have given you some peace as well, right?
You had a message, you shared it and she accepted it. It happened.
It’s all good.
I was going to ask you this before you gave the story and it’s actually even more appropriate now that you shared that. A lot of people don’t understand this, as little kids, which is really when your career started, you’re out there playing football and baseball and all these other sports with your siblings and friends and now you make it into high school. You and I both go into college and then we’re both fortunate to get drafted in the NFL and then our careers go. I was 29 years old when I was driving a car off the cliff. In your case, you’ve got this grand finale of your career is coming to an end, your mom has cancer. For a lot of players, the transition can be so difficult. For me, it was for about two years and I popped out of it. It was hard. The question is, where can you still get that same feeling, that euphoric state? Last second jumping out, catching the touchdown, the fans go crazy, you can’t replicate that. You have to re-channel it in other directions. I know you ultimately got into public speaking. What was that like? You had these powerful things hitting you all at one time.
I’ve got a friend who had his wife passed two months ago and he’s going on a grieving tour. I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “For three years, I took care of my dear wife, Cathy. Now, she’s gone. I’ve got all the feelings and the memories. I’m trying to get rid of those three years of how hard it was and how difficult it was. I want to go back and remember the great things about us. I want old memories to come back.” I went off to Glacier National Park and I saw an old timer there where he was just talking and walking. I was hiking through the park. He said, “What are you here for?” I said, “I’m on a grieving tour.” He said, “No, you’re not on a grieving tour. You’re on a memorial tour. You’re bringing things back to life, the good things that you had.” When I accepted Christ, I knew I was on borrowed time. It just was crystal clear and I had four more years to go. I said, “Any year, I could be out of this game.” When my mom contracted a cancer, other teams were calling me and said, “You should come back and play.” I said, “I’ve got no desire. I don’t have any heart for it. I just had lost it all.” My dad and mom were married almost 50 years. My son was just born. My father has moved in with us. I had an impetus that was different than most people.
They say about 90% of NFL football players have a very, very difficult transition into modern world. We do. We’re starting from scratch at the age of 30 and all of our peers have a ten-year head start on us in the business world. What are we going to do and how do we fit? Plus, this is just my assessment, I think professional football players or professional sport athletes are really insecure men and women. I think we really are. I know I was because we’re so talented and gifted at doing, by the grace of God; throwing a ball, shooting a hoop, hit a baseball, running fast. At least for me, I got to hand in my homework just a little bit later than everybody else and it was okay. I got forgiven some things. I can make more mistakes than the general public and get away with it. That’s just the way it was. Then you move to high school, and son of a gun, people are writing new things about me. It’s got to be true because people are saying it.
You start to get this mindset that you feel a little bit entitled, a little bit privileged. It doesn’t sour anything about how hard we work or the talents that God gave us and maximize the talent through grit and effort. People would really have a hard time understanding how hard it is to get into the professional ranks or some of the mountain or get to the top of their careers. If I said, “That looks easy.” They’d say, “You’ve got to be nuts. You don’t know what I went through to get to this point to be this director or this manager.” It’s a difficult thing. I think the difficulty in the transition is that psychological make-up of, “I’ve always been on top of the rung, top of the mountain. Now, I’ve got to start over?” It’s very humbling. A lot of guys don’t find their footing, they just never find it.
[Tweet “I’ve always been on top of the rung. Now, I’ve got to start over.”]
How long did it take for you to go from that understanding that you’re on borrowed time? You exit NFL and now you get into your public speaking. By the way, for those who don’t know, Tom has been doing this for 27 years. We’re talking about over 3,000 different speeches. We’re talking Google and Amazon and Microsoft and all the biggies. I’m sure there are a lot of people in between from small to medium-sized companies. What an amazing career. Did you know that’s where you wanted to go?
No. You were talking about finding yourself, I felt a calling. I felt God calling me into this. I was scared to death of it. I literally said, “There’s no way I’m going to public speak. I don’t want to public speak. I could care less to public speak. Forget it.” I literally said no. I was miserable. The only time I public spoke was in the NFL where I would share after I became a believer. Some churches would ask, “Would you come and share your testimony?” One time I had a business client when I was in the NFL who said, “Would you come and speak to us a bunch of lawyers?” I said, “Yeah, I’ll speak to you because I can make $200.” I was only about the money. We get drafted in the NFL, I’m sure you’re like this, we didn’t have 2 nickels throughout in college. When you get an NFL paycheck, it just goes into a bank account and you don’t really know what it means. What really matters is those change you got in your pocket. I thought, “I could use a couple of hundred bucks,” so I said yes to this law firm. I was terrible. I went in there and just was pathetic. I’m sure they thought, “Who in the world hired this guy?” I would share my testimonies about my faith in churches. I got called into this. I finally relented. I was scared to death.
I had a guy called me. His name was Bob Newton. He was an offensive right tackle for the Seattle Seahawks in the early franchise out of Nebraska. He was an All-American out of Nebraska. He said, “Tom, I work with this speaker’s guru. You’d be great at this. Why don’t you come and do a student assembly?” Think about this. You got 500 or 600, 700 junior high school kids who are going through puberty who are just off the wall. You’re going to put me in front of those kids for 45 minutes. You’ve got to be kidding me. I said, “No way.” I finally relented. I went and this darnest thing happened. I address these kids at Cleveland High School in Seattle. I said, “I’ve just got to tell you one thing. You’re more than welcome to come to my house. If you come to my house, I’d treat you with great dignity and respect. You’re more than welcome to come in. I’d love to have you as a guest, but I’m a guest in your school and I need you to listen to me and respect me. I’m not going to tell you to do something. I’m not going to speak over you. I’m not going to talk down to you. I’m just going to talk to you. Would you listen to me?” The place was just, you could hear a pin drop.
As soon as I get out, I just felt like, “That’s why I’ve been called into this.” You’ve got a calling. Football is just a stepping stone. You’re supposed to do this for your life. I did that. I’ve spoken schools in the Western United States. For the next nine years, I did a student assembly in junior high school, high school and college and a Parent Night and Teacher Workshop and an athletic talk called The Winning Edge Series. I spoke to over 1 million kids and over 350,000 parents in about nine years. Sometimes 45 times a month I would speak. I just learned and learned and learned. It’s an interesting story, my ninth year, I felt the Holy Spirit say, “I don’t want you to do this anymore. There are younger kids who can do this. I want you to go speak to corporations.” I said no again. I’ve put myself to the lowest common denominator. I said, “I’m just a ex-football player. What the heck do I know about business?” For a year, I kept speaking in schools and I had lost all my joy. The talks were still effective but I lost all my joy. After about a year I said, “I give up.”
Like your third or fourth year in the NFL.
Exactly. The day that I gave up and surrendered and said, “I’ll go do it,” DuPont, Fike and Senelec Corporations contacted me. I was scared to death. I didn’t have a business talk. They said, “Would you come and speak to our company?” They gave me dates and I said, “I’m booked in all those dates.” I literally lied to all three of the companies because I was too afraid to go speak to them. Then I get my wits about myself and I just said, “I need help. I need to think. I need to pray.” I got a mentor. I got a gentleman named Dennis Goin. I just started to march through this process. I called up a professor at W Community College. I said, “How do you negotiate contracts?” I jumped into this with the same fervor that I had in football, “Let’s figure this out.” I started working on my speaking. I started practicing. I started figuring out concepts. I hired a communication guy, “How do you set up a speech? How do you go from point A to B, C, D? How do you open? How do you close?” For about three months, I just put the steps together and then I just launched. I started to speak to energy companies and hospitals. All of a sudden Boeing calls, Starbucks calls and Ritz-Carlton calls and Dell Computer. It’s just going crazy. It’s been on that pathway ever since.
What is the core message? Did it evolve?
It’s always evolving. I speak about leadership. I speak about transformational leadership, leadership versus management, change of leadership. I speak about transformation and change and leadership.
Let’s specifically talk about Starbucks. I know everyone is different. We all know Starbucks, so that’s why I’m just giving that example. They’ve got corporate down there and they’ve got a sea of baristas and managers sprinkled throughout the world now. When you come in an organization like that, I’m thinking you’re in this huge auditorium. How does that all set-up? How do you communicate to them?
It could be a convention center. I speak most of the senior leadership teams and those types of folks. What happens first is we send a questionnaire. “What are your needs, wants, desires, challenges, pain? What’s going on? Send it back to me.” Once that happens, then I start to talk to the president. At the time, it was Jim Alling who was the President. CEO is Howard Schultz. I had a roundtable conference call with these gentlemen and ladies. “Where is the pain? Where’s the challenge? Let me understand it. Let me figure it out. What do you want done? If the best could happen, tell me what it looks like. I want to know visually what are people thinking and feeling and believing after I speak to them. What’s the core message you want them to walk away with? What are one or two things they’re going to own and have the confidence to own it?” Once that’s done, I build the talk. I build the PowerPoint deck which is all image-based because we learn by hearing and by seeing. I sent it to them and I go to work. I just go and speak. That’s what happens.
I’ve earned, by the grace of God, a reputation of someone who does deep-dives into organizations and know really who they are. I read a book about Starbucks and went into some of the stores. I met some of the baristas. I met a manager. I understand The Third Place concept. I do that for all my clients. That’s how I think I am fortunate enough to speak to people like NASA and all the scientists and engineers when they’re changing from the Space Shuttle Program to the Constellation Program. I spoke at the Pentagon. I get to speak to the CEOs and presidents of all of these companies. I’ve find it fascinating, I’ve just learned that these men and women who rise to these great positions are just like you and me, Mark. They have challenges and difficulties and struggles. Whenever I’m there, the first thing I do is I built a relationship. We’ll start a conference call and someone will get right into the nuts and bolts. I’ll say, “Can I just stop for a second? I noticed on your LinkedIn thing, John, that you’re from Michigan. We played Michigan. We lost to them by the way. “I just wanted to give you that gift and thank you and say you’re welcome. They just stop in their tracks and they’re laughing. It’s all relationships because they have kids who struggle, they have ailing parents, they’ve got friends and neighbors that have hobbies that we like just like them. I get the relationship first. That’s been my secret.
Let’s tie it all the way back when we were talking about the one degree of separation. You were tying it through the adversity and whatever challenge that might be going through. It’s not like everybody has to have a challenge. There’s some commonality amongst everybody.
They can be joys, Mark. They can be thrilling things, exciting things. They don’t have to be all challenges but we’ve all got them.
Tom, this has been amazing getting caught up with you. I go back to what I opened with which is I really do believe I’m a better person knowing that you’re in my life. It’s been a joy to listen to your journey and where you’ve come. For anybody out there, where can they find you in terms of public speaking and going in and affecting your message to them?
They can go to TomFlick.com. You can go there are videos to watch, there are programs that they can learn about. The speaking of the leadership aspect is all for performance engagement culture. I speak to a lot of sales groups because I think selling is the ultimate leadership act. I’d be happy to respond to anybody. We’ll send out information. You can also find me on LinkedIn and Twitter. I’d be happy if people drop me a line.
I got one more thing. We’ve talked about a lot of spiritual things here. I found a Bible verse that’s a cool verse and it’s for everybody who’s out there and you can take it for what it’s worth but just listen to the words because it’s about finding your summit. It’s in the book of James, it says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face various trials of many kinds because we know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete and not lacking on anything.” It’s funny, Mark, the way we get to love is because we probably dealt with not being hateful. We learned about discipline because we’ve been lazy sometimes. Getting to these higher levels of behavior, you’ve got to sometimes struggle through a bunch of things to get there. I think your show and all the things you bring out and your ability to do that is just really beneficial to lots of folks. I appreciate being on your show, Mark. I really appreciate you and love you for it. Thank you.
Thank you. I’ve got to tell you, I know that this has benefitted a lot of people that’s out there from listening to different podcasts with these amazing people that are doing great things like you. I’m the guy that gets to be behind the steering wheel every week and I get to hear these types of conversations with people like you. It’s just amazing and the amount of joy. That’s the reason why I said I wouldn’t have played football for nothing. I’m willing to do these podcasts for nothing and they actually cost me. It costs me to get filled full of these great stories and as joy. If somebody else takes something from that then that’s an amazing thing. The amount of joy that I get an inspiration, I don’t know how you can replace that.
You do well, Mark. You’re very good at what you’re doing. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it very much.
He is Tom Flick. Thank you so much. I appreciate it.
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