London finds his calling far from the cheering crowd
To step back and take a look at Tommy London’s life, in and out of sports, you’d have to marvel at the achievements.
At Shelby High he was a Shrine Bowl player on an unbeaten Golden Lion championship team in 1972. He went on to play at the college level for Lou Holtz at N.C. State and spent time in the NFL with the old Cleveland Browns, then in the Canadian Football League with the Ottawa Roughriders.
Yet, until his decision to go into the ministry (1996), his biggest mark may have been how he successfully navigated the transition into a post-football career. He went into the insurance field and raised a family, passing along a love of sports to his children.
Yet London now takes on the biggest game he’s ever been involved with each Sunday when he steps up before the Cloverdale First Baptist Church (near Roanoke, Va.) to handle his pastor’s duties.
“It was a big change, going into the ministry,” London said in a recent telephone interview. “I’d always praised God and thanked him for giving me the success I had. Now he’s letting me be a representative for him. Pro football is good but this is so much better.
“Also, he’s let me be a father and a Christian husband.”
Though he hasn’t lived in Shelby since leaving college, his extended family remains here and the lessons and great times London experienced here come quickly to mind.
“I had a lot of influences from those days,” London said. “I remember playing for Coach (Pearlie) Allen and he didn’t like you to be showy. I remember one time in a big game I ran for a touchdown and up on a hill behind the end zone and threw my hands up in the air. When I got (to the bench) he was yelling at me ‘Don’t be hot dogging around here! Don’t ever do that again!’
“My coaches helped keep me at ground level. They believed in playing hard but then for you to stay humble. I think I learned that from him. When I got to N.C. State I heard the coaches yelling but I had the right training.”
London saw his son, Justin, become a starting linebacker at UCLA and his daughter Michelle become an editor at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn. He didn’t realize the impact his sports background had on them.
“In essence, my son got interested even at age four and six when he wanted a Cleveland Browns uniform to wear and we got him that,” he said. “She (Michelle) was involved with basketball and track. It dawned on me they were influenced by my past.
“I’m thankful for that. It (sports) has a way of taking them away from some of the other things and teaching them a part of life. Sports can teach you a lot of things with practical uses. It kept them occupied and taught them to handle victory and defeat.”
Back when he finally had to give up football and “go to work” as London described it, the move wasn’t easy.
“It was difficult after playing all those years and having success, it was hard to let go,” he said. “I had gotten cut by Cleveland, then was in Canada, I went with Detroit and the 49ers, then back to Calgary. It dawned on me, it was time for me to go into the real world.”
It gave London an appreciation for what he had enjoyed.
“Football is such a big financial thing now,” he said. “They go for the cream of the crop. So much more goes into evaluating players now. The game has changed. I wish they had paid more back then.”
His church work now is just as exciting for him.
“God was preparing me for this all along, even through football. I learned how even when things go awry, you can still have faith to move on and function. You still have to push and preserve. We will face those ups and downs. God is able to help us overcome.
“People (up here) know where I’m from, what I’ve faced. I’ve taken many people from here down to Shelby where I was born. I try to use my experience as a way of encouraging people. It’s not how you start, its how you finish. I came up poor but God can pull you out of the dirt and turn you into something beautiful.”