On a Sunday morning in early November, men munch on doughnuts and sip coffee as they wait for the worship service to begin. It’s not long before the conversation shifts, inevitably, to the Bears game, their new coaching staff, the challenges of stopping Adrian Peterson and — of course — Jay Cutler.
There is an undeniable link between faith and football. Players point to the heavens after touchdowns. Many teams join hands to recite the Lord’s Prayer before taking the field.
But at the Grace Family Bible Church, this intersection is perhaps more obvious.
Prairie Ridge assistant football coach Nicholas Caruso, wearing a camouflage Adrian Peterson jersey, opens the worship service by reading a short bible passage. Jacobs assistant coach Jim Foote will read another.
And then there’s Mike Warren. On Sundays, they call him Pastor Mike. But on Fridays, he’s Coach Warren to Jacobs’ ballhawking D. You might call him the Minister of Defense.
“The defensive coordinator is usually the guy who is out there chewing tobacco, spitting fire all the time, cussing every other word,” Jacobs coach Bill Mitz said. “That’s not our guy.”
Not by a long shot.
Before he was a coach and before he was a pastor, Warren was a player. So perhaps it’s appropriate to start his story that way. Rewind to 1991.
On the day he committed to Northwestern, Warren prayed with coach Francis Peay in his office. He actively sought out a university that had a chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The fact that Peay was a practicing Christian played a big role in his decision as well.
But after his redshirt freshman year, Northwestern fired Peay and replaced him with coach Gary Barnett in 1992.
Barnett, on a mission to remake a football team that hadn’t won a Big Ten title since 1936, met with each player individually to give them an evaluation.
“You’re not a player we would have recruited,” Warren remembers him saying. “You’re too small. You’re too weak. You’re too slow.”
Essentially, Warren’s new coach had relegated him to a lifelong scout team player. It was the best thing he could have done.
“The one thing I hate is people telling me I can’t do something,” Warren says now. “I don’t mean, you don’t have permission to do something. I mean, you can’t do that. You’re not good enough.”
Warren was buried three players deep on the depth chart at the start of his redshirt sophomore year. During camp at Carthage College, the offense ran a handoff to Bobby Jackson. Warren hammered the 6-foot-2, 225-pound back, forcing a fumble and recovering it all in one motion.
The next thing he knew, he was being pulled out of a pile. Warren figured it was Mike O’Dwyer, a 6-foot-4, 300-pound lineman who was known to mix it up at practice. Ready to defend himself, Warren looked up to find Barnett.
“He had pulled me out of the pile and he was literally dragging me to the other field where the defense was,” Warren remembers. “He said ‘This guy’s making plays. I want him on the defense now.’
“From that point, I was running with the 1s.”
The so-called scout team player for life lettered in each of his final four seasons at Northwestern and started in his final three seasons at linebacker and defensive end. In 1995, he started on a Wildcats team that won the Big Ten with a perfect 8-0 record to earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.
In Pasadena, California, with six minutes left in the first half, USC faced a second and 10 from the 20-yard line. Trojans quarterback Brad Otton faked a handoff and retreated to his left. Warren beat the left tackle with a spin move, grabbed Otton around the waist and pulled him down for a 10-yard sack.
Despite a desperate rally, the Wildcats lost the Rose Bowl. But Warren turned in what was probably his best performance in what was without a doubt the biggest game of his career.
Look on Warren’s hand now, though, and you won’t find a Rose Bowl ring. In fact, he usually doesn’t talk about his playing days at all unless you ask. Even when you do, he skips over the part about the Rose Bowl, not wanting to boast.
“God has done so much in my life since then,” Warren said. “That was a great highlight. But I can’t live in 20 years ago. That’s not who I am now.”
He still roots for the Wildcats. But between raising a family of three young children, substitute teaching, coaching and ministering, there’s not a lot of time.
He gets most of his sports news from Sandy Skolorzynski, a white-haired woman who sits in the front row during services wearing a bright white smile and tinted black glasses. Skolorzynski was already a Christian when Warren introduced himself to her one Sunday, but as she developed from a friend into an “adopted grandmother” to his three children, Skolorzynski was converted into a Northwestern football fan.
Because she is blind, Skolorzynski listens to the games on the radio with her two rabbits. She imagines the plays. Then, during rides to church on Sundays or when he stops by, she recreates the game for Warren so that he can imagine it.
On Oct. 16, under the bright stadium lights at Jacobs High School, Coach Warren held his hand aloft from the sideline, calmly signaling plays to the defenders.
Aggression and teenage enthusiasm radiated from the players, as they were led onto the field with AC/DC’s hard rock anthem “Back in Black” blaring through the PA system. South ran its first play up the middle for about a 5-yard gain.
Unfazed, the defensive coordinator put his hand in the air with two fingers outstretched, silently signaling another play. This time, South sprinted through the line for a first down.
“We need more energy out of you, Mike!” barked Jacobs head coach Bill Mitz.
In 2009, after a storied career at Stevenson that already landed him in the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Mitz took on a Jacobs football team that had won just four games in its previous two seasons. When he was constructing his staff, Mitz asked Warren to be his defensive coordinator.
Warren was reluctant. He served on Mitz’s staff at Stevenson as a sophomore assistant coach, but had been away from coaching for years as a Navy and Marine chaplain.
In a prayer journal, Warren wrote down his reservations: He’d be too busy on weekends. He had never been a varsity coordinator before. Frankly, he admits, he was afraid.
Mitz wouldn't have it. He wanted Warren to be his coordinator, even if coach Warren wasn’t the typical coordinator.
He demands much of his players but is calm and composed on the sideline. When players make mistakes, they’re greeted with questions instead of criticism: What was the call? Or, what did you key to?
“He tries to get everybody pumped up,” junior safety Conrad Beech said. “But he has that background in faith that’s very different than any other coach.”
Since he coaches at a public school, Warren has his limitations. Before games, the Jacobs football team takes a knee around the goalpost. Heads bow.
But there is only silence, as Mitz tells his players to take a moment for themselves. It doesn’t start with the sign of the cross. It doesn’t end with an "Amen."
Though many public schools in the area recite the Lord's Prayer together before games, the Golden Eagles do not.
“As a pastor, I’m able to have influence in places pastors don’t normally have influence,” Warren said. “I get to be a coach inside a public school football program. I get to be a teacher in a public school system. I understand all of the restrictions that come with that. But, nevertheless, I’m there and am able to care for and administer to other teachers and players.”
Warren does lead the team in what they call “Team Chapel,” a short 20-minute bible study after team meal on Thursdays. It’s voluntary. About five or six players attend each week.
"He doesn’t force it upon anyone," junior receiver Aidan Ludlum said. "If someone is not religious, he understands that it’s his choice."
But largely, Warren's teachings are implicit rather than explicit with the Golden Eagles. The morals and values that guide Warren's life are reflected in the way he greets each of his players with a first bump after practice or the way he remains cool under pressure or the way he hugs his son after the final whistle.
"The reason I’m on this sideline coaching is to reflect what God can do in someone’s life and to change their lives and to be an influence to others," Warren said. "I’m not there to be the next great defensive coordinator. I’m there because I want to serve and have credibility for what it is I’m truly there for. That’s to share God’s love with people."
Back on that Sunday morning, (Week 8 of the NFL season if you prefer to track time that way), the sun reflects off the lake, shining light into the nearly 130-year-old LaBahn Hain House that the Grace Family Bible Church rents from the Lake in the Hills Parks department.
Warren, wearing a light blue shirt that matches his eyes, starts the service with a prayer.
“Too often we are quick to find our identity and place our hope in temporal things,” he says “things that are fleeting: money, influence, success in the classroom, success on the sports field.”
The opening prayer is meant to prepare his congregation for the next hour and a half, to recenter them. But whether it’s a conscious decision or not, the statement helps explain Warren’s perspective on life and how he constructs his own identify.
He played on one of Northwestern’s most successful teams. But he doesn’t wear his Rose Bowl ring. He devotes time and energy each week to his football team. But he’s “not there to be the next Bill Belichick.”
“I’m a husband and father before I’m a coach,” Warren said. “I’m a pastor before I’m a coach.”
Seeing him on Sundays, it’s clear that his passion is here. He's on a unique mission now, trying to start his own church made up almost entirely of people who have never attended church or have not attended church in many years.
"The kind of growth he wants is spiritual growth," Skolorzynski said. "Not growth in terms of numbers sitting in a pew."
About two dozen or so members meet on the first Sunday of every month. In January, they will begin meeting the first and third Sunday of every month. Pastor Mike’s hope is that, starting on Easter, they will begin meeting weekly.
That’s the kind of win Mike Warren prays for on Sundays.