When Greg Brezina tells old football stories, the one he spins the most has nothing to do with actually playing football.
The former Falcons linebacker has lost track of the number of times he has retold the one about the chapel service before the Rams game in Los Angeles in 1971.
He basically was a mess at that time. Hollow at his core, and drinking in an attempt to fill up the void. His wife, Connie, pregnant with their first child, had reached the ultimatum stage – either straighten up or I’m out.
He went to chapel out of curiosity, to hear the guest speaker, an Olympic weight lifter. Taking a seat at the back of the room, Brezina assumed the position of a cynic. But the speaker’s message about the need to find value beyond the arena or the playing field was a splinter that worked its way just beneath his skin, one he took almost unknowingly back to his room at the hotel.
In the solitude of his room, Brezina stewed. Overcome with guilt, he fell to his knees and began a conversation with God. “I got up and packed my bags,” he said, “went to the lobby and saw one of the guys, one of my drinking buddies. I said, ‘Hey, I just gave my life to Christ.’ He started laughing and said, ‘Brezina, that’s a good one.’”
Connie and Greg Brezina are still married – it has been 49 years now. And as well as being a couple, they are partners in a counseling and training ministry called Christian Families Today, based in Newnan.
Seems the more Brezina told that football story that really wasn’t about football, the more other people wanted to hear it. And the more it became the foundation for a program geared toward rescuing marriages and reclaiming lives, just as the Brezinas had experienced. Now, all these years later, they have sent counseling training material throughout the U.S. and beyond, to Africa, India and China.
In their football afterlives, after having been very accomplished obstructionists way back in the 1970s, members of the “Grits Blitz” defense had to get out there and reinvent themselves in the real workplace.
Especially given the salary structure of 40 years ago, they weren’t going to grow old and fat on their NFL earnings. There was not a consistent living to be made on the fact that for one year, 1977, they allowed fewer points than any team had over a 14-game season.
They became teachers and coaches (cornerback Rolland Lawrence).
They were medical techs (linebacker Fulton Kuykendall).
And realtors (linebacker Ralph Ortega).
And car salesmen (lineman Mike Lewis).
“When you get done playing football, you put it behind you. I was never raised that football had any socially redeeming value,” former Falcons lineman Jeff Merrow said. “So, one day I decided I had all the fun I could take. It was time for me to let all this go behind me. It was time for me to grow up.”
Merrow owns a Duluth-based company that sells lifts for heavy equipment like buses and trucks.
Then there is the preacher, a name teammates were calling Brezina as his 10-year run with the Falcons was winding down.
Not so surprising, then, that he put that nickname to work. And when Brezina looks back on the football part of his life, it is with a sense of gratitude for where the game ultimately led him.
“I’m very thankful I played football,” he said. “It was a dream come true for me. It’s unbelievable the significance people receive from playing football, fighting over a little brown ball in a cow pasture. I’ve been blessed because of it. I’ve been given a platform because of it.
“That was a part of my life, just as this (ministry) is a part of my life. I feel like I fulfilled my destiny in football when I was playing, and I feel now I have fulfilled my destiny in life.”
And, for one old Grits Blitz linebacker, football still is a useful allegory from time to time.
“In football, you have to depend on each other. That’s what made the Grits Blitz great. We were a family,” Brezina said. “When everybody did their job we had one of the greatest defenses ever in the NFL. It doesn’t necessarily take great athletes. It takes people with the will to do their job.”