TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — When Rich Wingo was boiling down football offers from the nation's top college powers, his parents wanted him to go away. Far away.
Tuscaloosa, Ala., seemed far enough.
A generous offer from Notre Dame was on the table, but mom and dad wanted more from Wingo. Living in Elkhart and going to school in South Bend wasn't what they envisioned for their son.
There was more to life than football.
“They said the didn't want me coming through the back door until Christmas,” Wingo said. “They wanted me to grow up.”
And with that, Wingo, a coveted Central Blue Blazer linebacker, headed to the University of Alabama, where he suited up for four years under legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Wingo, 56, remains in Alabama to this day.
“It was meant to be,” Wingo said. “I've never regretted it.”
Certainly, The City With a Heart holds a special place for Wingo, but Tuscaloosa and the deep south are home.
After a five-year NFL run with the Green Bay Packers (1979-'84), Wingo returned to campus, helped coach for three years under Bill Curry before leaving to join the business world.
Wingo met his wife, Cheri, in college and they've raised two sons — Jake, 26, the head coach of Sumpter Academy in Livingston, just outside of Tuscaloosa, and Luke, who just completed his freshman season as the starting quarterback at the University of North Alabama in Florence.
A proud Crimson Tide supporter, Wingo says these days he doesn't spend much time going to Alabama games. He watches his sons and their games.
It's the life of family and faith he's chosen.
“Every Saturday, you better believe it,” Rich said of traveling the two-and-a-half hours to Florence for Luke's games. “I'm very proud of him.”
Rich has volunteered as a coach and Cheri helps by filming for Jake. When the Wingos aren't enjoying the immense love they have for their children, they're spreading God's words through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Being a part of the Tuscaloosa football culture has its appeal, but to Rich Wingo, forging new values in young athletes offers an even greater reward.
“The south, it's different in a number of ways, but its similiar in many ways to the north,” Wingo said. “In the south people are genuinely friendlier, they're free with their faith in the south, bold, unashamed for their faith for Christ. The football game is a great facilitator, but you're just another athlete if you can't use the sport to make that person a better citizen, a better father, a better husband and a better Christian.
“Football will come and go. I love the Lord, I speak at churches, I'm on the board of the FCA where you have access to high schools and you can boldly go in and talk about Jesus Christ ... that's my passion.”
Throughout the south, though, football — like faith — is never far away.
In his senior year, Wingo helped Alabama to the 1978 national championship when it beat top-ranked Penn State 14-7 in the '79 Sugar Bowl. Wingo was front-and-center in a heart-pounding goalline stand — two stops of the Nittany Lions from the 1-yard-line.
Even today, it's regarded as one of the most famous bowl moments in college football history.
He dreamed of making those kinds of plays in the neighborhood games he played as a child in Elkhart.
Wingo and his family lived on Pleasant Plain, three houses south of Hively Avenue on Elkhart's south side. He attended Monger Elementary and Pierre Moran Junior High.
Though it's been 45 years or more, Wingo remembers those years in his life as if they just happened.
“It was the best life growing up as a kid,” Wingo said. “We'd push the snow off the side yard and have a 50-yard football field. We'd play every single day. Tackle football in snow.
“We'd play on Thanksgiving, we'd play on Christmas, we'd play on New Year's. We'd watch the games and go play some more.
“I'll always have great memories of Elkhart.”