Thousands gather to remember church elder, record-setting football coach
TULSA, Okla. – Diagnosed with a debilitating, always-fatal disease, Allan…
Markus Paul was in his final season as an NFL player in 1993 when a friend invited him to speak to the youth group at the Highland Avenue Church of Christ in Tampa, Fla. He stayed to attend worship, and two weeks later, he was baptized.
Paul, 54, collapsed Nov. 24 inside the Dallas Cowboys’ training facility in Frisco, Texas, where he was the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator. He died the next day at a local hospital. The Cowboys did not release a cause of death, but the Paul family told Syracuse.com he experienced a cardiac arrest.
The Florida native and all-state quarterback was a four-year starter at Syracuse University, where he played safety and still holds the school record with 19 interceptions. After college, he played four seasons with the Chicago Bears and one with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Bad knees ended his playing career.
Even in college, Paul was described by his roommate David Holmes as a godly man. “Markus Paul believed in doing what was right, and he lived that every day,” Holmes said at Paul’s funeral, which was live streamed to allow friends to attend virtually, including the entire Cowboys team who watched from AT&T Stadium in Arlington.
No wonder Clarence Bess, the Bible teacher and former elder who baptized Paul, said the Highland Avenue church had hoped he might hang around Tampa so they could begin a program to inspire others, but other opportunities intervened.
Paul’s career as an NFL coach took him to New Orleans, New England, the New York Jets and Giants, and in 2018 to Dallas. Everywhere he went he served quietly in Churches of Christ where people remember his smile and his humility.
Paul was part of five Super Bowl championships on staffs led by Bill Belichick in New England and Tom Coughlin in New York, but Christians at the North Colony Church of Christ, where he had worshiped since moving to Dallas, knew little or nothing about his NFL career.
Willie B. Williams III, minister for the North Colony congregation, located just 10 minutes from Cowboys headquarters, said a typical Sunday morning — even on game days — would find Paul in the building two and a half hours before worship.
“He would cut the lights on, straighten out the chairs, check the baptismal pool to make sure it was clean and ready to go, take out trash if he saw trash, sweep if he saw dirt. Seven out of 10 times you’d see him walking around with a broom,” said Williams, himself a former running back at Abilene Christian University.
Everywhere Paul worked and worshiped the route was repeated.
Eric Dishongh, minister for the Hickory Knoll Church of Christ in Harahan, La., just east of New Orleans, was a starstruck intern in 1998. He said everyone was excited when they heard Paul was moving to New Orleans to join Mike Ditka’s staff, but “as an 18-year-old intern who loved the New Orleans Saints I was absolutely thrilled.”
Primarily Dishongh recalls how humble the coach was. “Humility and kindness were the guy’s defining characteristics,” along with gratitude for learning the Gospel. “When he learned the truth, he wanted to share it with everyone he knew.”
From New Orleans, Paul moved to the New England Patriots, where his family worshiped with the Edgewood Church of Christ in Mansfield, Mass., just one town over from Foxborough where the Patriots play.
Ray Davis, then pulpit minister at Edgewood, remembers the first Sunday Paul and his family came to church in 2002. The first thing that stood out about Paul was his smile.
“He was very soft spoken,” said Davis, now serving the North Oaks Church of Christ in Santa Clarita, Calif., as family life minister. “You’d never guess he did what he did if you didn’t see him on the sidelines. He never spent time boasting. He was more interested in you.”
Paul moved to New York in 2005 for two years with the Jets then a decade with the Giants. Dean Loughmiller, a longtime member at the Fair Lawn Church of Christ in New Jersey, said Christians there knew him well.
“He did his very best to make it to worship at every opportunity he could, and even when he was with the team at away games he’d seek opportunities in other communities to find brethren there,” Loughmiller said.
Paul’s son, Jairus, and daughter, Tabitha, attended Fair Lawn with him, and Tabitha is still a member. “He was a great father to them. He was a very loving and kind individual.”
Paul is also survived by his wife, Heidi, his father, sister, two brothers, two stepsons and two grandchildren who called him Papa.
John Biskup, a record-setting place kicker on the Syracuse team Paul co-captained with former Dallas Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston, commented on Paul’s online obituary that the former teammate saved his life.
On the Saturday before Paul died, Biskup had reminisced after coming across his friend’s Giants-era business card.
“He was always smiling, laughing, always a great mentor, leader, friend, just inspiring to be around.” The following Tuesday, Biskup was shocked to hear of Paul’s passing. Then on Wednesday, while moving boxes at his house, he experienced shortness of breath.
“I easily could have dismissed it,” Biskup said, “but something told me this might be a message from Markus,” so he went to the emergency room where a catheterization revealed a 90 percent blockage in the widow maker artery.
“Markus Paul saved my life.”
Speaking at Paul’s funeral, Johnston said, “God knew as a football player he’d have a small impact but as a coach and mentor he would have a huge impact. Markus Paul was the one person in your life you wanted to be more like. I always wanted to be more like Markus Paul.”
Minister Williams reprised Johnston’s statement in his remarks:
“Markus Paul strived every day to be like Christ.”
Sharing the story from 1 Samuel about God choosing David to be king of Israel, Williams reminded mourners that David was out with the sheep, not at the head of the line. “God chooses his leaders from the back,” Williams said.
“Markus Paul strived every day to be like Christ.”
If a visitor or worshiper was looking for Markus Paul, he went on, the minister always pointed to the back of the church where Paul sat or more often stood. A few hours later he’d be on the sidelines, shouting and coaching and encouraging on national television.
Amens echoed as Williams reminded them Paul never sat in the front.
God chooses leaders from the back.
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