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All Pro Dad: Seven Essentials to Be a Hero to Your Kids
by Mark Merrill
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“Gentlemen, this is a football,” with those five famous words, legendary NFL football coach Vince Lombardi communicated his point to his players each year at the beginning of the Green Bay Packers training camp. With pigskin held high in the air, he was telling his team that they must always start with the fundamentals.

“I can remember my fire team meeting ever in the National Football League,” Super Bowl-winning player and coach Tony Dungy shared with me as he reminisced about his days playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I was a rookie. Chuck Noll was the coach and the Steelers had won two Super Bowls already. And I thought I was going to hear some fantastic stuff describing how you get to be Super Bowl champions; how you get to be a great player.

“Coach Noll – I’ll never forget it – said, ‘Champions are champions not because they do anything extraordinary but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else.’ What he was saying was, you’ve got this misconception that you’ve gotta do these spectacular highlight-reel type things, you’ve gotta have special gifts and special talents to be a Super Bowl winner or an All-Pro. He said, no, that’s not it. There are fundamentals, not forgetting the, and executing them day in and day out, that’s how you become great. That’s how you win. That’s how you become an All-Pro. And he was right.”

Just as knowing and executing the fundamentals of football are key to a player becoming an All-Pro, knowing and executing the fundamentals of fatherhood better and more consistently than everyone else are key to a father becoming an All Pro Dad. Many books, blogs, and seminars do a good job listing things men should say and not say, do and not do as fathers. Men need lists, and lists are good. But we can’t skip the fundamentals. And the two most important fundamentals of fatherhood are love and leadership. Before you think I’m getting soft by talking about love, you need to know that love is anything but soft. It’s strong. James “JB” Brown, host of The NFL Today, is a big man with a big heart. During one of our visits, JB shared with me that “People think love is soft and weak, but it is really a sign of strength.” It’s strong. It’s powerful. It’s courageous.

What drives a fireman to put on a fifty-pound tank and climb the stairs of the World Trade Center? What inspires a G.I. to storm Omaha Beach under a cloud of enemy gunfire? As author G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The true solider fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.” Love for others is what makes a man a man. And a man’s love, his manhood, starts with what is right behind him – his family.

So in this chapter, we’ll focus on the fatherhood fundamentals of love and leadership. We’re going to learn what they really are and why they are so important for fathers. In the next seven chapter we’ll tackle the “7 Ms” that are essential for every man to know to effectively execute those fundamentals – Makeup, Mind-set, Motive, Method, Model, Message, and Master. Every father must know these 7 Ms to expand his capacity to love and, in turn, lead his children well.

The First Fundamental – Love

“Truly, truly, truly love. That’s the most powerful thing there is,” Those are the words spoken by UCLA’s legendary basketball coach John Wooden, at the age of ninety-nine shortly before his death. Love’s power is apparent. But its essence can be tough to grasp. Bookstores and shelves in home are filled with books on what love is, how to love, what love does and does not do. Unfortunately, many miss the real mark of love.

If you asked ten adults what love is, you’d probably get ten different answers. Love is tough to define. Coach Wooden went on to say, “The most important word in our language is ‘love.’” Love is the greatest work with the greatest value and the greatest power in the world. The Roman poet Virgil said, “Love conquers all things.” The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy said, “All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.” And the political leader of India, Mahatma Gandhi, said, “There only is life when there is love. Life without love is death.”

The Author of Wisdom clearly tells us that love is the greatest. When the cunning Pharisees asked Jesus of Nazareth, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your god with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Okay, if you still don’t believe love is the most important thing, just go and ask someone who has never really been loved.

Myths and Misunderstands About Love

Love is the greatest, but it is also undoubtedly the most overused and underused, misapplied and misunderstood word in the English language. It is overused and misapplied with reckless abandon on most television shows and commercials you watch. Remember the “I love you, man” beer commercial? For decades, musicians such as the Beatles have made love their hallmark – “She love you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” The books you read and websites and blogs you look at talk about love as well. It’s so apparent, examples are probably unnecessary. But I don’t want you to think that it’s mostly bad. I like a lot of those shows and songs. I’m just trying to make the point that we use this amazing word without even thinking about it. As a result, we perpetuate myths about its meaning.

Love is also underused and misconstrued in word and deed by husbands, wives, parents, children, grandparents, grandchildren, relatives, friends, and coworkers. Loving others doesn’t mean liking. We can love others without having to like what they do. My wife, Susan, and I, especially when we’re having a disagreement, will sometimes say to each other, “I love you. But I sure don’t like you right now.” What we’re really saying is, “I love you no matter what, but I don’t like the way you are acting right now.”

We apply the word love when we speak of things as well. We say, “I love my car.” “I love their French fries.” “I love that dress.” Sure, those things may be appealing and pleasing to one of our five senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell – but it is not the right application of our love. We weren’t designed to love inanimate objects. Objects are not capable of receiving and giving love; only people are. If we attempt to “love” things, then, more often than not, we’ll use people and end up with shallow relationships, meaningless stuff, and no one to share it with. But if you and I love people, and use things for their intended purpose, we’ll have rich relationships and lasting joy in life.

The Risks of Love

Be aware. We may invest a lot of personal time and emotional capital in our spouses or children and not see any kind of ROI – return on investment. But, as we’ll soon see, that’s what love is all about – investing with no expectation of return. Having said that, we need to remember that all loving involves some risk. Author C.S. Lewis observed:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will be come unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Genuine Love

Do you know how U.S. Secret Service agents determine if money is counterfeit? They don’t start by studying counterfeit currency. They start with the real thing. They learn that genuine currency has a texture of raised ink; sharp, fine printing; red and blue color strands; a watermark; serial numbers; and other security features. When they know the real thing, they can easily spot a fake. As we saw earlier, there is a lot of counterfeit love talk in our world today. The best way to spot it? We’ve got to study the real thing. Solet’s get to it.

While searching for this Holy Grail definition, you need to know something right up front. Thousands of people over the course of thousands of years have worked to define the word love. There are as many definitions out there as there are gains of sand on the beach. I shared just a few of them with you earlier. Although I’ve spent a lot of time researching definitions of love, I’m not going to rehash all of those definitions. I’ve done the work for you, so let me give it my best shot. You ready? Here is the treasured definition: God is love. That’s it. But I know the definition may not satisfy your curiosity, so let’s continue to study the genuine nature of love. As we do, please remember that I just gave you the best and most genuine definition of love you’ll ever find and nothing else will ever match it.

Picture in your mind a wedding at a church. The young bride and groom are on the altar facing each other, hand in hand. Their sparkling eyes and glowing faces complement the flowing wedding gown and tux. The pastor stands before the excited and hopeful couple and says with confidence, “Love is patient when you feel like being patient, love is kind when you feel like being kind …” Right? Of course not. He says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

In doing so, what is he really saying about love? He’s saying love is not just a feeling; it is a decision. Love does not say, “Feel this way.” Love says, “Act this way.” Love is an act of the will to be patient, kind, gentle, humble, sincere, compassionate, giving, faithful and trusting, forgiving, uniting, and persevering. Love is all about serving and giving selflessly and sacrificially to another person. The best way to spell love? G-I-V-E. It’s looking not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others. It’s doing what’s best for others no matter what is costs you personally.

Love says, “I want what’s best for you! That is why I’m talking to you about this, that is why I’m doing this, that is why I’m making this decision.”

Love says, “No longer will I live my life for me. I will think about self less and you more.”

Love says, “I’m choosing to be at my best even when you’re not at your best.”

Love says, “What I want isn’t important, but what you want is paramount.”

The Unconditional Nature of Love

As a real estate attorney, I drafted many contracts. In every valid contract there is something called “consideration.” Consideration is when you give something knowing you will get something else in return. It’s conditional. It’s an ‘if I do this, then you’ll do that” kind of thing. But love is unconditional. Love is not a transaction; it’s an action. Love is not reciprocal; it’s sacrificial.

“So, are you doing this?” my wife, Susan, asked me as we sat on the couch after she had just read the first draft for this chapter.

“Doing what?” I responded.

“Are you exercising this fundamental of love, unconditional love, with our children?” she continued.

I really through it was an off-base question. “Yes, of course I am. I’m constantly telling them that I love them no matter what, and they know I love them unconditionally.”

Susan then dug deeper in, saying, “I know you say that a lot and really mean it, but do your facial expressions, tone of voice, and actions always show it? Think about Marky. Sometimes your looks of disapproval for what he did or didn’t do, or not being excited about something he is doing might send the opposite message to him.” Susan then went onto give me a couple example of this.

It was a full body slam as I had never thought about it that way. And it hurt. But I thanked Susan and stopped writing for the day as I pondered what she said. I then determined in my mind that I was going to really work on this fundamental. I need to show unconditional love not only with my words, but also with my tone of voice and facial expressions. I’ve got to get this right!

Grammy Award-winning recording artist Michael W. Smith, father of five and grandfather of five, is a living testimony to the fact that love is never wasted and must be unconditional. “I’m a perfect example of a guy who had amazing parents – still do, they’re my biggest fans,” Michael shared with me. He then paused as his mind went back many years ago. “But, you know, I started playing with the fire – alcohol and drugs. I didn’t think I could get burned. And for four years, I was a mess. I mean, I was a complete mess. I almost died a few times. It’s crazy.”

Michael then seemed to say with a great sense of gratitude, “And I’m convinced to this day that part of my rescue was my mom and dad loving me unconditionally, even knowing everything that I was doing. They just loved me. It was unconditional love and they were on their knees for me, especially in my crazy party days here is Nashville. And I think that’s what you gotta do as a father if your kids have wandered. The best thing you can do for them is just love them and pray for them.” Michael’s parents’ love for him was not reciprocal during those years; it was sacrificial.

Love In Action

As I sat with the popular former governor, now businessman, Jeb Bush, in his modest Coral Gables, Florida, office, he paused from his busy workday to reflect upon his life. He thoughtfully shared these intimate thoughts with me, with I pass along to you. “We all have loving thoughts, but if they remain passive, they’re completely useless because they don’t nourish anything. They can actually create resentment. Converting those thoughts into action shouldn’t take half a lifetime, but in my case, it has. But I’ve noticed I’m getting better at loving. I look back at my life and realize things are not as complicated as I thought. Why does it take a half-a-lifetime experience to get to the simple things?” Love is not passive; it is an action. It’s something we must demonstrate day in and day out, even when everything inside of us screams, “No, that person did me wrong, they don’t deserve it!”

Let me give you an example:

“Hello, Mr. Merrill? This is John Johnson from Tampa Fire and Rescue. Do you know what’s happened to your home?

“No,” I said into the phone with a questioning tone.

“Well, you have a major problem in your home. It’s flooded,” he added.

“What?” I gasped. “What happened?”

“I would just suggest you get here quickly,” he exclaimed.

“Thank you,” I said hurriedly as I hung up the phone. I jumped into my car and race home from the office in pelting Florida rain. Once I pulled into the driveway, I realized what had happened. We were getting a new roof on our historic old house and the workers had taken off the old one but, for whatever reason, they were not able to get a tarp secured to cover the house. So, in came the heavy rain. The attic, second floor, and first floor were all inundated. Beautiful old plaster ceilings fell to the floor, antique furniture was ruined, and clothes were soaked. That night, June 1, 2011, we moved out.

Sure, it’s tough for my family to be houseless. You get kind of disoriented and feel as though you’re in a fog. But we’re not homeless. We know where our permanent home really is. And nobody was injured. So basically it was just stuff that was destroyed. Stuff that can be replaced or wasn’t really needed.

Over the course of the next few days after the flood, we had to do many things, including finding a place to stay for the next eight to twelve months while our home was being rebuilt. But as I thought about it, I determined that the most important thing I needed to do was to be a good example to all the people I would have to deal with through the process – the insurance companies, the adjusters, the contractors, the cleaners, and so on.

This incident, which occurred right in the middle of writing this book, would test my resolve. Would I just write about love? Or, would I really live it out? Well, I can tell you that I’ve failed in some ways, especially in the area of patience, but I’m grateful that I’ve been given opportunities to increase my capacity to love and demonstrate love to others despite my failures.

After I wrote about what we went through on my blog, to my surprise, our roofer posted a comment on my site. It was a great encouragement to me in light of the struggles we faced. “Never have I seen or experienced such a magnitude of water in a home before, and hope never to see it again,” commented the roofer.

On the same note never have I seen an action such as I witness from owners whose home had water dripping from every ceiling in the house. As I entered the home, I braced myself knowing that the typical owner would be down into my face yelling, cursing, and threatening me. Instead I witnessed owners, obviously in shock and disbelief, but also providing me a sense of grace in the midst of chaos. There was a difference in their reaction that made them non-typical owners for the situation.

Love is an action and we must choose to show it to others even when we think they don’t deserve it.

So the first fundamental of fatherhood is love. You can’t lead your family effectively without it. First love, then lead.


For several generations our world has taught us that mind and strength, mental and physical, are for work; heart and soul, emotional and spiritual, are for home. For instance, we talk about leadership in the contest of business and business relationships and talk about love in the contest of home and personal relationships.

Think about it. How many business seminars on love have you attended, or how many books on home leadership have your read? But love is the essential thing in all areas of live. And leadership must be recognized as extremely important not only in work but also in the home. In fact, Jim Caldwell, former head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, believes the home is the incubator of leadership. He told me, “Leadership is first developed in the home.”

J. Wayne Huizenga Jr., chairman of Rybovich Marina and part owner of the Miami Dolphins, shared with me his thoughts on love and leadership: “We don’t talk a lot about leadership in the home and not much has been written about leadership in the home. Nobody really trains us to be leaders at home like they do at work.” Wayne paused and then went on to say: “It’s so much more difficult to lead at home than it is at work because at work, the motive is your getting a paycheck and if it doesn’t work out, we can separate. But at home, we’re not getting a paycheck and we can’t separate. They’re your family, regardless.”

Wayne is on target. Leading at home can be one of the toughest places to lead. You can’t fire your child. There is no paid time off. There are no raises bonuses. The rewards are rarely immediate or apparent. How many times have you received a standing ovation when you walked in the door, or gotten the father-of-the-year award to put in your trophy case? But, as we’ll see later on, a dad will ultimately find joy and fulfillment as he strives to be an All Pro Dad.

Leading at home is also tough because we have to discipline our kids. But a loving and leading father must discipline his children. I’ve often said to each of my five children, “I love you. And I’m only saying or doing this because it’s what’s best for you.”

Every once in a while one of them will challenge me on it.

“How is taking away my cell phone in my best interest? my son, Marky, asked after we took away his privilege of using it because he was speaking disrespectfully to us.

“Well, having a cell phone is a privilege so that you can communicate with your friends. When you communicate respectfully with us then you get to keep that privilege. When you don’t, you lose it. So not having your phone for a while will remind you of the importance of talking respectfully to us.”

Do I like to discipline? No. Does my son like it? Of course not. But, if I really do it in the right way and for the right reasons, he will at least know that I’m doing it out of love and, as a result, I’ll earn the right to lead him in other areas of life too.

You Are a Leader and a Follower

So, are you a leader? A leader is a person who has followers. If someone if following you, then you are influencing that person. That is, you are effecting change in that person. The change may be in speech, behavior, or action. Therefore, at its core, leadership is influence.

Are you a dad, mom, husband, wife, grandparent, relative, employer, employee, or friend? If so, then you are a leader. You are also a follower. Great leaders are great followers. Each and every one of us is influencing and being influenced. We are all leading sometimes and being led at other times. For instance, in earlier years, as our kids were getting ready for school, Susan was the influencer and our children were the influenced. She decided what they would eat and wear, and they followed. Our children then went to school and became the influencer in certain situations with their peers who followed. Then the bell rang and the teacher had all the influence, and our children once again become the ones influenced, and so on.

In every situation where you are in the presence of one or more other people, there is a dominate influencer. Susan and I are constantly asking our teens, especially if they aren’t having a good attitude after being with certain friends, “Are you influencing your friends more than they are influencing you?” That’s because we want them to recognize that in every relationship, one person is, in small or big ways, more dominant in their influence and can impact the behavior of others. We want our kids to either be the influencer, the leader, or be influenced in a positive way as a follower.

Many fathers have excelled at leading their team at work but have fumbled the ball in the area of home leadership. Now, it’s not necessarily because they haven’t tried. As I’ll address in the chapter on Mind-set, there are a number of factors that have influenced a father’s ability to lead effectively in the home. I confess I’ve dropped the ball and made plenty of mistakes as a husband, father, son, brother, and friend. But anyone who knows me knows that I always want to learn, to be better and do better. Connecting love and leadership is key in us moving the ball forward as fathers.


What’s love got to do with leadership? Everything. Love is leadership’s unseen essential. We don’t see it and it’s not normally talked about in the context of leadership, but it’s a vital component in the life of a great leader.

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, said, “I would far rather have a business led by love than by fear.” So, if you include yourself among those who find “love” a hard word to link with “leadership,” then remember this: Herb Kelleher’s Southwest Airlines, the company he declared from the start to be “led by love,” whose headquarters is called “Love Airfield” and whose stock market listing is “LUV,” is the most profitable airline in U.S. commercial aviation history.

Love is one of the most effective and efficient leadership strategies that ever existed. And infusing love into an organization, as well as the home, delivers a better ROI than any other single investment you can make. Great organizations and great families are fueled by loving leaders.

In my conversation with JB Brown, host of The NFL Today, he further commented that “true love is to be displayed consistently in all settings. When it is manifested in one’s behavior in the workplace and at home, success often follows. Love is key in leadership.” Michael Ducker, COO and President, International FedEx, punctuated what JB said. “As a leader, I am compelled to love all people under my care, my employees and my family.” Mike went on to tell me that “life is more about relationships than anything else. A part of those relationships, on the job and in the home, is knowing people personally and caring about their lives. If your employees know they have a boss that knows and care about them, they are more inclined to follow you as a leader. The same holds true for our children.”


We are all born with the ability to love, but we must expand our capacity to love. Now here’s the key point I want you to remember: our capacity to love will determine our capacity to lead at home, at work, and in life. In other words, when we genuinely love our spouse, our children, and others, when they know we want what’s best for them, they’ll follow us. They’ll say to themselves: “You’ve loved me. You’ve earned the right to lead me. I’ll follow you.” Your leadership of your family will grow in direct proportion to the love that you show your family.

The way we increase our love capacity is counterintuitive. Normally, capacity increases when something is filled. But our capacity to love is increased the most when someone is emptied. Our capacity to love expands when we empty ourselves and give of ourselves to others. As fathers, we must show love to grow love. The more love you show, the more your capacity to love will grow.

For a last will and testament to be effective and the inheritance to be passed on, a person must die. For our leadership of our family to be effective and an inheritance of loving dad to be passed on to our children, we must die to our self-focused ways. That may mean that we do things in an uncommon way. For example, we might work fewer hours at the office when our children are growing up so we can spend more time with them, and then work more when they’re grown. Or, it might even mean foregoing that promotion that would have required us to move or work longer hours. It might mean delaying things we’d like to do or interests we’d like to pursue.

Many years ago and throughout my years of practicing law, I had a desire to serve in public office. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to run for Congress. After doing some real soul-searching and discussing it with Susan, I determined that I was not willing to sacrifice the time with my family to do it. The decision was made and I’ve never looked back.

Our capacity to love will expand exponentially as we die to self. And ad we expand our capacity to love, we’ll also expand our capacity to lead. Can a leader “get by” without loving? Sure, but leader – love = limited leadership – limited in breadth and depth. Leadership + love = lasting leadership. Those who grow the most in life’s fundamental – love – will grow to be the greatest leaders at home, at work, and in life,

THE 7 Ms

“In 2008, my last year coaching with the Colts, we had drafted Anthony Gonzalez,” Tony Dungy started.

He wasn’t able to come to work out with us in the spring because he was still in school. He was at Ohio State and not graduating until June, so he was going to miss all the May and June workouts. And Peyton Manning, by then, was in his eleventh year. He’d been MVP of the league three times already. You know, he was really at the pinnacle of his career. That spring, he would get in his car twice a week and drive to Columbus, Ohio. Drive three hours over, spend an hour and a half with Anthony, throw him the ball, run routes, spend half an hour with him going over the playbook, and then drive three hours back. So, he was taking seven and a half hours out of his day twice a week to make sure that Anthony Gonzalez got caught up and was prepared when the training camp started. That’s the kind of dedication people don’t always see.

When people ask me what makes Peyton Manning special, he’s gifted, he is talented, he’s got the physical tools you need. He had the background and all that from watching his dad and going to the University of Tennessee. But the thing that separates him from everybody else is that dedication and that work ethic and that desire to do whatever it takes to not only get himself ready, but to get his teammates ready to play well. That’s why he’s an All-Pro.

Tony added, “So being an All-Pro in the NFL takes a little bit of talent; but more than anything else, it takes hard work, it takes dedication, and it takes teamwork. And if any of those are missing, it really becomes difficult. Also, an All-Pro is a guy who is very consistent. He does it week in and week out. He plays at that high level all the time.” And an All-Pro of the NFL level is someone who, like Peyton Manning, has studied his playbook day in and day out, watched hundreds of hours of game film, practiced what he’s learned, and executed the fundamentals heroically on the field with sheer determination.

Well, to become an All Pro Dad, those same principles apply. An All Pro Dad is no ordinary dad. He not only knows the fundamentals but also does whatever it takes to execute them like nobody else. All Pro Dads are All Pro Dads “not because they do anything extraordinary but because they do the ordinary things better than anyone else.”

Hail Mary passes don’t work in fatherhood. Fathering is all about a dad moving the ball forward in his relationship with his child, one yard at a time, day in and day out. At the same time, avoiding major, costly mistakes and turnovers are critical as a man executes his fatherhood game plan. Men who really want to be the best dad they can be – to be All Pro Dads – must study, watch, practice, and ultimately execute the fundamentals of fatherhood – love and leadership – with great purpose and perseverance.

To effectively execute those fundamentals, every father must know these 7 Ms – Makeup, Mind-set, Motive, Method, Model, Message, and Master. Then, and only then, will he be able to expand his capacity to love and, in turn, expand his capacity to lead his children.

In the next seven chapters as we explore these essential 7 Ms, we’ll dig deep to answer some critical questions that will enable us to work toward our goal of becoming an All Pro Dad. The first question we’ll answer in chapter 2 is: Who am I? When we answer this, we’ll know our Makeup – our identity and gifts. As we move the ball down the field in chapter 3, we’ll be challenged to have a new Mind-set as a father. We’ll be handed a new job description and game plan as we consider the question: What’s my purpose? In chapter 4, we’ll discover the answer to: Why do I do what I do? That answer will determine our Motive. Then I’ll share ideas in chapter 5 that will provide us with a practical Method to love and lead our families – How can I better love my family? In chapter 6, we’ll see that each and every father must also know he is a Model. There, we’ll answer: What should I model to my children? Then we’ll discuss knowing our Message in chapter 7. There, we’ll consider the question: What do I need to share with others? As we move toward our goal of becoming an All Pro Dad, we’ll go deep in chapter 8 as we answer: Who or what am I living for? When we answer this, we’ll know our Master.

It is my hope that when you make these 7 Ms your playbook, you will become a loving leader in your home, you will be a hero in your child’s eyes, and you will enjoy renewed and flourishing relationships with your family.

Meet the author:
Mark Merrill

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