Jonna Chizik: An interview with the wife of a college football coach

We recently had the opportunity to interview Jonna Chizik, wife of Auburn University football coach Gene Chizik. Jonna shares about her and Gene’s dating story (they met as kids!), marriage, faith and experience living in the public eye. Don’t miss her encouraging words for you at the end of the interview!

 Start Marriage Right: What is your dating story and how did you first meet Gene?

Jonna Chizik: “Without realizing it, I met my husband, Gene Chizik, when I was in the second grade. My father was the head football coach of one of our local high schools and Gene happened to be one of his players. To be fair, I have no recollection of this time period, but due to our age difference of almost 8 years, unfortunately for me, Gene has plenty of vivid memories to share. Both Gene and I were raised in Clearwater, Florida near some of the best beaches in the world. Although beautiful, it is also a place where the average temperature in August hovers in the high 90s as football season begins.

Gene distinctly remembers my mother dropping my little brother, sister, and me off at practice to play while our dad coached. It was there where Gene watched a young girl grow up, day after day, never knowing one day she would become his wife. During the next four to five years, Gene went on to receive his degree in education, and eventually ventured back home to teach elementary school and coach football at one of our rival high schools. Unbeknownst to us, our paths continued to cross as I became a varsity cheerleader for my high school. Gene and I were on opposite sidelines where I unknowingly cheered against his team two years in a row.

Isn’t it wonderful to know that we serve a God with a sense of humor and whose timing is exact?”

Finally, in December of 1991, our paths crossed as strangers for the very last time. It was at a local restaurant where Gene introduced himself to me and I recognized his name because of his past connection to my dad. I asked him if he recognized me and the look on his face said all I needed to know. So, I proceeded to properly introduce myself. When I told him that I was Coach Nicely’s daughter his face actually paled. It quickly began to dawn on him that the memory of that sweaty girl in pigtails from long ago was now all grown up. Isn’t it wonderful to know that we serve a God with a sense of humor and whose timing is exact?

From that point forward we began dating and continued to do so for the next four and a half years until we were married in June of 1996.”

SMR: Looking back, do you feel you were adequately prepared for marriage?

JC: Upon honest reflection, I cannot even contemplate how our marriage has survived the breathtaking pace at which we travel through each day. As the years have passed and life has taken its toll on the many marriages around us I have long wondered why certain marriages don’t seem to make it while others manage to survive. I remember as a young girl how I spent hours dreaming of my wedding day and the “knight in shining armor” that would one day “sweep me off my feet.” I realize now how my one dimensional view of marriage was based on the numerous romance novels and fairy tales I devoured growing up, each ending with ‘…and they lived happily ever after.”

It was upon meeting the man of my dreams, the one God specifically designed for me from the beginning of time, and passionately declaring “I DO!” that I began to realize just how perfectly unprepared I really was for the reality of marriage.”

SMR: Marriage—What are some of the challenges that you and Gene face?

JC: “Being the wife of an extremely successful college football coach for almost 20 years has been a whirlwind of fun and outrageous chaos. Within the first three years of marriage, I gave birth to our three children. Since 1996, we have moved to and from five different states. In that time period, we have packed and unpacked 12 different homes. As a coach’s family, we have experienced three perfect football seasons within a span of seven years, and in that time we have been blessed to be a part of two national championship teams.

As a couple, we have weathered life’s extreme highs and lows with equal amounts of success and failure. Because the world we navigate is one of extremes and very little middle ground, we have had to make a conscious decision to remain grounded in God’s truth of who we are as a couple. At times, this can become difficult due to the heightened use of social media and what my husband happens to do for a living. Therefore, we do our best to live “normal” lives in a completely abnormal environment. The life we lead in the world of college football is difficult to explain and articulate to those around us. In fairness, it is no better or worse than anyone else’s life; it’s just different.

SMR: What is life like as the wife of a high profile head coach of a college football team, a mother of three, and an active member of your community?

JC: Our lives are balanced by two extremely opposite worlds. For example, within the past ten years my husband and I have been able to meet the last three presidents of the United States. We have spent time with some of the world’s best athletes, actors and actresses, and have had access to some of the most incredible “behind the scenes” experiences most people only dream about. We have traveled all over the world doing mission work and visiting places that the majority of people just read about. From the world’s perspective and vantage point, we have “made it.” We have reached all-time success, and to be fair, I would have to agree.

However, as a college football coach’s family our incredible blessings can be counterbalanced by much negativity. For example, most everything we say or do is discussed, repeated, blogged about for widespread public consumption, and at times scrutinized. As public individuals, we have very little legal protection when it comes to the media in relation to slander and libelous statements. We attempt to navigate our lives to the best of our ability without much privacy. As a result, we encounter intense public curiosity which can lead to all kinds of unwanted and possibly altered videos and pictures being posted on the internet. As a couple, we are bound by and required to follow thousands of pages of NCAA rules and regulations that dictate what we can and cannot do on and off the field as private citizens.

 Without Christ at the center of everything we do we would have nothing.”

My husband has actually received death threats and, on occasion, we have had our property vandalized. Because of what their daddy does for a living, our children have been harassed, embarrassed, and have had grown adults subject them to other outrageous behavior. Like everybody else, Gene and I do our best to live our lives with integrity as a married couple, parents, and productive citizens in our community, but without Christ at the center of everything we do we would have nothing.

SMR: Is there anything you and Gene do to help keep God at the center of your marriage?

JC: “In striving to balance our “normal” day in and day out reality, we seek to stay in the center of God’s will for our lives as a couple and as individuals. We have had to make a conscious decision to disregard the world’s definition of truth and success because it is fleeting and ever changing. Therefore, our identity can’t be defined by numbers on a scoreboard, championship wins, the media’s opinion or any other outside influence. Rather, we seek to concentrate on the ministry that God has placed upon us. It is our goal each day to be servants to those around us and to speak godly truth into the lives of 17-22 year old boys who have the privilege of playing college football.”

SMR: Are there any final thoughts or words of encouragement you’d like to give to our readers []?

JC: They always say hindsight is 20/20 and at the age of 43 I wish I knew now what I didn’t have a clue about then. I have come to realize that a marriage cannot be defined by mere words on a piece of paper nor can it be defined by merely saying the words “till death do us part.” The dictionary defines the word, “marriage” (a noun) as a formal union of a man and a woman. Though, in my humble experience, I have come to realize that marriage is actually a verb best defined as an ongoing experience. It is an evolution and it is completely unique for each couple. It is within the reality of marriage that a couple must try to make sense of a lot of incredibly confusing dynamics. The confusion is based on the various curveballs life throws at every couple as they press forward.

Together, we have discovered that a successful marriage is learning to be “ok” when the passion we feel for each other naturally ebbs and flows.”

For a couple to be successful within the confines of a marriage they must acknowledge that a perfect marriage does not exist because a marriage requires two fallible human beings to selflessly come together as “ONE.” It is in striving to come together as “ONE” that Gene and I have discovered the delicate balance between our innate desire for independence and marriage’s need for interdependence. Together, we have discovered that a successful marriage is learning to be “ok” when the passion we feel for each other naturally ebbs and flows. It is finding the courage to “hold on” when life takes its toll and the world gives us permission to “let go.” It is in experiencing these ups and downs that we have received the incredible gift of finding out that not only did we marry our soul mate but also our best friend.”

Gene and Jonna Chizik have lived most of their married life in the world of College Football. In January 2011 Gene coached the Auburn Tigers football team to the NCAA Bowl Championship Series delivering to Auburn it’s first national championship in over 50 years. From the couple’s humble beginnings at Middle Tennessee State University, they went on to serve at such schools as Stephen F Austin University, University of Central Florida, a first tour-of-duty at Auburn, then to the University of Texas, and finally to Iowa State and Auburn. While Gene lived a public life, Jonna stayed behind the scenes, praying for her husband and serving the communities in which they lived. Together, they impacted people’s lives both on and off the football field.

The Chiziks have been married for 14 years, and have three children: Landry, Kennedy and Cally. While the 2010 season was one for the ages, it was really a culmination of many years of both personal and professional highs and lows. The story of that journey, and the hope that God brought to the Chiziks through it all, is the subject of their first book, released in fall 2011.

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