A new playbook: From NFL player to missionary dentist

Dressed in his work clothes, the bespectacled doctor looks not at all like the curly haired player who once roamed in the defensive backfield of the NFL’s Chicago Bears.

Dr. Terry Schmidt’s office is tucked away down a maze of hallways on the third floor of a place called Building 77. It’s nearly hidden among other buildings on the grounds of the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Johnson City, Tennessee.

A humble spot, it’s much like the doctor himself, who would seem to command a larger space as the chief of dental services for the VA hospital. Thirty-two years have passed since Schmidt retired from football. Maybe one year too soon, he laughs.

Schmidt was a defensive back in 1984 for the Bears. With Mike Ditka as head coach, and Buddy Ryan as the fiery defensive coordinator, the Bears went to the NFC Championship that year, losing to the Washington Redskins. Schmidt once remarked to teammate Brian Baschnagel, “What if we retire and the Bears win the Super Bowl next year?”

That is exactly what happened. In 1985, Chicago beat New England to win the Super Bowl.

But it was far from being the end of the world for Schmidt, even though football had always been his life.

Growing up in Columbus, he went on to be an All-American at Ball State University. After graduation, he was drafted by the New Orleans Saints in 1974 and played 11 years in the NFL, the last nine with the Bears. But in the back of his mind, he had always wanted to be a dentist.

“I’ve always planned on being a dentist,” he says. “My mother was a nurse. I enjoyed health care; I knew several physicians and several dentists growing up.”

To prepare for his transition, Schmidt began taking classes in the offseason, and after his retirement in 1984 he moved on to the Loyola University of Chicago Dental School, eventually graduating first in his class.

It would seem he was prepared for the second half of his plans, but the real transition for Schmidt and his wife Nancy came years later at an Amway convention. The two of them attended a Sunday morning service.

At the service, the speaker said, “If you were to die today, are you 100 percent sure you would go to heaven?”

And as Schmidt says, “I couldn’t answer that question, not in the positive.” The invitation was given and Schmidt and his wife went forward and into a new life with a new perspective.

As their lives began to change with this new outlook, Schmidt said he realized the need to use his talents for the Lord in a new way. He began to go on mission trips in places dentists rarely visited.

Schmidt tells the story this way: “As soon as we became new believers, we began to attend a small church in Chicago. The senior pastor had been a missionary in Panama for 25 years. Every year, this small church did a mission trip to Guatemala to do construction projects. I called up the leader and said, ‘I’m a new believer, and I’ve thought about doing missionary dental work. Would you like to have a dentist go along?’”

The leader thought it was a great idea, and it opened new horizons for Dr. Schmidt. Since that time, he and his wife have gone on more than 30 missionary trips, combining his dental skills with evangelism, sometimes seeing hundreds of patients in a short span.

His trips, under the auspices of a group called Christians for Worldwide Evangelism, have taken him to a number of Third World countries in Central and South America, and in Africa. His most recent trip in 2015 took him to the African nation of Togo, but his most exciting trip may have come years earlier.

Schmidt went by boat down the Amazon River, stopping along the way to treat and minister to people in small villages cut out of the jungle.

Now in his later years, Schmidt is considering using his retirement years to do even more. He has connections with a clinic in Togo and would like to spend months there treating patients and spreading the gospel. Through the years, the doctor’s faith has grown tremendously. He admits that in his playing days, he was not affected by Christian players around him such as Mike Singletary or Brian Cabral, but he now places his entire life in God’s hands.

His favorite verse comes from Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith and this, not from yourselves. It is the gift of God, not by works, so that no man could boast.”

It has been a tremendous journey for the former Bears cornerback, who still keeps an eye on his favorite team.

“When people ask,” he says, “I still bleed navy blue and orange.”

Columbus’ Tom Rust is founder of the national Face To Face sports ministry, a local radio sports broadcaster and pastor of Sardinia Baptist Church. He can be reached at faceit@face-2-face.org.