football Edit

Autry Denson and his coaching ministry

While becoming Notre Dame's all-time rushing leader during his career with the Fighting Irish from 1995-98, new running backs coach Autry Denson also extended his energy into the community.
Five days a week during the summer he was a volunteer for the National Youth Sports Program, serving as a counselor and mentor for kids ages 9-to-16 while preaching against substance abuse. Later, he also was involved with tutoring. At the time, Denson already was planting the seeds for what he now describes as his coaching ministry.
After a professional football career and several years with Merrill Lynch,
Denson formed a youth program called POISE, an acronym for Perseverance, Opportunity, Intelligence, Sacrifice and Effort. The program helped several hundred teenage student-athletes with everything from Bible study to on-the-field development. It morphed into his approach to football in 2010 when he took the head coaching job for one year at Pope John Paul II High School in Boca Raton, Fla.
"The game has been good to me," Denson said. "I've been blessed to have so many successes, and I've learned so many life lessons from the game of football that it was a natural transition to feel obligated or responsible to give back to the same game that gave so much to me."
After three seasons as an assistant at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona, Fla., Denson served as the running backs coach for 2010-13 Irish assistant Chuck Martin at Miami (Ohio) year before accepting the same position this January at the University of South Florida, where his wife Elaine graduated and where she has family in Tampa. Then the call from Denson's other "home" came.
"From the time I got into coaching, this was my dream job," Denson said. "So I heard it was open [on Feb. 6] and here's the funny thing about it: I heard about it at 1:30 or 2 p.m. and our furniture for the relocation to USF wasn't even getting there until 3:30 p.m. So I had to take a deep breath and say a quick prayer before I approached my wife. I went in with caution, but of course she was excited as well."
He joked he was a "good father" because he had brainwashed all four of his children, ranging in age from 19 to seven, about Notre Dame. Oldest daughter Ashley even is transferring into Indiana University South Bend to be with the family, which is especially touching to her father.
"The expectation always has been Notre Dame, Notre Dame… that's kind of the way it is run in my house," Denson said. "I'm excited for them and I'm excited for her because they get to experience Notre Dame the way I knew it."
His main reluctance was uprooting his high school-aged son, Autry III, who he believes can become a major college cornerback prospect in a couple of years with his current 6-1 frame. Everyone, though, was all in.
"I would not have left Miami (Ohio) if he's not comfortable," Denson said. "They understand that coaching for me is a ministry and they understand the end-all goal. …It is a dream come true. It was something in the back of my mind. Who knew that God was going to speed it up and it happened a lot quicker than I thought. I'm definitely appreciative of it."
Although one of Notre Dame's all-time greats, Denson's coaching experience is limited. When asked what he said in his interview that prompted a previously a skeptical Brian Kelly into immediately canceling meetings with all other candidates as the running back coach, Denson with a sheepish smile replied "I have no idea."
"My philosophy always has been I'm just going to be myself and if that's not good enough then it's just not in the plans and God didn't have it for me," Denson said. "I did my routine, prayed before I went in and talked to my beautiful wife, always my cheerleader."
It was the same approach he took when he was switched to cornerback in August of his freshman year in 1995, prior to a 17-15 loss in the opener versus Northwestern.
"When I got here I planned to be best running back at Notre Dame," Denson said. "After I cried and called my mother, her response was always the same: Let's pray first and understand you went there for a reason. I switched gears and it was like, 'Alright, now I've got to be the best cornerback to ever come out of Notre Dame.'
"Thank God -and I hate to say it - we end up losing to Northwestern, and they ended up moving me back.
"When you talk about being able to relate to guys, there's nothing that they're going to do that I haven't done. … I know what it is to be a Notre Dame running back. That's a lot more than just on the field. There are a lot of other things that go into that that's going to allow them to develop to their full potential."
It's all part of his ministry.