The Personal Impact of Tunch Ilkin
Me: What's up, Tunch? How are ya, man?
Tunch: I'm blessed, brother. More than I deserve.
This was Tunch's typical response to me when I saw him around the Steelers practice facility or on the sidelines before a game. He'd follow it with a great big hand shake that led into a giant hug. He took me under his wing, quite literally.
In July 2019, I left my role as a Pastor of North Way Christian Community's Wexford Campus to become the Pittsburgh Steelers Chaplain through Athletes in Action. I reported to Training Camp at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, PA not knowing how any of this was going to go. After leaving my luggage in the dorm lobby, I walked into the camp office, introduced myself and realized I didn't have a room...yet. Some calls were made, and quickly I was given a key and credentials. I kissed my wife goodbye, got unpacked in my room and nervously wandered around the campus, not knowing anyone.
Then I saw Tunch and Wolf (Craig Wolfley)! I recognized them right away. Not only had I grown up watching them play and later heard them announce the Steelers game, but I watched their ministry with the men of the Bible Chapel and Light of Life Rescue Mission from a distance. I had a few small conversations with them during Mini Camp, but I didn't imagine that they would remember me while I was in the interview process for the Chaplain position. But sure enough, Tunch remembered me and gave me a huge hug. He took me under his wing, quite literally.
Throughout that Training Camp, Tunch would include me. He introduced me to people. He made sure that people knew I was the Team Chaplain. He let me sit at their lunch/dinner table. I got to hear hilarious and profound stories as he and Wolf recounted "back in our day" differences of the NFL. Then Tunch invited me into something a little deeper.
A week or so into camp, Tunch invited me to smoke a cigar with him. Here's the thing...To smoke a cigar with Tunch Ilkin was a deep spiritual experience. I know that sounds weird, but if you've had the privilege, you know exactly what I mean. Tunch had a way of taking a guy to church as he slowly puffed on that stogie.
During that first cigar conversation with Tunch, he told me how different players back in the day told him about Jesus. He told me about the impact of Hollis Haff, the Steelers Chaplain back when he played. He told me his story of how he became a follower of Jesus Christ. He then sat forward in his chair, and with specific intentionality, he said, "Kent, God brought you here for such a time as this, and I'm glad that He chose you to be in this role. You're going to do great. Just be yourself."
I think Tunch knew how much I needed to hear that. That encouragement came at perfect time because while I was excited to begin this journey, the newness and the unknown was daunting. In the quietness of my dorm room late at night, I was questioning the jump from 22 years of local church ministry into this incredible sports ministry adventure with my childhood team. To leave a secure pastoral position at my church to join Athletes in Action was crazy! Many people told Erica and me to rethink our decision, but Tunch's encouragement was timed perfectly. Tunch took me under his spiritual wing, and I needed him and those words more than I realized. Especially in the days that immediately followed.
On August 11, 2019, Steelers Wide Receivers Coach, Daryl Drake, died suddenly at Training Camp. I got the call early that morning from Coach Tomlin that he wanted me to address the team. I did. Shortly after, it was decided that I would take the lead in Coach Drake's memorial service later that afternoon for the coaches, players, front office and staff. I was freaking out, but once again, Tunch encouraged me. "You got this, Kent. God's got this." Again, he took me under his wing.
Tunch Ilkin is the epitome of encouragement. Over these past two years with the Steelers, he purposefully took me under his wing, like he did with so many others. Whether it was with a humble greeting or a giant hug. Whether it was with a hilarious story or purposeful introduction. Whether it was with his smile or deeply profound and specifically chosen words, Tunch Ilkin had a way of encouraging me (and many others) throughout this journey. Even when he was diagnosed with ALS last year, he still texted me and when I got to see him, he would whisper in my ear "Love ya, buddy" as he gave me huge hugs, again taking me under his wing.
Steelers Nation, the Steelers organization and countless others are blessed to have known and have been influenced by Tunch Ilkin. Cherish the memories and explore what made this man so special to everyone.
I have been blessed, more than I deserve, to know Tunch.
Love ya, brother. Thanks for taking me under your wing. See you soon.