Late in the 2001 professional football season, when Nathan Whitaker was the staff lawyer for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he went for a workout one afternoon in the team’s fitness center. On the way, he bumped into the head coach, Tony Dungy, and the encounter was fraught with awkwardness.

With the Bucs headed for a third-place finish at 9-7, rumors swirled that Mr. Dungy would be fired. Mr. Whitaker, in fact, had been assigned confidentially to prepare biographical sketches of the leading candidates to take over.

Yet he had noticed and admired the way Mr. Dungy held fast to his routines. He still drove his children to school many mornings and had them do their homework in his office in the afternoons. He still did regular Bible study with the other coaches. He still left work at 8 p.m. in a profession that expected 24/7 obsession, especially from a coach in trouble.

“I just want to tell you how much I appreciate your witness in the middle of this circus,” Mr. Whitaker recalled saying to the coach that day in 2001, using the Christian term for an example of faith. Mr. Dungy replied, “Sometimes I think God wants there to be a circus so we can show there’s another way to respond.”

In that brief exchange, at a time of adversity rather than triumph, Mr. Whitaker unknowingly embarked upon a writing career that has become a phenomenon in Christian publishing and in the theology known as “muscular Christianity.”

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