As a veteran college-football coach, Tony Pierce was used to figuring out problems. But he faced a new challenge when one player, Ronald "Rock" Dillon, told him he was aching because his dad wasn't around. Mr. Pierce made a life-changing decision: He gave Mr. Dillon's father a call.
"I knew I couldn't let him hear my anger and frustration," says Pierce, assistant head football coach and defensive coordinator for Alabama State University in Montgomery. "So I just said, 'Your son seems really down because he hasn't seen you in a while.' "
The young man's father, Ronald Stephenson, says hearing those words went deep. Mr. Stephenson, who had been in and out of prison, knew he had made mistakes. "It had gotten to the point where I almost gave up" contacting Rock, he says.
Right then, Stephenson made a commitment to be a better dad. That call changed Pierce, too. He realized those without devoted fathers didn't need mentors or advice. They needed their dads.
And so in 2003, Fathers in Touch was born – Pierce's organization aimed at reconnecting dads with their children of all ages. It's part of a growing movement to help more fathers be there – physically and emotionally – for their kids.
Pierce, himself a husband and father of three, has reunited more than two dozen dads with their children.
"Talking to Coach helped me give [my dad] a chance," says Dillon, a former player for the Charleston Sand Sharks arena football team who now talks to his father a few times a week. "I guess I was so mad because I loved him so much."
Of course, there are many good dads, Pierce notes. But the fatherhood issue he and others are tackling has grown dire. In 1960, 17 percent of children lived apart from their biological dads at any one time, says David Popenoe, author of "Life Without Father." Today, that rate has doubled, he says.
"Back in 1960, there were more fathers living with their children than probably at any other time in history, because of low death rates and high marriage rates," says Mr. Popenoe, who is co-director of the National Marriage Project. "Now we're almost at the opposite of that extreme."
The decline of marriage is one important reason that the number of father-absent homes is swelling, he says: "People are divorcing in large numbers and, even more importantly, having children out of wedlock."
In the 1990s, the nation started paying attention to the influence dads have on the family, says Roland Warren, president of National Fatherhood Initiative. "People found there was a link between some of the most intractable social ills and whether a child was growing up with a committed dad in their lives," he says.
As awareness began to grow about the issue, so did organizations to tackle the problem. Pierce's program is among those that aim to bring comfort and healing.
"What Tony is doing is trying to prepare men to reconnect with their fathers and deal with those father-wounds, even if their father is in the grave," says Carey Casey, CEO of the National Center for Fathering. "We identify what's wrong and say, 'Here's how you fix it,' " adds Mr. Casey, who has known Pierce since he was a high school coach.
According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, thousands of programs around the country – in sectors as diverse as business, faith, the military, corrections, and healthcare – help dads be the best they can be. Some programs focus on helping men who have young children be stronger dads.
But the way Fathers in Touch restores relationships by asking fathers to return to an adult son's or daughter's life is more unusual. In fact, it's the only such program that staff members at the National Fatherhood Initiative have heard of.
"This kind of program is very important," Mr. Warren says. "It's difficult to be what you don't see. Your history is linked to your legacy."
How Pierce's father played a role
The idea for Fathers in Touch has been growing all of Pierce's life, he says. His parents divorced when he was 7. Pierce is proud of the way his dad stayed involved with him and his siblings: He picked them up every weekend and took them to movies and the park and to visit family. But as he looks back, Pierce considers ways his dad struggled, too: Sometimes he drank too much and disciplined them too little.
As an adult, Pierce learned where those imperfections came from. "My father told me his dad left when he was 3," he says. "A light bulb went off in my head: There are some fathers who don't know how to be dads."
After Pierce made that phone call to Dillon's dad, he dug deeper into the father-absence issue, reading books and combing the Internet for data. He thought about his own players – how those who grew up with a dad tended to do better academically and managed their emotions better.
"I met pastors and judges whose fathers had abandoned them," he says. "There were people in their 50s and 60s who were still hurting. I thought, 'Why is our society afraid to call up a dad and say, "What are you doing? Your child is hurting. Why aren't you there?" ' "
Once his program launched, Pierce spoke on radio shows and at churches. As his message spread, he got calls from single moms asking for help bringing fathers back into their children's lives and from sons and daughters who needed healing.
"These are not men who are going to show up at a seminar," he says. "They must be reached one at a time."
When Pierce connects with out-of-touch fathers, he tries to use a nonjudgmental voice. After listening to the reasons they dropped out of their children's lives, he offers solutions. Most men thank him for helping, he says.
His mission has drawn support from both everyday people and prominent figures.
"I've seen fathers basically disappear from the American family," says Bill Curry, an analyst for ESPN. He admits that he fell into that trap, too.
"My wife did a great job of raising our kids," Mr. Curry says. "I was out coaching football, working 80 hours a week, thinking I was a hero. But you're not a hero if you're not there for your kids. Fathers in Touch was the first program I saw that addressed that issue head-on."
Pierce is moved by how freely people pitch in to help his mission. He has no full-time staff, but there are about 40 volunteers. Dedicated fathers mentor ones who are struggling. People donate money and resources so he can host bonding activities like bowling nights for dads and children. He's held about a dozen events so far and has spoken about Fathers in Touch at least 20 times at places like churches and clubs.
The organization is based in Alabama, but its work has spread to Georgia and New Jersey, and it's started planting seeds in West Virginia. Pierce uses the operating budget of about $10,000 a year to pay for printing brochures and other materials. Since the program is growing, he hopes the budget will soon include hiring full-time staff.
One dad's testimony about change
A new Fathers in Touch ally is Wiley Lucas, dad of wide receiver Chad Lucas of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The elder Mr. Lucas, who will be one of the organization's spokesmen, has the kind of testimony fathers need to hear, Pierce says.
Lucas, who left his family when his son was about 9, says his battle with addiction led to his incarceration. In the nine months he spent in jail, Lucas saw firsthand what would happen if he stayed out of his son's life.
"These guys were 16, 17 years old, and they wanted to jump on me," he says. "They called me old man. They were very disrespectful to male authority. It stuck out to me that there was no man in the home."
Lucas wrote his son letters telling him how much he loved him. He sent half of his prison income home. "I made a vow to get back into Chad's life," he says.
He returned when Chad was a teen, and he became a coach to his son's football team. He also taught technology education at Chad's school. His son embraced him, he says.
"I can't take back what I did," says Lucas, who speaks to his son daily. "But I can be the best dad I can."
It's the possibility of turnarounds like this that make Pierce determined to help. "When I hear a child say, 'Coach, he called me last week' – when I hear that hope in their voice, that's the greatest gift," he says. "If Dad was strong enough to make that first contact, he's strong enough to stick around."