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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

Remembering Tunch Ilkin

One winter in the late 1990s I signed up to attend a church men’s retreat at the Lakeview Resort and Conference Center near Morgantown, WVA. While most men love anything that has to do with sports, I’m the exception. I consider myself a “fair weather” sports fan at best, always having had a hard time holding up my end of the conversation when the subject turns to talk of the Pirates, Steelers or Penguins. I become even less conversant when the discussion evolves around college football or heaven forbid, basketball at any level.

So, when I learned that former Pittsburgh Steeler, offensive tackle and two-time Pro Bowl selection, Tunch Ilkin would be facilitating the men’s retreat, I was underwhelmed, to put it mildly. While I certainly don’t hold myself out to be a spiritual giant, I’m sure the stereo type I carried with me about professional athletes being big, dumb, jocks had a great deal to do with my thinking that I couldn’t possibly learn anything about faith from someone of Tunch’s ilk (pun intended). Boy was I wrong!

From the moment Tunch began to share his story…being born in Turkey, immigrating to the United States when he was two years old…playing high school football in Highland Park, IL where he won All Conference and All County honors…receiving an athletic scholarship to Indiana State University…and being drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round of the 1980 NFL Draft I was impressed by his accomplishments.

But when Tunch began to share his faith, I was hooked! While Tunch led his family and friends to Christ during his time on earth and spent years discipling men through his ministry at the South Hills Bible Chapel and his work at Light of Life, a homeless ministry in Pittsburgh – what I’ll remember most about Tunch was his command of scripture.

As the weekend unfolded. Tunch would pepper his comments to the men assembled with bible verses that he had committed to memory. Mind you, this wasn’t just an occasional verse. The verses he shared were too numerous to count and remember as relevant verses would effortlessly roll off his tongue every couple of minutes throughout his discussion with the men assembled. This experience endeared me to Tunch forever and had a profound effect on my own faith journey years later that I would never have anticipated.

Fast forward…in 2000 I signed up for a men’s discipleship program known as CLC – Christian Leadership Concepts. This intensive two-year long program brings 12 men together each week for a two-hour session during which they debrief the curriculum they’ve been studying the previous week. The weekly CLC material includes bible study, fellowship, book study, accountability, and scripture memorization. The weekly preparation is intense and requires a substantial commitment. But the biggest challenge when embarking on the CLC journey is having to commit to memory over 50 bible verses during the two-year program.

Scripture memorization is intimidating for most people, and it certainly was for me until I remembered my experience with Tunch Ilkin and how effortlessly he seemed to be able to quote scripture. And then it came to me…IF TUNCH ILKIN COULD MEMORIZE SCRIPTURE, SO COULD I, and I never looked back.

Thank you Tunch for the encouragement you were to me and so many others who had the privilege of knowing you.

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