Gearing up for fall semester requires a different set of responsibilities for David Klingler in 2021 than it did thirty years ago. The 52-year-old is currently busy fine-tuning a book manuscript and preparing to head up the doctoral program in the Bible Department of Dallas Theological Seminary. For the past twenty years, his life has been that of a Bible scholar.
But in 1991, Klingler was the record-breaking quarterback for the University of Houston, as well as the cover boy of that year’s Sports Illustrated college football preview issue. As his fellow students moved into dorms and rushed frats and sororities, Klingler was forcing a smile and gripping a bundle of dynamite for the camera.
The issue paired that ammo-packed image with the headline “Bombs Away! Houston’s David Klingler Ignites the Nation’s Most Explosive Offense.” For an athlete, especially in the pre-internet early nineties, landing on the cover of SI was akin to a band gracing the cover of Rolling Stone. The distinction was arguably every bit as prestigious as his fifth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting the previous season.
Looking back, Klingler says he wasn’t fazed by the glamour of posing for a magazine cover. Instead, he recalls the nuisance of the photo shoot.
“Oh, I remember it well,” he says, flanked by his two German shepherds in his Houston-area home. “Mainly because it took so long. It was ridiculous, really. We found out later they [Sports Illustrated] weren’t happy with the pictures and wanted to come back and shoot again, and I told them, ‘I’m not doing it. Put somebody else on the cover, I don’t care.’”
The memory may sound like a revisionist humility, but Klingler didn’t seem all too interested in personal glory back then, either. In the article, Klingler is asked about his Heisman Trophy chances in the upcoming season, and he answers like a young man acutely disinterested in seeking the hosannas of others.
“People think it’s going to hurt me if they vote against me,” he told the magazine. “But I don’t care who they vote for. The Heisman’s just a doorstop that’s going to end up gathering dust on somebody’s floor.”
These comments ring true when you review Klingler’s path from gun-slinging quarterback to verse-quoting professor of Old Testament history.
The 1991 season wound up being a disappointment for the Houston Cougars, but it was another stellar year statistically for Klingler, who finished his college career as the holder of dozens of NCAA and school records. In 1992, he was taken as the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that had an aging star quarterback in Boomer Esiason.
Klingler says that because he had “always been low-key,” the Queen City was a good fit for him, though the Bengals were a dysfunctional franchise during his time in Cincinnati. The team was going through a transition in ownership following the death of longtime leader Paul Brown, while also adjusting to new head coach Dave Shula.
Even in the early days of his pro football career, it’s hard to imagine Klingler ever felt all that optimistic about his NFL future. He managed to earn a bit of playing time his rookie year, then was named the starter after Esiason was traded away before the 1993 season. But severe injuries, including a torn trapezoid, sprained knee, and even a broken jaw, not to mention being surrounded by a cellar-dwelling roster, would prove to be career extinguishers.
After his play in Houston had inspired pyrotechnic metaphors, his fireworks proved to be duds in Cincinnati, where the team went 4–20 with Klingler starting before Jeff Blake was promoted over him midway through the 1994 season. Klingler spent the next two years as a backup with the Oakland Raiders, but saw the field only twice in that span. He retired before the 1998 season, after the Green Bay Packers cut him during the offseason. Klingler has some warm memories of relationships he formed with teammates and coaches, but he remembers his time on the field time less fondly.
“It was open season on the quarterback back then,” he says. “What they call targeting now was just called tackling when I played.”
In his final years, Klingler was approached more than once about becoming a coach after he’d finished playing. Then, only in his late twenties, the same grounded, practical mindset that had long guided him led Klingler away from a common route for aging pro athletes.
“I could count the number of coaches I knew who were still married on one hand,” he says. “I remember talking to Joe Bugel when I was with the Raiders. He had told me if I was ever interested in coaching to let him know and he would have a spot for me. I asked him if he had any regrets about his years as a coach, and I still remember it clearly, he didn’t look up and he seemed emotional thinking about his answer. He said, ‘I do. I went in to kiss my son goodnight one night and out of nowhere, he was suddenly sixteen years old.’”
Klingler and his wife, Katie, had a toddler at home, and he let the coach know he wasn’t going to take any such risks of feeling the same type of regret. Whatever he did next, he wanted to be near his family, and that took coaching off the table.
“I wanted to go back to my ranch in Texas, ride horses, and put a sign on the gate that said, ‘Do Not Disturb,’” he says, with only a slight chuckle.
In college, Klingler took his business and marketing classes seriously, earning his degree in 1991. He had grown up poor in Houston, and his NFL earnings, mixed with sound financial decisions, meant he would never be poor again. As a young retiree, he had the time and resources to pursue something that meant more to him than football ever had.
During the offseason following his rookie year, Klingler and his wife attended a summer Bible study hosted by members of the Houston Oilers. Pastor and Christian book author Voddie Baucham led the class that night, and Klingler made a point to meet him afterward.
“Voddie and I got to talking,” Klingler says. “And he told me, ‘Man, you got to quit football and go to seminary,’ which I really didn’t give a second thought to at the point. I mean, who says that?”
Klingler suspects that Baucham recognized his curiosity about all things related to the Bible, and the two stayed in touch. When Klingler was adjusting to post-NFL life, the minister prodded him again about seminary, and this time Klingler answered the call. In 2000, he enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary’s Houston campus.
“I didn’t really have any grand plan,” Klingler says. “I just wanted to know the Bible. I wasn’t planning on being a pastor or a professor or anything like that. Everyone has their own opinions on what the Bible means or what it’s about, and I wanted to know more.”
During his first semester, while enrolled in a class titled “Genesis to Judges,” Klingler came home one day and told Katie how the professor, Charles Baylis, had inspired him: “I want to know the Bible like him, and if that takes a PhD, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Klingler attacked his coursework the way a rookie dives into a new playbook. In 2004, he received his master’s in theology and began working as an adjunct professor, teaching Hebrew for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Houston campus. The quarterback turned educator immediately enrolled in the PhD program at DTS for Old Testament studies.
Once he’d earned his doctorate in 2010, Klingler was named executive director of the DTS Houston campus. Instead of hollering play calls, he had learned to speak eight languages, including Aramaic, Latin, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac.
He doesn’t keep up with today’s NFL, but football remains close to his everyday life. He stays in touch with some former teammates, including Andre Ware, Klingler’s Heisman-winning predecessor at Houston. His two sons, Luke and James, both now in their twenties, have grown up loving the sport. Luke, the oldest of the two, even spent a brief moment in his father’s shadow, when he spent the 2015 college football season as a redshirt freshman quarterback for the Cougars.
At DTS, new faculty members and incoming students rarely recognize Klingler as the athlete who once ruled the Astrodome and grabbed national headlines as the quarterback helming Jack Pardee’s run-and-shoot offense. Around campus, Klingler is known as what his title says: associate professor of Bible exposition.
When asked about his sporting past, he says it’s hard for people to believe he isn’t that interested in watching football anymore. “My wife likes watching football, but I don’t,” he says. “I don’t know why. I tell people that for me, watching football would be like an accountant that still goes to CPA seminars after they retire.”
A decade after his final NFL snap, Klingler again found himself in the pages of Sports Illustrated—this time, in the magazine’s 2007 “Where Are They Now” issue. At the time, he had begun working on his dissertation, which he completed in 2009. Now he’s revising the manuscript for commercial publication, which he acknowledges is unlikely to attract quite as much fanfare as his record-setting college football career once did.
“It’s on literary allusion and how it works in the Bible,” he says. “So, you know, a real snoozer.” Although Klingler’s brief but spectacular football career turned out to be something of a passing phase, his second act has long since become his life’s work. “It’s always been a pursuit to learn the Bible,” he says with a laugh. “And after twenty years, I think I’m starting to get a handle on at least a small part of it.”