This issue features stories on Texas A&M head basketball coach Billy Kennedy and Spain Park High School star baseball player Hunter Dawson. We also have closeups on Chicago Bears quarterback Josh McCown, Houston Texas quarterback Case Keenum, New York Giants safety Ryan Mundy, Baylor University men’s basketball guard Brady Heslip and Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant. Our columns also touch on a variety of issues. Managing editor Brett Honeycutt writes about Johnny Manziel and humility in his column “Airing It Out,” and staff writer Stephen Copeland writes about former NCAA men’s basketball coach Dave Bliss and grace in his column “Another Angle.”
From the backup quarterback in the NFL to high school quarterbacks coach to starting quarterback in the NFL, Josh McCown has taken the unconventional route back to pro football.
But he was ready for whatever God had for him.
“There are paths that cross in your life that are out there; you don’t even know they are coming,” he said in a My Story video by the ministry, The Increase. “What are you going to do when you get them? And are you going to join God in His mission or are you just going to miss or are you going to be so consumed with what (you have) going on that (you) miss what you can do with Him?”
McCown’s career began in 2002 with the Arizona Cardinals, but he has never played a full season. After getting in only two games in 2008 and one game in 2009 (both seasons with the Carolina Panthers), he played in the United Football League in 2010 with the Hartford Colonials and had the league’s highest passer rating.
No NFL team came calling, though.
“My prayer and my desire was to be in the locker room, so I go through that whole offseason and, again, the phone doesn’t ring,” McCown said in the My Story video. “So, I said, you know what, I’ve got to do something besides sit on my hands and wait; I need to get out there and serve.”
He volunteered to coach quarterbacks at Marvin Ridge High School, just outside of Charlotte, N.C.
“That was one of the biggest blessings I’ve ever had,” he said of his time there in 2011 and 2012.
Just after the 2011 high school season ended in a playoff run in November, Chicago called McCown because of an injury to starter Jay Cutler.
McCown played three games near the end of that season, but returned to Marvin Ridge to coach quarterbacks in 2012 after being cut again.
Once again, Chicago called in November and signed McCown as a backup because of another injury to Cutler. Although McCown didn’t play that season, he started this season as a backup with Chicago and took over the starting job about midway through this season because of another injury to Cutler.
“We get scarred and we get hurt because what we expected did not happen,” McCown said. “When I sit in my quiet moments, I say I want to please God, my heart is to please God, and there’s gotta be faith involved, and there’s gotta be things and elements in my life where I can’t see what’s coming next. If anything, it has encouraged me to push myself in those moments as much as I can.”
By Brett Honeycutt
Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor at Sports Spectrum magazine. This story was published in the November 2013 DigiMag.
There was a time when Baylor University senior guard Brady Heslip’s lifelong dream of playing college basketball was on the fringes.
Heslip, considered one of the best three-point shooters in NCAA Division I basketball, transferred from Boston College to Baylor in June of 2010 after then-Boston College head coach Al Skinner was fired. This led Heslip—the Burlington, Ontario, native—from the east coast to central Texas.
Forced to sit out a year, Heslip’s future, once certain in Boston, was now in question. What made his future more in question, Heslip knew, was his physical shape.
“I was overweight, that’s just plain and simple what it was,” Heslip told The (Toronto) Globe and Mail.
Heslip was a kid, and he ate like one and lived like one. He liked junk food. He didn’t take the best care of his body. But he knew he needed to change if he wanted a chance to play at the NCAA Division I level and accomplish his dreams. And what better time to change than his year off after arriving in Waco?
During his year off, Heslip changed his workout habits. He changed his diet. He dropped 24 pounds. He got serious. A year later, he was the talk of the NCAA tournament when he scored 27 points on 9-of-12 three-point shooting in Baylor’s victory against Colorado in the second round.
“He’s always been able to shoot the lights out,” says Jacob Neubert, who was a senior on last year’s Baylor team. “His work ethic is incredible. His physical shape, from when he got here, to the end of that first year, was so much different. He got faster. He got stronger.”
Heslip’s work ethic during his year off put him in position to excel on the basketball floor; but something else happened that year that put him in position to excel in life. The spiritual environment on Baylor head coach Scott Drew’s team would end up being exactly what Heslip needed.
“Coach Drew just always talked about winning in life,” Heslip says. “And he always tells us that it doesn’t matter if we didn’t win a single game; the way we all win in life is accepting Jesus in our lives and knowing we will go to heaven so we will spend eternity together in heaven.
“I just wanted a new direction. I wanted to accept Jesus and know for sure I would go to heaven and spend eternity in heaven. Not that my lifestyle was crazy, but I wasn’t doing all the right things…I’m not saying I’m perfect now, but I’ve come to understand the right way.”
For several years, Heslip was curious about religion. He came from a Catholic household; but in Canada, Heslip says, faith wasn’t as ingrained in the culture as, say, a Baylor University.
In December of 2008, he asked his father for a Bible. He had a longing to pray, and he would read the Bible with a curious heart and mind.
“I went to Boston College for my first year, prayed when I was up there, and ended transferring to Baylor,” Heslip recalls. “I believe God was doing works in my life to land me at a place like Baylor. I think that was all part of His plan.”
It was a year of waiting at Baylor University that not only helped make him the player he is today, but also made him the person he is today.
“It just reassures that God really does have a plan for all of our lives,” Heslip says. “If you pray about it and want to learn about it and want to get to know Him, He will do works for you. He will speak to you, sometimes indirectly, and just show that He really does have your back, and He is looking out for you. He will put you in places you need to be, and as long as you stay close to Him and try to grow in Him, He will work for you.”
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine. This story was published in the November 2013 DigiMag.
Oklahoma City Thunder star Kevin Durant and his mentor, Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz, recently dropped by Lifechurch.tv for an interview with pastor Craig Groeschel.
Durant and Lentz talked about their friendship and answered questions from Groeschel about growing spiritually. Durant also talked about the importance of leaving a legacy.
“I want to be known for serving people,” Durant says. “When people see me, they think I deserve something. I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve to be put in the front of the line at the movies or get a free meal, I don’t deserve anything. I think for me, I just wanna go up to people and impact their lives. Whether it’s from me inspiring them from playing basketball or just going up and asking them how their family is doing, that’s what I want to be known as.
“Also, a legacy changer. I didn’t grow up with my dad in the household, and one of my main goals in life is to become a great dad; somebody that their kids can wake up to everyday and be a great husband. So hopefully I can accomplish those goals.”
This story was published in the November 2013 DigiMag.
The Houston Texans have seemingly had a revolving door at quarterback this season, but it has benefited Case Keenum, one of college football’s most prolific passers in history.
For Keenum, though, the journey from top to bottom to the top again has been quick and quirky.
A year after he rewrote the NCAA record books while playing quarterback at the University of Houston, he went undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft before signing with the Houston Texans as a free agent.
But for Keenum, the NCAA’s all-time record holder in total passing yards (19,217), touchdowns (155), and completions (1,546), as well as the Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time leader in total offense (20,114), he had to deal with life away from the game while still being part of the team – because he only made the Texans’ practice squad and never saw the field during the 2012 NFL season.
So the adjustment to the NFL was all about playing time; he didn’t have to worry about getting acquainted to life in a new city.
Something has given him peace in difficult times like this, especially when he went through season-ending injuries in college.
“One of my favorite Bible verses is Isaiah 40:31 which says ‘those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’ To me, that’s a great verse to apply not just to sports, but to life off the field as well,” he said.
This season, though, has been different than 2012. He made the Houston Texans’ 53-man roster and worked his way from third-string quarterback to starter before the halfway mark of the 16-game season.
With the Texans in a slump and the team struggling at quarterback, Keenum moved to the starting role in Week 7 (besides starting quarterback Matt Schaub dealing with an injury, Schaub and backup T.J. Yates have struggled with their on-field performance).
Victories, though, have been elusive, despite Keenum putting up some of the best performances by a Houston quarterback this season.
Though the pressure to win can be enormous, Keenum realizes the pressures off the field can be greater.
“There’s a lot of pressures that the game puts on you and I’ve certainly gone through every young man’s battle in regard to dating and other temptations that the world is always throwing at you,” said Keenum, who married Kimberly Caddell in June, 2011. “As an athlete, you always have a bullseye on your back. People are always wanting things from you, and it seems that there’s always temptations around the corner. And I know that those temptations will always be around. I’ll have them now and even after I’m older…and out of football.
“But the other side of that is that we have a God that loves us and will never forsake us. He’s always with us, even in the midst of our greatest temptations. And I find that, when I focus on Him, instead of the temptations that I’m faced with, the lure of those temptations begin to fade and I’m able to overcome them.”
By Brett Honeycutt
Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine. This story was published in the November 2013 DigiMag.
Ryan Mundy reminds us to make the most of every situation, even if the situation isn’t ideal.
Mundy was leading the New York Giants in tackles (42) and had a momentous 91-yard return off an interception (in the Giants’ first game against Dallas) before hurting his hip late in the game against Minnesota on Oct. 22.
That resulted in being replaced by strong safety Will Hill, who the Giants believe to be better in coverage. Mundy never got his starting role back.
“It’s really frustrating and disappointing,” Mundy told nj.com. “I was leading the team in tackles. I was productive. But at the same time, we still have a lot of games to play. This is bigger than me. We’re making a playoff push right now. I don’t want to be a distraction.”
Now, Mundy is playing on special teams for the Giants. Though it’s not where he feels he should be, Mundy came up with a big-time play in the Giants’ 27-13 victory over the Packers in November, when he recognized that the Packers were about to attempt a fake punt and he changed the defense.
“They (the Packers) tried to sneak one in,” Mundy continues. “I knew (John) Kuhn was the punt protector on every other punt and then they had somebody else back there.
“They put (Kuhn) on the wing. I’m thinking that this guy is a great blocker so they might be trying to get something on the edge.”
Though Mundy isn’t playing the position he believes he should be playing, his faith allows him to view the situation from a lens outside of his circumstances.
“Faith is something that is very important to me and has gotten me through some pretty rough times,” Mundy says in a promotional video for the Super Bowl Gospel Celebration at the upcoming Super Bowl. “My road to get to the NFL wasn’t the easiest. I had to transfer schools and I went through some tough situations, but I made it through. My faith was the number one thing that kept me motivated, kept me inspired, kept me going when I was down, because, like I said, I had a lot of rough times, but my faith pulled me through.”
And it continues to do so.
This story was published in the November 2013 DigiMag.
I’m not sure when I started calling you “Coach.” It just kind of happened. I suppose it’s fitting since that’s what you are—from your assistant coaching days under Bob Knight at West Point and Indiana; to your head coaching days at Oklahoma, SMU, New Mexico and Baylor; and even now as the athletic director at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas.
You’re a coach. And you have 500 NCAA victories to prove it.
But I also think I started calling you “Coach” because of how you’ve coached me. As I reflect on my week-long visit with you in Texas last month, I find it remarkable how a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old kid can connect so well. You’re old enough to be my grandfather, but I feel like we were in the same fraternity. I suppose that’s the way it should be in the body of Christ.
I wanted to write you a letter because I know how much you like letters. As we spent hours sifting through boxes upon boxes of 36 years worth of your dust-covered coaching memories, I saw plenty of letters. Many were written to you after the scandal unfolded at Baylor in 2003 and the NCAA slapped you with a 10-year coaching ban, one of the harshest penalties in college basketball history.
I believe you saved the letters because of how much they meant to you. They breathed life into you. They kept you afloat when your career and everything you had built in three respected decades of coaching came tumbling down. You were broken over your sin—how you illegally paid for two scholarships out of your own pocket and an unrelated murder between two of your players brought your deception to the surface—and you fled from Waco, Texas, to Denver, Colo., trying to escape from all you had done.
Each letter of encouragement you received in Denver, whether it was from Baylor president Robert Sloan or Bob Knight’s ghostwriter Bob Hammel, was much more than a letter. It was a droplet of grace, a sealed, stamped envelope with a reminder of God’s love inside.
I’ve told you this before, but the only difference between your sins and mine are that my sins aren’t all over SportsCenter. I believe we’ve all looked in the mirror and didn’t like the person staring back at us. And sometimes that causes us to do crazy things, like buy nice clothes or puke in the toilet or read the Bible more, thinking we can do something to fix it—when really, all along, God is just asking us to open the envelope He has individually addressed to each one of us and remove a letter that reads, “I love you more than you can ever imagine.”
One of my favorite parts of my week with you in Texas was sitting in your house each evening and quoting passages from Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. To quote Manning, I think a letter from God may read something like this, “I love you just as you are, not as you should be.”
I had a blast with you in Texas, whether it was golfing at Miramont Country Club or sitting in on an A&M basketball practice at Reed Arena or watching Johnny Manziel torch Vanderbilt in football at Kyle Field. But I think it was talking with you about God’s grace and Ragamuffin Gospel over dinner in the evening that I enjoyed the most. It was wrestling with God’s grace that I enjoyed the most.
As you drove me back to the Austin airport, I caught myself gazing out the window, marveling at the gigantic Texas sky. It seemed to get bigger and bigger the more I looked at it. It reminded me of a quote you told me throughout the week, “What you focus on expands.”
I wonder if grace is like the Texas sky. The more you marvel at it, the more you grasp its immensity. Coach Bliss, you have helped me consider that the purpose of life may be about one thing, one profound yet simple thing: Experiencing and enjoying God’s love. Focusing on it. Swimming in it. Watching it expand. What a freeing, simple revelation when we realize there are no “spiritual cosmetics” we need to apply for Him to love us.
The night you took me back to the airport, I couldn’t find a hotel in Austin. Longing for adventure, I ended up taking a shuttle downtown to Sixth Street on Halloween and spending the night on the floor of the Austin airport. On the bus ride back to the terminal, I met a recovering heroine and cocaine addict named Ernest who used to be a pimp in San Antonio and had gone to prison for theft. I immediately liked Ernest. He was broken like me. He was broken like us.
Ernest and I ended up chatting at the airport for the next three hours—about Jesus, life, and what it’s like to be a pimp in San Antonio. At one point, he rolled up his sleeve and showed me his bruised forearm where he shot up for years upon years, where he got a dragon tattoo to hide the shame from future employers.
Ernest told me he sometimes looks in the mirror and asks himself, “Who am I?” Then he asked me the question, “Who are you?” I paused, told him I had been thinking about that same thing, then said to him, “I am loved.”
Coach Bliss, thank you for helping me realize that. You have coached me in grace. Your friendship is just another reminder of those three simple words God wants to ink on our identity, to replace our bruises of sin and scandals with a different scandal, the scandal of grace.
I look forward to focusing on this reality of grace more and more with you. Most of all, I think I look forward to watching it expand.
Your Ragamuffin Friend
This column appeared in the November 2013 DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at email@example.com.
Johnny Manziel, you don’t have to point fingers and brag.
You’re good enough, I promise.
You don’t have to prove it to a defender or remind them how good you are by yelling and pointing at them after running and passing the ball over them into the end zone.
You’re accomplished. Everyone knows it. Heck, you won the Heisman Trophy, the game’s and media’s acknowledgement of how great you are. And you won it as a freshman – the first time that ever happened. How much more accomplished can you be in college football?
Everyone knows how great you are. Stop telling them. You don’t need to do that.
Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, future Hall of Famers and two of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in history, they don’t say anything because, like you, people already know how good they are. Their play, like yours, is enough to convince even the most casual viewer. And even though they don’t run after a player and jaw with them, all the players, and fans, know how great they are.
Why? Because greatness doesn’t need a megaphone. It just needs to be observed.
Observe how Brady calmly goes about his business. Down seven in the fourth quarter with less than 3 minutes to play? No problem. Interception? No problem. He got the ball back at his own 30 with 1:13 to play and guided his team to a touchdown with 5 seconds left and an improbable 30-27 victory against New Orleans on Oct. 13. Calm, cool, and no screaming and pointing at the opposing team telling them he’s the best. They know. They just experienced it firsthand.
Manning? He might not look as calm (watch his head and feet late in the game), but he still lets his play do the talking. He may be yelling, but it’s so his team can hear him changing the plays at the line of scrimmage. Trailing in the fourth quarter? No problem. His Denver Broncos trailed the Dallas Cowboys twice and were tied twice in the fourth quarter of a shootout on Oct. 6. With 1:57 to play, he did what everyone in the stadium (and everyone watching on TV) knew he could (and probably would) do; he guided his team down the field, set the Broncos in position for a field goal, and Denver won 51-48.
Manning’s stats were great (414 yards and 4 TDs passing and 1 TD rushing), but he didn’t run down the sideline, his pointer finger in the other teams’ face, and yelling at them, so they would know how great he played that day. They already knew his greatness… before, during and after the game.
It’s a reminder that being humble is okay. People won’t overlook you or forget about you. They’ll remember how great you are and also view you in a positive light as a person.
As Proverbs 27:2 implies, people already know if you’re great and they’ll tell others about your talents. Consider Jesus, even. When Pilate asked him to prove he was the Savior to humanity, Jesus found no need to flaunt his divinity, though He could have. Jesus found no need to convince Pilate He was great because His greatness had already been displayed to thousands. If Pilate didn’t believe it, it was his own lack of faith that fueled his unbelief. Jesus’s entire ministry—His actions, His words, His miracles—proved His greatness.
Johnny, you need only let your actions speak for you.
This column was published in the November 2013 DigiMag. Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine. His column addresses topics from a biblical perspective. Follow him on Twitter-@Brett_Honeycutt.
Kennedy sits in the middle of the room, its theatre-seating funneling toward the screen in front of them, tables running across each row, black-and-white A&M basketball photos and inspirational quotes plastered on the side walls. Kennedy’s plastic plate from lunch, littered with crumbs and a banana peel, is sitting on the table, as he casually leans back in his chair. It’s just past noon in College Station, Texas.
Cole sits up front, controlling the computer, as he pulls up different officiating videos sent from the NCAA, explaining the rule changes for the upcoming 2013-14 season. The season is indeed upon them, as they are scheduled to face Texas Christian University in a closed-to-the-public exhibition game that evening.
“We need to make sure we show that clip to our kids,” Kennedy makes a note, his voice soft and low.
The video ends and Cole exits the computer window. He opens another window—there are at least four of these video files the NCAA has sent to each coaching staff around the country.
The Kansas State against La Salle game appears on the screen, one of the biggest upsets in last year’s NCAA tournament. “Oh, I remember that,” Kennedy says, as a particular play unfolds on the screen.
He leans back and studies the rule change, decides whether or not he agrees with it, then thinks about how it will affect his team and the way his players play.
Nothing is unordinary about the scene. Every coach in the country is watching the same videos. And nothing seems unordinary about Billy Kennedy.
As he leaves the film room with his sports information director, it’s easy to see why Texas A&M was always Kennedy’s dream job. Not that this is why, but walking through A&M’s basketball facilities has the feel you have ventured places you shouldn’t, like an underground storage area for America’s nuclear weapons—punch codes that open double-glass doors, an elevator that takes you back to the athletic offices on the third floor of Reed Arena, and a giant glass wall in Kennedy’s office that overlooks A&M’s practice court.
His office is spacious, with couches and chairs and a conference table. His desk sits in the back right corner, a picture hanging above it; it’s of him and his youngest daughter, Anna Cate, cutting down the net when he won his first Ohio Valley Conference championship at Murray State University in 2010.
He sits down at the conference table. It’s cluttered with black, silicone wristbands. Each wristband has “Matt. 13:8” etched in bold, red lettering, with the other side reading “100x, 60x, 30x.” He hands them out to everyone he meets.
The theme behind the wristbands, of course, is Matthew 13:8: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
“It’s about using our talents and our gifts to glorify the Kingdom and allowing Jesus to multiply them,” he explains, picking up a wristband. “I gave them to our guys, read them the verse, and shared with them how the thorns could be the people they were hanging out with or not taking care of their bodies the right way. The seed may be on dry land, as the sun scorches it. And it’s because you’re not nourishing it; you’re not getting good soil; you’re not going deeper with your roots.
“Am I living to multiply the gifts God has given me? Or am I living to survive? That’s something God has put on my heart.”
Suddenly, the 49-year-old, third-year head coach at Texas A&M doesn’t seem so ordinary. Not every SEC coach, after all, uses one of Jesus’ parables as the vision for his team.
But as unordinary as it seems, this is also the way he has coached for the last 10 years. This is the norm for Kennedy: combining his love for coaching with what drives him in life, his faith.
“He’s doing the same thing he’s always done,” says Billy’s wife, Mary, who, just the other day, saw on Facebook that one of his former players got baptized in the ocean while playing overseas. She has an arsenal of stories like these.
“He is trying to change these guys’ lives for eternity,” she continues.
Since coaching at Southeastern Louisiana (1999-2005) and Murray State (2006-2011), Billy’s platform has only expanded; one, because of A&M’s magnitude; and, two, because of what he has endured at A&M.
Just as he was about to begin his first season as Texas A&M’s head coach in 2011, Billy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that is incurable and causes shaking.
Here he was, on the brink of starting his dream job, only to find out three months later he had Parkinson’s.
“It was just the understanding that God had given me a dream situation (at Texas A&M), but this was also getting brought with it,” Billy says. “It was at a time when practice was about to start, then boom.
“But there is a verse, and I’m not comparing myself to this by any means, because my disease is very manageable, and now that I know that, I can flourish with it, and it can be my ‘thorn in the flesh,’ as Paul said. But there is a verse in the New Testament where Jesus cries out, ‘Lord, take this away from me.’ But then he said, ‘No, this is the purpose: You put me here to glorify Your name.’”
Mary says her husband never asked, ‘Why me?’ He tried to ignore it at first, like any man would, but then he came to grips with it. He accepted it.
They also accepted it as a couple. They may have asked, “Why now?” as he was about to begin his dream job, but they didn’t allow their minds to venture down the victim’s road.
“I just knew that my Father has cattle on 1,000 hills,” says Mary, quoting Psalm 50:10. “I knew He was our provider. God just gave me such a peace that this was where He brought us, that this was His plan for us. Would I have written it exactly like this? Probably not. But this is His perfect plan for us. He is blessing us. He has blessed us beyond measure.”
To Billy, as strange as it sounds, something like Parkinson’s is very ordinary—a disease in a diseased world, a bruise in a fight. Even when diagnosed at the young age of 47.
“We live in a fallen world, and I’m not indestructible,” Billy continues. “I’ve learned to embrace it over these two years. I have to embrace it. This is not permanent. Hope is for the eternal. I am content with the situation. To die is gain; to live is Christ…We are here, on this earth, just for a brief moment.”
His faith, he believes, isn’t even something to be praised. Because that is what genuine, ordinary faith does according to its definition. It endures. It is strong. It trusts.
“My verse, and I’m not trying to throw all these verses on you,” he laughs, “is Job 3:10. It is something I have embraced my first two years of going through Parkinson’s. The verse says that God knows the way that I take, and when He has tried me, I will ‘come forth as gold.’ He’s got me. He knew it. I’m going to go through the trial and come out of the trial, but come forth as gold.”
Everywhere he goes, people ask him, “How ya feeling?” and they tell him, “You’re looking good.” He jokes he could fund the multimillion-dollar renovations of A&M’s football stadium, Kyle Field, if he got a dollar every time someone told him he looked good.
And, though he appreciates the support, there is something very ordinary about Billy Kennedy on this ordinary October day in College Station—as he watches the NCAA’s officiating videos in A&M’s film room, as he answers media requests, as he prepares for the game that evening against Texas Christian University—so ordinary, so seemingly routine, you begin to wonder if you would ever know he had the disease if he hadn’t gone public with it two years ago.
“He’s doing everything the same way he did 10 years ago,” Mary says. “He’s in the best physical shape he has been in…in years. The Parkinson’s is a non-issue. He is able to do the job that he loves to do at the highest level. It’s not slowing him down or changing him. He’s out there working out with his guys and doing everything like he has always done.”
Then, after talking to Billy, it all seems very clear. Faith has a way of freeing you from future uncertainty. Faith on good soil has a way of freeing you from your circumstances, of producing 100-fold, of allowing you to continue doing what you love, of helping you “come forth as gold.”
“None of us are promised tomorrow,” Mary says. “It doesn’t do any good to look down the tomorrows. All we get is today, as best as we can possibly do it. And we’re so blessed to be where we are today.”
Billy continues: “If you have a challenge, but you have a faith in Jesus, you can keep doing what you’re doing. He’s got it.”
It’s 1 p.m. in College Station, and Billy Kennedy has a game to coach.
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.
Hunter Dawson is adept at first base, a position he has played since he fell in love with baseball at age 5. He’s also solid as a relief pitcher coming out of the bullpen, a role he’s grown increasingly confident in the more Birmingham’s Spain Park High School baseball coach Will Smith calls on him.
But the coach had something else in mind when filling out his line-up for the third and deciding game of the 2013 6A first-round playoff series against rival and then top-ranked Thompson High School. He looked beyond Dawson’s immediate skill set and asked the junior to do something he had not done all season.
Smith, the head coach at Spain Park for the past 10 years, tapped Dawson as his starting pitcher for the pressure-cooker game. Though Dawson had only pitched in relief last year, Smith believed the righty was ready, confident his biting slider and darting change-up would keep the Thompson Warriors off balance.
What’s amazing about this turn of events is that just four years earlier starting a playoff game would have been unthinkable due to a serious disability that almost forced Dawson to hang up his cleats.
The Warriors, who had won 18 of its last 19 regular-season games to capture the No. 1 ranking, certainly weren’t going to roll over. They had the crowd on its side playing at their own James “Peanut” Davenport Field in Alabaster, Ala., about 25 miles south of Spain Park’s home in Birmingham.
Spain Park’s Jaguars, 24-16 and unranked, quickly jumped to a 1-0 lead in the top half of the first. But Dawson had a shaky start as Thompson’s Drew Avans lined a single to center, then stole second. Trey Matherson followed with a walk. But the 6-foot, 200-pound Dawson settled down and got Blake Grill to pop up in foul territory. He bore down and struck out Houston Davenport swinging, before jamming Trevor Flynn, who grounded to short, forcing Matherson out at second.
After Spain Park spotted Dawson a 3-0 lead in its half of the second, Thompson answered with two of its own, chasing the pitcher, who managed to get one out, a fly ball to left.
Spain Park broke the game open, though, with six runs in the fourth, going on to win 9-6, earning the right to face Pelham High School in the next round.
Those teams split their first two games, but Spain Park could only muster one run to Pelham’s nine in the concluding showdown. Dawson pitched to the final four batters in that contest, giving up a single to center before getting flyouts to right and left and a groundout to first. Spain Park’s batters went three up, three down in the bottom of the seventh, icing the victory for Pelham.
“Losing to Pelham in the second round was definitely tough,” said Dawson, reflecting on the April 27th loss.
“But my highlight for the year was getting to throw the first pitch in the deciding game against Thompson,” he explained. “I hardly had an outing over an inning or two prior to that, so to start game three was unbelievable, but nerve-racking for sure. It was such a big game, and I got through almost two innings with minimal damage, and we won.
“That’s definitely my top high school memory so far,” he noted.
Dawson hopes to add to that highlight reel once practice begins in January. He’s one of 13 seniors returning to the team, which Coach Smith believes will be back in the championship hunt.
“Hunter’s right there at the core, and he’s a significant part of what we’re trying to do,” Smith said. “He’s a great teammate, and his leadership is making an impact.”
Smith envisions Dawson possibly taking on the closer role. “He’s got a very good personality and composure for that. He throws a lot of strikes.”
Or Dawson could be entrenched at first. “Defensively he’s fine,” Smith explained. “We just need additional offensive production, which we focused on during his junior year. Overall, though, Hunter is going to have a bright future, even beyond high school.”
A bright future—three amazing words that sound so golden. Menacing storm clouds back in August 2010 almost robbed Dawson of that possibility, jeopardizing his playing days when he entered his freshman year.
One day during those hot summer weeks, Hunter walked into the kitchen of his family’s home and told his mom, “My legs look weird. I can’t put my feet together.”
Tarra Dawson assumed her son was just focusing on his looks, like other kids his age. “I initially brushed it off, not at all thinking there was something serious going on,” she said.
Just in case, though, Tarra purchased insoles for Hunter’s shoes. But the problem grew worse. Hunter started complaining about his knees making click, click, click sounds, as if they were popping.
That’s when Tarra and her husband, Scott, took Hunter to a specialist, who pinpointed the problem. The Dawsons just weren’t ready for the diagnosis: OCD lesions in both knees.
According to the Mayo Clinic, osteochondritis dissecans (os-tee-o-kon-DRY-tis DIS-uh-kanz) is a “joint condition in which a piece of cartilage, along with a thin layer of the bone beneath it, comes loose from the end of the bone.” It is most common in the knee and most often occurs in young men. The Mayo Clinic reports that “surgical repair may be necessary if the fragment comes loose and gets caught between the moving parts of your joint.”
What caught Scott and Tarra off guard was when the surgeon flatly told Hunter that she believed his playing days were over. Hunter, however, was more stoic. “We’ll just have to see what the Lord says about that,” he responded.
Hunter underwent knee surgery to implant titanium screws to correct his knee alignment. A major surgical procedure was also recommended to promote blood flow and healing to the injured cartilage and to repair the lesions. “We prayed over that and trusted God to bring healing, while working to strengthen the muscles around the knee,” Tarra explained.
Braces were required to keep Hunter’s knees immobile, and he needed a wheelchair to get around. He missed a week of classes but kept up with his homework assignments.
“Your freshman year is a very difficult transition, and a lot of kids fall behind for multiple reasons,” explained Candace Strickland, Hunter’s ninth-grade English teacher. “Hunter was astounding, keeping in constant contact with me, and he turned things in on time. He came back probably more prepared than some of the kids who were there every day during his absence. His diligence was jaw-dropping for a freshman boy.”
What buoyed Hunter’s spirit, and bolstered his faith, were lessons he learned from watching both his mom and dad handle major trials of their own in 2008.
Tarra faced the possibility of losing her eyesight due to open-angle glaucoma. She and Scott solicited prayer from friends worldwide, asking God for healing and for clear direction. The Lord led them to Dr. Wade Joiner, a renowned glaucoma specialist in Birmingham. He immediately squeezed her into his schedule, and on the day that Tarra thought she was to undergo emergency surgery, Dr. Joiner discovered that the pressure in her eyes had dropped dramatically and that surgery was not needed. He told her that God had intervened and “the Great Physician had done a mighty work.”
That same year, Scott’s evangelistic ministry experienced a precipitous drop in income. Scott also reached out to friends, seeking prayer for God’s provision and direction. The Lord led Scott to approach his donor base with a rare emergency appeal, and they graciously responded.
So, when Hunter stared at his trial two years later, he drew strength from how God met his parents’ needs. Hunter had committed his life to Christ when he was around 5 years old, about the time he discovered his love for baseball, but now he was trusting God to fulfill His promises in his personal life. A Bible passage that especially spoke to the teenager was 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.” Hunter took that verse to heart, and God blessed his step of faith.
“What’s so gratifying to Tarra and me as Hunter’s parents is how we’ve seen his own faith blossom,” Scott said.
When the braces came off, Hunter still walked straight-legged, almost like a penguin. Nearly two months would pass before he could walk properly. When his doctor cleared him to begin therapy, Hunter looked to Todd Polhemus, who owns the Sports Medicine and Fitness Institute in Birmingham with his older brother, David. Polhemus devised an appropriate regimen of exercises that would help get Hunter back into proper shape so he could consider playing baseball again—if that indeed was God’s will.
“Hunter’s work ethic is a 10 out of 10,” Polhemus said. “And his character is 11 out of 10. Hunter walks the walk. In Hunter’s situation, just the speed of recovery and the ability to get back to where he was that quickly was remarkable to me.”
Hunter’s faith has especially been nurtured through a Thursday morning Bible study before school. It began with Hunter and four of his friends back in the fifth grade, and has grown over the years and now includes about 50 students each week. They keep each other grounded and accountable.
Josh Whitt, who was Hunter’s seventh-grade math teacher at Berry Middle School, helps Scott lead the study. Whitt said he was impressed with how Hunter trusted God with his knee condition and whether He would allow him to play again.
“As far as Hunter’s faith perspective, he consistently believed God was in control and left his future in God’s hands,” Whitt said. “I believe God showed Himself true and faithful to Hunter.”
The OCD lesions healed properly, and Hunter was back on the playing field for practice in January 2011. He never missed a season.
That’s the miracle, but Hunter was prepared to call it quits and turn his attention completely to ministry, if that’s what God wanted him to do. “I love baseball, but ministry is my main passion,” he said. “That’s probably where I will end up after baseball, so if God had not allowed me to return to the diamond, I would have figured He wanted me to get a head start on ministry.”
Scott Heath, student minister at Shades Mountain Baptist Church, where the Dawson family worships, can easily envision Hunter going into vocational ministry down the road. “I can see Hunter following in his father’s footsteps,” Heath said. “Maybe not through the Hunter Dawson Evangelistic Association, but as someone who God calls and leads to do direct ministry and engaging a lost world for Christ.”
One individual who Hunter has influenced for Jesus is Josh Rich. The two have known each other since first grade and have played baseball together as long as they can remember. And they’ll play and lead as seniors and graduate from Spain Park next spring.
Rich says he will cherish a much more important memory than what was forged on the baseball field. “Hunter was with me the night that I got saved,” Rich said. “I was in the sixth grade when I gave my life to Christ. That was a big moment for me, and Hunter was right there.”
Hunter said he could not have traveled down this road without his parents and younger sister, Hope. “It wasn’t just me beating this thing,” he said. “It was victory by committee.”
Most of all, the 18-year-old praises God for all He has done. “The Lord has not just given me the drive to push forward, He has given me hope,” Hunter said. “I’m grateful God’s arm reaches every aspect of my life. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
By Richard Greene
Richard Greene writes for the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and is a contributor to Sports Spectrum magazine.