Closeup — Lee Young-Pyo

Spring 2014_closeup_Young-Pyo

When it was all over—the Fred Astaire footwork, the subtle wizardry, the impressive globetrotting—there was only adoration.

As Young-Pyo Lee walked off the pitch for the final time as a professional soccer player in the Vancouver Whitecaps’ 2013 season finale, the crowd at BC Place stood en masse and showered the Major League Soccer defender with cheers for two stellar seasons as a hometown Whitecap and 14 years of sublime professional soccer. The sellout crowd—21,000 strong—raucously chanted “Y.P. Lee!” Some fans held up a massive South Korean flag with an image of Lee in the center, covering the traditional yin-yang symbol. His teammates encircled him and tossed him up into the air over and over, like Little Leaguers at the denouement of a feel-good movie.

“God is the most important thing to me, not football,” Lee says. “Football is only one of many ways I can glorify and serve my Lord.”

Lee, who was 36 when he retired, became one of the most popular and decorated Asian footballers in history. The native of Hongcheon-gun earned 127 caps—third-most all-time among South Koreans— and competed in three World Cups (2002, 2006, 2010), helping the Taeguk Warriors reach the 2002 Cup semifinals.

After starting his pro career in 2000 in the South Korean Professional Football League, the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Lee made the jump to Europe’s upper echelon in 2002 when he signed with PSV Eindhoven of the Dutch Eredivisie. He followed a three-year stretch in the Netherlands with stints in the English Premier League (Tottenham Hotspur, 2005-08), the German Bundesliga (Borussia Dortmund, 2008-09) and the Saudi Arabian Professional League (Al-Hilal, 2009-11).

For his final two seasons, he opted for the MLS’s Whitecaps despite reportedly receiving far more lucrative offers overseas, partially because he thought Vancouver would provide a better chance for him to learn the business operations side of soccer.

What Lee marvels at most, though, is not his illustrious soccer career, but his salvation. Growing up as a nominal Buddhist, he put his faith in Christ after some Christian friends shared their faith and challenged him to read the Bible.

“When I honestly searched for the truth through reading and close friends, I was amazed,” Lee says. “God showed me that He did exist, and my heart was changed forever.”

By Joshua Cooley

 

 

Humble Beyond Belief

MorrisSpreadEver since Henry Ford’s first Model T hit the streets in 1908, automobiles have fascinated the American public. We’ve been transfixed by Beetles, GTOs, Corvettes, Ferraris and Hummers. We still talk about the cars (sometimes more than the actors) from our favorite movies and TV shows: Marty McFly’s DeLorean, Bo and Luke Duke’s “General Lee” (a Dodge Charger) and Steve McQueen’s 1968 Ford Mustang GT fastback from Bullitt, to name a few.

Time to add a silver 1991 Mazda 626 to the list.

Don’t laugh. Sure, at first glance, the clunky-looking economy sedan produces zero awe. But one particular ’91 626 has achieved enough publicity to make any Ford Escort or Toyota Corolla turn metallic green with envy.

Last fall, as Washington Redskins running back Alfred Morris was cruising to a record-shattering rookie season, the news media learned that he drove a car better suited for a cash-poor college freshman than a budding NFL star. The story went viral. Morris’ Mazda, nicknamed “Bentley,” was featured by The Washington Post, USA Today, Yahoo! Sports and CBSSports.com, among others. The D.C. area’s NBC TV affiliate aired a nearly three-minute segment on Morris and his ride. And Sports Illustrated, inspired by the story, published a 33-item online photo gallery of athletes and their cars.

Like Bentley, Morris became an unexpected celebrity last season. The sixth-round draft pick out of nondescript Florida Atlantic University took the NFL by storm, finishing as the league’s second-leading rusher behind Minnesota superstar Adrian Peterson. Powered by Morris and sensational rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III, the 2012 Redskins won their first NFC East Division title since 1999 and suddenly appear to be a contender for the foreseeable future.

Nobody saw this coming. Perhaps they should have. Scripture, after all, teaches that God exalts the humble. And you won’t find a more likable, humble NFL star than Alfred Morris.

MorrisSpread2

The Journey

The floor underneath the Christmas tree was barren.

For the tight-knit Morris clan, the holidays were a time of joy and celebration. But they also served as a candid reminder of the family’s economic plight.

Morris’ parents, Ron and Yvonne, worked hard just to scrape together a living as they raised seven sons in Pensacola, Fla. Ron, currently a cook at an Olive Garden restaurant, had dropped out of high school to support his siblings because “his dad wasn’t much of a dad to him,” Alfred says. Yvonne has been a special education teacher for many years and used to pick up assorted yard-work jobs just to pay the bills.

So Christmas gifts were a luxury. Some years, Alfred and his brothers would pool together the little spending money they had and buy some board games—Sorry!, Monopoly, Trouble, etc.—just to put something under the tree.

But Ron and Yvonne provided their boys with something far more valuable than toys and video games.

“Our parents gave us gifts that didn’t need batteries or get broken,” says Alfred, the fourth child. “They gave us morals, values and beliefs. That’s why I’m the type of person I am—the way my parents raised us.” Ron and Yvonne ran a tight ship, and Yvonne dished out “tough love,” according to Alfred. The boys attended church multiple times a week and learned to respect others. Most of all, they witnessed their parents’ trust in God during significant trials.

Alfred became a Christian during his redshirt junior season at Florida Atlantic in 2010, when he hit “rock bottom,” he says. At the time, he was having relational, financial and academic problems. The preseason All-Sun Belt Conference selection was struggling on the field, too, rushing for only 130 yards over a three-game stretch. Life seemed to be closing in on him. Then, God’s Spirit broke into his heart. Growing up, Morris had heard countless times about salvation through Christ. Finally, he accepted it by faith.

“He became not just my parents’ God, but my God,” Morris says.

Morris had arrived at FAU in 2007 as a lightly regarded recruit from Pine Forest High School without any other scholarship offers from Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools. He left as the Owls’ all-time leader in rushing yards (3,529), rushing touchdowns (27) and all-purpose yards (3,843), among others.

Still, Morris didn’t move many NFL scouting needles. That’s what happens when you play for a young, struggling program like FAU, which first fielded an FBS team in 2000 and won just 17 of 49 games during Morris’ career.

But Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan has an uncanny knack for discovering future 1,000-yard rushers late in the draft (e.g. Mike Anderson, Terrell Davis, Reuben Droughns and Olandis Gary from his days in Denver). So in the sixth round, the Redskins plucked Morris with the 173rd overall pick, which they received as part of the July 2011 trade with Minnesota for ineffective quarterback Donovan McNabb. (All together, Redskins fans: Thank you, Vikings!).

Morris, the 14th of 21 running backs drafted that year, was considered a long shot to make the 53-man roster out of training camp. In fact, NFL.com gave him a draft grade of 47.5 (out of 100), relegating him to the following predictive category: Most likely will be a practice squad player or a camp body. But the 5-foot-10, 218-pound back earned the starting role and turned in a season for the ages.

Morris dazzled in his debut —96 yards and two touchdowns in Washington’s surprising 40-32 season-opening win in New Orleans—and only got stronger down the stretch despite a pair of nagging shoulder injuries suffered in the first two games. He helped the Redskins, who started 3-6, win their last seven games and reach the playoffs for the first time since 2007 by averaging 117 yards per game and scoring eight touchdowns during that span.

In the regular-season finale, he carved up Dallas, the Redskins’ bitter rival, for 200 yards and three touchdowns in a 28-18 win, marking the franchise’s first 200-yard rushing performance since 1989. Morris finished the season with a team-record 1,613 yards, the third-highest rookie total in NFL history, and 13 touchdowns, earning a Pro Bowl trip as an alternate.

Thanks in large part to Morris and Griffin, the NFL’s 2012 offensive rookie of the year, the Redskins boasted the league’s top-ranked rushing attack (169.3 yards per game) and the fifth-most prolific offense (383.2 ypg) last year. Washington lost to Seattle in the first round of the NFC playoffs—a game most notable for Griffin’s gruesome knee injury that required reconstructive surgery on two ligaments. But this much was clear: The franchise had a new star running back. So much for low expectations.

“God had bigger plans,” Morris says. “He opened the door for me, and I showed what I was able to do.”

Morris doesn’t possess breakaway speed. His 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine was a pedestrian 4.67 seconds, and his longest run last season was just 39 yards. But he’s as consistent as a Swiss watch. Head down, shoulders lowered and legs pumping like V-8 pistons, he hits holes quickly and powerfully. He’s shifty but is also able to pick up yards after contact. In other words, he’s a coach’s dream.

“He is a unique talent,” Shanahan told The Washington Post. “He can make people miss, and very few people can make people miss consistently. He has the type of power, leg drive you like in a running back.”

Now, a player who was fairly anonymous around Redskins Park during 2012 training camp is the toast of the nation’s capital. Fans chant his name. Kids and grownups alike jostle behind security ropes for his autograph. It’s all quite surreal for the modest 24-year-old.

“I’m just a simple guy,” he says.

In a league of millionaire narcissists who prance and preen after every big play, Morris presents a striking contrast. Sudden fame hasn’t changed the modest kid from Florida’s panhandle. He is a humble man who continually deflects credit to God and doesn’t allow his confidence in his abilities to cross into arrogance. He is a polite “Yes sir, no sir” gentleman with a high-wattage smile and an infectious laugh.

Perhaps his car best describes him. There’s a lot of “Bentley” in Morris. He is unflashy, dependable and—until last year —overlooked. Like his ride, what you see is what you get. Amidst the NFL’s bling-heavy culture, Morris has remained completely satisfied with a 22-year-old vehicle sporting 126,000 miles and an Edmunds.com estimated resale value of less than $900. The pervasive glitz and glamour of his profession? He’s not interested.

“Christ died on the cross for my sins. That’s the greatest gift,” Morris says. “I’m undeserving, but he’s still using me. I don’t focus on the temptations. I don’t focus on the lifestyles like some guys do. God is my focus.”

MorrisSpread3The Road Ahead

After one of their most exciting seasons in recent memory, the Redskins are poised for … what exactly? A return to the glory years of the 1980s and early ’90s, when Hall of Fame head coach Joe Gibbs guided them to four Super Bowls and three championships? More futility, which has been the norm for much of the last 20 years? No one really knows.

Griffin is a once-in-a-generation talent, but he has already had two major surgeries on his right knee. And there are questions about Washington’s defense, which ranked third-to-last against the pass last year, and special teams. Even Morris is scratching his head.

“I’m not sure, to be honest,” he says. “Time will tell. The encore for us after last year is going farther than the first round of the playoffs. I’ll do whatever I can to help my team win.”

If Washington has a known commodity, it’s in the backfield where the team’s second-year star is in tip-top shape—just like Bentley. Thanks to the positive publicity Morris’ car received last year, Mazda contacted Morris over the offseason and offered to refurbish his beloved set of wheels. The plan was to install some modern conveniences—a navigation system, CD player, etc.—while also restoring the interior and tuning up everything under the hood. Morris was scheduled to get the car back sometime in September.

“I was very happy,” says Morris, who hopes to bequeath Bentley to his future kids one day. “It takes that worry away of, ‘What if it does break down?’ Now, it can run another 20 years. I’m excited to see what they do to it.”

One’s an old model that’s running like new. The other is a new model that runs like a seasoned veteran. Both appear to have plenty of great years ahead of them.

“I give God all the credit for it,” Morris says. “Without him, I’m nothing. He blessed me and I want to be a blessing. I’m just thankful to be here.”

By Joshua Cooley

Joshua Cooley is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

Crushing It

Fall 2013_Spreads (dragged) 1It sounds preposterous now—kind of like an era when carbs weren’t counted, phones weren’t smart and people didn’t tweet—but there was a time when Chris Davis considered quitting baseball.

Davis, the Baltimore Orioles’ newly minted superstar, was fed up with the game by 2011. His promising major league debut with the Texas Rangers three years earlier at age 22 was a distant memory. A logjam of talent within the organization and his own inconsistencies at the plate conspired to keep him bouncing between the majors and minors at a dizzying rate.

“I had talked about walking away from the game after the season was over if I didn’t get traded,” Davis recalls.

Feel free to chuckle. The notion seems ridiculous now. Davis, a hulking 6-foot-3, 230-pound slugger and MLB’s leading All-Star Game vote-getter, is suddenly one of baseball’s premier power hitters at age 27 and spearheading a startling renaissance in Charm City. At the All-Star break, he was on pace to shatter a bevy of Orioles records, including Brady Anderson’s 1996 single-season home run mark of 50, and was a legitimate American League MVP candidate as he attempts to lead Baltimore to consecutive playoff appearances for the first time since 1996-97.

Davis’ sudden blastoff to stardom is an inspiring narrative of faith and perseverance. It’s a story of a prodigiously talented, soft-spoken man whose spiritual and professional awakenings are sovereignly intertwined. It’s a tale of a gospel-believing player who draws true power from the Word.

It’s also a story of legends. Yes, let’s not forget the legends.

Longballs from Longview

Baseball’s history is littered with fascinating folklore and intriguing questions. Did Babe Ruth really call his shot against Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series? Was Bobby Thompson tipped off to Ralph Branca’s pitch before Thompson’s famous “Shot Heard ’Round the World” propelled the New York Giants to the 1951 National League pennant? And how far, exactly, would Mickey Mantle’s homer at Yankee Stadium on May 22, 1963, have traveled if not for the upper-deck façade in right field? Each is a colorful stitch in the fabric of baseball’s fascinating mythology.

Time to sew in some Christopher Lyn Davis yarns. Even now, years after he finished his amateur career, the good folks of Longview and Corsicana, Texas—where he grew up and played college ball, respectively—are still telling tales of the big left-hander’s tape-measure prowess.

There’s his blast at Longview High School that landed on the roof of the soccer field press box behind the baseball stadium—an estimated 450 feet, according to his former head coach, Joey Kalmus. There’s the bomb he hit as a Baseball America JUCO All-American sophomore at Navarro College that cleared the 380-foot sign in right-center field and struck a retail building some 100 feet past the fence. And there’s the rocket he launched during a 2006 NJCAA Region XIV tournament game that ricocheted high off a light pole in right-center at Northeast Texas Community College. Skip Johnson, then Navarro’s head coach, estimates the latter at “430, 450 feet.” Or was it 500 feet, as Whoa Dill, Navarro’s assistant coach at the time, believes?

“People still talk about it today,” Dill says.

Davis chuckles when told of his former coaches’ recollections.

“That’s good,” he says. “That means I’ll be hitting 600-foot home runs soon.”

But there’s no debating Davis’ talent. Drafted three times by age 20, he signed a professional contract in 2006 when the Rangers selected him in the fifth round. For 2½ seasons, he battered minor league pitching, earning the Rangers’ 2007 minor league player of the year award before making his major league debut in June 2008.

As a rookie, he socked 17 home runs and drove in 55 runs in 80 games and picked up the nickname “Crush” Davis, a play on Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, from the 1988 hit baseball movie, Bull Durham. Of course, the unintended dual meaning of the moniker struck an ominous tone: Costner’s character was a career minor leaguer.

Davis slumped badly the next year with 150 strikeouts in 113 games, triggering a maddening carousel of demotions and call-ups that lasted through parts of three seasons. In 2010 and 2011—the greatest two seasons in Rangers’ history, featuring consecutive World Series appearances—he endured five different trips to Triple-A and was left off the 2010 postseason roster. It was an exasperating time.

“I wanted answers. I was angry. I was frustrated,” he says.

At the time, Davis’ faith was still in its nascent stages even though church was as familiar to him as a leather mitt. His family’s Christian roots spanned at least two generations, and his parents faithfully took Chris and his older sister, Jennifer, to First Baptist Church of Longview each week. But to Davis, the truth of the gospel hadn’t sunk in yet. Christianity was little more than a humanistic attempt to earn God’s love. So Davis began drifting as a teenager. His parents’ divorce didn’t help matters.

Without a firm spiritual foundation, Davis could feel the waves of tribulation washing away sand underneath his feet when his career crisis hit.

“I was living and dying by how I was doing in baseball,” Davis says. “I couldn’t separate the two.”

But God’s Spirit was faithfully at work. The seeds of biblical truth planted long ago in Davis’ heart began to bear fruit. Texas teammates Josh Hamilton and David Murphy, both fellow believers, sharpened him spiritually. Getting engaged to his wife, Jill, whom he met in college and married in November 2011, broadened his overall perspective. Life, he learned, wasn’t all about the next at-bat.

He finally grasped true faith.

“Growing up, I was so young in my faith, I didn’t understand what it meant to walk with Christ every day,” Davis says. “As I got older, I realized it wasn’t about going to church or managing your sin, but about daily dying to myself and surrendering my life to Christ.”

Seasons to Remember

Ironically, a bit of historic futility changed Davis’ career.

On July 30, 2011, the Orioles suffered a humiliating doubleheader sweep to the New York Yankees, dropping their record to 42-62. They were 22½ games out of first place and limping toward a franchise-record 14th consecutive losing season—the very definition of trade-deadline sellers.

That day, in what might go down as one of the best trades in Orioles’ history, Baltimore shipped pitcher Koji Uehara and $2 million to Texas for right-hander Tommy Hunter and a slugger looking for a second chance.

Uehara enjoyed a stellar season for Boston, saving 21 games and posting a 1.09 ERA, but there’s no comparison in value between a 38-year-old middle reliever and a 27-year-old middle-of-the-order monster, who hit 53 homers and had 138 RBIs.

Davis’ arrival helped spark a transformation in Baltimore, a once-proud baseball town that hadn’t been relevant since the days of Cal Ripken, Jr., Mike Mussina and Roberto Alomar. In 2012, Davis busted out with a team-high 33 home runs and 85 RBIs in only 139 games, helping power the Orioles to a 93-69 record and their first playoff appearance since 1997.

The whole season was magical. Baltimore won an astounding 29 of 38 one-run games in the regular season (third-best mark in MLB history) and almost broke a 63-year-old major league record with 16 consecutive extra-inning wins. Davis, a pitcher in high school and college with a low-90s fastball, even earned a win on the mound by throwing two scoreless innings during a 17-inning victory against Boston on May 6.

In the final month of the regular season, he hit .320 with 10 home runs and 20 RBIs, including a 445-foot blast off Tampa Bay starter James Shields (who otherwise threw a two-hit, 15-strikeout gem) in Baltimore’s penultimate game that gave the Orioles a 1-0, playoff-clinching win. It marked Davis’ sixth straight game with a homer, tying the 1976 franchise record set by Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (in Jackson’s only season with the Orioles).

Baltimore beat Texas in the wild-card play-in game and then lost to the Yankees in five games in the AL Division Series.

“As a team, we really trusted each other,” Davis says. “We weren’t trying to do it by ourselves. One guy wasn’t trying to carry the team. We had this chemistry and this trust that really gives you a pretty good product on the field.”

Davis—a steal at his $3.3 million salary and under team control through 2015—has upped his own ante this year. In April, he became the fourth player in major league history to homer four times in the first four games of a season and set a new record with 16 RBIs in that span. Incredibly, he reached his 2012 home run and RBI totals by July 6, prompting fans to make him MLB’s leading All-Star Game vote-getter, edging 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera of Detroit. At the All-Star break, when he made his first Midsummer Classic appearance, he was hitting .315 with 37 homers, 93 RBIs and a .708 slugging percentage for the Orioles, who were once again in the playoff picture. His 37 home runs before the break tied Jackson’s American League mark from 1969.

“He’s not afraid of anything that’s going to happen on the baseball field,” says Orioles catcher Matt Wieters. “He’s going to take on all the challenges, and really, that’s how this team has been made up. Whoever they turn to for the job, they’re going to do it, and Chris has been a huge part of that the last two years.”

Of course, thanks to baseball’s recent “Steroids Era,” Davis’ sudden spike in power has prompted some media scrutiny. It’s inevitable, these days, when a player dwarfs his previous career power numbers like Davis has.

Davis, who has never tested positive or been linked to any banned substance, even received a tweet on June 30 (he closed his Twitter account in early July, telling The Baltimore Sun, “It wasn’t my cup of tea”) from a random Michigan teenager, Michael Tran (@MichiganMagic1), that read bluntly: “Are you on steroids?” Surprisingly, Davis responded that day with a simple, “No.” ESPN.com columnist Rick Reilly picked up the scent and asked Davis if he had ever used any performance-enhancing drugs.

“I have not ever taken any PED’s,” Davis told Reilly.

Ultimately, Davis credits his extraordinary career turnaround to God, hard work and the simplicity of manager Buck Showalter’s daily lineup card. Being penciled in every day at first base, he says, has made a world of difference.

“The consistency of being in the lineup every day and knowing I’m going to be at first takes a lot off your mind,” he says.

Reaching Out

Crush Davis’ most important routine has nothing to do with baseball. Each day, he employs his thick fingers, powerful hands and ham-hock forearms—the same menacing anatomical tools that bedevil opposing pitchers with his 35-inch, 33-ounce Louisville Slugger—to open Scripture.

“I get in the Word every morning,” he says.

For Davis, soaking in biblical truth is essential for staying grounded in a sport that loves to elevate its stars. Verses such as 1 Corinthians 10:31 put a new perspective on his burgeoning career: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Even mashing moon shots.

“It’s just a daily reminder that the reason I’m here is not because of anything I’ve done,” he says. “Obviously, it’s a blessing that I came to Baltimore and have had success. When I hit a home run or get on base, I praise God for that because know He’s in control of everything. He’s using me and doing things through me.”

Since 2012, Davis has been involved with Christian Youth Athletics, a Baltimore-based organization that reaches out to at-risk youth through sports. He is also donating $100 for every home run he hits this season to Luke’s Wings, a non-profit military organization that supports wounded soldiers. And he contributes $5,000 a year to sponsor disadvantaged youth through an Orioles game day program.

Beyond that, Davis is still searching for his charity niche. He and Jill, a registered nurse, have a heart to serve others. But this whole fame-and-fortune thing is new to them. They’re running to catch up.

“Our soft spot is kids,” Davis says. “We’re still trying to find what we can get excited about.”

In the meantime, Orioles fans have plenty of reasons for enthusiasm. Camden Yards is buzzing once again with winning baseball. The AL East is no longer an annual two-horse race between the Yankees and Red Sox. And standing at the epicenter of it all is a hard-swinging, God-fearing late-bloomer who has learned the power of the Word through the lows and highs of life.

It’s good to be Crush Davis these days. But he knows, ultimately, what makes life good.

“It all worked out,” Davis says. “Obviously now, I’m about as happy as I could be. I give a lot of credit to God for working in me and keeping me afloat.”

This story was published in the Vol. 27, No. 4 print issue. Joshua Cooley is a freelance writer who lives in Germantown, Md.

NBA Closeup — Kyle Korver

The filth and stench of the city was overwhelming. Little boys ran naked through the alleys. A slum-dwelling mother bathed her child under a small, open-air faucet. A grown man stooped over to brush his teeth with his finger, sand and street water.

These were just a few of the shocking images NBA star Kyle Korver witnessed during a trip to Calcutta, India in July 2008. Korver’s visit was a personally financed stopover that preceded his arrival in New Delhi with the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program.

But no memory of that trip is more vivid than a few simple photographs. While visiting the former home of Mother Teresa, Korver marveled at posthumous pictures of the great humanitarian’s feet.

“They were so mangled,” he recalled. “Shoes over there are hard to come by, and she always said she couldn’t wear better shoes than the people she was serving. So she’d take the last shoes.”

Korver is a man whose acute compassion provides a stark contrast to the narcissism so prevalent in his profession. If the NBA featured a Benevolence All-Star squad, Korver, 28, would be a first-team starter. The Utah Jazz’s 6-foot-7 swingman, a six-year veteran, doesn’t just write indifferent checks to charities, like tossing meat to a hungry mutt. He seeks out the doghouses of the world, ready to get dirt under his millionaire fingernails while helping the needy.

Korver’s caring heart was cultivated long ago on the violent, rundown streets of Paramount, Calif. As a young boy growing up in a family of pastors, he joined his dad, Kevin, on Saturday cleanup projects around the city. By 1988, Kevin’s “Lookin’ Good” program – which he ran with the help of the family’s church, Emmanuel Reformed, and city officials – won national recognition.

After a draft-day trade sent Korver from New Jersey to Philadelphia in 2003, he fully committed himself to Christ during his rookie season and quickly started reaching out to kids in the central Philadelphia projects. He and a friend, Adam Bruckner, started a Bible study for inner-city kids at a local homeless shelter in April 2006. Soon, they had installed 14 basketball hoops and provided various supplies to many of the local schools.

Despite being traded to Utah in December 2007, much of Korver’s heart remains in Philly, where his foundation is helping Bruckner start an after-school program and renovate the 104-year-old shelter. Korver spends part of each offseason with the kids, many of whom have his cell phone number.

He has also purchased several vans for the Boys & Girls Club of Omaha, Neb., where he starred in college at Creighton, and donated plenty of desperately needed provisions to children in South Africa (medical/dental supplies) and India (5,000 pairs of shoes) through his Basketball Without Borders trips.

In Salt Lake City, his foundation is financing a contractor to perform home repair projects for struggling families. And his NBA-sponsored coat drives have collected several thousand winter jackets for needy children.

“To me, service is just part of what you believe,” said Korver, who is planning a fifth overseas trip this summer. “You shouldn’t do it because you feel you have to. You shouldn’t do it because you feel pressure. You should do it just because it’s who you are and who God created you to be.”

By Joshua Cooley

This story was published in the Summer 2009 issue of Sports Spectrum magazine.

Along for the Ride

The “Hello Kitty” poster was the first clue: Something was amiss. This couldn’t actually be the office of an NFL head coach, could it?

Where were the pithy motivational placards about success, endurance and teamwork? Where were the ostentatious odes to football or the coach’s own achievements? And how did this girly paraphernalia make it past security? This is, after all, the NFL, which has annals filled with stories of blustering men who rule football fiefdoms like medieval lords and treat their serfs accordingly.

But this particular office—a spacious suite on the second floor of the Baltimore Ravens’ headquarters in Owings Mills, Md.—sent quite a different message. On the wall, next to Hello Kitty, was a “SpongeBob SquarePants” coloring sheet.

“You like that one?” says John Harbaugh, happily acknowledging a visitor’s question about his pretension-popping office décor, courtesy of his then 8-year-old daughter Alison. “That’s our TV show. We watch SpongeBob together every day. It’s a great show. You know, there are some good lessons in SpongeBob. They make fun of human frailties and stuff.”

Harbaugh, it is safe to say, is not your typical NFL head coach. At age 48, he is one of the best in the business, and yet there is a fascinating dichotomy to him that defies industry stereotypes. Is it possible for a successful, ambitious field general working in an aggressive, me-first vocation to possess a soft side, love children’s cartoons and embody Christ-like humility?

Harbaugh pauses and sizes up his guest. He is clearly impressed that another adult recognizes animation genius.

“You like SpongeBob,” he mulls. “I’m glad to hear that. That tells me you’re a great thinker. I think SpongeBob is a great place for deep thinkers, no doubt about it.”

Good heavens. What would Vince Lombardi say?

NO EXPECTATIONS

Midnight was approaching, and the air had a bite to it—a typical late-winter night in Oxford, Ohio. But Harbaugh had a spring in his step as he walked—almost bouncing like Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood—back to his dorm room.

It was 1980, and Harbaugh had just become a Christian. Raised Catholic, he had always been more fascinated about church history than the Bible itself. When he arrived at Miami University (Ohio) as a freshman defensive back, two teammates invited him to a Bible study. The political science major became intrigued by Scripture’s logic. Things started clicking about God, the universe, sin and Calvary. Before long, he surrendered himself to Christ.

“I remember walking home thinking, ‘If I fall on the ground and die right now, I’m right with God,’” Harbaugh recalls. “I felt a real freedom.”

Over the next decade, though, Harbaugh’s career ambitions choked spiritual growth. The oldest of three children, he had inherited a passion for football from his father, Jack, who coached for 43 years and led Western Kentucky to the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA championship. While John’s younger brother, Jim, the current head coach at Stanford, became a star quarterback at Michigan and enjoyed an impressive 14-year NFL career, John’s playing career ended after college.

By 1990, John was an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati, six years into a coaching career that was inching along as slowly as his spiritual walk. Then he met current Athletes in Action president Mark Householder, who was then a campus ministry representative at Cincinnati. Along with current Ravens’ offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg, the three men met every Thursday for a spiritual accountability breakfast. By 1996, Harbaugh finally loosened his grip on his life and career. Two years later, the Philadelphia Eagles hired him as their special teams coach.

“The irony of the whole thing was when I finally gave up trying to move up in the profession, that’s when God took over and things that I hadn’t even dreamed possible … became realities,” Harbaugh says.

In 2008, Harbaugh got his big chance when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti hired him to replace Brian Billick despite Harbaugh’s lack of head coaching experience at any level. The gamble has paid off handsomely. With 13 victories and an AFC championship game appearance, the 2008 Ravens set an NFL record for most wins by a rookie head coach using a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco). The 2009 Ravens reached the playoffs, too, finishing with 10 victories before losing to eventual Super Bowl runner-up Indianapolis. Baltimore lost in the divisional round in 2010 (Steelers), the AFC Championship in 2011 (Patriots), and earned their revenge in the 2012 AFC Championship against New England, as John Harbaugh reached the Super Bowl for his first time as a head coach.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned (this year) faith-wise is that God is in the driver’s seat,” Harbaugh told Sports Spectrum at Media Day in New Orleans. “That is what faith is. It’s the belief in the things that are unseen, that are uncertain, that we can’t be sure about. It’s a certain trust in life and in our Creator and God himself. I happen to be a Christian. That’s my faith. If you can do that, it brings you a peace. It brings you a certain peace that surpasses all understanding. I think if you have that, it gives you a chance to accomplish whatever it is you are supposed to accomplish.”

Harbaugh, it seems, has created some pretty high expectations. This, though, is silly talk to him.

“I don’t believe in expectations,” he says bluntly. “I think it’s kind of a false concept to think that you can even have expectations for anything. It says in the Bible: Make no oath; don’t swear on anything.”

Pop quiz: Name another NFL head coach, when asked about raised expectations, who quotes Jesus’ update on old Mosaic laws about promise-making in Matthew 5.

“He’s always looking to apply the principles of Scripture as it relates to the team,” Ravens chaplain Rod Hairston says.

To understand Harbaugh, avoid typecasting by job title.

“I’m not a goals guy,” Harbaugh continued at Media Day. “A lot of people talk about goals and networking and making a plan. I’m more of a guy who says, ‘I’m going to work hard every day and try to become something and whatever it is I’m supposed to become and see where that leads.’ And it’s worked out pretty well.”

In a league of dominant, type-A personalities who are driven by achievement, power and fame, Harbaugh, by God’s grace, is different. Sure, he burns to win—he describes himself as “a volatile, emotional kind of guy”—but he goes about it differently.

“One of the things I’ve always noticed about John is a deep sense of humility,” Householder says. “I’ve never known John to be self-promoting or self-absorbed. He has a real focus on others and other people’s well-being.”

This selflessness extends most poignantly to his wife, Ingrid, and their only child. If you want to see Harbaugh’s enthusiasm, scrap the football chatter and ask him about Alison. He loves displaying her rudimentary artwork on his office wall. He relishes their basketball shooting competitions in the family driveway. And when the regular season hits and workdays turn into 16-hour marathons, he institutes Saturday family days at the Ravens’ practice facility, when coaches and players can spend time with their wives and children.

“What inspires me is my daughter and my wife,” Harbaugh told Sports Spectrum at Media Day. “I see my daughter growing up every single day and to me that is the most incredible miracle that there could ever be. We have a family atmosphere environment at our place. We have players and coaches bring their kids over anytime they want. That’s what inspires me. You see little kids running around, and you see your little daughter running around with those kids, and it just makes your heart bloom with joy. To me, that’s what it is all about.”

“He has football and his professional life in the right perspective,” Householder says. “He sees it as a tool. He sees it as a job, but it’s not his life.”

A LASTING LEGACY

Ask Harbaugh about his coaching legacy. Go ahead. By now, you know the answer won’t be conventional.

“I don’t want to have any guile,” he says. “I’m not trying to be shrewd or clever. Make no oaths and have no guile. If I could be remembered for that, that’s probably good.”

No guile? What a peculiar response. Most major Bible translations don’t even use the word “guile.” You have to dust off an old King James Version to find it.

But with a little more contemplation, Harbaugh’s answer is quite telling. His profession is a breeding ground of vanity, intrigue and crafty speech. It’s a league where getting to—and staying at—the top often requires some deceit, often at others’ expense.

Harbaugh wants to avoid this. He wants honesty, fairness and self-sacrifice to mark his life and team. He eschews personal goals and instead reminds his players about “serving one another” and not letting “pride and narcissism get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish.” It’s not the usual pre-game pep-talk fare.

Then again, what did you expect from the NFL head coach who displays “Hello Kitty” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” drawings on his wall?

“Any goal I can think of is grass to be burned up,” Harbaugh says. “It doesn’t have value because my imagination is limited. I want to be on God’s plan. So I let him figure out what path it’s going to be, and that opens up the whole spectrum of possibilities that I can’t even dream of or imagine.”

By Joshua Cooley, Updated by Sports Spectrum

Freelance writer Joshua Cooley lives in Germantown, Md.

God-sized Dreams

The “Hello Kitty” poster was the first clue: Something was amiss. This couldn’t actually be the office of an NFL head coach, could it?

Where were the pithy motivational placards about success, endurance and teamwork? Where were the ostentatious odes to football or the coach’s own achievements? And how did this girly paraphernalia make it past security? This is, after all, the NFL, which has annals filled with stories of blustering men who rule football fiefdoms like medieval lords and treat their serfs accordingly.

But this particular office – a spacious suite on the second floor of the Baltimore Ravens’ headquarters in Owings Mills, Md. – sent quite a different message. On the wall, next to Hello Kitty, was a “SpongeBob SquarePants” coloring sheet.

“You like that one?” says John Harbaugh, happily acknowledging a visitor’s question about his pretension-popping office décor, courtesy of his 8-year-old daughter Alison. “That’s our TV show. We watch SpongeBob together every day. It’s a great show. You know, there are some good lessons in SpongeBob. They make fun of human frailties and stuff.”

Harbaugh, it is safe to say, is not your typical NFL head coach. At age 48, he is one of the best in the business, and yet there is a fascinating dichotomy to him that defies industry stereotypes. Is it possible for a successful, ambitious field general working in an aggressive, me-first vocation to possess a soft side, love children’s cartoons and embody Christ-like humility?

Harbaugh pauses and sizes up his guest. He is clearly impressed that another adult recognizes animation genius.

“You like SpongeBob,” he mulls. “I’m glad to hear that. That tells me you’re a great thinker. I think SpongeBob is a great place for deep thinkers, no doubt about it.”

Good heavens. What would Vince Lombardi say?

No Expectations

Midnight was approaching, and the air had a bite to it – a typical late-winter night in Oxford, Ohio. But Harbaugh had a spring in his step as he walked – almost bouncing like Tigger in the Hundred Acre Wood – back to his dorm room.

It was 1980, and Harbaugh had just become a Christian. Raised Catholic, he had always been more fascinated about church history than the Bible itself. When he arrived at Miami University (Ohio) as a freshman defensive back, two teammates invited him to a Bible study. The political science major became intrigued by Scripture’s logic. Things started clicking about God, the universe, sin and Calvary. Before long, he surrendered himself to Christ.

“I remember walking home thinking, ‘If I fall on the ground and die right now, I’m right with God,’” Harbaugh recalls. “I felt a real freedom.”

Over the next decade, though, Harbaugh’s career ambitions choked spiritual growth. The oldest of three children, he had inherited a passion for football from his father, Jack, who coached for 43 years and led Western Kentucky to the 2002 NCAA Division I-AA championship. While John’s younger brother, Jim, the current head coach at Stanford, became a star quarterback at Michigan and enjoyed an impressive 14-year NFL career, John’s playing career ended after college.

By 1990, John was an assistant coach at the University of Cincinnati, six years into a coaching career that was inching along as slowly as his spiritual walk. Then he met current Athletes in Action president Mark Householder, who was then a campus ministry representative at Cincinnati. Along with current Ravens’ offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg, the three men met every Thursday for a spiritual accountability breakfast. By 1996, Harbaugh finally loosened his grip on his life and career. Two years later, the Philadelphia Eagles hired him as their special teams coach.

“The irony of the whole thing was when I finally gave up trying to move up in the profession, that’s when God took over and things that I hadn’t even dreamed possible … became realities,” Harbaugh says.

In 2008, Harbaugh got his big chance when Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti hired him to replace Brian Billick despite Harbaugh’s lack of head coaching experience at any level. The gamble has paid off handsomely. With 13 victories and an AFC championship game appearance, the 2008 Ravens set an NFL record for most wins by a rookie head coach using a rookie quarterback (Joe Flacco). The 2009 Ravens reached the playoffs, too, finishing with 10 victories before losing to eventual Super Bowl runner-up Indianapolis.

Harbaugh, it seems, has created some pretty high expectations in only two years. This, though, is silly talk to him.

“I don’t believe in expectations,” he says bluntly. “I think it’s kind of a false concept to think that you can even have expectations for anything. It says in the Bible: Make no oath; don’t swear on anything.”

Pop quiz: Name another NFL head coach, when asked about raised expectations, who quotes Jesus’ update on old Mosaic laws about promise-making in Matthew 5.

“He’s always looking to apply the principles of Scripture as it relates to the team,” Ravens chaplain Rod Hairston says.

To understand Harbaugh, avoid typecasting by job title. In a league of dominant, type-A personalities who are driven by achievement, power and fame, Harbaugh, by God’s grace, is different. Sure, he burns to win – he describes himself as “a volatile, emotional kind of guy” – but he goes about it differently.

“One of the things I’ve always noticed about John is a deep sense of humility,” Householder says. “I’ve never known John to be self-promoting or self-absorbed. He has a real focus on others and other people’s well-being.”

This selflessness extends most poignantly to his wife, Ingrid, and their only child. If you want to see Harbaugh’s enthusiasm, scrap the football chatter and ask him about Alison. He loves displaying her rudimentary artwork on his office wall. He relishes their basketball shooting competitions in the family driveway. And when the regular season hits and workdays turn into 16-hour marathons, he institutes Saturday family days at the Ravens’ practice facility, when coaches and players can spend time with their wives and children.

“He has football and his professional life in the right perspective,” Householder says. “He sees it as a tool. He sees it as a job, but it’s not his life.”

A Lasting Legacy

Ask Harbaugh about his coaching legacy. Go ahead. By now, you know the answer won’t be conventional.

“I don’t want to have any guile,” he says. “I’m not trying to be shrewd or clever. Make no oaths and have no guile. If I could be remembered for that, that’s probably good.”

No guile? What a peculiar response. Most major Bible translations don’t even use the word “guile.” You have to dust off an old King James Version to find it.

But with a little more contemplation, Harbaugh’s answer is quite telling. His profession is a breeding ground of vanity, intrigue and crafty speech. It’s a league where getting to – and staying at – the top often requires some deceit, often at others’ expense.

Harbaugh wants to avoid this. He wants honesty, fairness and self-sacrifice to mark his life and team. He eschews personal goals and instead reminds his players about “serving one another” and not letting “pride and narcissism get in the way of what we’re trying to accomplish.” It’s not the usual pre-game pep-talk fare.

Then again, what did you expect from the NFL head coach who displays “Hello Kitty” and “SpongeBob SquarePants” drawings on his wall?

“Any goal I can think of is grass to be burned up,” Harbaugh says. “It doesn’t have value because my imagination is limited. I want to be on God’s plan. So I let him figure out what path it’s going to be, and that opens up the whole spectrum of possibilities that I can’t even dream of or imagine.”

Freelance writer Joshua Cooley lives in Germantown, Md.

In the News: Jason Campbell

Larry Campbell sighs wistfully and daydreams for a moment.

His son, Jason Campbell, has been a star quarterback for much of his life. He took his high school team to the state semifinals and produced a 13-0 season at Auburn in 2004 when he was the SEC Player of the Year and MVP in the SEC title game.

He is now a multimillionaire in the NFL.

Yet Larry still wonders how much more Jason could have accomplished so far in his young professional career with the benefit of consistency. Jason, a sixth-year pro who was traded from the Washington Redskins to the Oakland Raiders last April after Washington acquired Donovan McNabb, is currently playing in his ninth different offensive system and under his 10th offensive coordinator since entering college.

“We know he can play the game,” Larry says, “but my heart goes out to him because when you have to change every year, it’s chemistry with players. Once you get [an offensive system] down, you don’t have to do a lot of thinking. It’s like a conditioned reflex. You just do it. But he hasn’t gotten into a system where he can just react and build on what he learned.”

Still, for a player whose only constant has been upheaval, Campbell is one of the NFL’s most dependable players. He is widely lauded as a strong clubhouse presence — if not for his vocal leadership, then certainly as an exemplar of integrity — even if his quiet, humble nature has kept him well below the national radar.

“There are no stories about him doing things that would infringe upon his character,” says Mitchell Williams, the longtime sports director of Southeast Mississippi’s WDAM-TV, who has known Campbell for 15 years. “Think about this: He was in the nation’s capital, and you heard nothing about him. What’s that tell you about him? He is rooted by something not of this world.”

Grounded in Faith

Campbell’s strong Christian faith first blossomed in Taylorsville, a century-old lumber town in the heart of central Mississippi’s rural Pine Belt. It’s a quaint, one-stoplight hamlet with a population of 1,341 — the kind of place that holds a “Grillin’ & Chillin’ Barbeque Festival” each fall and the sauce is as thick as the locals’ Southern twang. The town’s median annual income is less than $29,000, but if the beloved Taylorsville High School Tartars football team wins on Friday night … well, shucks, life ain’t half-bad.

Larry and Carolyn Campbell — good, honest folks who worked for decades in the local school system — raised Melody, Larry Jr. and Jason in a loving home with high standards. The family faithfully attended Pine Valley Missionary Baptist Church in Taylorsville, where Larry Sr. is a longtime deacon and Sunday school teacher.

Jason placed his faith in Christ at age 13 during a large youth event in nearby Ellisville. He kept his nose squeaky-clean growing up, even calling his parents if he was in danger of breaking his curfew.

“I was the type of kid who would ask for forgiveness about 1,000 times if I did something wrong,” Campbell says. “It was like, ‘God forgive me, God forgive me, God forgive me.’ That’s when you’re young. You mature. I’m not perfect by any means, but I know my strength comes from God. Without him, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today.”

Tough Road

That position — NFL quarterback — is easily one of the most scrutinized in sports. And Campbell has certainly experienced his share of pressure since 2005, when Washington drafted the soft-spoken Auburn star in the first round, unofficially dubbing him the franchise savior as they attempted to recapture the glory days of the 1980s and early ’90s.

Campbell — 6-foot-5, 230 pounds and strong-armed — won Washington’s starting job entering the 2007 season and showed steady, if unspectacular, progression the next three seasons, improving his total passing yardage, touchdowns, completion percentage and passer rating each year. Last season, he threw for 3,618 yards and 20 touchdowns and had an 86.4 passer rating.

But Campbell only went 20-for-32 as a starter in Washington and never truly won over the team’s rabid fan base or front office. It certainly wasn’t all his fault. Last year, during the Redskins’ 4-12 debacle, he was sacked 43 times, third highest in the league, behind a depleted offensive line.

The season was a bizarre maelstrom of negativity. Several players openly defied head coach Jim Zorn, who was unceremoniously stripped of play-calling duties after week 6 and was fired the morning after a season-ending loss. Vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato abruptly resigned after week 14.

“I felt like it was a test of how much faith I really have,” Campbell says.

More trials were to come. When the Redskins pulled off last April’s shocking intra-divisional trade for McNabb, Philadelphia’s six-time Pro Bowler, Campbell’s days in D.C. were effectively over. Three weeks later, he was shipped to Oakland for a fourth-round draft pick in 2012.

While Campbell, 29, welcomed the change of scenery, the Raiders aren’t exactly the NFL’s model franchise. Entering this season, Oakland hadn’t won more than five games since 2002, and head coach Tom Cable was on shaky ground last year after weathering physical abuse allegations from an assistant coach, his former wife and a former girlfriend.

In August, Al Davis, the Raiders’ notoriously outspoken owner, raised expectations for Campbell by comparing him to Jim Plunkett, the Super Bowl XV MVP who led the team to its last two championships in the 1980s. Out of the frying pan, into the oven.

True to form, though, Campbell chooses optimism.

“We can really turn things around,” he says. “A lot of people have been saying things about this team the last few years. But if we make negatives into positives, it will be worth it.”

Quiet Example

Off the field, Campbell tries to do the same thing in the lives of those less fortunate. His altruism, though, is tough to track. He doesn’t have a flashy charitable foundation or make highly publicized appearances. He chooses to work quietly within his church back home in Mississippi, where he still lives in the offseason. He has helped pay the medical bills for the family of a 10-year-old girl who needed a heart transplant, and he provides Christmas gifts to needy children.

“The NFL hasn’t changed him,” Larry Sr. says.

In 2003, Campbell helped Williams launch the Quarterback Club, a weekend football camp in Hattiesburg, Miss., that reaches out to troubled high school football players, by spending an entire weekend mentoring the kids. He returned in 2008, and Williams hopes to use him again in the future.

Thanks in large part to Campbell’s regional popularity and effectiveness with the teenagers, the Quarterback Club hosts players from 36 local high schools, three times what it started with.

“He’s our guy,” Williams says. “If we didn’t have Jason, I don’t know where we’d be. We love him. He’s such an idol to the kids in Mississippi. He’s so touchable. He just gives himself away.”

Now, as he prepares to complete his first season in the new environs of California’s Bay Area, Campbell would like nothing more than a little consistency … and a few more wins. He is viewing the constant changes and challenges of years past as a James 1:2-4 proving ground, refining his faith and quarterback skills for seasons to come.

“Going through all that prepared me,” Campbell says. “I’m just going to give it all I’ve got, no matter what. I’m going to fight to win.”

By Joshua Cooley

This story was published in the Winter 2011 issue of Sports Spectrum Magazine.

Bradford, McCoy and Tebow: Heis-men

From the Sports Spectrum Archives…

Warning to all Texas and Oklahoma football fans: Read no further.

Why are you still reading? Portions of this article will rock you to your Red River Rivalry cores. It will cause you to doubt everything you hold as truth. You’ll begin to wonder if the earth is indeed round and if “E” really does equal “MC-squared.”

Hmmm, still curious, eh? Well, okay, but don’t say we didn’t warn you …

Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford are – gulp – good friends.

Wait! Take a deep breath. Don’t do anything rash. This might help ease the pain a bit: Both quarterbacks are also friendly with fellow signal-caller Tim Tebow, whose Florida Gators chomped the Sooners in last season’s Bowl Championship Series title game.

“Sam, Tim and I have a lot in common,” McCoy says. “It was fun getting to know those guys at all of the award events last year, and we’ve stayed in touch. I don’t know if our fans would like it, but Sam and I have gotten really close. We talk pretty regularly.”

A Longhorn (McCoy) befriending a Sooner (Bradford)? Will wonders never cease?

Probably not. Grab a fork and a knife, sports fans. If this season resembles last year’s feast of offensive marvels, Bradford, McCoy and Tebow are going to serve up a delectable smorgasbord of highlights, the likes of which college football rarely sees once, much less two years running.

The game’s signal-calling power trio all spurned the NFL last spring and returned to their schools, priming fans for a fall release of “Young Guns: The Sequel,” where NCAA records bite the dust like bad guys at high noon. What’s more, these three gunslingers – the top three preseason Heisman Trophy candidates – are all rock-solid Christians who share an unabashed love of the Savior.

When was the last time we saw that?

“The reason you can’t recall it is because it’s probably never happened,” says Kent Bradford, Sam’s father. “From everything I know about all of them, if I’m starting a team, I wouldn’t mind having any of them.”

Indeed.

All three players are model citizens who were raised in church and benefited from loving upbringings. Tebow became a Christian at age 6, while Bradford and McCoy did so as middle schoolers.

Thanks to his 2007 Heisman win and Florida’s two national championships during his watch, Tebow’s faith has received the most attention from the national media. If you haven’t heard about his family’s tireless missionary work in the Philippines – where Tim was born and spent many summers working in hospitals, prisons, orphanages and schools – you’ve probably been marooned on a remote island for the last three years.

“The Philippines are pretty special to me,” he says.

Tebow also shares the gospel in Florida prisons and even convinced Gators head coach Urban Meyer to take a mission trip to the Dominican Republic in 2008. On July 27, Tebow was the subject of Sports Illustrated’s cover story, in which writer Austin Murphy called Tebow “the most effective ambassador-warrior for his faith I’ve come across in 25 years at SI.”

Bradford and McCoy’s gospel-motivated efforts are impressive, too. Inspired by his paternal grandparents’ medical missions trips to Africa, McCoy has traveled twice into the jungles of Peru with an Fellowship of Christian Athletes group from Austin, Texas. As many of his peers lounged on carefree beaches, McCoy spent his last two spring breaks on the banks of the Amazon River, sharing the love of Christ and playing sports with dirt-poor village children, while also helping to build homes.

“It was a really neat trip and a lot of fun, but it was also hard work and really hot,” he says. “I enjoyed it, and anytime I have the opportunity to do it again, I will.”

On Fridays before home games, McCoy and a small group of teammates visit terminally ill children at the Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. He also speaks at local schools, churches and FCA events; visits nursing homes; tutors underprivileged children; and once volunteered as a phone operator for a Children’s Miracle Network telethon.

He was one of 11 players to be named to the 2008 Allstate American Football Coaches Association Good Works Team.

“He might be more proud of that award than any other he received last year,” says Brad McCoy, Colt’s father.

Bradford is the quietest of the three, but he still pays it forward. He is on the FCA leadership team at Oklahoma and has done charity work with the March of Dimes and Read Across America.

“He makes himself available to do whatever people want to do,” says Kent Bowles, the Sooners’ FCA area representative. “It’s crazy because he’s so busy. But he cares about people, and he cares about kids.”

On the field, Bradford (junior), McCoy (senior) and Tebow (senior) are three of the most accomplished quarterbacks in NCAA history. While Bradford and Tebow have a chance to join famed Ohio State running back Archie Griffin (1974-75) as the only two-time Heisman winners in history, McCoy, who lost to Bradford by a small margin in last year’s voting, wouldn’t mind getting in on the fun. But he downplays this desire.

“The most important thing is to prepare myself the best I can and to help my team win ballgames,” he says. “If we do that, they’ll be a lot of guys representing our team and receiving the recognition they’ve earned.”

In any other season but last year, McCoy likely would have won the Heisman. A consensus first-team All-American, he set the NCAA completion percentage record (76.7) while throwing for 3,859 yards and 34 touchdowns. He also led the Longhorns in rushing with 561 yards and 11 touchdowns. But Heisman voters crowned Bradford, who, as a sophomore, threw for a school-record 4,270 yards and 50 touchdowns, setting the NCAA record for most touchdowns thrown in his freshman/sophomore years (86).

It took all that to overshadow the sublime season of Tebow, one of the greatest dual-threat quarterbacks in NCAA history who passed for 2,746 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for another 673 yards and 12 scores. To cap it off, he led Florida to a 24-14 victory against Oklahoma in last year’s national championship.

“The one thing we really have in common is that we hate to lose and love to win,” McCoy says. “We’re all very competitive. Our No. 1 priority is to do whatever it takes to win football games. I think being great leaders and setting a good example for our team and our program is really important to us.”

Despite being nationally recognized athletes, each player seems to have a precociously mature knack for using the spotlight for something other than vanity.

“I know that what I’m here for is bigger than football,” says Tebow, who leads a team Bible study. “I’m here to spread God’s Word, and my position as a quarterback for Florida gives me the platform to do so.”

While Bradford and McCoy had met on the playing field the past few years, all three players and their families got to know each other better last December while in New York City for the Heisman ceremony. The Bradfords and McCoys ate dinner together the night before the nationally televised event.

“It’s nice to have guys that you like and respect that you can talk to that are going through a lot of the same things as you,” McCoy says. “It definitely was a blessing having the opportunity to get to know Sam and Tim.”

Now, the focus of each player is to lead his team to college football’s summit. To help him keep perspective in rollicking 80,000-seat stadiums, Bradford reads the story of David and Goliath before games. McCoy often turns to Colossians 3:23, which says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” And Tebow – he of the Scripture-reference-adorned eye-black strips – recounts his summers spent in indigent Philippine villages, where the annual hubbub of the billion-dollar college football industry seems a bit trivial.

Ultimately, all three take heart in remembering who they are truly playing for.

“To have three good football players all being believers,” Bradford says, “I think it’s the Lord blessing us and allowing us to do what we’ve been able to do.”

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, none of these three great quarterbacks were able to win the Hesiman trophy for the 2009 season, but all were drafted and now play in the NFL. Florida QB Tim Tebow was unable to repeat his 2007 trophy win, finishing third in the voting. Oklahoma QB Sam Bradford only played in 3 games that year, after being injured in the opening season loss to BYU and injured for the season in the Red River Rivalry game against Texas. Texas QB Colt McCoy finished third in the voting, as Alabama RB Mark Ingram took home the trophy. McCoy’s Longhorns would face Alabama in the BCS title game that year, only for McCoy to get injured early in the game. Unfortunately the injury was bad enough that McCoy could not throw a football and could not return. However, McCoy turned heads with what he said after the loss: “I’ve given college football the best I’ve had for the last four years,” McCoy said. “Every player’s dream is to play on a stage like that and have an opportunity like that. I could have never imagined this would happen. I’ll never question God. I’m a man of faith. I’ve never questioned why. But, yes, I’m truly disappointed because I would have made a huge difference.”

By the numbers

A comparative look at the career statistics of Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow:

Career Statistics                 Bradford                    McCoy             Tebow

Passing

Completions-Attempts            604-893            1,157-1,645           661-995

Percentage                                    67.6                        70.3                  66.4

Yards                                           8,403                    13,253                9,285

Touchdowns                                     88                         112                    88

Interceptions                                     16                           45                    16

Rushing

Attempts                                            77                         447                  692

Yards                                                 36                      1,571               2,947

Touchdowns                                        5                           20                    57

Uncommon Challenge