Closeup — Eddie Johnson

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In 2001, at age 16, U.S. professional soccer player Eddie Johnson became one of the youngest players to sign with a Major League Soccer team. Now, at age 30, the accomplished striker for D.C. United has garnered a list of accolades including MLS Comeback Player of the Year (2007, 2012), 15 USA International Goals, 11 World Cup Qualifying Goals, FIFA World Cup with USA (2006, 2014), and CONCACAF Gold Cup Winner (2007).

His most important victory in life, though, happened at age 18 when he accepted Christ.

“As a child, my grandma made us go to church every Sunday, but I never looked forward to it,” admits the Florida native. “But over time, I began to realize I was missing something. At just the right time, God sent a friend into my life to guide me. He encouraged me to begin my day by reading the Bible and showed me how to turn negatives into positives.”

“Through God’s faithfulness, my life has changed completely,” Johnson shares. “Before turning my life over to Christ, I got easily frustrated with circumstances, didn’t handle relationships well, and had a bad attitude that often got me into a lot of trouble. With Christ working on my heart, I began to think positively for the first time in years and become more patient.”

It is that outlook that has helped him deal with untimely injuries and a few bumpy seasons. He was able to fight through and return to the field to earn Comeback Player of the Year honors twice.

Johnson has also learned the importance of forgiveness.

“Through Jesus’ example of forgiving my sins, I have learned to forgive others and not hold grudges like I used to,” he admits. “Luke 6:31 says, ‘Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.’  Who am I to judge others when so much has been forgiven of me?”

Johnson may be fierce on the soccer field, but his heart for the Lord is helping transform the lives of those around him. And learning the value of a forgiving spirit has been the key.

By Jenna Sampson

 

Closeup — Ricardo Salampessy

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King David has always been an incredible example in the Bible of giving thanks to God in good times and in bad. And when you meet Indonesian soccer star Ricardo Salampessy, you quickly understand why David is his inspiration. The 30-year-old defender for Persipura has celebrated amazing victories, and also some difficult moments. And through it all, he has had a heart of gratitude to the Lord.

“I thank God that I grew up in a Christian family where I was taught about Jesus,” he shares. “I learned to depend on Him completely when I thought my career was over due to a knee injury. Through prayer, I realized that football could interfere in my relationship with God and became aware of my need for daily time with Him. I recovered from surgery and returned to play sooner than expected – and with a stronger relationship with my Savior.”

Salampessy joined the professional ranks at age 20, and since then, has appeared on the Indonesian national team 20 times. He has earned Best Player and Best Defender honors, and has dominated the field in the Indonesian Super League (Indonesia’s highest football league) for Persipura since 2006.

“Through football, I have learned much about the world, life, myself, and, most importantly, my Savior,” he says. “I have had the privilege of visiting continents and regions I never imagined I would see. I have met interesting people and learned about their cultures. I have learned to be independent, a sportsman, a hard worker, and mentally strong. And…I have realized I must rely on Christ in each of those areas of my life.”

It is that reliance that brings King David to mind again.

“If he defeated a giant, he praised God for His strength and protection; if his army claimed success in war, David gave the credit to God; if he enjoyed prosperity or even suffered pain, he thanked God for His enduring love,” shares Salampessy. “David is an example for all believers of what our lives can be like when we pursue God with all our heart.”

By Jenna Sampson

 

 

Closeup — Juan Carlos Valerón

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Juan Valeron’s faith journey is a great example of how new believers often face trials early in their walk with Christ. As one of Spain’s most decorated professional soccer players for the past 15 years, Valeron has led his national team to big victories including two European Championships, the Spanish Cup, and the coveted FIFA World Cup (2002).

But his victories on the field have been hampered by family pain off the field, starting with the death of his brother at age 30, followed by the passing of his father.

“We were quite a united family, and losing him was devastating,” he shares. “It was particularly difficult to see my parents struggle. But God graciously cared for us, and I am certain that without His help, my parents couldn’t have coped with their loss. Unfortunately, the pain deepened when soon after, my father also passed away.”

In his pain, Valeron struggled with questions like, Why is this happening? And when he couldn’t find the answers on his own, he looked to God.

“He was the answer,” assures Valeron. “He showed me that good could come from painful experiences. During that time, one of my brothers came to know God, and from that point, my family’s faith has grown steadily.”

When the Arguineguin, Spain, native was a young boy, his goal on the soccer field was to play in the top division and reach elite status in Spain. But even after accomplishing great success, including the World Cup, he realized that without God, the victories didn’t give him contentment.

“I realized those successes weren’t really important,” he shares. “In fact, without God, they were worth nothing. But Jesus is everything. Just like the food we need to live, Jesus is the necessity in life. Once I had a personal relationship with Him, I wanted to be with Him. While I may still experience difficult times, I know God is with me, and therefore accept them with joy. And I know that someday, I will go to His presence and experience His glory.”

By Jenna Sampson 

 

 

To Stir A Movement

Nothing makes you more legit in Major League Baseball than winning a World Series. When the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers to win the 2012 series, they capped the fourth game with a thrilling extra innings victory. Two seasons prior, the Giants clinched their first World Series title since 1954 by defeating the Texas Rangers.

Reliever Jeremy Affeldt was part of the reason San Francisco’s bullpen had an outstanding performance in the 2012 World Series. The 33-year-old hurler entered Game 4, striking out sluggers including Ramon Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

“In 2010, I got to pitch in the key game in Philly,” during the National League Championship Series, he says. “The story (in the World Series) was different. I pitched in every key game, and in Game 4 we had a chance to seal it up. All of my pitches were working for me.”

His performance was fulfilling from both a career and spiritual standpoint. “This time I truly felt like God put me in a place to make an impact—not just be a part of something,” he explains. “It was huge for me to be able to honor my God, but to also prove myself in my career. I was able to come through when I was needed.”

Affeldt made his major league debut in 2002 for the Kansas City Royals, and played for the Colorado Rockies and Cincinnati Reds before signing with the Giants in 2009. “I went through some trying times,” he admits. “I wanted to quit. I went from being on some losing teams and being one of the worst pitchers on the team, to becoming who I am on the (Giants)—my leadership roll and having fun succeeding on another level.”

In his eyes, battling through the 2012 playoffs and winning, was a reflection of how hard the pitching staff worked. When the Giants faced grueling elimination games, different pitchers had sharp performances on the mound. “The starters always do their job,” he says. “And in the bullpen, we’re all able to do each other’s roles, which is really good. We have enough arms down there (in the bullpen), that we can bulldog it out the last three innings.”

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound lefty signed a three-year deal this past winter to remain with his team, which made Giants fans clamor with excitement at the thought of having nearly all of the pitching staff returning for 2013.

Affeldt is far from your typical major league player, though. Yes, a World Series ring is exciting and fulfilling, but as a longtime Christian, he makes an extra effort to look beyond the material things that surround him. His blog, To Stir a Movement, chronicles his passion for Christian social justice, diving into the concept of what it truly means to follow Christ’s command to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

He supports the ministry “Not For Sale,” fighting to end human slavery and trafficking, by donating $100 for every strikeout. In 2011, Affeldt was chosen to represent the organization along with Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, as its first Ambassadors to Combat Slavery. His community efforts have garnered him two nominations for the Roberto Clemente award, given to an MLB player each season who demonstrates excellence on the field and also outstanding community service.

Affeldt uses a ghostwriter via Skype to help him post on his blog bi-weekly, sharing what God is teaching him throughout the season, and exploring what it means to love our neighbors. “She’ll take what I’ve shared and transcribe what I say. I’ll re-edit it the day before it’s posted. I have three kids (age 5 and under) running around the house, so it’s hard to have the time to sit down,” he admits.

Understandably so, the hurler waits until he gets onto the field to have some quiet time. While doing his warm-up running at 1:30 p.m., he listens to music on his headphones, and then sits in the stands to read and have a conversation with God. “I like to tell Him why I love Him, and that everyday I’m overwhelmed by His goodness. It’s not all about asking for something; it’s about adoring, confessing things, and then asking for things. I want to make sure I tell Him why He’s good.”

Just as Affeldt disciplines his body to perform well on the mound. He explains that his walk with Christ requires the same type of discipline. “Romans 12 says we have to renew our minds every day and what His will is. Whether things are going good or bad, I want to talk to God. For me, I try not to be in a routine because you quit listening. It starts to become religion instead of relationship. When I’m reading the Bible, I try to have a conversation with Jesus.”

Some of the struggles he faced earlier in his career are a main reason why Affeldt’s favorite Bible character is King David. “He was a king, and he went through 50 years of trying times. There were times David messed up, but when you read the Psalms, you read that he was truly a repentant man and was a worshipper of God. He understood his failure in life, but he also truly knelt before the Lord and dialogued with Him. You say to yourself, ‘There’s a man after God’s heart.’”

Affeldt encourages fellow believers with David’s story by saying that not everyone will become king, but that all of us will become kings of something. “You have been given a destiny in life,” Affeldt says. “There will be frustrating times. But there will also be times when He allows you to be king of a certain scenario and you don’t want to miss it. When that time comes, He’ll make you ready for it.”

The Washington native believes Christ has called him as a pro athlete to step forward as His follower and live out Matthew 22:37-39.  Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

“I felt like God was impressing upon me that you can’t do one without the other,” says Affeldt. “It’s a humbling thing, and it’s a difficult concept to master.

His book, To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice, and Major League Baseball, has an April 1, 2013, release date, and shares the journey Jesus has taken him on in life and in baseball. He also delves into the fight against human slavery in our country and others.

“I don’t want to be that standard athlete who has no idea what’s going on in the world,” says Affeldt. “If all I achieve in life is having a great family and career, I’m missing the boat in life. I wouldn’t feel like I could stand before Jesus and say I did what He called me to do. He has put on my heart that no man shall live for himself.”

“Jesus came to set the captives free,” he continues. “Humans shouldn’t be a product to be bought and sold. I can’t change the world, and I’m not the richest guy in the world, but I have the ability to bring awareness. I don’t want to walk by open doors.”

Affeldt is working to stir a movement in the hearts of people to answer God’s call to end injustice. In the process of answering that call, he’s reaching souls for Christ. In his own words, this season, pray for him in this way: “Pray that I continue to use my platform in the right way and have humility. Pray that I hear from God directly throughout the season. I know God asks us to do certain things, and I don’t want to not hear it. Pray I have the ears to hear.”

 By Jenna Sampson

Freelance writer Jenna Sampson lives in Southern California. Visit her blog at jennasampson.com

A Brave Heart

New York Jets quarterback Tim Tebow drew more than 20,000 people to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on a Sunday morning this past summer. The parking lot was full, fans wore his jersey, faces were painted, and kids were cheering wildly, but there was no football game. The only thing on the field was a stage. Quite fitting, as those who have watched Tebow’s rise to fame can easily acknowledge that the NFL quarterback has made his beloved game a grand stage to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

His message is simple, his mission is clear: To bring faith, hope, and love to those needing a brighter day in their darkest hour of need. Many football fans know his favorite quotes by heart. He never apologizes for his beliefs, never wavers from his convictions, and always has an apt reply for his greatest critics. Tebow embraces Colossians 4:6 with ease, “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”

One of his critics was there that day in San Diego. In fact, he stood to give the opening prayer. ESPN’s Chris Mortensen admits he was slow to accept Tebow.

“I recall questioning if he would make it in the NFL,” Mortensen said. “Then I remember waking up in the middle of the night remembering that commercial [when he repeats what his critics say and replies]: ‘Appreciate that.’”

Tebow was on the rise, and on the mind of Mortensen and his fellow commentators.

“That countenance, that’s the countenance I want,” continued Mortensen. “There have been some great Christian men to come through the National Football League, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen one like Tim Tebow—the platform the Lord has given him, and that He has placed him in New York of all places.”

That countenance is one all sports fans have come to know. Tebow strives to have a heart like Jesus, but plays football with the same tenacity that William Wallace possessed on the battlefield in the movie “Braveheart.” It was his father who first introduced him to the movie at age eight after returning from a missions trip.

“When we got home, he sat me and my two brothers down, and he said ‘Guys, I know that you are all ambitious and have goals you want to accomplish,” Tebow said. “I want to help you do whatever I can to accomplish those goals. I promise you, if you have love for what you do like the man in this movie, and you have passion for what you want to accomplish like the man in this movie, and you’re willing to sacrifice as much as the man in this movie was willing to sacrifice, I promise you’re going to be successful.’ It’s been my favorite movie since then, and had the biggest impact on my life.”

Every time Tebow ran onto the practice field after that, he’d think about what his dad said, “Do I really love what I’m doing? Am I passionate about it? And am I willing to sacrifice more than everybody else is willing to sacrifice?

“Those three things are very easy to say, but very hard to do,” Tebow shares. “When you have those three things, no matter what you’re trying to accomplish, I think you’re going to be pretty successful.”

More than the Game

And successful he has been. He became an NCAA Division I quarterback for the Florida Gators, won a Heisman Trophy, won a national championship, became a first-round NFL draft pick, became a starting NFL quarterback, and led the Denver Broncos to their first playoff appearance since 2006. This fall he takes the gridiron for the New York Jets, and in a city with bright lights and celebrities, this may be his biggest stage yet.

But to Tebow, it’s not any of those things that he considers the greatest moment in his sports career.

“My junior year, Coach (Urban) Meyer got us together before the season started and gave us a talk about finishing strong. All season, that was our motto, ‘Finish Strong.’”

The team battled through the championship game, and Tebow threw a jump pass for the final touchdown.

“It was a sober moment to realize we had just won a national championship,” he says, “And to realize we had done what Coach Meyer asked, and that was to finish strong. I undid my chinstrap as Coach walked toward me, and he gave me a great big hug and said in my ear, ‘Timmy, I love you, I’m proud of you, you finished strong.’ For me as an athlete, that was the greatest moment I’ve had in sports. Better than any Heisman Trophy or any championship or playoff I could possibly have, because that was a father figure telling me he loved me and that he was proud of me, that I finished strong. Later that night, I decided to make that my goal for life. One day I’m going to stand before Jesus Christ, and my ultimate goal is that He pulls off his headset and gives me a hug, and says, ‘Timmy, I love you, I’m proud of you, and you finished strong.’”

It’s easy to see why men and boys view the 6-foot-3, muscled quarterback as a role model.

“The world looks at me and thinks I’m a football player that’s a Christian,” Tebow explains. “I look at the world and say I’m a Christian that happens to play football. That’s my dream and passion: To be a great role model to the next generation, to the boys that look up to me.”

Leading by Example

One way that Tebow sets a great example is his work ethic.  He continues, “Do you want to be good? It’s not all about talent. But a lot of it has to do with how you train…with your work ethic, your character and your integrity. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. One of my favorite sayings is, ‘Somewhere he is out there training while I am not.’ It’s not all about talent. You can train and push yourself and accomplish a lot of things by having a great attitude, a great work ethic, and by having those three things I shared earlier: loving what you do, being passionate, and being willing to sacrifice more than anyone else.”

“That’s one of the huge responsibilities that we’ve been given: Am I going to work hard and do something with the talent God gave me? Every single one of us is given a talent. Are we going to go bury that talent? Or are we going to do something good with it? We all have an opportunity to do something with what God has given us.”

We have a generation of men who look to William Wallace as an example of a true man. And we have a generation of boys who haven’t heard of Wallace, but they know who Tim Tebow is, and they strive to be just like him. A true man who reflects Christ on and off the field, and no matter what, will finish strong.

Mortensen gave Tebow a parting word at Qualcomm Stadium, sharing, “I’ve worked with a lot of Jets fans, and I just have one warning for Tim. Their love is conditional,” he said with a teasing smile. “The most conditional love of all fan bases I’ve seen in America.”

As Tim would say, “Appreciate that.”

By Jenna Sampson

Freelance writer Jenna Sampson lives in Carlsbad, Calif.

Through the Fire

After losing nearly all of his NFL earnings and going through personal heartache, David Akers emerged a stronger person and leader

It’s only fitting that San Francisco 49ers kicker David Akers considers the Old Testament account of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego his favorite Bible story. These three guys not only survived being thrown into a fiery furnace, but Jesus was seen there in the fire with them through it all. The same can be said of Akers, a devout Christian who has faced some trying times over the past few years.

NFL fans may recall the 2010 playoffs, when Akers was in his 12th season with the Philadelphia Eagles. The night before the team’s wildcard game, he and his wife Erika received the stunning news that their 6-year-old daughter had a malignant tumor. With difficulty focusing the next day, Akers missed a few kicks he normally would have pounded through the uprights. The Eagles lost 21-16, and without a word to Akers, drafted a new kicker a few months later.

To add to the fire, in 2009 Akers discovered he’d lost most of his life savings in a Ponzi scheme, along with several other players. The legal proceedings continued into August 2011, when he had to testify at trial. And just like his favorite Bible story, God was right there with him through it all.

“A lot of bad things happened in 2010,” he says. “I had lost all of that money, I had issues on the field, and wanted a new contract with the Eagles. Then, I got asked to speak at a convention about faith. I said to myself, ‘Wow, right now, I don’t really want to be speaking about faith.’ I felt like I had a chink in my armor. The Lord said, ‘Dave, this is for you.’”

The 2011 NFL lockout added to his uncertainty about the future, left waiting for months to see his future unfold. Not surprisingly, when the lockout ended, Akers had several teams pursuing him. The accomplished kicker chose the 49ers, having known the Harbaugh family for years, and the fact that special teams coach Brad Seely was his first NFL coach.

“It really came down to comfort with the organization—who I knew there, and how they ran their program,” he says. “That set me up to say, I can move my family 3,000 miles and not know anyone. It was a leap of faith…did I pick the right team? I flew out 36 hours later. My wife asked me if I’d had that aha moment that I was in the right place. I said, absolutely not. I kept taking one step at a time.”

What began to unfold in San Francisco is an unforgettable story.

“I knew he was a great guy and a high-character guy,” 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said during the season, “but I didn’t anticipate what kind of a leader he was and what kind of impact he’d have on our team. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a kicker be as much of a leader as David has been.”

Akers, who is currently enrolled in an online pastoral degree program through Global University, prayed that he would have a big impact on the team. “I wanted to be a huge Christian leader, and to have my actions matching up with what I was professing,” he says.

Before every game, Akers leads the team prayer and tries to turn it into a short, meaningful message for the players. “I try to choose a Scripture and back it with a reality in life and bring it into what we do on the field,” he explains. “People say it’s just a game, but it’s so much more than that. It’s our job and livelihood.”

And speaking of livelihood, Akers made the 2011 season a memorable one. He and his kicking unit began to break NFL records right and left. “I had no idea I was coming close to breaking Jerry Rice’s team record (of most points in a season). I look at it as, man, it’s amazing to see all these things lining up.”

In 2011, Akers broke NFL records in the following categories: Most field goals in an NFL season (44), most games of four-plus field goals in a season (six), and most points in a season with no touchdowns (166). The six-time Pro Bowler has also scored the most points in Pro Bowl history (57).

He finished the season as the top kicker in the league, an exciting follow-up to a tough year, and most importantly, a daughter with a clean bill of health! It’s only fitting that Akers’ life verse is Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

“It’s hard as a human being to conceptualize ‘in all things.’ I never had that aha moment when I came to the 49ers,” he shares. “But it was crystal clear that God’s hand was on this whole season in my life. Two years ago dealing with the Ponzi scheme and losing 9 out of 11 years of my salary. Being able to have a job after the lockout. Last year, a diagnosis of a malignant tumor in my daughter the night before the Packers game and having that removed the next week. The blessing of how we were able to find out about (the tumor). The wonderful news that we’ve been getting on a quarterly basis (about her), and now we get to leave that up to a bi-yearly basis because of the good news we’ve been getting. I look at that as, I think this will be her testimony in her life.

“With that, I say that this year was amazing. I had bad things happen, but it’s hard to say, ‘I’m going to rejoice in this.’ There were a lot of tears, and asking God, ‘What do you have for me? Can you tell me which direction to go?’ The only thing I could do was take one step in front of me…baby steps of faith. That doesn’t mean it was easy. There were days of worrying, but then I’d read Matthew 6:34, ‘Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.’ I had to keep going back to the promises and the truth (of God), and that’s what got me through.”

And as the 49ers prepare for another successful season, Akers will be there to keep all eyes focused on Christ in the huddle. “We can use this platform to make a difference,” he says wholeheartedly. “When all eyes are trained upon us, let’s give God the glory in all we do. Trying to make a daily difference in the life of someone and be as Christ-like as possible. That’s my message and what I try to live by.”

And just as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego had an unwavering faith in that fiery furnace a few thousand years ago, Akers will stand firm no matter what he faces in the years to come.

By Jenna Sampson

This story was published in the Vol. 26, No. 3 issue of Sports Spectrum. Freelance writer Jenna Sampson lives in Carlsbad, Calif.

In the News – Clayton Kershaw

Thursday, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America announced Clayton Kershaw as the winner of National League Cy Young award. Kershaw was voted the league’s best pitcher, receiving 27 of the 32 first place votes with a total of 207 points. Roy Halladay finished second, followed by Cliff Lee, Ian Kennedy and Cole Hamels.

Kershaw led the league in wins, ERA, and strikeouts (21-5, 2.28 ERA, 248 Strikeouts) and also won a gold glove earlier this month.

Kershaw told MLB.com:

“The only thing I will say is I’m really humbled to be here,” Kershaw said, after leading his comments by saying that he didn’t have a lot to say. “I always dreamed about playing baseball as a kid, maybe one day making it to the big leagues, but I never dreamed about anything like this, so it’s really special.”

In the spring 2011 issue of Sports Spectrum, we featured Kershaw and he and his wife, Ellen talked about their mission trip to Africa over the offseason.

FROM L.A. TO AFRICA

Clayton Kershaw enters the 2011 Major League Baseball season fresh off a busy offseason, which included his marriage to wife Ellen in early December, and a mission trip to Zambia with Arise Africa in January.

“Ellen always goes over in the summer, but I can’t go then, so the opportunity came up and we decided to give it a shot. We had some connections with Arise Africa, and it was perfect timing during the winter.”

Ellen, who has a passion for missions, has traveled to Africa for the past five years on trips with the purpose to build schoolhouses, provide education and share Christ with the people there.

“Going to Zambia with Clayton this past winter was absolutely a dream come true, and incredibly impactful for the both of us,” she share. “It was so important to me that Clayton experienced Africa with me so early on in our marriage, and I think it rocked his world seeing those precious kids in their poverty-stricken environment.”

The missions team spent the first two days working on a boarding school for orphans, painting it, and placing borders around the cinder blocks.

“The next few days we did programs for the kids to take a break from their normal life, get some good food and have fun,” says Clayton.

The kids had never seen a baseball before, so they all enjoyed watching him play catch with a friend to keep his arm loose.

During spring training, Clayton spoke about how surreal the experience was.

“I can’t believe a month ago I was in Africa,” he says. It definitely keeps everything in perspective, and reminds you of how blessed and fortunate you are. These people – as long as their basic needs are met – they’re joyful people and love the Lord. So that’s something we can all learn from them.”

Uncommon Challenge