Rising to the Occasion

Michigan v Syracuse“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” Romans 8:5

I had the privilege of going to last year’s national championship game between Louisville and Michigan. I confess I knew nothing about either team, but as the game progressed, I was quickly captivated by a little, freshman guard on Michigan named Spike Albrecht. Albrecht, who was only averaging 1.6 points per game, caught fire from the 3-point line and single-handedly kept the Wolverines in the game. In 18 Big Ten games, he had 22 points total. In the national title game, he had 17 points in the first 11 minutes. The Wolverines fell to the Cardinals in the end, but Albrecht’s performance is one I know I’ll never forget.

I believe Albrecht probably performed the way he did, not because he got lucky, but because he entered each game, each half, and each minute throughout the season with the mindset his team might need him. That’s the way good players think. On a star-studded team with national player of the year candidate Trey Burke, Albrecht stepped up when Burke was in foul trouble and rose to the occasion.

I’m learning to approach my walk with God the same way. If what God desires for me is perfect unity with Him, then it seems plausible that He may use me in unexpected places, random conversations, and unscheduled occasions. It’s this full-time purpose, constant adventure, and life led by the Spirit that seems to continually captivate me on this walk with Christ.

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine. This devotional is taken from our most recent Training Table. Log in here to access our most recent Training Table. Subscribe here to receive 12 issues a year and a daily sports-related devotional.

Closeup — Brad Guzan

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Our biggest breakthrough moments sometimes come when we least expect them.

In 2005, United States goalkeeper Brad Guzan had thought he played poorly in place of Chivas USA’s injured keeper. The squad finished with an abysmal 4-22 record in its first season, and Guzan believed much of it fell on him.

“I was young,” he says. “I wasn’t sure I was ready mentally, physically. And I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. We were not winning games…So that point was definitely a low for me. There were a lot of question marks going through my head.”

At the end of the season, however, Guzan received an email inviting him to the U.S. National team’s camp in January. It was an invitation to represent his country. The thing he least expected.

It was a huge confidence boost after a rookie year that seemed like it couldn’t have gone worse. And two years later, his stardom continued to rise, as he was named the 2007 MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. This led to an opportunity to play for Aston Villa in one of the world’s best soccer leagues, the English Premier League in 2008, where he has remained ever since. Being in such a competitive league hasn’t been easy, but he has come a long ways since Chivas USA’s 4-22 record in 2005.

“It was a trying four years for me, the first four years in England,” Guzan says. “It was difficult because you would play a game, do well and the next week you would find yourself on the bench. So it was inconsistent football that I was experiencing and I was looking for the consistency… (But) you have to be professional. You have to be persistent…You just have to keep fighting…I knew that if I kept going I would be given an opportunity at some point.”

One thing that has remained consistent, in a position as mentally staking as goalkeeping, is the thing keeps him steady in all circumstances—good or bad.

“When things are going well for you, you can’t get too high,” Guzan says. “When things aren’t going your way, you can’t get too low…I think as athletes, everyone gets caught in the heat of the moment, then maybe do things that they regret later on. For me, I am no different. I am not perfect…But God loves everyone. You have to be able to open yourself to Him and allow Him into your life. And if you do that, the forgiveness, the relief that comes off your shoulders, knowing that you have God’s love, you are able to follow Him through your life’s journey.”

In March of 2013, Guzan started in place of an injured Tim Howard for the men’s national team in two 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil qualifiers and did not give up a goal in either match.

“For me, how my personal life, my faith life and my sport life—they all come together,” Guzan says. “I think they have to. I think that is just natural. You don’t have one without the other and most importantly you have to have Jesus in your life…As I said, it hasn’t always been a rosy road to success. There are always going to be bumps along the way. And through those difficulties, Jesus is what helped me get through all of those struggles.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.

 

 

Another Angle — Fifteen hundred enjoyable feet

It doesn’t matter that I know he survived. It doesn’t matter that I know he made it.

As I sit here in my office and re-watch world-renowned aerialist Nik Wallenda’s 22-minute high-wire walk over the Grand Canyon from June, I’m sure it looks more like I’m back in my high school Health & Wellness class watching a video about child birth—nervously peeking through my fingers, feeling somewhat queasy, wanting it all to be over so I can breathe again, and, like Wallenda, saying to myself, “This will be over soon; just don’t look down.”

It’s not an exaggeration.

Re-watching Wallenda’s unbelievable feat (and feet) really does give me the heebie-jeebies. When the chopper circles the speckle of a person (with no harness) balancing on a two-inch wire in the vastness of a 1,500-foot drop, I must admit, all I see is the dot on the wire meeting gravity like a raindrop.

Throw the wind in there (20 mph gusts), the canyon dust accumulating on the wire (he’s surrounded by a giant rock, after all), the rippling of the wire (something scientific that I don’t understand), the optical illusion he was experiencing (I can’t even stare at a book for 20 minutes straight, not to mention a wire suspended over eternity), and the fact he’s wearing a standard pair of jeans that flap in the wind at his ankles (did his secretary mess up his schedule and tell him he had a business meeting at Applebee’s?)—and his stunt becomes one of the most horrifying things I’ve seen since The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

In my opinion, though frightening, Wallenda’s stunt was so intriguing, skilled, and historic that it may be the best sporting moment of 2013. That’s why I’m writing about it.

But I also like what it represents. And I like what Wallenda represents.

If you haven’t watched Wallenda’s entire 22-minute walk across the Grand Canyon, I recommend it—as terrifying as it is. Yes, you’ll see him make history. But you’ll also see what he believes. It’s as much a 22-minute prayer as it is a walk.

“It (the wire) really is, in a sense, somewhat of a prayer closet,” Wallenda told me via email. “That may sound strange, but when I step on the cable, the other cares of life are no longer in play. I am focused on the walk itself, of course, but then it just becomes a conversation with God as I’m walking.”

Before he reached the midway point of his walk, he said some variation of “Praise Jesus,” “Thank you Lord,” “Yes Jesus,” or “Hallelujah” 62 times (about 83 times total). And right when he took his first step on the wire and peered over the canyon, he said, “Praise God, this is awesome. Thank you Jesus for this beautiful view.”

I find it interesting that, though fear and death are below, he embraces it all, he experiences God in the midst of the Grand Canyon in 2013 or the mist of Niagara Falls in 2012, and his prayers rise upward. I can’t think of a better example of both enjoying God and depending on Him.

As I watched Wallenda’s walk, I must admit, part of me envied him—not because I want to be on the wire, I think I’d rather be Abraham in Genesis 17, but because I want my life to look like Wallenda’s walk. To be that risky, to be that dependent, to walk with the Lord down the straight and narrow in such a way that no outside factors can deter me. I want to welcome adventure because of the view. I want to embrace challenges because it forces dependency. But how?

“As a tightrope walker, I always try to establish a fixed point to focus on, particularly when there are so many elements in play that are a distraction or that are coming against me,” Wallenda says. “My walks over Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon were perfect examples. I faced winds, mist, and the movement of the cable, but my focus was on the solid rock on the other side. Christ is that solid rock for my faith. Life brings a lot of challenges that want to knock you off course, but we have to focus on Him. He’s that solid and unmoving rock.”

See, when you know your focus is on solid rock, all you have to do is keep walking, one foot in front of the other, enjoying God every step of the way. The fact that you’re enjoying and experiencing God can make a challenging walk joyful.

“I try to focus on the promise of Proverbs 3:5-6,” Wallenda says. “To paraphrase, trust me with everything, and I’ll direct your paths.”

And sometimes that path is a wire.

ColumnSigBy Stephen Copeland

This column appeared in the January 2014 Sports Spectrum DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at stephen.copeland@sportsspectrum.com.

From Our Friends in Russia

The Opening Ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Russia also provided the opening for Christian athletes and leaders to serve the Sochi community through activities at three community fan zones in the city. We distributed more than 500,000 pieces of spiritual literature with testimonies of faith. Also, six Russian-speaking chaplains are here to present the Gospel by using sport as a means to share Christ with people. More than 10 other cities all over Russia are daily reaching out to the community through sports festivals and spiritual sports programs. Pray for enduring fruits of this hard and exciting work. 

This is a short two minute video from a national TV station about the work of the believers.

This ten year old boy in the white sweater is leading a Bible study group.

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These three boys decided to buy food packets and distribute them to the most needy families in the community.

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Cover Story — Beyond A Super Bowl

February 2014 JPEG CoverSomewhere in this wacky, Super Bowl Media Day circus are lessons to be learned.

This is what I try to say to myself as a superhero from Nickelodeon challenges Russell Wilson to a staring contest; a striped Waldo is wandering around and members of the media are actually interviewing him; a guy from VH1 is wearing an old, colonial outfit, or something with a bib, and I picture us having an epic sword fight that makes its way onto Pete Carroll’s podium.

Media Day is an insult to journalism, in some ways. You’ve got people from ESPN and Sports Illustrated battling with Nickelodeon’s “Pick Boy” to squeeze in a question with a possible Super Bowl winning quarterback. And some of the reporters from big, daily papers are actually pressed to crank out articles, yet they patiently wait their turn as lunatics ask questions like “Is this a must-win game?” or “What’s your favorite beer?”

It’s not that I don’t like Media Day—I do. In some ways, the circus atmosphere is quite fitting considering the present state of journalism. And it is important to remember: This isn’t the State of the Union address; it’s only sports. If anything, it makes me wish I had brought my Yoda mask.

But it is difficult to have in-depth interviews at Media Day, and this is perhaps what frustrates me the most. Because Sports Spectrum prides itself on its feature stories, I mostly just see Media Day as an opportunity to gather multimedia content for our YouTube channel. This is my third Media Day, and I’ve learned that it’s difficult to get more than a question or two in before another reporter barges in and asks about offenses or defenses. It’s not the most intimate setting for deep conversations, either, when you half expect to see a clown riding around on a unicycle or trapeze artists above you.

There are, however, lessons to be learned on this day, and I would soon learn that it has nothing with the atmosphere, but rather the hearts of the people who are willing to share them.

IN PURPOSE…

At past Super Bowl Media Days, the players who weren’t stationed at a podium would be scattered around the stadium for you to freely approach. This one is different, possibly because it’s in the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the home of the New Jersey Devils, a much smaller venue than a football stadium.

To compensate for its size, they have barred off areas for the remaining players who aren’t at a podium to congregate. I laugh to myself, as they remind me of pigs rounded up in a pen. I think about feeding one an apple and telling him he’ll make a nice meal one day.

These barred-off areas, however, make the players especially difficult to access. Also, Marshawn Lynch is in one of these areas instead of on his own podium, which has led to the clutter. Lynch is saying something, and by something, I mean a word or two, and that’s when I spot Seahawks long snapper Clint Gresham.

Gresham is the founder of, in my opinion, one of the coolest football videos that came out this year called “Making Of A Champion,” featuring many players and coaches on the Seahawks talking about their faith. It has nearly half a million views on YouTube, featuring quarterback Russell Wilson, left tackle Russell Okung, safety Chris Maragos, defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto, running back coach Sherman Smith, and himself. It’s something they funded on their own and released for free.

Sports Spectrum videographer Aaron May and I fight our way through the crowd and finally make it up front.

“Man, I love the video,” I say.

Gresham smiles, and shakes my hand.

“Well, I’ve got one for you, then,” he says, pulling out a DVD from his jacket pocket.

“How many you have in there?” I laugh.

“Quite a bit,” he smiles.

In the back of my mind, I’m fascinated by the idea he plans on handing all of these out to the media, that, on a day when the media is gathering content from him, he’s giving something very meaningful back to them.

“It was humbling (to make the DVD),” he says. “There were times during training camp that I wasn’t sure if we were going to go through with it…But it’s just a privilege to be used by Him. It seemed like such a big task, and trying to coordinate all of it was crazy. But God is faithful, man. If we honor Him and give Him the glory, He is faithful to bring us to a position to honor Him.

“I’ve learned this year to lean on God’s promises. One of my favorite Bible verses talks about trusting in the Lord with all of your heart and leaning not on your own understanding. Even though our understanding can tell us one thing, God’s promises say something else. God calls us to trust His Word and trust what He has said about our lives to drive our experiences up to the level of what His Word says.”

His mindset is as purpose-driven as they come, and I look down and see it fleshed out in the DVD I’m holding—a vivid example that the worldview of many of the Seahawks stretch far beyond football, and, yes, even the Super Bowl.

IN DAY-TO-DAY LIVING…

That being said, just because some of the players and coaches on the Seahawks are Christians, it doesn’t diminish their passion for what they do; in fact, their belief in something bigger only fuels their desire to do it better, because working for God is a much larger purpose than working for the world.

This is evident as we wait in line to talk to assistant coach Rocky Seto, as reporters ask him technical questions about “target zones” and things that sound as foreign to me as chemistry. It’s obvious he enjoys talking about these things; after all, it’s what he does for a living. But something that gets him going more is who he is as a person.

Our turn comes, and we explain to him that we are from a Christian sports magazine, and he smiles and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Do you love the Lord? Do you love Jesus?”

I smile and nod.

“What about your camera guy?” he says, putting his hand on Aaron’s shoulder. Aaron smiles and nods, too.

Seto has a friendliness and fervor about him that makes you immediately trust him. If we were sitting in a café, I would probably feel comfortable enough to share my deepest struggles with him if he asked.

I ask him about what it’s like to be on a team that, to me, demonstrates a faith like the 2006 Indianapolis Colts team that won the Super Bowl under coach Tony Dungy.

“Think about how the Lord has positioned the spokespeople on our team,” he says. “Russell Wilson loves the Lord; Russell Okung loves the Lord; there are coaches who are on fire for Jesus. It’s tremendously encouraging…

“These brothers love the Lord, and ultimately living for Christ is more important than anything else. The Bible says that Jesus gives us every spiritual blessing. Jesus gives us every spiritual blessing. Think about that. Better than the Super Bowl. Any championship. Any fame. Any acclaim.”

I realize Seto and I are learning about some of the same concepts in life, and it suddenly begins to feel much less like an interview and more like a conversation. These are the interviews I enjoy the most.

“John Piper or someone said that enjoying Jesus as the greatest treasure of our lives is worship,” he continued. “Just enjoy it! What else do you need?” he laughs, throwing his hands in the air. “That’s acknowledging Him that Jesus is a greater reality than what we actually have in this life. Enjoy Jesus as the greatest treasure of your life, and we will act accordingly if we really believe that.”

IN TRIALS…

As we approach safety Chris Maragos, I couldn’t help but think about how the previous two interviews represented the same theme. Gresham enjoyed Christ in the way God was using him to carry out His purposes; and Seto spoke about being given every spiritual blessing and enjoying Christ on a day-to-day basis, for His mercies are new every morning.

Fittingly, Maragos started talking to us about another way to enjoy God, a message less prevalent as they stand on the brink of winning a Super Bowl—through our trials.

If anyone can preach on this in the context of football, however, it’s Maragos. He wasn’t recruited out of high school; he wasn’t on scholarship at Western Michigan; he was a walk-on when he transferred to Wisconsin; he switched positions and was cut three times before he got into the league; and now, here he stands at Media Day of Super Bowl XLVIII as a player who has been in the league for four years.

“Those trials produced perseverance, and character is what you’re seeing today,” he said. “You’re seeing what God has been able to accomplish and what He has been able to do to mold and shape my character through those trials. I think of James 1:2-4, ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.’

“When you look at that, it sounds so backwards. You think about joy. Well, what is joy? Joy is something internal; it’s not external. Anytime you are going through a trial, that’s an external thing. If you consider it pure joy then, when you are going through those hard times, you consider it joy because you know the end result is that God will produce and mold and shape you into something that is way better than you could ever think about if you didn’t go through those things. There is a person, rhyme, and reason for everything, and God is in control of all those things, and you just have to trust that.”

IN FOOTBALL…

It’s interesting that Seto just happened to be reading from the book of Acts in his devotion that morning—the passage about people worshiping Barnabas and Paul instead of Christ. The irony is unparalleled, as much of Seahawk Nation will do the same for their team, and especially stars like Russell Wilson and Russell Okung.

But it’s in Wilson and Okung’s mindsets that place football in its proper perspective, which, fitting the same theme, allows them to enjoy God more because their priorities are not skewed.

These were our last two interviews.

“Faith has brought me a long way,” Wilson says. “God has me here for a very particular reason, just to be here in front of all these people and go against the odds. That’s all God. That’s not me. But, in terms of facing adversity, I see adversity as opportunity. That’s the way I look about it, whether it’s a game or in life. It’s an opportunity to overcome.”

And that’s exactly the way Okung sees football, too—as an opportunity. If he, as a player, can view football as merely a game and an opportunity, he hopes others can do the same—that it will not be worshiped, that they will not be worshiped, but football will rather be enjoyed as a gift from God and used to direct others’ attention toward something deeper, just as Paul and Barnabas did.

“What better chance do we have out here to show the world that we have been given a platform?” he says seriously and quietly. “Doesn’t matter what you do. Whether you are reporting or a football player, we are all privileged to be where we are and to be able to give our gifts back to God. It’s amazing. That’s what our jobs are as believers—to use our gifts because there is a need for them to give them back to this world and give them back to the people…

“When you look at Jesus and His life, He just walked and loved and served people. He said, ‘The greatest among you is a servant.’ We have been given these talents and these gifts to serve the community for it to be better. Jesus saves, and Jesus saves through his people.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. This story was published in the February 2014 Sports Spectrum DigiMag. All videos edited by Aaron May.

Another Angle — A city’s whisper

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New York City has a way of reminding you of the vast immensity of this world.

I had never been to New York City, not until this week for Super Bowl XLVIII festivities. The closest I’d been before this week was a connecting flight at La Guardia this past fall, but the man giving me an aerial tour in the seat behind me could tell my brain got lost somewhere in the Hudson River below. For an Indiana kid who grew up with a cornfield in his back yard, NYC was a lot to handle.

Before then, my perception of NYC existed in musical productions: taking down Pulitzer and Hearst in Newsies; Daddy Warbucks singing “NYC” in Annie; that snapping-finger gang in West Side Story, a scene that would forever make me believe I was tough enough to be in a gang.

But NYC always seemed to be just that—a fantasy, something I saw through a plane window, on a television screen, or imagined while belting “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” in the shower…you know, like normal guys do.

On Monday, however, I stepped outside the bus station on 32nd street (I think) and was hit in the face with a crippling arctic wind. I looked left, looked right, pulled out the map on my iPhone, looked left again, looked right again, heard the honks of the taxi cabs and havoc of city traffic, and stood wide-eyed as New Yorkers bumped by me with their coffees and briefcases on their way to work. I could finally somewhat tangibly comprehend the magnitude of this city I had always fantasized about.

We tried to find Times Square to pick up our Super Bowl credentials but ended up in an alley. We wondered if Times Square was a hoax, then decided we were just ignorant. Eventually, we found it, and the buildings pierced into the sky as an array of moving advertisements made my distracted eyes rattle in their cages.

I couldn’t help but think about how big New York City was, and how small I felt. I like moments like these—times when you realize how small you are. Because I think a life without transcendence only leads to misery. The most stressed and anxious people I know are those who believe it’s all up to them, who are consumed in their to-do lists and solving every problem that comes their way. And I confess, much of the time, I live like this. And maybe depression thrives from this, in the lie it’s all up to us, in the lie we are bigger than we actually are. If there is nothing that transcends, then on whom do we depend on? Ourselves.

This transcendence, I think, takes place on all levels—in the depths of who we are, and in crafts we perfect. When we attended Super Bowl Media Day at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Tuesday, it was apparent many of the Seattle Seahawks believed that sports were merely an avenue for something else to transcend. In one of my favorite interviews from that day, Seahawks defensive passing game coordinator Rocky Seto said the following:

“Ultimately, we like to use this platform of the Super Bowl to tell people that Jesus is the greatest treasure that you could ever hope to have…and He’s free! He’s free. Everyone would like to be on a Super Bowl team, but that lasts for a moment, and it’s over. I can’t remember who won a Super Bowl three years ago. I’d have to think really hard. But Jesus never changes.”

For many guys on the Seahawks, like quarterback Russell Wilson, left tackle Russell Okung, safety Chris Maragos, and long snapper Clint Gresham, this was the theme to not only their profession but also their entire being: transcendence. Sure, they want to win the Super Bowl—more than anything. But if this is where the world begins and ends, on the field at MetLife Stadium on Sunday, then it’s an awfully small world. There’s a freedom in feeling small in a big world, but bondage in feeling big in a small world. This is counter-cultural, but it is true.

As the week unfolded, this theme continued. We left New York City on Wednesday and stayed with one of my best friends in Philadelphia that evening. That night, we attended an event through “The Veritas Forum” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Irvine Auditorium, a building I can only describe as transcending itself, its very gothic architecture capturing your soul and stretching it into the spiritual, with its 11,000-pipe organ and a ceiling so high it’d have to be cleaned by an eagle with a can of Pledge.

One of the professors on the three-person panel was a concert pianist named Mia Chung. She has performed in concert halls around the world and has been widely praised throughout the media, including The New York Times. If that’s not impressive enough for you, she graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, received a master’s degree from Yale, and obtained a doctorate from Julliard.

Chung talked about how music has the ability to extend deeper than sound. It’s an opportunity for her, being created in the image of God, to relate to the Creator in her own creation of music. She hopes her music is a mere reflection, a droplet of heaven perhaps, that gives the listener a taste of something supernatural we all foundationally long for.

Isn’t this what music is? Isn’t this what sports are? They are a mere reflection of something transcending, propelling us into the mystery of wonder, whether it’s hope or joy or pain, a city whispering to its people to experience its magnitude.

And in this whisper, I find a call for my life to reflect the same.

ColumnSigBy Stephen Copeland

This column appeared in the February 2014 Sports Spectrum DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at stephen.copeland@sportsspectrum.com.

Sports Spectrum Female Athlete of the Year: Maya Moore

Los Angeles Sparks v Minnesota LynxDoes Maya Moore do anything but win?

Every step, every stage, that’s all she has done. She won three state titles with Collins Hill High School in Georgia, two national titles in college at the University of Connecticut, and three years into her professional career with the Minnesota Lynx, her winning ways have not changed.

Moore is coming off the best season of her WNBA career, where she led the Lynx in points, became the first person in WNBA history to lead the league in both three-point field goals and three-point shooting percentage, helped Minnesota post the best record in the WNBA for its third straight year, and led the Lynx to its second WNBA title in three years.

It’s easy to see why experts are saying the WNBA Finals MVP is on her way to becoming one of the league’s all-time greats. She was even sought out by Michael Jordan, specifically, two years ago, becoming Jordan Brand’s first female basketball signee. It’s not her rise to the top that makes her Sports Spectrum’s Female Athlete of the Year, but rather, more impressively, her persistence that has kept her there year in and year out.

It does make you wonder: When you have accomplished everything—championships on the high school, college, and professional level (and even a gold medal at the Olympics)—what is it that fuels your motivation?

“There are a lot of things I’m motivated by,” Moore told ESPN in December. “I think number one, it just comes down to being at a place where I know I’ve been given a great gift. I feel like God has blessed me with so many opportunities and talents and different people in my life. I just want to say thank you and live my life and compete in a way where I’m putting it all out there in everything that I do, that I’m an example. I’ve been given a platform. I’ve been given an opportunity to be an example and a shining light to bring people joy through sports. That’s really fun for me. That’s really satisfying. I love to hoop. I love to compete. I love to play ball.”

And it’s this side of Maya Moore, her spiritual side, that inspires her to continue perfecting her craft, even when she has accomplished so much already.

“Faith is at the core of who I am, everything that I do, it comes from the perspective of: am I glorifying God and what my purpose is,” Moore told NBC Nightly News in 2012. “I think God has created me in a way that I have certain talents, I have certain gifts, and I have certain passions, and the more I try to develop those and live them out, I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose. It’s bigger than just scoring a basket; it’s the impact I can make on somebody, the relationships I’ve built with my teammates and coaches.”

Few have experienced the level of winning Maya Moore has experienced in her 24 years on this earth, but when the championships and awards grow stale, and the praise of people feels empty, it’s her calling that keeps her motivated to play the game she loves. In fact, she calls Colossians 3:23—“Work hard and cheerfully at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people”—as the “ultimate motivation verse.”

“Growing up without really having a relationship, I was just all over the place, not really having a consistency in my life,” Moore told Sports Spectrum in 2011. “But God gave me something to work toward, something to aspire to be, some guidance.

“I feel like I found purpose. When you find your purpose and you find what you’re supposed to do, it’s a beautiful thing.”

By Stephen Copeland

This story was published in the January 2014 Sports Spectrum DigiMag.

The Mind of McCutchen

Washngton Nationals  v Pittsburgh PiratesSince being awarded the National League MVP in November, Pittsburgh Pirates star Andrew McCutchen gets the questions all the time.

What’s the key to success?

How did you get the MVP?

What makes you so calm and confident?

McCutchen’s start to the 2013 season, however, wasn’t exactly MVP-caliber. After signing a five-year contract extension the season before, McCutchen was quickly dubbed the savior of the Pittsburgh Pirates, the one who would help them bury their 20-year playoff slump and break their 20-year losing season streak, the longest in professional sports. He was the “Face of the Franchise,” with his warm smile and trendy dreadlocks, but he was hardly living up to that expectation.

Not at the start of 2013.

“If you would’ve told me at the start of the year that I was going to win the MVP,” McCutchen laughs, “I would have said, ‘I don’t know about all that.’”

Truth is, at the start of 2013, “Cutch” was anything but clutch.

McCutchen’s April batting average ranked 12th—and no, not in the league—on his own team. His slump at the end of April, a rotten 1-for-28 dry spell, was the worst of his career. In a contest against the Cardinals, McCutchen was even removed from the game.

His problems stretched into May, too, where he had another 2-for-19 slump, his second drought in the Pirates’ young season.

“My spring training wasn’t the best start ever,” McCutchen reflects. “Didn’t do too well. I didn’t feel the same way (I did the year before.) And the season had the same feeling. The first couple months were pretty difficult for me.”

Eventually, of course, his circumstances changed.

But not until he changed his way of thinking.

Bigger In The Low

Jump forward seven months. McCutchen nervously sits on stage at “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” as DeGeneres asks him, “Are you single, are you dating anyone?”

McCutchen points out his girlfriend of four years, Maria Hanslovan, in the audience, then asks her to come on stage. A video chronicling their relationship appears on the screen, McCutchen professes his love on one of the most popular talk show in America, then gets down on one knee and asks her to marry him. Hanslovan says “yes,” making McCutchen not only the best baseball player in the country but also probably the most romantic.

“I was trying to catch my breath,” McCutchen recalls. “Ellen was talking to me, and I don’t know, she started talking and I was talking back—then she jumped straight to the questions about Maria.

“She was supposed to ask me a couple more questions,” McCutchen laughs. “The fact she went straight to it made me more nervous. To her defense, she thought I was too nervous to even answer any more questions.”

It’s his fiancé Maria Hanslovan, McCutchen says, that helped him through his slump at the start of the 2013 season.

She didn’t fix it. She just pushed him deeper.

“We do a devotion together every day,” McCutchen says. “There were a few that we did and one that really stood out and made me think about my career. It made me ask the question, ‘Is my career more important or is my relationship with God more important?’ At the time, I was like, ‘You know what? The game of baseball has been kind of overtaking me.’”

It’s easy to understand how a guy like Andrew McCutchen could feel the pressure from a game like baseball. Whether it’s Barry Bonds or Doug Drabek, the Pirates are infamous for either losing their best players to free agency or trading them away. McCutchen may be the first sign of hope in Pittsburgh since the early 1990’s. And he seems to be in Pittsburgh to stay. But he also knows that, in a game as mental as baseball, succumbing to the pressure isn’t going to produce good results.

“Maria and I prayed, and I prayed on my own as well,” McCutchen continues. “I said, ‘You know, Lord, I’m going to give everything I’ve got. Even baseball, You gave me this. I’m supposed to give it back. I give everything I have to You. I do everything through You. I do everything for You. Just lead me in the direction I need to go in.’ I said, ‘If I didn’t have this game, it’s okay, because I’ll still have You, and I’ll still have You to lean on and go to.’

“From there, from that moment, everything just fell into place. I had a bigger outlook into things as the season.”

Transition

It really is fascinating to get a look inside the mind of one of the best players in the world, to catch a glimpse into the mentality of a player who went on to lead the Pirates in just about every offensive statistical category (hits, runs, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), won the NL MVP award by a landslide (receiving 28 of the 30 first-place votes), and helped lead the Pirates to their first post-season appearance and winning season in 20 years.

And the look inside may surprise you.

“I was maybe hitting .200 the first month and the second month wasn’t that much better, and out of nowhere I started picking it up and getting better and getting better,” McCutchen recalls. “But that didn’t just happen. I was getting closer to God. The closer I got to God, the closer relationship I got with Him, the easier it was to play the game of baseball.”

McCutchen is not one who believes God grants him success on the field if he pays his respects. He doesn’t believe God is a lucky rabbit’s foot or genie. But he does believe that having a worldview bigger than baseball and an identity breaching deeper than his batting average has the ability to free up his mind. Plus, enjoying and experiencing a constant God makes for a much better life than enjoying and experiencing the ebb and flow of an inconstant game.

“The game is not mine,” McCutchen says. “It doesn’t control me. I give it all to God. People say that when something happens to you with the Lord, you start to see things different. That’s kind of the way I started seeing things…and the more I started to see things differently, the more my game took off. I think that, in a nutshell, is kind of what I tell people. My success, that’s how it happened for me.

“I’m not saying that you get results on the field because you give your life to God. But it’s just the fact of saying that if there is anything in life that you do or anything that you want, make God the center of your attention, and He will open your eyes to make things a lot easier for you to see. And it makes failure easier to be able to encounter because you know that God is there. You know it’s just an obstacle He put you through to get you where He wants you to go.”

Bigger In The High

What’s most intriguing, perhaps, is that his worldview does not change in light of winning one of the most prestigious awards in Major League Baseball. When you ask him about it, you probably won’t get much more than a laugh and a simple, “It’s awesome, it’s cool.”

Just as a .200 batting average at the start of the season wasn’t what is most true of him, neither is an award. An identity that begins and ends with something this world creates is, frankly, a shallow identity.

McCutchen’s identity, rather, is in two things: loving others and loving God.

“If I fail, I know that I’ll be alright because I have so many things I can look at and know that, you know what, my life isn’t based on results,” McCutchen says. “My life is based on how I can make a difference in someone else’s life…There are other things in life that are so much more important that the game of baseball.”

It’s why McCutchen views each game as an opportunity to serve the sometimes 40,000 people that pack into PNC Park to watch the Pirates.

says. “Knowing that I could change a kid’s life by signing an autograph or talking to him is the reason I’m there. There are so many people out here who just come to get away from home or get away from life and feel like when they show up at a ballpark, all that stuff that happens on the outside gets put on pause. People show up at a ballpark to get away from it.”

It’s also why McCutchen is the spokesperson for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Pittsburgh and founded Cutch’s Crew in 2010, an organization that mentors inner city youth baseball players and at-risk children.

And it’s also why McCutchen approaches professional sports in a way that may as well be labeled counter-cultural.

“For me as a player, I’m not a big personal goal person,” McCutchen says. “I feel like personal goals can make you become selfish. It’s a team sport. If I want to hit .300 for the year, and I’m in the last month of the year and I’m at .295, then I’m going to start thinking selfishly that I need to get some hits so I can get my average up. Then I start thinking more about myself than I do my team. The only personal goal I set for myself is: What can I do to make the team better?”

Winning the NL MVP will certainly do that.

And yet, as good as 2013 was for Andrew McCutchen, it’s his perspective that developed throughout the year that allows him to say the following:

“I know there are a lot of people who would love to have the MVP,” McCutchen says. “It’s awesome to have it. But when you start to figure out that the Lord is the foundation of your life, the MVP is nothing compared to the love of God and what He can do for your life.

“There’s no comparison.”

By Stephen Copeland

This story was published in the January 2014 Sports Spectrum DigiMag.

Another Angle — Deeper peace, more and more

Carolina Panthers v Buffalo BillsKeep going,” my editor said.

“Okay,” I replied, as I veered from turning onto the street where the Sports Spectrum offices are located.

We needed to get away. It was deadline week at Sports Spectrum, which means sleepless nights, burning eyes, and a terribly strange aroma in my office that smells like Panera coffee and Little Caesars pizza. During these weeks, my editor and I often find it helpful to get out of the office and drive around.

We made our way down a country road just east of Charlotte, N.C. I have several favorite roads in Charlotte and this is one of them. Another is across the border in South Carolina. It’s on these roads that I can disappear from the clutter of life and city traffic and shout country lyrics out my sunroof. I find peace on these roads.

We continued driving and noticed a Christmas tree farm and tiny produce hut on the right side of the road.

“I want to smell a Christmas tree,” I told my editor.

“Okay,” he laughed.

We pulled over and I got out of the car and stuck my nose in the tree like my dog used to do in my mother’s garden, like I was sniffing for a squirrel. It sounds weird, but I experience God in little things like these, scents and such. I think if I ever meet a girl who smells like a Christmas pine, I may marry her.

My editor bought some boiled peanuts and a Christmas wreath. As he was about to pay, he saw some roses and bought those, too. I’ve noticed his flower purchases increase dramatically during deadline week.

“I better get these for my wife,” he told the clerk, this country-looking fellow with a snowcap and a beard that reminded me of Zac Brown. “Haven’t been home for a while,” my editor continued. Zac Brown laughed.

Turns out, Zac Brown and I started talking for a while, for an hour at least. He and his brother started their little produce stand when he was 13 years old. Now, he’s 30. He found excitement, not at the club in the flashing lights and pulsing beats, but here on the farm. He found enjoyment in the outdoors, in this business he had built, in nature-oriented things like studying exotic animals. He had a couple of hedgehogs once, and he sold them on the Internet.

I drew the conclusion he may be the simplest man I ever met. He said he worked in the city once because he was trying to “make it” in life, but then he realized he couldn’t explain what “making it” meant, so he went back to the farm. “Making it,” he defined, is a peace of mind, not dollar signs or a better résumé. I found Zac Brown wise.

Someone drove by and honked. He waved.

“That’s my aunt,” he said. “She has a barbershop across the street. My grandparents live over there, too. If you go over there, Grandma will probably offer you a cold Pepsi and ask you to sit on the porch.”

Everything that was a part of this man—his demeanor, his business, his family, the fact that our conversation seemed to be the most important thing in the world to him—breathed peace and simplicity.

I identified with him because we both love what we do. What was different about him was the peace he had throughout the process, with each and every conversation he had with a customer. Sometimes I don’t have peace until I complete a project…then I savor it for a moment, perhaps reward myself with a coffee…then I move onto the next one.

As I talked to Zac Brown, I was reminded of my interview with Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, whose story is featured in this magazine. It’s titled “Peace In The Walls” because I felt like the quiet and open feel of Smith’s Charlotte home was a perfect metaphor to describe Smith’s personality. This may surprise people because of Smith’s intensity on the football field. But he says he has found a peace that only comes from the Lord. Sometimes, he just sits in his study in complete silence in reflection and prayer. I can’t tell you the last time I did that.

I identified with Smith because we had both found peace in Christ. What was different about us was the calm and quiet of his life.

One night, my mentor took me to a hole-in-the-wall, smoky, music venue in uptown Charlotte. It didn’t take long to notice a man in the mix of the people on the dance floor. He was dancing wildly but alone, significantly overweight, sweating profusely, and I think the poor guy even had suspenders on.

I felt bad for him as many pointed and laughed and whipped out their phones to Snapchat their friends. And yet, watching him was one of the most beautiful sights I’d ever seen. He had the biggest smile on his face, his eyes were closed, and he swayed his hips and pumped his fists and got lost in the soul of the saxophone. He lived for this. Nothing, not even the childish perceptions of those around him, could affect his peace of mind.

I identified with him because I wished I could be him, to have such a peace where perceptions did not matter and perceptions of my performance did not matter.

As my editor and I drove back from the farm that day, I thought about this peace I have found in Christ, and how I’m challenged to experience this peace more and more, to allow sanctification to run its course, to find peace in the process like the man on the farm, calm and quiet like the man who plays football, and content away from perceptions like the man lost in the music.

ColumnSigBy Stephen Copeland

This column appeared in the December 2013 DigiMag and the Vol. 28, No. 1 print magazine. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at stephen.copeland@sportsspectrum.com.

Devotional of the Week — Unfathomable Grace

IMAG0050“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64:6

There were times in my athletic career that I made “working” an idol. If I wasn’t No. 1 on the team, or if I wasn’t on the varsity team, I would work harder…and harder…and harder. Somewhere, in the depths of my mind, was the thought that if I kept working, I would one day be rewarded for all I have done.

I think I did this with my spiritual life for some time, too. Actually, I think we all do. After all, what do they tell you when you first become saved? You are told to read your Bible more and spend time with the Lord in prayer. These aren’t bad things, but the idea projected upon us, often times, is the concept of works.

I’ve found freedom once I’ve stopped trying, once I’ve recognized that I am His beloved and there is nothing I can do to earn this love, that my good deeds are filthy rags compared to His glory. Interestingly, all of that has made me “try” more because I’m caught up in the mystery of this grace and long to learn more and more about it.

There is nothing you can do. And, to me, that is what is so freeing and captivating about the gospel. Though there is nothing I can do, it’s unfathomable grace that makes me fall more in love.

By Stephen Copeland, Sports Spectrum

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum Magazine. Log in here to access our most recent Training Table. Subscribe here to receive 12 issues a year and a daily sports-related devotional.

Uncommon Challenge