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.

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 3.58.23 PM

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

Screen Shot 2014-02-07 at 3.59.01 PM

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

IMG_0022

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.

Life ‘Til Gain

MortonSpreadTaylor Morton was a 14-year-old boy, innocent and impressionable, athletic and adventurous, a typical eighth grader whose biggest concern was sports…then maybe school…then maybe girls, whatever “girls” were.

It was an Alabama April. Soon, school would be over. Soon, it would be summer.

These were the summers of their youth that Taylor and his two younger brothers, Trent (12) and TJ (8) loved to conquer, there in the tiny town of Centreville Ala., there on the banks of the Cahaba River.

Sometimes, they would spend all day at their family’s farm, fishing and four-wheeling and playing imaginary games in those beckoning open fields—there in Neverland, there with one another.

Sometimes, their parents, Terry and Tammy, would take them on a family vacation to the Alabama gulf, and as the three boys kicked in the sand and played in the waves, it’s not far-fetched to think their parents watched from a distance, smiling at the sight of their three beautiful and healthy children playing together, children whom they believed were gifts from the Lord above.

More than anything, summers were spent playing sports. Football. Baseball. Basketball. You name it. Taylor was the best at football; Trent was the best at basketball; and TJ was showing a particular interest in baseball. Sports were at the core of who the Mortons were. With three boys, what can you expect?

Terry coached Taylor in every sport throughout junior high, and coaches at the nearby Bibb County High School looked forward to the day where Taylor and Trent, who were only one grade apart, would complete junior high and play alongside one another in high school. Taylor and Trent looked forward to that day, too. Two brothers. Two best friends. Playing on the same team.

Faith, perhaps, was the only thing more engrained in the Mortons than sports. Every Sunday was spent at Centreville Baptist Church, where Terry was a deacon. Everyone knew the Mortons were about two things, faith and family. They were staples in the Centreville community.

On this particular Sunday, this Sunday on the first of April, with spring making the turn, school nearing the final stretch, and a southern summer on the horizon, Taylor got home from church in the afternoon. Trent had gone fishing with a friend, TJ had gone to a birthday party, and his father had a deacon’s meeting that evening. Taylor stayed home all day.

Nightfall fell upon central Alabama, and Taylor walked outside to take the trash out. A car pulled into the driveway. It was the family of Trent’s friend.

“Where’s your dad at?” they asked, rolling down the window.

“He’s still at a deacon’s meeting,” Taylor responded.

“Okay,” they said, pulling back out of the driveway.

Not much time passed before another car pulled into the Mortons’ driveway. It was the deacons from church. They carried Taylor’s father inside and sat him down, as if he was too weak to walk on his own.

Taylor noticed his father was crying. He had never seen him cry before. Taylor looked up at his father, his eyes posing a question mixed with curiosity and fear.

“Trent has been killed,” his father choked, answering his eyes.

An SUV had slammed into him as he crossed the road on his four-wheeler that evening. He died instantly.

April 1, 2007.

The year that summer never came.

MortonSpread2

Card 1 And Card 2

What do you do when you lose your brother and best friend at an age in life when all you really need is a brother and a best friend, when your innocence is lost, when the defining moment of your childhood is one so depressing it has potential to destroy?

“I just felt sick to my stomach,” Taylor says softly. “Broken.”

The day after Trent was killed, Taylor remembers dropping to his knees in his Alabama home and crying out to God. “Here I am,” he prayed. “Use me.”

It sounds strange, but in the wake of losing his brother and best friend, when all was lost, maybe Jesus was all Taylor Morton had. And perhaps that was the moment he also realized Jesus was all he needed.

“I came to a crossroads that day,” Taylor says. “I said, ‘God, I can either choose to trust you or I can turn away.’ But thankfully and prayerfully, God led me to choose to trust Him and follow Him and sell out to Him. Did I choose to do that? No. But God led me to do that.”

Two weeks after the accident, an autopsy was performed on Trent McDaniel Morton. They found a Snicker’s bar in his pocket…along with some airsoft BBs…and a little notecard. Random things.

No one knows why Trent had this particular notecard in his pocket, perhaps from church that morning, but on it were three words: “NEVER, NEVER QUIT.”

To Taylor, the crumbled-up notecard may as well have been a letter from God Himself, an extended hand from the heavens pulling him up from the ground, the Spirit breathing life back into his core.

“God spoke to me through that card,” Taylor says. “He said, ‘Taylor, no matter how tough life gets, no matter if you are at your bottom’s edge or the world’s worst, don’t give up because there is hope in Me.’ Through that card, I realized that. The phrase has just been with me and stuck with me…Are you willing to get back up or not? Are you going to quit? Or are you going to keep on going? In my own little 14-year-old brain, I said, ‘God, I’m not going to quit. I’m not going to give up.’”

All throughout the spring and summer—that blur of time that extended for season upon season—the Mortons received several notes of encouragement in the mail. And it was on another card that Taylor experienced a second revelation.

“I don’t even know who sent it or what was on it. But I remember the Bible verse at the end,” Taylor says. “The Bible verse had Romans 8:28, ‘For Christ works all things for the good of those who love him.’ At the time I saw the verse, I wasn’t thrilled to see it. I said, ‘God, how in the world could you possibly work something good out of this?’”

Why And How

Trent wasn’t beside Taylor as he went through high school, as he played football and basketball and baseball and golf, as he was invited by Nick Saban and the University of Alabama to join the team as a preferred walk-on safety, as he won back-to-back national championships in 2011 and 2012 as an underclassman for the Crimson Tide. They were supposed to experience those years together, the years they always dreamed about, the years each summer was building towards—but they were scraped away at twilight on April 1, 2007.

And yet, throughout that time, Taylor clung to what was revealed to him those two cards—one, that he would not quit on God as the notecard in his brother’s pocket encouraged; and, two, that something good would come from all of his family’s tears.

These two concepts, perhaps, freed Taylor from explaining the “why,” a mystery as unexplainable as God Himself, and pushed his thinking more into the “how”—how he would allow it to become a part of his story, how he would allow God to use his story as a blessing to others. In understanding the “how,” Taylor waited expectantly for the “good.” And it came.

Churches and organizations in the south started contacting him to preach and share his story, a story he was willing to share. The Trent McDaniel Morton Scholarship was created in his brother’s name, and since 2007, more than $40,000 has been given to students across the sate of Alabama.

A ministry also arose from Taylor’s testimony called Converge Ministries. Its mission is to “break down racial, social and denominational barriers that hinder believers from coming together and worshiping the One, True, and Living God.” On February 1, 2014, Converge is having a conference in Northport, Ala., called “The Cost” featuring hip-hop artist Kryst Lyke and musical artists Rush of Fools and Kari Jobe. Last year, 4,000 people came to the Converge conference in Bibb County.

“If my two sons grow up to be anything like him, I’ll know my wife and I have done a good job,” says Taylor’s high school football coach, Mike Battles Jr. “He came up here recently to speak about his life and his mission. They liked it so much, they’ve already invited him back.”

All of this…while he’s still in college. Not every Division I athlete stands alongside Nick Saban and A.J. McCarron at the Sugar Bowl and manages a non-profit ministry on the side.

The “how,” Taylor has found, is tangible. The “why” is maddening.

Fourteen And Twenty

The worst thing about the “whys,” however, is that sometimes they don’t end.

This past summer, Taylor Morton was in a hospital room. He had appendicitis and surgery in June, and he returned to Tuscaloosa for a follow-up appointment while his family stayed at the beach for vacation. He was hopeful to receive news from the doctor that he would be cleared to start rehab in time for his junior season for the Crimson Tide. He was ready to play football again.

The doctor walked into the room.

“Are your parents here?” the doctor asked.

“No, why?” Taylor responded. “I’m 20 years old,” he laughed.

“Well, we have something a little serious,” the doctor responded.

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Well,” the doctor hesitated, “We found a tumor on your appendix wall, and it was bursting into your colon. Normally, that would be fine. But the aggression of your tumor, and the fact that it is a malignant cancerous tumor means that we need to remove part of your colon to get the cancer out.”

“Can you call my mom?” Taylor asked quietly.

Losing a brother at 14. Cancer at 20.

MortonSpread2

Living and Gaining

Taylor went back to his apartment. His girlfriend came over. His family cut vacation short and headed back to Tuscaloosa. How much more can a family handle?

“I was just sitting there, thinking, and my mind started wandering, ‘Is this it? What’s going to happen?’” Taylor reflects. “But then something dawned on me: I can take this on. ‘You know what?’ I told God, ‘If I have to go through chemo or treatments, I’m ready to start it and I’m ready to fight this fight. God, if it’s Your will to take me tomorrow or the next year, or now, whatever, Your will be done.’ I was scared. I was nervous. I was 20 years old and found out I had cancer….But did I take it on myself? No. God was right there with me.”

Perhaps when you realize dying is gaining, it really allows you to live.

It frees you.

“No matter what happens in life, I go back to that verse,” Taylor says. “God will make something good happen. The Bible says, ‘to live is Christ, to die is gain.’ I mean, think about that, to die is gain. When I die, I will spend eternity in heaven. Nothing is greater than that. But while I’m living here, I’m living for Christ, and there’s nothing better than that! It’s a win-win situation. That reflects on what Romans 8:28 says. All things. The good. The bad. And the ugly. He works all things together for His glory.”

The doctors went in and removed the right part of Taylor’s colon. They took it head on. No treatment. No shots. No radiation. And as of right now, Taylor Morton is cancer free. In the spring, he’ll have a chance to play football again for the University of Alabama.

“Taylor is one of the few I’ve been around, that what you see is what you get,” Battles continues. “He could take on something as traumatic as losing a younger brother and having to deal with cancer, and I don’t know too many people who could handle that, but he was able to take those two unfortunate incidents and turn it around to change people’s lives.”

And so, Taylor Morton will live ‘til he gains, never quit and notice the good.

“I have seen God make something beautiful out of something so ugly,” Taylor says. “I’ve seen Him write a story, write a book. And I’ve seen it firsthand. I’m just the pages He is writing on. I don’t necessarily know why all this has happened, but I’m thankful God has chosen to use these things I’ve been through to help other people. I’m blessed to have that. ‘Blessed to have my brother taken?’ you might ask. ‘Blessed to have cancer?’ Oh, it hurts. Nothing will ever change that. But the more I grow in Christ, the more I fall in love with Christ, the more I see how blessed I am to have gone through that, to be able to share the love of Jesus Christ with others because of it. It’s a beautiful thing.”

By Stephen Copeland

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

Peace In The Walls

Steve Smith Spread

The office in Steve Smith’s Charlotte, N.C., home could pass as a closet in the Sistine Chapel, the arched ceiling painted in a greenish hue, clouds bleeding onto the woodwork, angels appearing to descend from their universe, a biblical story in each corner.

The front left corner is a painting of Eve leaning against Adam in the Garden of Eden, representing Smith’s renewed relationship with his wife, Angie. The back left corner is of the Good Samaritan, representing Smith’s heartbeat for Samaritan’s Feet, a ministry that provides shoes for millions around the world.

It’s as if Michelangelo somehow dipped his paintbrush in Steve Smith’s soul and started painting.

The front right corner features Jesus standing in front of the Apostles at the Last Supper—love and sacrifice. The back right corner reveals Christ’s empty tomb—hope and victory.

The words, “CREATOR, FAITHFUL, HOLY, WARRIOR, PROTECTOR” are carved into the wood beneath the paintings on the left; and the words “STRENGTH, POWER, REDEEMER, RIGHTEOUS, SOVEREIGN, MERCY” are on the right.

The art and architecture of his office points upward, challenging him to do the same with his life.

His office is not lavished with awards; the only visible trophy is a commemorative football for having the most receptions in Carolina Panthers history. There is a globe on his empty desk and a model sailboat on his bookshelf. Everything indicates he’s a scholar, theologian, or romantic, not a five-time Pro Bowler.

“Today, I am at peace where I am in life,” Smith says. “I’m happy being Steve Smith. I’m happy being a husband. I’m happy being a father. I’m happy not being one of the most popular or successful wide receivers. I’m happy where I am.”

There is peace here, in this office, in the stories on the ceiling, in the words on the woodwork, in the man who frequently sits at his mahogany desk in solitude.

A peace he has finally found.

Chaos

Steve Smith thought about it. He thought about ending it all.

It was 2010, and he and his wife were legally separated. For half the season, he either lived with his teammate or stayed in his own guesthouse, as his wife and children slept in their extravagant, 12,000 square foot home 20 yards away. Sometimes Smith would look out the guesthouse bathroom window and see the side window of he and his wife’s bedroom, where he should be, where he once was, before this chasm came between them, this lawn that felt more like a canyon.

“To live in a huge house and now be quarantined and sectioned off to one place, by your own actions, that’s what you call ‘eating crow,’” Smith says.

He pauses, “God broke me.”

Smith thought about it. He thought about ending it all—not his marriage, it already seemed to be over, but his life.

It crossed his mind—sneaking out of his guesthouse in the middle of the night…walking 20 yards across the lawn to his main house, where his wife and children slept, separated from this husband and monster of a man he had become…grabbing his shotgun…placing the barrel in his mouth…and pulling the trigger.

It’d be easier, he would think to himself.

He wouldn’t have to go through a divorce or try to fix his marriage, not if a bullet was in his brain. He wouldn’t have to admit his mistakes or pay the consequences, not if an empty shotgun shell was lying on the floor. He wouldn’t have to work on anything; he wouldn’t have to be trapped in his sin and pride that prevented him from admitting it, not if he was dead. It’d be easier, he would think to himself. It’d be easier for everyone.

“I was thinking about committing suicide,” Smith pauses. “I lost the trust of my wife. I lost everything that is valuable in a marriage or being a father or being a husband. She didn’t believe in me. And I lost being the knight in shining armor for her.”

There was no “off” switch to his mind, no filter to his thoughts, no sleep. It was as if an irremovable black veil shielded him from beauty and hope, as if the devil himself built a tower in his mind.

“Idle time is the devil’s workshop,” Smith reflects. “I was discouraged. I felt like there was no hope…And I was sitting there trying to figure out what I was gonna do. The easiest thing for me to say was, ‘You know what, I’m going to take my own life.’ I didn’t want to deal with my consequences.”

Steve Smith’s life was chaos, and one echoing click and sharp pop would be his portal to peace.

“There was a night where I thought about it,” Smith says. “It was just a walk across to the main house to get my gun.

“But there is a guy that I marvel at in the Scriptures. I think he is amazing. A lot of people look at a guy like David, and they say, ‘Man, he’s successful.’ But they don’t understand the journey he went through.

“And I remember reading about when David stayed home during the war, and he caught himself with his idle time, sitting on a rooftop, and he took gaze upon Bathsheba, and he had a child and he lost it. I was just reading in the Scriptures, and hearing David cry out to God, and I was thinking, ‘If a guy who has been through this and has been punished like this can still be called ‘a man after God’s own heart,’ then maybe I’ve got a shot at something.’”

SmithSpread

Oxygen

Smith got out of the shower and dried off in the mirror.

It was 2002, and the Carolina Panthers were on the road against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His career was taking off. After making the Pro Bowl the season before during his rookie season as a punt and kick returner, he earned a starting wide receiver role in 2002. He had every reason to look in the mirror and see a star. But he didn’t.

“For the first time, I did not recognize the person in the mirror,” Smith says. “It was not Stevonne Smith. I didn’t like him. I just broke down and started crying.”

The NFL changed him. He allowed the NFL to change him.

“I was unrecognizable to myself,” he continues. “And for people who are reading this article who ask, ‘How’s that?’, we’ve all had moments in our lives where we look in the mirror and go, ‘What am I doing?’ I didn’t like my intentions. My intentions were like anyone else: young, dumb and no direction.”

Smith opened the top dresser drawer in his hotel room and picked up the Gideon Bible, searching for something, searching for direction, but found nothing.

Remember when Jacob tells Ruben he is as ‘unstable as water?’” Smith says, referencing Genesis 49. “That was me. That’s where I was.”

When Smith boarded the team bus, he started looking for the Panthers team chaplain, Mike Bunkley, desperate for someone to talk to. When they got to the stadium, Smith says Bunkley led him to Christ in the boiler room of the Buccaneers stadium. “Every time I walk in there, it’s a special place,” Smith says.

But Christianity is more of a process than a moment, and as the years went by, Smith’s stardom continued to bloom. A seed of faith was planted that day in Tampa, but the NFL continued to change him. He led the Panthers in receptions (88) when they went to the Super Bowl in 2003; and after breaking his fibula in 2004, Smith bounced back in 2005 with the best season of his career with 103 receptions and 1,563 yards, earning him a share of the Comeback Player of the Year award.

He purchased a gigantic Charlotte home for him and his wife, Angie, who he married his senior year at the University of Utah, and his three children: Peyton, Baylee and Boston. It had a guesthouse and everything else you can imagine. He was flying high, both on and off the field, or so it seemed.

“We lived in a huge house and had rooms where we could hide from each other,” Smith says of him and his wife. “I added things that were very lavish. She did her thing. I did my thing.”

“It was not one thing that led to our split,” he continues. “When you have a falling out with someone, it’s the multiple offenses, the multiple disrespect, the many times of harsh language; for me, for the most part after I accepted Christ, the thing that led to our separation was my ineffectiveness and inability for me to be the spiritual leader of my household.”

After nearly a decade of marriage, several children, and acquiring a staggering amount of money, Smith and Angie lost the connection they once had as students at the University of Utah.

“I heard this story,” Smith says, preparing to explain a marriage metaphor. “The airline stewardess before every flight tells you that whenever you are traveling with young kids, before you put the oxygen mask on your kids, put it on yourself. I think, for a long time, couples, including myself, have put the oxygen mask on their kids first and not on themselves. Eventually, the relationship dies off because it has no oxygen.”

By 2010, Smith and Angie were running out of air.

Woodshed

Steve Smith thought about it. He thought about taking his life.

But then he thought about how cowardly it would be. He thought about David in the Bible, how, if he could be called “a man after God’s own heart,” then maybe Steve Smith had a chance. He allowed God to break him, to humble him, to take Steve Smith, the clay, and have His way with it.

“No,” Smith says. “God went to the woodshed on me.”

Smith was on a road to recovery, of reconciliation, of healing.

“At first, I said, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m going to follow Christ because I want to show my wife what she’s missing out on.’ That didn’t last very long. I realized that if I wanted to do it, I had to do it for the right reasons, to honor God. I did it because I wanted to live. I wanted to be free.

“I wanted to be at peace.”

They started over, students at Utah again, holding hands and walking across campus. God took Smith to the woodshed, and Smith didn’t leave until God said he could, broken but reborn, humbled but stronger.

“Reconciliation happened by doing what most men don’t want to do: talk,” Smith says. “Turning over stones. Looking under rocks. Being truthful.”

Perhaps the most humbling thing about going to the woodshed is that God cares enough to take you there, to make you better, to save your marriage, to crush you, to extinguish your sin.

“God is real,” he says. “And even though you may not see Him, He loves you more than anything. God will leave those 99 sheep to pursue that one.”

A year later, in April of 2011, Angie was diagnosed with lupus, a cruel, mysterious disease that is the result of deficiencies in the immune system. And for the first time in their marriage, she had to depend on Smith. Also, for the first time, Smith was dependable.

“God was preparing me for that moment,” he says.

Smith remembers sitting on the couch some afternoons with Angie, barely able to lift herself. “She was broken,” he says. “She had no energy. She was torn down. God was preparing my family.”

Doctors later discovered it was mononucleosis; but the uncertainty of the whole situation and the incorrect diagnosis forced the weight of Smith’s family and his wife’s health to fall on his shoulders.

And he could finally handle it.

SmithSpread2

Peace

The phone rings, piercing the silence in his house. It’s his wife.

“Hey, baby,” he says.

This is a different husband than the one who was living in his guesthouse three years ago. This is a different Steve Smith; days before, he returned from leading a Samaritan’s Feet shoe distribution to the Dominican Republic with his son. And this is a different house.

“We eventually sold that house, not necessarily because of bad memories, but because of everything it represented,” Smith says. “It represented greed…just…you know…just…all the things you would associate with success.”

His current home is a picture of the peace he has found. It is nice but not like his 12,000 square foot home several years prior. His kitchen, living room, and entryway are all connected. His house has an open feel. There is nowhere to hide, and Smith has nothing to hide. He is unashamedly himself, blunt and bold, transparent and vulnerable, but only with those he trusts.

“I’ve been encouraged as I’ve gotten older and Christ has gotten ahold of me to be vulnerable, to be transparent, to allow people to see, ‘Hey, I am flawed, and I have made mistakes’…If you don’t go through what you’re going through, you won’t grow.”

All is quiet. You can hear your feet on the floorboards and the birds chirping out back. Steve Smith likes quiet.

Finally, there’s peace.

“The peace comes from the Lord,” he says. “It’s not manufactured or bought. You can’t get it at your local super market. You can’t take any pills. It’s a privilege. It’s a gift.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine.

Uncommon Challenge