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.

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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.

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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

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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.’”

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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.

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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.

Another Angle — Dear Coach Bliss

BlissAndSteveCoach Dave Bliss,

I’m not sure when I started calling you “Coach.” It just kind of happened. I suppose it’s fitting since that’s what you are—from your assistant coaching days under Bob Knight at West Point and Indiana; to your head coaching days at Oklahoma, SMU, New Mexico and Baylor; and even now as the athletic director at Allen Academy in Bryan, Texas.

You’re a coach. And you have 500 NCAA victories to prove it.

But I also think I started calling you “Coach” because of how you’ve coached me. As I reflect on my week-long visit with you in Texas in October, I find it remarkable how a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old kid can connect so well. You’re old enough to be my grandfather, but I feel like we were in the same fraternity. I suppose that’s the way it should be in the body of Christ.

I wanted to write you a letter because I know how much you like letters. As we spent hours sifting through boxes upon boxes of 36 years worth of your dust-covered coaching memories, I saw plenty of letters. Many were written to you after the scandal unfolded at Baylor in 2003 and the NCAA slapped you with a 10-year coaching ban, one of the harshest penalties in college basketball history.

I believe you saved the letters because of how much they meant to you. They breathed life into you. They kept you afloat when your career and everything you had built in three respected decades of coaching came tumbling down. You were broken over your sin—how you illegally paid for two scholarships out of your own pocket and an unrelated murder between two of your players brought your deception to the surface—and you fled from Waco, Texas, to Denver, Colo., trying to escape from all you had done.

Each letter of encouragement you received in Denver, whether it was from Baylor president Robert Sloan or Bob Knight’s ghostwriter Bob Hammel, was much more than a letter. It was a droplet of grace, a sealed, stamped envelope with a reminder of God’s love inside.

I’ve told you this before, but the only difference between your sins and mine are that my sins aren’t all over SportsCenter. I believe we’ve all looked in the mirror and didn’t like the person staring back at us. And sometimes that causes us to do crazy things, like buy nice clothes or puke in the toilet or read the Bible more, thinking we can do something to fix it—when really, all along, God is just asking us to open the envelope He has individually addressed to each one of us and remove a letter that reads, “I love you more than you can ever imagine.”

One of my favorite parts of my week with you in Texas was sitting in your house each evening and quoting passages from Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel. To quote Manning, I think a letter from God may read something like this, “I love you just as you are, not as you should be.”

I had a blast with you in Texas, whether it was golfing at Miramont Country Club or sitting in on an A&M basketball practice at Reed Arena or watching Johnny Manziel torch Vanderbilt in football at Kyle Field. But I think it was talking with you about God’s grace and Ragamuffin Gospel over dinner in the evening that I enjoyed the most. It was wrestling with God’s grace that I enjoyed the most.

As you drove me back to the Austin airport, I caught myself gazing out the window, marveling at the gigantic Texas sky. It seemed to get bigger and bigger the more I looked at it. It reminded me of a quote you told me throughout the week, “What you focus on expands.”

I wonder if grace is like the Texas sky. The more you marvel at it, the more you grasp its immensity. Coach Bliss, you have helped me consider that the purpose of life may be about one thing, one profound yet simple thing: Experiencing and enjoying God’s love. Focusing on it. Swimming in it. Watching it expand. What a freeing, simple revelation when we realize there are no “spiritual cosmetics” we need to apply for Him to love us.

The night you took me back to the airport, I couldn’t find a hotel in Austin. Longing for adventure, I ended up taking a shuttle downtown to Sixth Street on Halloween and spending the night on the floor of the Austin airport. On the bus ride back to the terminal, I met a recovering heroine and cocaine addict named Ernest who used to be a pimp in San Antonio and had gone to prison for theft. I immediately liked Ernest. He was broken like me. He was broken like us.

Ernest and I ended up chatting at the airport for the next three hours—about Jesus, life, and what it’s like to be a pimp in San Antonio. At one point, he rolled up his sleeve and showed me his bruised forearm where he shot up for years upon years, where he got a dragon tattoo to hide the shame from future employers.

Ernest told me he sometimes looks in the mirror and asks himself, “Who am I?” Then he asked me the question, “Who are you?” I paused, told him I had been thinking about that same thing, then said to him, “I am loved.”

Coach Bliss, thank you for helping me realize that. You have coached me in grace. Your friendship is just another reminder of those three simple words God wants to ink on our identity, to replace our bruises of sin and scandals with a different scandal, the scandal of grace.

I look forward to focusing on this reality of grace more and more with you. Most of all, I think I look forward to watching it expand.

Sincerely,
Your Ragamuffin Friend

ColumnSigBy Stephen Copeland

This column appeared in the November 2013 DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at stephen.copeland@sportsspectrum.com.

Unfazed

BillyKennedy1Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy and his assistant coach, Mitch Cole, are in the team film room.

Kennedy sits in the middle of the room, its theatre-seating funneling toward the screen in front of them, tables running across each row, black-and-white A&M basketball photos and inspirational quotes plastered on the side walls. Kennedy’s plastic plate from lunch, littered with crumbs and a banana peel, is sitting on the table, as he casually leans back in his chair. It’s just past noon in College Station, Texas.

Cole sits up front, controlling the computer, as he pulls up different officiating videos sent from the NCAA, explaining the rule changes for the upcoming 2013-14 season. The season is indeed upon them, as they are scheduled to face Texas Christian University in a closed-to-the-public exhibition game that evening.

“We need to make sure we show that clip to our kids,” Kennedy makes a note, his voice soft and low.

The video ends and Cole exits the computer window. He opens another window—there are at least four of these video files the NCAA has sent to each coaching staff around the country.

The Kansas State against La Salle game appears on the screen, one of the biggest upsets in last year’s NCAA tournament. “Oh, I remember that,” Kennedy says, as a particular play unfolds on the screen.

He leans back and studies the rule change, decides whether or not he agrees with it, then thinks about how it will affect his team and the way his players play.

Nothing is unordinary about the scene. Every coach in the country is watching the same videos. And nothing seems unordinary about Billy Kennedy.

As he leaves the film room with his sports information director, it’s easy to see why Texas A&M was always Kennedy’s dream job. Not that this is why, but walking through A&M’s basketball facilities has the feel you have ventured places you shouldn’t, like an underground storage area for America’s nuclear weapons—punch codes that open double-glass doors, an elevator that takes you back to the athletic offices on the third floor of Reed Arena, and a giant glass wall in Kennedy’s office that overlooks A&M’s practice court.

His office is spacious, with couches and chairs and a conference table. His desk sits in the back right corner, a picture hanging above it; it’s of him and his youngest daughter, Anna Cate, cutting down the net when he won his first Ohio Valley Conference championship at Murray State University in 2010.

He sits down at the conference table. It’s cluttered with black, silicone wristbands. Each wristband has “Matt. 13:8” etched in bold, red lettering, with the other side reading “100x, 60x, 30x.” He hands them out to everyone he meets.

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The theme behind the wristbands, of course, is Matthew 13:8: “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

“It’s about using our talents and our gifts to glorify the Kingdom and allowing Jesus to multiply them,” he explains, picking up a wristband. “I gave them to our guys, read them the verse, and shared with them how the thorns could be the people they were hanging out with or not taking care of their bodies the right way. The seed may be on dry land, as the sun scorches it. And it’s because you’re not nourishing it; you’re not getting good soil; you’re not going deeper with your roots.

“Am I living to multiply the gifts God has given me? Or am I living to survive? That’s something God has put on my heart.”

Suddenly, the 49-year-old, third-year head coach at Texas A&M doesn’t seem so ordinary. Not every SEC coach, after all, uses one of Jesus’ parables as the vision for his team.

But as unordinary as it seems, this is also the way he has coached for the last 10 years. This is the norm for Kennedy: combining his love for coaching with what drives him in life, his faith.

“He’s doing the same thing he’s always done,” says Billy’s wife, Mary, who, just the other day, saw on Facebook that one of his former players got baptized in the ocean while playing overseas. She has an arsenal of stories like these.

“He is trying to change these guys’ lives for eternity,” she continues.

Since coaching at Southeastern Louisiana (1999-2005) and Murray State (2006-2011), Billy’s platform has only expanded; one, because of A&M’s magnitude; and, two, because of what he has endured at A&M.

Just as he was about to begin his first season as Texas A&M’s head coach in 2011, Billy was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that is incurable and causes shaking.

Here he was, on the brink of starting his dream job, only to find out three months later he had Parkinson’s.

“It was just the understanding that God had given me a dream situation (at Texas A&M), but this was also getting brought with it,” Billy says. “It was at a time when practice was about to start, then boom.

“But there is a verse, and I’m not comparing myself to this by any means, because my disease is very manageable, and now that I know that, I can flourish with it, and it can be my ‘thorn in the flesh,’ as Paul said. But there is a verse (John 12:27-28) in the New Testament where Jesus cries out, ‘Lord, take this away from me.’ But then he said, ‘No, this is the purpose: You put me here to glorify Your name.’”

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Mary says her husband never asked, ‘Why me?’ He tried to ignore it at first, like any man would, but then he came to grips with it. He accepted it.

They also accepted it as a couple. They may have asked, “Why now?” as he was about to begin his dream job, but they didn’t allow their minds to venture down the victim’s road.

“I just knew that my Father has cattle on 1,000 hills,” says Mary, quoting Psalm 50:10. “I knew He was our provider. God just gave me such a peace that this was where He brought us, that this was His plan for us. Would I have written it exactly like this? Probably not. But this is His perfect plan for us. He is blessing us. He has blessed us beyond measure.”

To Billy, as strange as it sounds, something like Parkinson’s is very ordinary—a disease in a diseased world, a bruise in a fight. Even when diagnosed at the young age of 47.

“We live in a fallen world, and I’m not indestructible,” Billy continues. “I’ve learned to embrace it over these two years. I have to embrace it. This is not permanent. Hope is for the eternal. I am content with the situation. To die is gain; to live is Christ…We are here, on this earth, just for a brief moment.”

His faith, he believes, isn’t even something to be praised. Because that is what genuine, ordinary faith does according to its definition. It endures. It is strong. It trusts.

“My verse, and I’m not trying to throw all these verses on you,” he laughs, “is Job 3:10. It is something I have embraced my first two years of going through Parkinson’s. The verse says that God knows the way that I take, and when He has tried me, I will ‘come forth as gold.’ He’s got me. He knew it. I’m going to go through the trial and come out of the trial, but come forth as gold.”

Everywhere he goes, people ask him, “How ya feeling?” and they tell him, “You’re looking good.” He jokes he could fund the multimillion-dollar renovations of A&M’s football stadium, Kyle Field, if he got a dollar every time someone told him he looked good.

And, though he appreciates the support, there is something very ordinary about Billy Kennedy on this ordinary October day in College Station—as he watches the NCAA’s officiating videos in A&M’s film room, as he answers media requests, as he prepares for the game that evening against Texas Christian University—so ordinary, so seemingly routine, you begin to wonder if you would ever know he had the disease if he hadn’t gone public with it two years ago.

“He’s doing everything the same way he did 10 years ago,” Mary says. “He’s in the best physical shape he has been in…in years. The Parkinson’s is a non-issue. He is able to do the job that he loves to do at the highest level. It’s not slowing him down or changing him. He’s out there working out with his guys and doing everything like he has always done.”

Then, after talking to Billy, it all seems very clear. Faith has a way of freeing you from future uncertainty. Faith on good soil has a way of freeing you from your circumstances, of producing 100-fold, of allowing you to continue doing what you love, of helping you “come forth as gold.”

“None of us are promised tomorrow,” Mary says. “It doesn’t do any good to look down the tomorrows. All we get is today, as best as we can possibly do it. And we’re so blessed to be where we are today.”

Billy continues: “If you have a challenge, but you have a faith in Jesus, you can keep doing what you’re doing. He’s got it.”

It’s 1 p.m. in College Station, and Billy Kennedy has a game to coach.

By Stephen Copeland

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

Devotional of the Week — Mumford Prayers

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‘”And Samuel said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the Lord will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself.’” I Samuel 12:20-22

I pray a lot of times while I run. There’s just something about running that puts me in a reflective, spiritual mood. It feels good to be outside and release energy after sitting in an office all day, and I feel like I’m engaging with creation, smelling the Carolina pine straw at my feet, watching the sun go down, and taking care of the body the Lord has given me.

I don’t pray audibly, obviously, but I pray in the lyrics of songs I’m listening to. They usually aren’t even Christian songs. I figure God is big enough for anything, even if I’m making a Mumford & Sons song mean what I want it to mean as it blasts through my ear buds. The other day, I was listening to a song called “Lover of the Light” and these lyrics made my heart light and my feet sprint: But love the one You hold / And I’ll be Your goal / To have and to hold / A lover of the light. 

I pictured the God of the universe holding me, then wrestled with the truth that He wants to hold me and does hold me. That’s the kind of intimacy and unity He desires with His people. No matter how much I mess up, the Lord desires to hold me because, as I Samuel 12:20-22 says, “It has pleased the Lord to make you a people for himself.”

To have and to hold.

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer for 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.

NCAA Basketball Closeup: Brady Heslip

South Carolina v Baylor

There was a time when Baylor University senior guard Brady Heslip’s lifelong dream of playing college basketball was on the fringes.

Heslip, considered one of the best three-point shooters in NCAA Division I basketball, transferred from Boston College to Baylor in June of 2010 after then-Boston College head coach Al Skinner was fired. This led Heslip—the Burlington, Ontario, native—from the east coast to central Texas.

Forced to sit out a year, Heslip’s future, once certain in Boston, was now in question. What made his future more in question, Heslip knew, was his physical shape.

“I was overweight, that’s just plain and simple what it was,” Heslip told The (Toronto) Globe and Mail.

Heslip was a kid, and he ate like one and lived like one. He liked junk food. He didn’t take the best care of his body. But he knew he needed to change if he wanted a chance to play at the NCAA Division I level and accomplish his dreams. And what better time to change than his year off after arriving in Waco?

During his year off, Heslip changed his workout habits. He changed his diet. He dropped 24 pounds. He got serious. A year later, he was the talk of the NCAA tournament when he scored 27 points on 9-of-12 three-point shooting in Baylor’s victory against Colorado in the second round.

“He’s always been able to shoot the lights out,” says Jacob Neubert, who was a senior on last year’s Baylor team. “His work ethic is incredible. His physical shape, from when he got here, to the end of that first year, was so much different. He got faster. He got stronger.”

Heslip’s work ethic during his year off put him in position to excel on the basketball floor; but something else happened that year that put him in position to excel in life. The spiritual environment on Baylor head coach Scott Drew’s team would end up being exactly what Heslip needed.

“Coach Drew just always talked about winning in life,” Heslip says. “And he always tells us that it doesn’t matter if we didn’t win a single game; the way we all win in life is accepting Jesus in our lives and knowing we will go to heaven so we will spend eternity together in heaven.

“I just wanted a new direction. I wanted to accept Jesus and know for sure I would go to heaven and spend eternity in heaven. Not that my lifestyle was crazy, but I wasn’t doing all the right things…I’m not saying I’m perfect now, but I’ve come to understand the right way.”

For several years, Heslip was curious about religion. He came from a Catholic household; but in Canada, Heslip says, faith wasn’t as ingrained in the culture as, say, a Baylor University.

In December of 2008, he asked his father for a Bible. He had a longing to pray, and he would read the Bible with a curious heart and mind.

“I went to Boston College for my first year, prayed when I was up there, and ended transferring to Baylor,” Heslip recalls. “I believe God was doing works in my life to land me at a place like Baylor. I think that was all part of His plan.”

It was a year of waiting at Baylor University that not only helped make him the player he is today, but also made him the person he is today.

“It just reassures that God really does have a plan for all of our lives,” Heslip says. “If you pray about it and want to learn about it and want to get to know Him, He will do works for you. He will speak to you, sometimes indirectly, and just show that He really does have your back, and He is looking out for you. He will put you in places you need to be, and as long as you stay close to Him and try to grow in Him, He will work for you.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine. This story was published in the November 2013 DigiMag.

NFL Closeup: Case Keenum

Texans vs. Chiefs

The Houston Texans have seemingly had a revolving door at quarterback this season, but it has benefited Case Keenum, one of college football’s most prolific passers in history.

For Keenum, though, the journey from top to bottom to the top again has been quick and quirky.

A year after he rewrote the NCAA record books while playing quarterback at the University of Houston, he went undrafted in the 2012 NFL Draft before signing with the Houston Texans as a free agent.

But for Keenum, the NCAA’s all-time record holder in total passing yards (19,217), touchdowns (155), and completions (1,546), as well as the Football Bowl Subdivision’s all-time leader in total offense (20,114), he had to deal with life away from the game while still being part of the team – because he only made the Texans’ practice squad and never saw the field during the 2012 NFL season.

So the adjustment to the NFL was all about playing time; he didn’t have to worry about getting acquainted to life in a new city.

Something has given him peace in difficult times like this, especially when he went through season-ending injuries in college.

“One of my favorite Bible verses is Isaiah 40:31 which says ‘those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.’ To me, that’s a great verse to apply not just to sports, but to life off the field as well,” he said.

This season, though, has been different than 2012. He made the Houston Texans’ 53-man roster and worked his way from third-string quarterback to starter before the halfway mark of the 16-game season.

With the Texans in a slump and the team struggling at quarterback, Keenum moved to the starting role in Week 7 (besides starting quarterback Matt Schaub dealing with an injury, Schaub and backup T.J. Yates have struggled with their on-field performance).

Victories, though, have been elusive, despite Keenum putting up some of the best performances by a Houston quarterback this season.

Though the pressure to win can be enormous, Keenum realizes the pressures off the field can be greater.

“There’s a lot of pressures that the game puts on you and I’ve certainly gone through every young man’s battle in regard to dating and other temptations that the world is always throwing at you,” said Keenum, who married Kimberly Caddell in June, 2011. “As an athlete, you always have a bullseye on your back. People are always wanting things from you, and it seems that there’s always temptations around the corner. And I know that those temptations will always be around. I’ll have them now and even after I’m older…and out of football.

“But the other side of that is that we have a God that loves us and will never forsake us. He’s always with us, even in the midst of our greatest temptations. And I find that, when I focus on Him, instead of the temptations that I’m faced with, the lure of those temptations begin to fade and I’m able to overcome them.”

By Brett Honeycutt

Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of Sports Spectrum magazine. This story was published in the November 2013 DigiMag.

From Puppet to Platform

Dylan Thompson

Dylan Thompson had strings.

He moved the right way. He said the right things. He danced across the stage and nailed his lines. He was a shell of a man, a marionette that moved but had no life inside.

One day, the strings broke, his body fell, and he lay all twisted up and lifeless on stage.

The lights went down. And the curtains closed.

The Stage

University of South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Dylan Thompson was the Tim Tebow of Boiling Springs (S.C.) High School.

He fit the mold perfectly.

Like Tebow, he was a natural-born leader, relational and vocal and bold, the kind of leader a team and town could rally around. Like Tebow, he was polite, just like his loving, church-going family who epitomized southern charm. Like Tebow, he was handsome and popular. Like Tebow, he veered from trouble; he sat in church; he thanked God in interviews; his image was squeaky clean. Like Tebow, he played quarterback; he was even 6-foot-3.

It was his athletic ability and Tebow-like charisma that propelled him into the South Carolina spotlight. A two-sport star at Boiling Springs, Thompson was practically offered a basketball scholarship from Louisiana Tech as a freshman; and he later received a football scholarship to play quarterback at the University of South Carolina. Gamecocks head coach Steve Spurrier was so set on Thompson, he recruited him personally.

“I saw leadership qualities in him when he was in high school,” says his home pastor at Boiling Springs Baptist Church, Hank Williams. “I told him, ‘You’ve been given a lot—naturally a nice-looking guy, nice athletic abilities, naturally born leader—but there are also requirements of that. To whom much is given, much is required.”

Perhaps he was given so much he wasn’t sure what to do with it all. His success and popularity not only made him the pride of Boiling Springs but also the rallying cry of Christians.

“People, I guess, wanted to throw a Tim Tebow label on me just because I happened to play quarterback and was a Christian that went to church,” Thompson says.

Quarterback. Christian. Tebow.

Thompson also played into it. He was a good kid. He went to church. He even brought people to church. He did the right things. But it was more like a dance on a stage.

“I could put on that show,” Thompson says. “And every time I had an interview, I would thank God and this and that…just because I heard people say it.”

Thompson was a caricature, an exaggerated representation of what people wanted him to represent, controlled by strings of enslaving expectations and religious perceptions.

So he kept performing.

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Inward Struggle

Thompson says pride was bursting from within.

His goal in high school was to receive a college scholarship and eventually play in the NBA or NFL. In ninth grade, he had already accomplished his scholarship dreams with an offer from Louisiana Tech. And when Spurrier came along with a football scholarship, it only got better. He was chasing importance. He found freedom in status.

“I remember being really arrogant inwardly and prideful in my heart,” Thompson says. “Nobody on the outside could tell. They just thought I was the same good kid that did everything right.”

When he stepped on campus at the University of South Carolina, his importance changed. His first three days on campus, Thompson says Spurrier didn’t say a word to him. One thing became clear: Things would be much different at USC. He was no longer in Boiling Springs. His importance was stripped.

Thompson would end up redshirting his freshman year, and for the first time in his athletic career, he could blend in. He didn’t have to perform anymore because no one knew who he was.

He could be himself.

The problem is that he didn’t like who he was.

Outward Freedom

Thompson’s freshman year can be described as an ongoing quest for freedom. He cut the strings that pulled him up and down, to and fro, and made him act a certain way. He murdered the marionette.

He started drinking and going downtown and having sex. He lusted over the day when he’d be on the front page of the newspaper in a Gamecock uniform, and he wanted every pretty girl. All through the winter and all through the spring, he did whatever he wanted. Whatever felt right, he did.

It was there, however, he felt his body crumble and fold and melt beneath him, thumping the stage and echoing throughout an empty theater. It was there, strings detached, he realized the extent of his puppet-being.

In high school, he realized he had strings. But in college, he understood the saddest thing about being puppet: There’s nothing living inside you.

He lay all twisted and lifeless on stage.

The lights went down. The curtains closed.

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The Person

Dylan Thompson awoke.

He was in his dormitory. And he was scared for his life. It was as if God had built a wall in his room with his bricks of sin. He couldn’t deny it. He couldn’t ignore the direction of his life. It was destruction.

He had gone to church in Columbia that Sunday and heard a message about Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” and it blasted his heart back to life like a defibrillator.

Back into a slow, weak beat.

“I was still putting random things on Facebook about how God is good, this and that,” Thompson says of his freshman year. “But in life, I was lost. That verse really struck me, and I went back to my dorm and just got caught up in my sin, really. It was like God was showing me my sin in front of me and what He wanted to bring me out of.”

It felt as if every situation in his jaded past was fusing together and culminating in that moment, there in his dorm room. “I just realized, ‘All my life is happening right now, and it’s a complete waste of what God wants in my life.’”

“The biggest thing I was doing,” he continues, “was chasing freedom. And I was trying to find it everywhere I could. And everything I found was so temporary. I would go downtown, but that’s so temporary. There was the girl thing, but that’s so temporary…Honestly, in my heart, I knew that wasn’t what God wanted for me. I felt convicted every time I had sex with a girl. I felt that in my heart.”

Thompson had what can only be described as a “fear for the Lord.” And he called his pastor from home in a panic.

“I knew by the sound of his voice something was up,” says Hank Williams. “He was emotional. He had faced a couple of crisis situations—crisis from experience and crisis of belief, I think. God had just used some things to really challenge him and call him out and ask: Are you just a name, or are you real?”

“He was humbled. He was absolutely humbled. He had felt the gravitational pull of the world, and he was convicted about it. He felt guilty about it…A lot of kids would have said, ‘Hey, this is college; it’s part of it; I’ll get serious with God after I get out of college.’ But he wasn’t that way. He was very sincere and genuine and recognized that this was a serious time in his life, that if he didn’t make some changes and get serious about who Jesus was to him, he was going to mess up his life.”

Thompson wanted to beat himself up over his sin; Williams told him God would use it for His glory. He wanted to grieve over his sin; Williams told him to leave it behind.

Jesus held Thompson’s hand, and they broke through the brick wall. It may have been a fear of God that shocked his heart, that awakened him, but it was the grace of God that made his heart fall in love, that brought him to life.

The Platform

You provide the person. God will provide the platform.

That’s what Williams told Thompson that April night in 2011. And for the first time, Thompson stopped exhausting himself trying to be a person who fit the stage like he did in high school; and he stopped exhausting himself trying to find freedom as a person away from the stage like he did in college.

He murdered the marionette and found freedom—true freedom that only comes from within, from a God who loved him, a Savior who demonstrated it, and a Spirit that wanted to live through him…that brought him to life.

“Jesus is all about the heart,” says Jack Easterby, Thompson’s mentor at USC. “You don’t try to be a Christian; you just become one…I would say the Dylan in high school was trying to be something he wasn’t. And the Dylan in college is now becoming something he wasn’t.”

One month after his conversion, he was asked by the team chaplain to lead a Bible study. Considering he had hardly ever read the Bible, Thompson was hesitant. But he agreed anyway. He dove into the Scriptures. It started with six people. By fall of 2012, it had 28 people.

You provide the person. God will provide the platform.

In the 2012-13 season, after getting limited time his sophomore season, he finally got his shot on the field and started splitting time at quarterback with Connor Shaw, captivating Gamecock Nation with his strong arm and accurate passing. He led USC to victories over East Carolina and Clemson and threw the game-winning pass in the Outback Bowl against Michigan. He passed for more than 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Needless to say, after 2012, every USC fan knows the name “Dylan Thompson.” And they’ll be hearing a lot more of him this season.

You provide the person. God will provide the platform.

Thompson always had leadership traits. But his platform as a leader changed as he provided the person. There was transparency instead of a show, humility instead of pride. Ten minutes into his interview with Sports Spectrum, Thompson was launching into his testimony, sharing specific sins with a reporter he hardly knew.

“That’s one cool thing about Dylan,” Williams says. “That’s one of the reasons God has blessed him in a unique way. He acknowledges that he’s not perfect. He acknowledges that he struggles. He’s being real…He connects with everyone because everyone says, ‘Hey, Dylan is me.’”

Dylan Thompson is all of us.

“David, in the Old Testament, had some crash and burn moments,” Williams says. “But the Bible calls him a man after God’s own heart…I think one of the most endearing qualities about David was that he had genuine humility. David said to Saul, ‘Your servant will go and fight. I’m your servant, Saul.’ There was genuine humility in David that God really smiled on and loved. He knew that David would give God the glory. When he defeated Goliath, he said, ‘The Lord delivered you.’”

“I see that in Dylan. He has genuine humility. And that’s rare. That’s unusual. It’s not a put-on. It’s not false humility. It is genuinely a recognition that he can’t do anything without the Lord, but he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him.”

Strings

There are a lot of puppets in this world, non-believers and believers who get pulled up and down, to and fro by the strings of their body and soul, not recognizing a Spirit lives inside.

“He talks to his teammates, and he tells them it’s not about trying to cuss less,” Easterby says. “It’s about God being consumed in your heart…And I think the transition of one’s heart will transition one’s priorities.”

Your spirit brings life to your soul and body from within; but without it, your body and soul restlessly compensate, work, and search for life and freedom outside of your God-breathed core.

Christ lives in you.

“It went from me saying, ‘I want to be better, I want to be better,’ to Him saying, ‘This is what I’m trying to call you to.’ That’s really what changed everything for me,” Thompson says.

“It was all about realizing who He was.”

By Stephen Copeland

Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sport Spectrum magazine. This story was published in the August 2013 Sports Spectrum DigiMag. Print and digital subscribers, log in here to view. Not a subscriber to Sports Spectrum? Subscribe here

Love Like Mountains

Fall 2013_Spreads (dragged) 3A reporter asks Derek McCartney if he has anything else to say.

He pauses, and thinks.

“I guess I just have one request,” he says.

“Yeah,” says the reporter.

“In the past, when people have done articles on my family, they have described me and T.C. as ‘half-brothers.’”

“Okay,” the reporter acknowledges.

“I just ask that you wouldn’t do that,” he says. “I don’t want people to look at us as half-brothers. We grew up together. We love each other. Just like any real brothers would.”

Derek McCartney pauses.

“We’re real brothers.”

T.C. McCartney

It was a Saturday evening in 1988, and University of Colorado head football coach Bill McCartney was relaxing on his living room sofa with his wife, Lyndi.

Bill was unwinding. It had been a big day. His Buffaloes had won at home that afternoon; and after finishing 1-10 four seasons before, he had finally built Colorado into a program that was nationally ranked. Now Bill sat on the sofa with his wife and watched the scores from the day come across his television screen.

He felt a hand on his shoulder. Lyndi felt a hand on her shoulder, too. They turned around. It was their daughter, Kristy. It looked like she’d seen a corpse.

“Mom, dad,” she hesitated. “I’m pregnant.”

Bill and Lyndi stood up immediately. They did not scold her. They did not bombard her with questions. They did not judge her. They hugged her.

They held her.

“We told her that we love her unconditionally,” Bill, 73, says slowly, reflecting his age. “Whatever she was going through, we would go through it with her. And that’s always been the way it’s been (with our family).”

Nine months later, Timothy Chase McCartney was born. They called him T.C.

As for T.C.’s father, it happened to be Bill’s starting quarterback.

Sal Aunese.

Hectic Offseason

Bill wanted Sal to marry Kristy, to join the family, to do things the right way.

“The difficulty was that my daughter was more or less on her own,” Bill says weakly, as if the mere thought of those years takes it out of him. “Sal got her pregnant, but he didn’t love her. She really loved him.”

The McCartneys protected Kristy and Sal from the media, and the knowledge of her pregnancy stayed within the two families. But things worsened.

During the 1988 Freedom Bowl, halfway into Kristy’s pregnancy, coaches and teammates noticed Sal didn’t seem like himself. The coming months consisted of Sal puking up blood, coughing incessantly and him being unable to participate in team workouts. He was soon diagnosed with a rare form of stomach cancer and was told he only had six months to live.

Sal’s illness immediately attracted a hurricane of media attention that offseason; T.C. was born in April; and in August, a weekly Denver newspaper, Westword, broke a story that T.C. was the son of Sal and Kristy.

Sal died in September.

“As it relates to Kristy, my daughter, she came through that damaged,” Bill continues slowly. “It was a national story. When your daughter is the focus of attention in something like that—it was very difficult for her. My heart still hurts for her and having to go through that.”

Before Sal passed, Bill visited him in the hospital. Bill, who founded Promise Keepers, one of the largest men’s ministries in the country, says he talked to Sal about God and led him in the “Sinner’s Prayer” before he died.

Bill cared for Sal, even if he didn’t marry his daughter.

Sal was 21 years old when he died.

T.C. was five months old.

Derek McCartney

Bill says football compromised time he could have spent with his daughter.

“You know, football is intoxicating,” Bill says. “When you are coaching, it’s compelling. When you get up in the morning, Rome is burning and you want to go get the workload done.”

Four years after T.C.’s birth, Kristy became pregnant again by another one of Bill’s players, defensive end Shannon Clavelle. Bill took it to heart.

“I look back on that and in my heart I know that if I had ‘dated’ my daughter, if I had taken her more places and spent more time with her, she wouldn’t have given herself away outside of marriage,” Bill continues. “Isaiah 38:19, I think it is, says, ‘The father to the children shall make known the truth.’ In other words, Almighty God holds a man accountable for the spiritual temperature of his household. I dropped the ball…She needed her daddy to spend more time with her. Now, my (three) sons—they were in the locker room with me (playing football). I probably did a better job as a father to my sons than a father to my daughter.”

Five years after T.C., her second son was born. His name was Derek.

Derek’s father, Shannon Clavelle, went off to the NFL.

And he never came back.

Single Mother of Two

What would it be like to be Kristy McCartney? Few have bothered to ask the question. The media has painted her as a rebel of sorts, someone who acted outside of the will of her father and the Father Bill preached about at Promise Keepers conventions, having two children out of wedlock with two of Bill’s football players.

But the reality is that raising two children under the oppressing scrutiny is a difficult thing, especially with the absence of her children’s fathers. Sal died. Shannon left. She didn’t have to enter parenthood; but she did. She was an adult. She could have gotten an abortion. She could have put them up for adoption.

As a young girl in her 20’s, Kristy had become something she never imagined, a mother of two, and single.

“She had faithfulness, despite her personal pain,” continues Bill, who says he has prayed for Kristy every single day of her life. “Her faithfulness in raising those two boys, both of them giving their hearts to the Lord…Both of those guys, under their mom’s leadership have a genuine heart for God.”

When Sal died, Kristy still wanted T.C. to know his father’s side of the family. At least once a year, sometimes twice, she would fly him out to California to spend time with the family of the father he never knew.

T.C. says she never missed his games in high school. She would wait in the parking lot to pick him up as his coach routinely let the players out late for practice, even after she worked a full day, sometimes at Crisis Pregnancy Center where she helped others deal with pressure and judgment from society just like she did.

Whenever T.C. played quarterback for LSU from 2007-2011 under Les Miles, who also, strangely, recruited his father to play at the University of Colorado, Kristy would fly out to Louisiana whenever she could.

She raised Derek the same way, never missing a game and working full time to support her family but always there as a dependable mother.

“Especially getting older and understanding the situation and all the different options she had,” T.C. says. “She chose to raise us despite all kinds of media scrutiny that not a lot of other people have ever had to face. I know it still hurts and affects her. It’s painful…I’ve said it before, but she’s definitely my hero, just seeing all the stuff she had to go through.”

The McCartneys

Kristy, however, also had help. That’s the way it is with her family. It’s always been about the McCartneys, plural.

Not one of them. All of them.

“You couldn’t tell my story, Derek’s story, my mom’s story, my grandpa’s story, or anybody’s story in my family without talking about my grandma,” T.C. says. “She was kind of the glue that held my family together. Being a coach’s wife is not easy. Four kids. And going through all kinds of difficult situations with my mom and everything. My grandma is the one who held it all together.”

Kristy and her children moved next door to her parents when Derek was in fifth grade and T.C. was in high school.

“I got to see Grandpa a lot,” Derek says of his childhood. “Not having my dad around and everything, he kind of acted as a dad for me…Every time I left his house, he would always say, ‘Seek the Lord.’ He made sure God was always on my mind and the focus of my life. He has always been pushing me to honor God in everything I do.”

Reunion

The 2013 University of Colorado football season will be kind of a surreal one for the McCartney family.

Derek, who was a two-sport athlete at Faith Christian High School, signed with the Buffaloes before his senior season in 2011. He green-shirted last year (meaning he gave up a semester of his senior year to enroll in college early) and will take the field this season as a defensive end, just like his father.

T.C., after four seasons at LSU (2007-10) as a quarterback—also like his father—and one year as an LSU graduate assistant, decided to join Colorado’s coaching staff in May of 2012.

With five years between them, Derek and T.C. will share the football field for the first time in their lives…at an institution where their grandfather is the winningest coach…both of their fathers attended…and their lives ultimately began.

“Growing up, we lived in the same house and everything,” Derek laughs. “But we’ve never been on the same team for anything before.”

Derek signed with the Buffaloes because it was his only scholarship offer, a clear sign, he felt, that it was where God wanted him to be.

T.C. returned to Colorado for a different reason.

Last Days

Right from the start, perhaps T.C. understood the frailty of life, when his father died before he was even half a year old. Now his father lives in his mind through pictures and stories and visits to California, but not in flesh and blood, not memories, not throwing a football in the yard, or wrestling in the living room. T.C. was never able to love him. He never knew him. He only loves what he knows of him.

Time can be a real fickle thing, deceivingly limitless, the hands of a clock seemingly clicking into eternity, second after second, around and around, breathing with each continuous tick; but also easily halted, its hands freezing in place for no reason at all, just because.

T.C. knew his grandmother Lyndi’s life was winding down. She had battled emphysema for 10 years, and the disease continued to eat at her like the cancer in his father’s stomach.

Coaching at a storied program like LSU may have been better for his career than taking a job with a struggling Colorado squad, which has struggled for the last decade; but if there’s one thing T.C. learned growing up with the McCartney last name, it was this: faith first, then family, then football.

T.C. wanted to move back to Colorado. He wanted to spend time with his grandmother before she passed. After five years in the Deep South, he wanted to be with his family. With his mother. With his brother. With his grandparents. With the McCartneys.

Lyndi McCartney died a year after his return to Colorado, in March of 2013. She and Bill were married for 50 years.

“Coach Miles tried to get me to stay,” T.C. says.

T.C.’s voice is different. It’s shaky. It’s lower. He sniffs.

“But I explained to him the situation, and he agreed it was best for me to go home so I could spend the last two months of her life with her.

“It was a lot of fun, but it was hard, too, because she was so sick. When you can’t breathe, it’s hard on you. But she was always,” he pauses. “She was always,” he pauses again. “Always upbeat, even though she was so sick. It was just really important that I was around her for those last couple months to be with her. She wanted all of us around, even though she didn’t feel well.”

If you call Bill McCartney’s house today, you will still hear Lyndi’s voice on his answering machine. He hasn’t changed it. “You’ve reached the McCartneys,” she says.

The McCartneys.

Stronghold

Ten days after his wife’s funeral, Bill remembers waking up at 1 a.m. to use the bathroom. His bed was empty. And for the first time in 50 years, his bed would stay empty.

“When I got back to bed, the Enemy came after me with deep sadness,” Bill says. “I was overwhelmed with sorrow. But I knew what to do. In Matthew 6:9-13, Jesus said, ‘When you pray, pray like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ Psalm 22:3 says, ‘He resides in the praises of His people.’ So when you hallow his name, when you proclaim His name, you invoke His presence.

“It’s going on half a year that she’s been gone. Since that time, many times, the Enemy has come after me, but I know what to do,” he says, speaking quicker than he has the entire interview. “Jesus said, ‘When you pray, pray like this.’ And it’s the Lord’s prayer. And when you really pray that prayer, it’s a powerful prayer, because thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven…In other words, He’s in total control.”

Bill remembers Lyndi’s funeral. He was sitting in the front row. He didn’t know how it would all unravel. It was a long day. He was in a daze.

His son, Mike, stood up during the funeral and talked for 10 minutes about his mother—eloquently, portraying exactly who she was. Mike sat down. Then Tom stood up, his other son. He had no notes, but he went on for 10 minutes, too, flawlessly, telling story after story. Tom sat down. Then Marc stood up, his youngest son. He did the same thing. “He just landed it,” Bill says of Marc.

Then Kristy stood up. She tried to speak, but the words got caught in her throat. Twenty seconds into her speech, she lost composure and broke down.

Her three brothers gathered around her. They grabbed her. They embraced her. They held her, just as Bill and Lyndi had 26 years before.

Love Like Mountains

A reporter asks Bill McCartney if he has anything else to say.

Bill pauses.

“I do have one request,” he says softly.

“Yeah, absolutely,” the reporter says.

Bill pauses again, as if what he is about to say must be lifted out of his heart with a crane. He speaks even softer.

“I just ask for your prayers.”

This story was published in the Vol. 27, No. 4 issues of Sports Spectrum. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.

Another Angle — One more step

pope-francis-ftrCarolina Panthers long-snapper JJ Jansen looked at me from across the table. He had an intense strain in his eyes. I noticed sweat forming on his nose. His leg started to shake, causing our coffees to rattle on the table as if there was a coming storm. I looked at him, confused.

“Stephen,” he said, “I have something to tell you.”

“Yes?” I said.

“I’m Catholic,” he replied, as I choked, coughed, and coffee sputtered out of my mouth. “I know, I know,” he said apologetically, casually wiping off his shirt like it was no big deal at all, “I should have told you sooner.”

I sighed. “Yeah, you should’ve,” I said firmly, turning to the side and zipping up my backpack. “I think we need some space between us.” And I walked away, praying for his salvation.

This didn’t happen, obviously. If it ever did happen, I’d deserve one of JJ’s long snaps to the groin…as I stood five feet away…not wearing any boxers.

I did find out Jansen was Catholic, which I didn’t know; and he found out I used to be Catholic, which he didn’t know. Though we typically meet to talk about faith over our coffee addictions, this discovery propelled our conversation into something I’ve wanted to write about for a while, but didn’t know exactly how.

JJ attends Protestant services much more than most Catholics. And I am more Catholic than most Protestants, having been baptized Catholic, raised Catholic, educated Catholic and confirmed Catholic before being baptized Protestant a year later.

A year later. Yikes.

When I decided to get baptized in a Protestant church, I’m sure it didn’t settle well with some of the people in my parish; but my parents, staunch Catholics, were supportive. They told me they wanted me to grow in my relationship with God, even if that meant walking away from Catholicism.

Their respect of my own decision-making as an adult would forever shape the way I approach Christianity and denominations.

As I’ve grown intellectually as a Protestant, I’ve begun to appreciate the beauty of Catholicism, the reverence of Catholic Mass, its emphasis on the Eucharist, a reminder that we are in perfect union with the Godhead, and some of their traditions. Do I agree with everything? No. And that’s okay.

Unfortunately, JJ says he’s been to many Protestant services where the congregation will recite the Nicene Creed, say “One holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and then the pastor will clarify that “catholic” (little c, means universal) is not the same as “Catholic” (big C). In doing so, the pastor assures everyone that his church doesn’t support Catholicism, thus denouncing Catholicism altogether, thus adding to the division.

I remember receiving an email one time from a subscriber when I was managing Sports Spectrum’s information account, complaining about our feature story on John Harbaugh in our Fall 2010 issue. The email, in a nutshell, said: “I don’t like that John Harbaugh was in your magazine. I’ve heard he’s Catholic and I’m not sure if he understands salvation.”

Catholicism and Protestantism may differ, but when it comes to their biblical foundation—Jesus—they are the same (read the Nicene Creed, which both Catholics and Protestants believe). Jesus is not the same to Mormons and Muslims, but to Catholics and Protestants, He is. Yet there seems to be more of a divide between Catholics and Protestants than there is unity, which makes the imaginary anecdote that began this column not so farfetched.

I wish people could see people as people, not in the blacks and whites of denominational differences or rights and wrongs. And I think that’s what I like most about the new pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, known as Pope Francis. He sees people as people. Not issues. Not denominations. He doesn’t seem to be hung up on categorizing, as the Pharisees wanted Jesus to do. He lives in the gray, mysterious area of grace and wants to help people take one more step towards Christ, whatever that is.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality,” Francis said in an interview with La Civilta Cattolica in August. “I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person.”

Pope Francis seems to be so in touch with grace, i.e. the heart of the gospel that leads us to repentance, that the humanness of a person is his most precious concern, which reminds me of Jesus.

Recently, I interviewed Luke Zeller, the oldest Zeller brother in the NBA who also runs a basketball ministry called “DistinXion.”

“DistinXion,” he told me, “is all about getting people to take one more step toward Jesus. For some, that step is just realizing that Jesus isn’t a statue. That’s okay. That’s not a problem. For other people, it’s getting baptized or getting saved, but it’s only one page of the story.”

See, we like salvation all packaged up. And for a time, I did that. There was a time I became more and more convinced Catholicism was corrupt and Luther was my savior. I believe there is a time to talk about doctrine. My father and I often times do while on my parents’ patio in Indiana.

But a formulaic God who only saves Protestants who are dunked in a baptismal pit or Catholics who attend regular confession with a priest seems to be a God that is far too small and explainable for me to worship and live my life for.

My sister is always raving about the Catholic church she attends in Indianapolis. And I dearly love the Protestant church I attend in Charlotte.

Isn’t God big enough to speak to each of us?

So whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, come swim in this grace that gives itself freely to you and me, and fall in love with the One who lavishes it upon us, who cannot be explained, who doesn’t have a cookie-cutter plan for experiencing Him, who welcomes everyone into His presence to know Him as He lives through us and loves us.

That’s really the issue, isn’t it? Catholic, do you know Him? Protestant, do you know Him? Maybe Catholicism works for you. And that’s great. Maybe a Sunday morning evangelical rock concert with a pastor in stylish jeans works for you. And that’s great, too. As my parents told me, as Luke Zeller tells the kids in his basketball camp, just take another step. Take another step and grow.

ColumnSigBy Stephen Copeland

This column appeared in the October 2013 DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at stephen.copeland@sportsspectrum.com.

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