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.

BillyKennedy2

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

mumford-sons-4e1192eca8916

‘”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.

Faith Looks Forward

Faith Looks Forward SpreadMason Plumlee looks out over the floor at Duke University’s practice facility.

It must be weird to be back—returning to campus, his home for the last four years; visiting Cameron Indoor, Duke’s 2010 national championship banner hanging in the rafters of its gymnasium that feels more like a cathedral, with its wooden steeple doors and castle-stone exterior; and sitting here in Duke’s practice facility where his new team, the Brooklyn Nets, are having training camp.

This facility—the two courts in front of him and the weight room to his left—is where he became the player he is today, where he emerged as one of the most dominant big men in college basketball, and where he developed into a first-round draft pick in 2013 by the Brooklyn Nets.

“I would be in here shooting 500 free throws a day,” he says, looking at the courts in front of him. “Because I was one of the worst free-throw shooters in the country,” he laughs.

It was practicing free throws on Duke’s practice courts that taught Mason a valuable lesson, not just about basketball, but about life.

After shooting 50 percent from the line his first three seasons at Duke and often being subbed out at the end of games, Mason improved to a 70-percent free-throw shooter his senior season. He was resilient in his pursuit, which his mother, Leslie, says is one of his most admirable traits. Mason, having worked hard, then learned to rest in the assurance he had given his all.

“You can make things happen to an extent, but eventually you have to turn it over to God,” Mason says. “If you are stuck in a situation, if you are having problems, sometimes the best thing to do is just take a step back instead of beating your head on a wall, trying to get through the wall.

“I was beating my head and beating my head, and eventually, I was like, ‘You know what? I’m putting the reps up. I just need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and put it in His hands.’”

Mason Plumlee Spread 2

Letting Go

Mason Plumlee found himself in a similar spot this summer.

Entering the NBA Draft can be an exhausting process. Your future, your city, and your life are uncertain, entirely in the hands of others. It’s not like picking a college or finding a job. You have little say in the process. Your story is yet to be written, and you have no clue how it will be written. Mason says it’s an exciting time, but also an uneasy time, as your life is on the cusp of drastic change and even loneliness.

He exhausted himself this summer mentally, as he traveled the country, worked out with 15-plus potential NBA teams, and hoped to convince one of them he would be a good fit for their franchise. Mason, predicted by some experts to be a lottery pick, worked out with each team between picks 5 and 20.

“It almost got to where I wasn’t enjoying it,” he says. “I put a lot of pressure on myself with each workout. But I got to the point, and I said, ‘God, wherever you want me to end up, that’s where I’ll end up.”

There were three things Mason hoped for in his future team: first, that they’d have a superstar he could learn from; second, that they would be competitive in the league; and third, that it would be in a big city.

“The night of the draft, I was actually at peace,” Mason continues. “Everybody was like, ‘You are gonna be stressed out,’ but I said, ‘Hey, it’s out of my hands. I did my best in workouts. It’s in God’s hands now.’”

But on June 27, 2013—the night of the NBA Draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn—20 picks went by, and every team he was in contact with before the draft went with a different selection.

His future seemed even more in question than it already was.

Mason Plumlee Spread 3

Peace, Past and Promise

As Mason talks about the evening of the draft, he flashes back and reflects on the road that led him there—a reminder, perhaps, that peace for the future can sometimes be attained by reflecting on the past.

It’s been a unique journey for the Plumlee family. Perky and Leslie, the parents of four children (Miles, Mason, Marshall, and Maddie) modeled this concept of “letting go” when they moved Mason and his older brother Miles from Warsaw Community High School in northern Indiana to a boarding school in Arden, North Carolina (just outside of Asheville), back in 2007. They made the move to put Mason and Miles in the best position, they believed, for them to excel.

It wasn’t an easy move. It meant Perky and Leslie would miss most of their games. It meant they would have to Skype with them from afar. While most parents let go of their children when they send them off to college, they let go when Miles and Mason were still in high school, sending them nine hours away to the North Carolina mountains as they stayed in Warsaw.

It was also an unpopular move in the Warsaw community and the basketball-infatuated state of Indiana. Even at church, Perky says people avoided him like he had leprosy. But what many perceived as controlling parenting was actually quite the opposite. They were letting their children go, and they wished they didn’t feel like they had to.

So they took a risk that would forever change people’s perceptions of them as parents. And they did it for the sake of their children. But now, with Miles playing for the Phoenix Suns, Mason with the Brooklyn Nets, and Marshall still at Duke, the move appears to have yielded fruit.

“Somehow God made all this, and He made it work out,” says Perky, talking about his family’s unorthodox journey.

Mason helped lead Christ School to three state championships, and the “Plumlee Brothers” began to receive scholarship offers from all around the country. Miles, who graduated one year before Mason, signed his letter of intent for Stanford his senior season, while Mason committed to Duke his junior year. It appeared their lethal duo would end in the high school ranks.

“I wanted to play with my older brother, but I didn’t want to go all the way to the west coast,” Mason says. “It looked like we were going our separate ways.”

But then Stanford head coach Trent Johnson took the head coaching job at LSU, which caused Miles to back out of his letter of intent. That’s when one of Duke’s 2008 commitments decided to transfer, a scholarship opened up, and Miles ended up playing alongside Mason for three seasons at Duke. In 2010, they won a national championship together, as Duke defeated Butler University in Indianapolis.

“There’s just another example,” Mason says. “It’s out of your hands…You aren’t always going to see what God sees, but it all works out.”

Mason believes it all brought him to where he is today, reminding himself of his past to secure his belief in God’s promises. Thinking of past blessings can be healthier than thinking of future uncertainties.

“The Bible is full of promises,” say Perky. “The special activator is when you put your faith in those promises and make them your own, and you trust in them, put your faith in them, and say, ‘I believe that. I believe my steps are ordered in the Lord.’

“Mason got to that point this past summer. And with that, we’ve sensed a peace with him.”

Faith Looks Forward

Mason has three words on his Twitter bio: Faith looks forward.

That’s what faith does, whether it’s leaving Warsaw, going to Duke, or getting drafted into the NBA. It looks forward, even when you do not understand, even when others do not understand you.

On draft night, as Mason watched every team he was in communication with go a different direction, he felt even more alone and confused, beyond the uncertainty the NBA Draft already produces. Then, with the 22nd pick, he was selected by the Brooklyn Nets, a team he never even worked out with.

“When Brooklyn picked him, we were a little bit stunned,” Perky laughs. “Brooklyn wasn’t even in our conversation.”

The same day they drafted Mason, the Nets made the biggest trade of the offseason, acquiring Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics. “Everybody thought KG and everyone was going to go to the Clippers with Doc Rivers,” Mason recalls. “Nobody could have predicted it.”

Mason wanted a veteran he could learn from, and he got several of them. He wanted a competitive team, and he got a potential title contender. He wanted to live in a big city, and he got Brooklyn.

“In one night, it became the situation I was dreaming of, and I was fortunate that they thought enough of me to pick me and wanted me to join the team,” Mason says. “God’s plans, you can’t see. That’s why you have to act on faith. Because it’s out of our hands sometimes,” he laughs, “and I for sure felt that way.”

Flying Alone

Perky often tells Mason, “Birds fly in flocks, but eagles fly alone.”

“Mason,” Perky tells him, “sometimes you have to fly alone.”

There are still uncertainties with Brooklyn. In many ways, it was everything Mason wanted, but the dynamics of the team may also make for a difficult road. Playing time may be scarce this year on a team so loaded with superstars, and Mason, a 23-year-old blonde-haired Duke boy, doesn’t exactly blend in on a team studded with veterans.

Mason lives on the Hudson River in New Jersey, starting a new life in a new city, on a new team with players far older than he. It’s not the tiny town of Warsaw, Ind., or the homey, small-school comfort of Duke.

But just like shooting 500 free throws each day in Duke’s practice facility and working out with nearly half the teams in the NBA this summer, Mason can let go of his future because he knows he is working hard. He does his best, then surrenders. He uses his gifts, then leaves them for God to do what He pleases.

“There are things out of our hands,” Mason says. “It’s a relationship (with God). We have to take care of our end. But if I have a good attitude, and I do my work, God will put me in the position He wants me to be in. You can’t micromanage everything. You want to have control, but no matter how bad you want to be in control, no matter how hard you try, there are still things that are out of your hands.

“I think, really, that’s the point of my story, that you have to walk by faith and not by sight. You can’t see the supernatural and what God has planned.”

So faith looks forward, as a plan continues to unfold.

By Stephen Copeland

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

Come Alive

Come Alive SpreadSo much of life seems to be a search for life.

Purpose and love and happiness seem to be buried somewhere in a far-off desert. Some find it. Some don’t. But all search.

“God’s will” seems to be locked in a treasure chest sitting on the ocean floor in the remains of a sunken ship. The search, the swim, is exhausting.

But perhaps it’s simpler.

Purpose Has No Bounds

What surprises most about Mark Bentley is that he’s only 21 years old. He is a junior at Southeastern Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. He is a college kid.

Yet here is Bentley on this August day at the Tenth Avenue North Golf Classic, organizing the entire tournament, driving a cart all day around Brier Creek Golf Club in Raleigh, N.C., making sure everything runs smoothly, standing on stage that evening with a microphone in front of hundreds of Raleigh’s premier movers and shakers as he raises money for Christian ministries.

In a month, he’ll go back to school; but today, he’ll help raise more than $100,000 for three ministries: local ministry Cru RDU, national ministry College Golf Fellowship and global ministry Compassion International. Today, he’ll wear a sport coat, his thick, black hair combed over, shake hands with celebrities and businessman, and appear 30 years old. Today, he’ll make the Tenth Avenue North Classic profitable, a rare feat for a celebrity tournament in its first year.

The crazy thing is that Bentley has been organizing events and fundraising since he was 16 years old as a junior in high school. Growing up watching both of his parents work for Campus Crusade for Christ, he learned early on about different models for outreach and fundraising.

He eventually decided to apply everything he had learned to one of his biggest passions in life: golf.

“I remember learning about giving God glory in everything,” Bentley recalls. “I asked myself, ‘How can I do this in golf?’”

Bentley and his friends dreamed up a weekend retreat for high school golfers in Pinehurst, N.C. His goal was to reach out to PGA Tour golfer Webb Simpson and see if he would want to be the keynote speaker. Simpson, who, at the time, had just earned his Tour card, was a longtime family acquaintance of Bentley. Outside of Simpson’s hometown of Raleigh and his alma mater Wake Forest University, few knew his name.

Next thing Bentley knew he was sitting in Panera Bread one Monday morning, when none other than Simpson walked in. Bentley approached Simpson with the idea.

“Man, this is crazy,” Simpson told Bentley. “I’ve been praying for 2-3 years on how to reach out to high school guys.”

“I’ve been praying for 2-3 years on how to use golf for the glory of God,” Bentley told Simpson.

Simpson had a passion. Bentley had a passion. They connected them.

The first year, 66 high school guys came to Pinehurst. The next year, 60 attended with 40 on the waiting list. The following year, Simpson won the U.S. Open and 84 came with 60 on the waiting list. The fourth year will take place on Nov. 1, and they have record numbers again; one kid is coming from France and another from England.

Each year, Bentley fundraises so it’s affordable to high school golfers. The first two years, it was free.

“Through doing those events, it gave me a heart and passion for business and golf,” Bentley says. “I always have these crazy ideas. And I decided I wanted to combine those passions for the purpose of raising money for a Christian mission. I started praying about it.”

Two months later, Jeff Owen, the lead guitarist for Tenth Avenue North, texted Bentley, who was in college by this time. Tenth Avenue North had been long-time supporters of Cru RDU, Bentley’s parents’ ministry, long before they burst onto the Christian music scene in 2009 and emerged as one of the most popular contemporary Christian bands.

“Hey bud,” the text said. “We want to do a golf event. Will you help plan it for us?”

TAN Spread 2

Golf Meets Music

PGA Tour golfer Kevin Streelman and Tenth Avenue North lead singer Mike Donehey are standing outside the banquet facility at Brier Creek Country Club the day of the Tenth Avenue North Classic in Raleigh.

“How did we meet, exactly?” Donehey says to Streelman, smiling, hinting there is a story behind their friendship.

Streelman laughs.

“We met on eHarmony,” Donehey jokes. “Golfers seeking guitarists.”

“No, I think it was match.com,” Streelman plays along.

“I’m not a great guitarist,” Donehey continues, “but I said, ‘Hey, I love me some golf.’”

Turns out, Streelman and Donehey did meet online; just not an online dating site. They connected through an online auction.

Streelman was at a barbecue at a Duke/Alabama football tailgate three years ago, when he remembered the approaching deadline on an online auction he had been following, a private concert from Tenth Avenue North. The band had put the concert on eBay to help raise money for a counseling ministry for musicians in Nashville. Streelman was determined to win.

“I was a stalker, a big fan of theirs,” Streelman laughs. “I saw them put this cool auction idea on, where you can invite friends over and they come play at your house. I told my wife, ‘Courtney, I’ve got to do this.’ I probably sniped it from some poor teenage kids, I’m sure, who thought they were going to win it.”

Streelman logged on at the tailgate with three minutes remaining in the auction, placed his final bid, and won. A year later, Donehey and the band came over to Streelman’s Arizona home for a private concert.

“We actually just hit it off,” Donehey says. “He took us out to the driving range.”

Streelman shakes his head, shamefully, thinking of taking Donehey to the driving range.

“It was bad, bad,” Streelman says. “He was doing the Happy Gilmore dance all around the range.”

Donehey repeats the dance, riding an imaginary golf club like a horse.

“Got me in trouble at TPC,” Streelman shakes his head.

Donehey laughs.

“We just started hanging out when he was in town or we were in town,” Donehey continues their story. “It was awesome. I could teach him some guitar chords, and he could teach me how to swing a golf club.”

“And we just sat down and had this idea,” Streelman says. “How can we bring together Mike’s friends from music and my friends from golf?”

Streelman had a passion. Donehey had a passion. Like Bentley and Simpson, they connected them.

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Masquerade

It’s been a big year for both Donehey and Streelman. The August before, Donehey and Tenth Avenue North released their third studio album, The Struggle, which debuted No. 1 on Billboard’s Christian & Rock album charts, with “Losing” as their hit single. Tenth Avenue North has exploded since winning a GMA Dove Award for New Artist of the Year in 2009.

Streelman has exploded, too, winning his first PGA tournament of his career at the Tampa Bay Championship in February, and finishing third at the RBC Heritage in April, sixth at the Wells Fargo at the beginning of May and second in The Players Championship a week later, continually in and out of the top-15 in earnings for the 2013 PGA Tour season.

And yet, there’s something special about this moment as they stand outside the banquet facility at Brier Creek that has nothing to do with the successful years both of them have had, as they see their dream, the Tenth Avenue North Golf Classic, a celebrity golf tournament that raises money for Christian ministries based around Acts 1:8, fleshed out in front of them—as over 140 players in the sold out Pro-Am complete their golf round and turn in their scorecards, as hundreds walk past them into the banquet facility for an over-capacity evening concert and fundraiser.

Streelman gathered his buddies on Tour like Stewart Cink, Derek Ernst and Michael Thompson to come to the tournament, and had the tournament’s logo on his staff bag all season. Donehey gathered his buddies in the music world like hip-hop artist TobyMac and southern rock band Needtobreathe. Bentley organized the golf tournament and after party.

Together, all three of them, along with many others, helped raise more than $100,000 for three gospel-centered ministries: Cru RDU, College Golf Fellowship and Compassion International, who Tenth Avenue North has been partners with for 14 years.

“To us,” Streelman says, looking around, as people walk into the banquet hall, “this is greater than any Emmy, Grammy, major, green jacket, money list, world ranking, all that stuff—”

“That stuff comes and goes,” Donehey says.

“It’s our dream come true,” Streelman says. “And, you know, it’s not our plan. God had His hand in how we met, His idea for this, and what’s going to happen with the money we’re raising. So, I mean, we’re just pawns in His cool masquerade.”

Treasure

Maybe we don’t have to exhaust ourselves swimming all over the ocean searching for treasure; maybe the treasure is inside us, in the passions God has laid on our hearts, in the ideas that come into our minds, in Panera Bread encounters, random texts, and online auctions.

God gave us passions. Maybe He wants us to use them. For Bentley, it’s business; for Donehey, it’s music; for Streelman, it’s golf; for all of them, the gospel.  Maybe God wants to partner with us in what we love to do. Maybe He wants to live through us, as we do what we love. Maybe it’s more up to us to move, than Him revealing a secret. Maybe He just wants to empower us and launch our dreams rather than lead us to a treasure chest with a blueprint inside.

During the tournament at Brier Creek that day, Mike Donehey played golf with the swing his friend Kevin Streelman taught him. At the after party and Tenth Avenue North concert that night, Streelman came on stage and played the chords Donehey taught him for one of their biggest hits, “You Are More.”

The musicians there enjoyed playing alongside the golfers that afternoon; the golfers there enjoyed listening to the musicians that evening. It was as if God was knitting passions together to make a beautiful quilt. Bentley, Streelman and Donehey have made it a goal to raise $1 million in five years, averaging $200,000 a year.

“There’s an old quote,” Donehey continues. “And it says, ‘We always ask ourselves what the world needs, but what we ought to ask ourselves is, ‘What makes me come alive?’ Because what the world needs is for people to come alive.’ So go find out what you love to do because going and doing what God has made you to do is what will bring Him the most glory.”

By Stephen Copeland

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

Uncommon Challenge