“Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul.” Proverbs 2:9-10 (ESV)
After winning the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Webb Simpson declined a request to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno so he could fly back with his wife, Dowd, and spend a day with his 1-year-old son, James, before his next tournament commitment.
Weeks later, Simpson received criticism for backing out of the British Open because he didn’t want to be overseas if his wife went into labor. “The British Open will always be there,” Simpson said. “This may be the last child we have. It’s a decision I haven’t thought twice about.”
Simpson’s closest relationships take precedence over everything else, and, unfortunately, it’s somewhat radical in today’s age and society. When he won the U.S. Open, many would have rode their fame and relevance for as long as they could; everything else would have taken a backseat. Not with Simpson. At the end of the day, he may be a U.S. Open champion, but more importantly, he is a husband and a father. Fame, talk show appearances and even major championships take a backseat. Simpson is an encouragement to all that success cannot warp his priorities.
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. This devotional is taken from our most recent Training Table, a compilation of sports-related devotionals included in each print magazine. Log in here to access our most recent Training Table.
I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the other day. And yes, I understand that is kind of an interesting way to start a column.
Basically, I have a friend who is getting her Master’s degree in Counseling, and she needed to observe a meeting for class, so I said I’d go with her.
Whenever I’m with her, something crazy usually ends up happening, like attending an AA meeting or crashing a high school prom (she was chaperoning, okay?). We usually end up talking about crazy things, too, like the book of Judges or Jesus or never retiring. Also, she has pretty, blond hair like Taylor Swift, which drives me a little crazy.
Anyway, sitting in AA is like being in the upper room at Pentecost. I’ve never experienced anything like the early church, not until I went to AA, at least; but I swear to you, sitting in that smoky trailer in a tiny town in Georgia, surrounded by hungry, thirsty, shattered souls that treated community and God like the alcohol they craved, had an eerie feeling that this was exactly the way Jesus intended it.
You need to know right off the bat the purpose of this column isn’t to bash the church. It’s easy to bash fallen things because everything is fallen. It’s really quite cliché. And, just like I would never tell my best friend that his wife is a whore, I would never do that to the bride of Christ.
But, as I sat in that room, as each person who stood up admitted he or she was an alcoholic, as those who gathered said “Hello, ____” to the alcoholic all welcoming and loving, and the speaker that evening talked teary-eyed about the warm, smooth burn of Smirnoff vodka that tore up his esophagus and family, I felt like a mannequin in a room overflowing with life. Yes, life.
The people in that room were so transparent, so broken, yet so alive because they had each other and hope in a higher being. Mannequins have hearts of polystyrene and just kind of sit in a window all day alone wearing Ralph Lauren or J.Crew to look good. They are really some of the loneliest people I’ve ever seen.
How miserable would it be to be a mannequin? As you look back on the day, all you did was wear a plaid button-up with chinos as people looked at you and said, “Whoa! I want that!” Every once in a while, someone undresses you, which is a little humiliating (depending on the person undressing you), and that’s as much interaction as you get.
There are a lot of mannequins in relationships. And a lot of mannequins in marriage. We’re all so afraid of vulnerability, we choose to sit in a department store, alone, gathering dust, exhausting ourselves trying to look good. And mannequins do look good, dressed in their Sunday best, but there’s really nothing to them, just thick plastic with detachable legs.
There are a lot of mannequins in the church, too. And it has nothing to do with the church, because it’s the people inside the AA meeting that made that smoky trailer such a lovely place.
I concluded that day that broken people are some of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. One guy we met went to AA meetings at different locations almost every night, to stay connected to the vine, so to speak. He understood that without community, without AA, he would surely fall. These people were not prideful people, too embarrassed to admit their shortcomings, too worried about looking good in a department store window. These people were broken, beautiful people that needed each other and needed God.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day looked good in a window display. But it was the prostitutes and adulterers and tax collectors who needed Jesus. The Pharisees had religion. But the sinners had relationships. Religion without relationship, both with God and each other, is nothing more than a plaid button-up. Religion is a headache of a thing. Relationship is quite messy and life-changing.
Every Labor Day weekend, I go to a church softball tournament in Roanoke, Va., to gather stories for a book project. The tournament has been going on for 30-some years, and all the money goes to missionaries in Paraguay, and people travel from all over the south and midwest because the community at the tournament means so much to them. Sometimes, the summer storm clouds make their way past the Blue Ridge Mountains, fall into the Roanoke Valley, and there’s a sense that God, in all of His splendor, is coming to meet you.
And that’s exactly the way I feel all the time in Roanoke, that God is coming to meet me. I usually end up crying in Roanoke because the stories I encounter are so beautiful—broken, but beautiful—like the drug addict who got saved at the tournament 20-some years ago and now has his own ministry in Nicaragua, or the umpire who worked the tournament for years before coming to the end of his brokenness and realizing he needed Christ, or the Paraguayan missionary who’s wife and son died in a car wreck on the way to finalize adoption papers for their daughter, who is still doing ministry because his love for Jesus trumps his understanding of his circumstances.
Broken stories are, really, the most beautiful ones. And so are broken people.
I watched Flight recently, starring Denzel Washington. It’s a little inappropriate at parts, but I promise you, it’s good. It’s about an alcoholic who is so desperately trying to look good he can’t admit he’s an alcoholic. He’s a mannequin, basically.
At the end, however, the character Washington plays admits his alcoholism, that he was drunk when piloting the aircraft that crashed at the start of the movie, and ends up going to prison. There, he says one of my favorite quotes to his fellow inmates:
“This is going to sound real stupid coming from a man in prison,” he says. “But for the first time in my life, I’m free.”
This column appeared in the May 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once again, boxer Robert Guerrero has made me think about some things.
I thought he was going to win last night. I thought he was going to be the first to beat Floyd Mayweather, Jr. I thought he was going to make history.
Ever since I landed in Las Vegas on Thursday and saw MGM Grand, the site of the fight, from my plane window; or walked up to the strip on Friday and saw Guerrero’s name and image painted all over town; or nervously paced back and forth at the top of the arena on Saturday—praying as hard as I could, fist-pumping, jumping, making the other reporters around me think I was a deranged lunatic—I’ll be candid with you and admit: I thought God was going to use Guerrero in a mighty, victorious way.
Sports are sports, I’ve always thought. Life is life. People lose and people die. Maybe that’s cynical, but I’m typically not one to over spiritualize things.
Something about this, however, felt different. I’ve entrenched myself in Guerrero’s story, and, though I know little about boxing, I guess I just kind of thought everything he has gone through led up to this. His wife’s cancer. His setbacks. His journey. His story is so unfathomable it couldn’t be scripted in Hollywood. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: It’s the best story I’ve ever encountered. It’s undoubtedly God-authored, and I guess I decided in my mind that a perfect climax to his God-authored story would be to have the antithesis of Floyd Mayweather, Robert Guerrero, take down the undefeated, multi-millionaire—you know, standing over him after a knockout, “Acts 2:38” on his trunks, glorifying Jesus, becoming the sporting world’s next obsession: The Man Who Took Down Mayweather.
That didn’t happen. And, on boxing’s biggest stage, Robert Guerrero had his dreams shattered.
When I interviewed Guerrero a couple months ago, he told me about a fight in 2006 against Orlando Salido. Guerrero was the heavy favorite and lost. After the fight, he went to the locker room, knelt down on one knee, and gave glory to God.
On Saturday, we saw the exact same thing, just on a larger scale. After losing the biggest fight of his life on boxing’s biggest stage, ShowTime’s Jim Gray put the microphone in Guerrero’s face, and he confidently said, “Praise Jesus,” then gripped the microphone on his own and delivered sort of a mini-sermon. When he got to the media room, his message was the same.
“I just want to say, thank God,” Guerrero said. “God is great. He put me in this position. I came up short tonight, but I’m still going to praise God with all my heart. That’s what it’s about; like I said, win or lose, that’s why I’m here. My mission is to spread the gospel.”
True character, true faith, I think, is more authentic in defeat, especially in a society so obsessed with winning. Guerrero’s message he gave last night was more powerful after a loss than a win, even if it was heard by less. Honestly, it was one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen.
There have been times in my life I’ve had my dreams shattered, in a sense. It wasn’t on a national stage like boxing, but I’ve made long-term investments, life-long goals, whatever it is, that have sunk like a boulder on quicksand, that have left me broken and defeated, that have left me allegorically stumbling into the ropes from a Floyd Mayweather right hook. Sometimes I’ve allowed it to strengthen my faith; sometimes I’ve allowed it to swallow it, as I look for a cure for the pain in things outside of God.
In defeat, I think we all come to a crossroads in our mind where we ask ourselves: Will this affect who I am and what I stand for, or will it make me and my cause stronger?
My favorite author, Donald Miller, came to Charlotte One, a city-wide gathering of 20-somethings in Charlotte, N.C., six or so weeks ago and talked about meaning. It was a message that, really, kind of changed the way I deal with pain. He talked about the Apostle Paul—about how he was shipwrecked, imprisoned, stoned, starving, and most likely depressed out of his mind. From a worldly sense, Paul’s testimony is one of defeat. And yet, in every situation, the gospel was proclaimed, which made his life bleed meaning. His life wasn’t easy. His life was hard. But that’s what made his message so authentic, so believable, so inspiring.
I texted Guerrero’s publicist, Mario Serrano, all of this after the match, about Paul and all, because, when I look at Guerrero, I see a life of incredible meaning. In victory, in defeat, in joy, in pain, Guerrero’s message never changes. It’s Christ.
On Friday night, the evening before the fight, I walked around Las Vegas alone, just basking in its glow and beauty. I spent the time thinking and praying and talking to my best friend, my dad, on the phone. I conjured up this poem-type thing in my head about Las Vegas and escapes and defeat:
Lights I love, Lord I know
I long for escapes
But Yours is where I go.
When your dreams are shattered, where do you go? Do you look for an escape route, or do you allow yourself to grow stronger, your message to grow stronger?
Defeat, pain, loss, I concluded, have the potential to display meaning in all of its strength.
This column appeared on sportsspectrum.com. 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 email@example.com.
Look past the call-girl cards that litter the street like confetti at Times Square on New Years, or the erotic billboards on the sides of trucks going down the neon-lit Strip, and you’ll see Las Vegas in its grace.
You’ll see the fountains in front of the Bellagio dancing beneath the dry, Nevada sky, or the city calling your name as you look at it atop the Stratosphere, wooing you from below into an evening that never ends, where the casinos make promises and the liquor makes you believe them.
Las Vegas, frankly, has to be the most freeing city there is. The energy provides an escape, like a tunnel, through your mountains of worries. Walk the Strip, ignore the nudity, get lost in the lights, and it all feels very divine.
Down the Strip, across the Las Vegas Freeway, towering high above the surrounding bars, clubs, and tattoo parlors, is the Casino at the Palms. There, nine years ago, PGA Tour golfer Kevin Streelman was dancing at a nightclub in the blur of the night, lights flashing, beats blaring, with an Arizona girl he met earlier that day, a girl he would end up marrying four years later.
“Of all places, we met in Las Vegas,” his wife, Courtney, laughs.
As they danced, Courtney noticed a cross hanging from Kevin’s necklace.
“What does that mean to you?” she asked, sparking their first conversation about faith. She’s been by his side ever since.
Remarkable things, like meeting your future spouse, unfold when you leave your worries behind and enter such a carefree place as Vegas. After all, there’s love in those Vegas lights, and love drowns out worry and fear.
Worry and Fear
If there’s a breeding ground for worry and fear, it’s golf. The sport almost tore Kevin and Courtney apart. It almost ruined their engagement, their future. And it almost ruined Kevin.
“There have been times when I have said that golf is not my identity, but it is” Kevin admits. “Even a few years ago, Courtney was crying at night saying, ‘Kevin, I feel like golf is more important than me at times,’ and it just hit me,” he shakes his head. “Just a constant battle.”
Golf is easy to obsess over, to worry over, to fear over, because, like a lot of things, it’s an unsolvable puzzle. It has its way of convincing you that your entire self-worth is in a score. It’s maddening. There’s no Vegas, no escape, for golf. There’s no Vegas for anything, really. Vegas is no more than an illusion, a glow in the desert with neon-flashing “ESCAPE” signs, a mirage.
There was a time when Kevin thought golf was his escape, that if only he could attain his dream of playing professionally, it would fix everything. Golf, in short, had Kevin by the throat. It defined him.
“It’s a sad place to live, especially in sport,” Kevin says, “because, at the end of the day, they see ‘Kevin Streelman’ and a number next to my name, and they think they know whether I had a good day or a bad day, and it’s tough. Money lists. World ranking lists. Trying to get to the top. And once you’re at the top, you’re trying to stay at the top. If you don’t have a fullness, a belief in something bigger than just what our ranking is in this world, it’s going to be a sad existence…”
It’s easy to understand why he is so attached to the game. Few have invested more than Kevin, and few have worked harder.
Ever since he completed his collegiate career at Duke University in 2001, Kevin took the advice of his father, who had been drafted to play Major League Baseball but couldn’t play because of the Vietnam War.
“Kev, just give it your all,” his father told him. “If you don’t take the chance, you’re gonna one day look back and wish you had.”
But you can’t help but wonder how long you’re supposed to give professional golf a chance. Two years? Three? Six? When does it become unrealistic?
Kevin spent six years playing on mini tours. Six. He lived in Chicago but more accurately lived out of his car. He burnt through three vehicles. He racked up more than 400,000 miles.
Hoping. Chasing. Working.
One day, he checked into a hotel to play at a mini tour event in Phoenix. The hotel placed a hold on his debit card, prohibiting him from withdrawing any cash from an ATM.
“It was a moment I didn’t have anything,” Kevin says. “I called the hotel and bank numerous times, and they basically released the charges a few days later. But it was like, ‘Wow, I need to get something going here.’”
Another time, he was on the west coast playing in a Monday qualifier at Pebble Beach. A group in Chicago was supposedly sponsoring him, but he ended up stranded out west with $400 to his name. He tried calling them. He left 30-plus messages. No answer. “To this day, they haven’t picked up the phone,” Kevin says.
Why he still believed in his dream in times like that, Kevin has no idea.“Sometimes you don’t realize that or see that until you’re out of it,” Kevin says. “God uses our lowest, deepest darkest moments to build us back up. It’s in those moments when we are in the most need; sometimes he gives us our space to do it on our own and rely on Him, and know we need to rely on Him.”
There was also something that kept him and Courtney pushing through the fire. Their relationship, after all, was probably just as maddening as his golf game. It was during their two years of engagement, on the brink of being married, that they almost fell apart…multiple times.
It all came down to golf. The chase consumed him. It produced worry. It produced fear. It robbed him of life.
“We didn’t really feel like a team,” Courtney says.
Courtney was slipping away. So was golf. And so was he.
During his six years playing on mini tours, several people told Kevin he should read Dr. David Cook’s book, Golf’s Sacred Journey. Whenever people told him he should read it, he kind of shrugged it off. He was too focused. Too consumed in the game.
He eventually decided to read it, and, to his surprise, identified with the main character in the book—a mini-tour golfer who put his entire self worth in his golf score. The book, really, kind of changed him and ultimately helped save his relationship with Courtney and rescue his mind.
The struggles in 2007, Courtney says—nearly calling off the engagement, nearly calling it quits altogether—made them more “purposeful,” both in their relationship with God and each other.
He committed to playing more mini tour events in Phoenix. They were able to see one another more. They even got a dog. It was 2007, actually, in the wake of reading Golf’s Sacred Journey, when he won three mini-tour events that positioned him for his first year on the PGA tour in 2008, the year they also married.
Things were finally looking up.
“It was just kind of an overwhelming sense of, like, ‘Why us?’ When the blessings came, that made faith even more important to us,” Courtney says.
People go to Vegas to let go of things, to forget about things, to, for once, not be identified by their social or economic standing. In Vegas, everyone is the same—a bunch of fun-seeking sinners with no concept of time or money or worldly identity. Everyone is there to have a good time, to escape.
God is kind of the same way. He’s really quite an escape, a tunnel through your mountains of worry. When everything in this world tries to define you—whether it’s a job description on LinkedIn, a relationship status on Facebook, or a number next to a golf score—God can give value in a world that only gives importance.
There’s a reason why Kevin has Joshua 1:9 engraved into his putter. It speaks truth into one of his biggest struggles in life, the tendency for golf to define him, to trigger fear, worry, discouragement, or an exhausting desire to control.
“Have I not commanded you?” the verse reads. “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
“That’s the constant thing I’m battling and trying to get better with, to release that fear,” Kevin says. “I think that’s a beautiful place to be, to live without fear. And that’s the verse that’s written on my putter. It’s stamped into my putter, to vanish fear and doubt from your life because God is with you wherever you go. It doesn’t matter. True freedom is letting go of worldly fear.”
On the afternoon of March 17 at the 2013 Tampa Bay Championship, after six years on mini tours, after over five years on the PGA Tour, after 153 PGA Tour starts, Kevin Streelman fired a 67 (10-under overall) to win his first PGA tournament, and watched Courtney, overcome with emotion, run down the hill on No. 18 at Innisbrook and leap into his arms.
He had gone to bed with the lead the night before, coming face-to-face with the crux of his struggle as a professional golfer: If he lost the tournament, would it define him? Would the number, the ranking, the pundits the next morning, whatever it was in relation to the game of golf, define him?
“I told people that my caddy, A.J. (Montecinos) and I, reached the freedom we had on Sunday and the peace that we had by totally letting go of the result, no matter what happened,” Kevin says softly. “Let go of worldly result. Truly let it go. I’m not going to let that affect me as my being.”
“When I held that trophy and they interviewed me, I said, ‘I don’t think God has allowed me to have one of these until I knew in my life the proper placement for it.’ Now I do. And it’s just another thing to put down at His feet when the time comes.”
Remarkable things, like winning your first golf tournament, unfold when you leave your worries behind and enter such a peaceful place as God’s presence.
Kevin Streelman is overcome, identified and stamped by a perfect love—a love that drowns all of his worries and fears.
Like the neon glow of Vegas.
By Stephen Copeland
This story was published in Sports Spectrum’s May 2013 DigiMag. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sport Spectrum magazine.
Boxer Robert Guerrero has one of the most inspiring journeys and stories I’ve ever encountered in my journalism career. When you look at all of the setbacks he has had (read his story here), you wonder if he’s a modern Job: destined to suffer for some of his life.
The interesting thing about Guerrero is that he never got down. Even in the heat of the fire, he would tell his manager, Bob Santos, “It’s okay, Bob, God has something bigger for us.”
“He never said, ‘Why is this happening?’” Santos says of Guerrero. “It was always, ‘God has something bigger for us. I know God has something bigger for us, Bob. Keep trucking. Keep trucking.’”
In life, whenever you take a proverbial punch, it’s difficult to look past the punch. Guerrero will tell you it was difficult when he got beat by a guy on steroids, or shattered his hand, or busted his shoulder, or had to sit out 15 months, or saw his wife drop to 90 pounds because of leukemia, or vacated his world title, or heard doctors suggest he make arrangements for his beloved before her bone-marrow transplant. Santos says Guerrero never wavered from the belief that God had something bigger. God, Guerrero believed, was still sovereign, sitting on His throne, masterfully authoring his story. Today, keep trucking. This God, His way is perfect.
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine. This devotional is taken from our most recent Training Table, a compilation of sports-related devotionals included in each print magazine. Log in here to access the March 2013/Volume 27, Number 2 Training Table.
Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche has a tattoo on his right arm; it’s a drake. LaRoche also has a son; and his name is “Drake.” On his left arm is a buck tattoo.
You could say the guy loves hunting.
It’s LaRoche, in fact, along with Duck Commander and Buck Commander CEO Willie Robertson’s network of Major League Baseball players that have helped take the Robertsons’ business to the next level.
Robertson and LaRoche’s relationship began when LaRoche called Duck Commander’s headquarters to order a hat back around 2007. Though the Robertsons had never heard of LaRoche, who was playing for the Atlanta Braves at the time, Robertson ended up connecting well with LaRoche and later contacting him about a deer-hunting project, now known as Buck Commander.
“I started Buck Commander because I always saw potential in the deer market,” Robertson says. “As I found out more about TV, there’s only a few water fowl shows, but deer is everywhere. You can hunt deer in all 50 states.
“I saw a lot more money changing from the deer side, from the industry perspective and the customers. We had deer hunting growing up, and we just happened to run into these guys who were baseball players. They were fans for our stuff, and I heard all these deer stories. I just said, ‘Why don’t we start a deer hunting company?’ And I’ll admit, I didn’t really know what we were going to do and how it was all going to work out, but I said, ‘Let’s go have fun, and allow the entertainment to drive the brand and license that out.’”
The two of them took their passion for the outdoors and did just that: They had fun. Since the MLB season ends in October and doesn’t start until February, LaRoche’s schedule was perfect for deer hunting and perfect for Robertson’s new business endeavors.
Robertson decided to not only expand the family business from a merchandise standpoint, adding Buck Commander to Duck Commander, but also decided to expand in entertainment.
With the help of LaRoche, Robertson pioneered the development of their second show on the Outdoor Channel: Buck Commander (Duck Commander, being their first), a show dedicated to deer hunting. As the show came together, LaRoche also became friends with two up-and-coming country stars in Atlanta: Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.
“At the time, they were not famous at all,” Robertson says. “Adam was the real connector, and he hung onto them and checked on their careers. We just invited them to come to hunting camp with us, actually, just to hear them sing by the camp fire. We need some entertainment while we were there. We brought them along onto the project, and once the opportunity came along, they jumped on it.”
The cast of Buck Commander on Outdoor Channel makes for an interesting dynamic: Duck Commander and Duck Dynasty star Willie Robertson hunting with Major League Baseball players Chipper Jones, Ryan Langerhans, Tom Martin, and LaRoche, and country music stars Bryan and Aldean.
“A baseball player gets interviewed every day of the year,” Robertson says. “The country singers are naturally entertaining. It wasn’t difficult to make a hunting show and put it together.”
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine.
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” Matthew 16:15-16 (ESV)
Judah Smith, pastor of The City Church in Seattle, Wash., and good friend of 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson, released a new book in 2013 called Jesus is ___. Watson wrote the foreword.
The title itself is a thought-proving statement. How would you finish the sentence? All of us, Christian or non-Christian, must eventually fill in the blank. As C.S. Lewis says, Jesus was either who He says He was, the son of God, or He was a lunatic. And, if you believe Jesus was who He says He was, you then must treat him like He is what He proclaimed to be. The description of the book reads: “Your answer could shed light on the path to becoming who you were made to be.”
After Watson won the Masters last year, he answered the question by first thanking Jesus, his Lord and Savior, and then later telling the media, “Golf isn’t everything to me.”
“The number one passion for Bubba Watson is Jesus,” Smith told Sports Spectrum more than a year ago. “He loves the person of Jesus undoubtedly. That’s the greatest thing in the world to see…”
What is your number one passion? It’s a blank that we must fill in every day, I think—just not after a mountain-top experience like winning the Masters or a desert experience like when Watson lost his father to cancer. The Christian life is one of continual and intentional pursuit.
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer at Sports Spectrum magazine. This devotional is taken from our most recent Training Table, a compilation of sports-related devotionals included in each print magazine. Log in here to access the March 2013/Volume 27, Number 2 Training Table.
I was trying to sing “Jesus the Nazarene” but instead stood amazed in the presence of my own stupidity.
We were at White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., attending church with the Robertson family, the clan of redneck millionaires featured on the hit-program Duck Dynasty on A&E—and that’s when it hit me.
I stared up at the ceiling and bit my lip, like I had just thrown an interception. The Robertsons sang joyfully in the row in front of us. I wanted to sing along but could no longer focus. Moisture appeared on my forehead like dew, as did red splotches on my neck, like flowers blooming.
Idiot, I said to myself.
A couple Sundays ago, I was sweating in church because the man in front of me was groping his significant other, as if they were in the privacy of their bedroom. I think he had his coffee in one hand and his woman’s derrière in the other, as he bobbed his head to an epic guitar solo on stage. Protestants, I sighed, as I took a sip of coffee and opened the Bible App on my phone.
That was more out of fear something R-rated was about to unfold in the middle of worship; this time, the time with the Robertsons, I was sweating out of sheer embarrassment—both uncomfortable nonetheless, both void of focus.
“Brett,” I whispered to my editor. He turned. I gulped.
“I left my voice recorder in Willie’s office,” I stupidly said.
Here we were, a national magazine that has been around for 29 years and one of its dimwit reporters left his recorder at the interview—back at the Duck Commander warehouse where Willie and his father Phil, his mother Miss Kay and his brother Al graciously gave us two hours of their time before Wednesday night church service.
In case you’re wondering, a reporter forgetting his recorder would be like Jimi Hendrix forgetting his guitar backstage or Obi-Wan leaving his light saber on his nightstand before one of the Clone Wars. If any of the Robertsons would have turned around and seen me, they may have suspected I was about to go up front to the altar, or that I was a nervous fellow, or that I simply had the runs.
The pastor of White’s Ferry supposedly gave a great sermon that evening, a sermon I didn’t hear. My mind was journeying through some sort of fictional nightmare where Willie would find my recorder the next day, then suspect we were attempting to sort of wiretap his office, then talk about it on Duck Dynasty, tainting Sports Spectrum’s credibility in front of millions.
I wondered if my imagination was playing tricks on me. So after church, I scurried out of the sanctuary (like I had the runs) and into the parking lot to search the car. I searched it like I was TSA. Nothing.
Defeated, I walked back toward the church. That’s when I saw Uncle Si in the parking lot. He was talking to someone—Justin Martin, I think—and he was shooting an imaginary gun, maybe explaining a story or perhaps shooting something imaginary.
I thought about approaching Si and asking him for a ride to the warehouse. I pictured him driving us there, then realizing he didn’t have a key because Willie didn’t trust him enough, then climbing through a window with me. Alarms would go off, and the cops would come. It’d still ruin the credibility of our magazine, but it would make a nice column, “Si and I” or “The Sound of Sirens” or something.
But I decided to keep walking, swiftly dodging his imaginary bullets. Si and I together would be bad news, anyway. The world may implode, I concluded.
When I returned to the sanctuary, Miss Kay was giving out “goodbye” hugs, thanking us, ironically, for spending time with them. “Thank you so much!” she said, cheerful and loving like she is on the show. “Please come back again. I’ll cook for you guys!”
Supposedly she called me a “cutie,” too, but I was too stressed to hear it, which is probably a good thing, because I think it would have made me crumble—like thinking of her southern cooking wasn’t enough, already.
“Phil,” I said, nervously, after hugging his wife, Miss Kay, “I feel like an idiot, but I left my voice recorder in Willie’s office.”
I don’t want to know what he was thinking, but I take comfort that, because he didn’t know what an Xbox was one episode, there was at least a slight chance he didn’t know what a voice recorder was. “Godwin will open the warehouse for you,” he said, like it was nothing. “Not a problem.”
I breathed a sigh of relief, and looked over at John Godwin, simply known as “Godwin.” I recognized him. He looked like a walrus. Also, he got sprayed with a skunk one episode.
Turns out, Godwin let us into the warehouse, we found my recorder, and we all talked in the parking lot for a good 45 minutes beneath the Louisiana sky.
Godwin told us his story. He used to be a drunk. He used to avoid church because he didn’t want to be around “holy rollers.” Then someone invited him to a cookout, which, if you’ve seen Godwin, was an invitation he wasn’t going to decline. He always admired the Robertsons because he’s an avid hunter, and the Robertsons invented the Duck Commander duck call. At the cookout, however, Phil preached and Godwin’s life changed.
Now, Godwin practically is a Robertson. He’s on Duck Dynasty. He’s in their hunting DVDs. He has 100,000 Twitter followers and is a star. And yet, like the Robertsons, he’s very unassuming, very down-to-earth and genuine. It’s all about God, not himself. Through Godwin, you saw who the Robertsons really were. He was walking, talking proof of the impact the family has on people. He was changed.
As we left West Monroe, I was no longer stressed. I was happy I forgot my recorder, happy we talked to Godwin, and happy we got to know the Robertsons.
I fell asleep in the backseat, dreaming of Miss Kay’s cooking. And I was happy, happy, happy.
This column appeared in the March 2013 Sports Spectrum DigiMag and Volume 27, No. 2 print magazine. Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine. His column tackles sports and faith from another angle, whether it’s humorous, personal or controversial. Follow him on Twitter-@steve_copeland or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phil sits in Willie’s office at the Duck Commander warehouse. He’s telling a story, like Phil usually does.
Being with him in person is kind of surreal, like you’re having coffee with a cartoon. It looks like he came straight out of your television and sat in your living room—sunglasses resting on his head, camouflage bandana and pants, as if he’s been hunting all day, and a nest of a beard you could probably turn into a winter scarf.
He’s an identical projection of the Phil you see on Duck Dynasty, A&E’s hit-program about redneck millionaires, the Robertsons, living in the backwoods of Louisiana; and yet, as he talks, you see more clearly the real Phil Robertson. There’s more to him.
Willie, his third oldest son, is there, too, reclined in his chair, feet propped and crossed on his desk, enjoying his new office. He does business on his phone or strokes his beard or spits chew into his white coffee mug while Phil talks and talks and talks.
Again, this Willie, the CEO of Duck Commander and Buck Commander, looks exactly the same—worn jeans, plaid shirt, blue bandana, beard, and all—but there’s more to him, something that stretches far beyond the plots of reality television.
Miss Kay, Phil’s wife, is also there, sitting in Willie’s office, delightfully southern and cordial and giggly. She’s wearing a baggy, black, Under Armour sweatshirt with a giant, white Duck Dynasty logo plastered on the front. She’s not wearing an apron, believe it or not, and there’s no talk of fried squirrel, either. She sits quietly, listening to her husband, Phil.
Al, their oldest son, is in the office, too, occasionally offering anecdotes and background stories, but mostly just listening to Phil like the rest of them. Al is the only Robertson son who doesn’t look like a grizzly bear, and apparently his normalcy is enough to disqualify him from the show. Jase and Jep, his other two bearded younger brothers aren’t in the room but will be at church with them later. Al still seems like the ugly duckling in the vicinity of Phil and Willie, which is weird, because Al doesn’t look like he could scare children. He stands on the other side of Willie’s L-shaped, camouflage desk, handing him sheets of paper that look like lithographs to autograph while Phil talks.
The scene—the family, the interaction, the personalities—almost makes you feel like you’re on the set of Duck Dynasty. But at the same time, it’s different. The humor is the same, but their depth is more evident. There’s no censor. No storyline. They’re talking about the things they want to talk about. Also, there’s Al.
At the moment, Phil is telling a story about a time at the Super Dome in New Orleans when he was speaking to a 1,000-person crowd about duck calls and hunting. He stood beneath a sign that read “Budweiser, King of Beers” then said, “I tell you what, that concludes my duck call demonstration, folks.” He reached down and picked up his Bible. “I think while I’m here, I’m going to preach you a little sermon about the King of Kings.”
It’s been ten minutes since the reporters entered Willie’s office, and they haven’t asked a single question. Phil knew they worked for a Christian magazine, and he took it as a green light—a green light to preach. Then again, it probably wouldn’t have mattered if they worked for Sports Illustrated or Time. If you watch Duck Dynasty, you know this much: Phil is going to say what he’s going to say, even if it ruffles some feathers.
“My job is to tell them the good news about Jesus, and I’m on down the road,” Phil says, piggybacking off his own story. “Jesus died for the sins of the world, was buried and raised from the dead. Ya want in? Put your faith in Him, find ya a pond somewhere, let somebody baptize ya, and let’s go with it.”
Phil picks up more steam, his voice fluctuating.
“Love God. Love your neighbor. Ya think the U.S. would be a little better off if we tried that? Not looking too good the way we’re going now. People robbing, raping, ripping babies out of wombs—it’s just pitiful.”
He launches into another story. This one is about a time in Mississippi where he pulled up to an event, saw an endless line waiting to meet him, gathered everyone up in the parking lot, and started preaching. Like the hundreds of people he has baptized in the nearby Ouachita River—300, some say—several came to God in the parking lot that day in Mississippi.
One time, he stood on hay bales in a city square in California and started preaching. He’s preached from wagons before. He’s preached from 18-wheelers.
This is the side of the Robertsons you don’t see on the show, and, for the sake of their ratings, understandably so.
“I think it scares people more than making them mad or belligerent at me because of it,” Phil continues. “They seem more afraid, which, they oughta be. It’s not that I’m trying to put the fear of God in them, but,” he says, laughing, “I pretty well am. You know what I’m sayin’?”
“Phil,” Miss Kay interrupts.
He looks over at her.
“He’s going to ask you a couple questions,” she says, pointing at a reporter, realizing they haven’t asked a single question in the 20 minutes they’ve been there.
A reporter speaks, propelling Phil into another story.
This one is about preaching to 500 people in the middle of Oklahoma. Phil, who has never owned a cell phone or started a computer, was fascinated when his brother-in-law found his Oklahoma sermon online and showed him that nearly 500,000 people viewed it. “Punched my name into that cell phone,” he tries to explain.
“He’s almost like John the Baptist,” Al says of Phil, who has been called the Billy Graham of duck hunting. “Also because of the way he looks, ya know? If only he had camel hair—”
Phil interrupts, speaking quickly, leaning forward, laughing, “Some of them look at me and say, ‘That boy look pretty rough.’ I say, ‘Hey, John the Baptist looked a lot rougher than I did, and he paved the way for Jesus, so get out of my face!’”
The Robertsons weren’t always qualified to be the most Christian-friendly, family focused people to star on reality television. They weren’t always sitting around the dinner table each night, praying and laughing.
Truth is, all they’ve done—Duck Commander, Buck Commander, their hunting DVD’s, their shows on the Outdoor Channel, Duck Dynasty, the baptisms, the speaking engagements—may have never happened if it weren’t for the change Phil made when he was 28, back in the 1970’s.
“There were 8-10 years when Dad was pretty much a heathen,” Al says.
“Not pretty much, full blown,” Phil stresses.
“Well, he was out looking for his freedom wherever that was,” says Miss Kay, who started dating Phil when she was 14, he was 16, then married him in college, and fought for their marriage when he was coming home drunk, and getting in fights, and kicking her and their kids out of the house.
Willie chronicled the turmoil in The Duck Commander Family: How Faith, Family, And Ducks Built a Dynasty: “One night, Phil was arguing with the bar’s owner and his wife,” Willie wrote. “He was drunk and threw the woman across the bar and beat both of them up pretty badly. When the police arrived to break up the melee, Phil slipped out the back door. Before he left, Phil told Kay she wouldn’t see him for a while. Then he stayed in the woods for several weeks while the authorities were looking for him…”
These were the Robertsons, or, Phil, at one time: operating a honky-tonk, living out of a trailer, drunken nights and bar fights. Family was the last thing on his mind. Slightly different from what you see today on Duck Dynasty.
“Never realizing,” Phil says, “A man is a slave to whatever masters him. I was a slave to sin—”
“But he thought he was looking for his freedom,” Miss Kay adds. “I told our kids, I said, ‘The devil is in your dad now. Your dad is made from God. He has a good heart and is a good man, but right now Satan is occupying him and his mind. Don’t hate your dad. You hate Satan and the forces beyond him.’”
The relational pain crushed Miss Kay.
“What kept me there?” she reflects. “What made me stay with him? It was words my grandmother said: ‘One man, one wife, for one life.’ She would say things like, ‘You’re going to have to fight for your marriage.’ But after 10 years, I wondered how long you were supposed to fight for your marriage. He drove me into the ground…When I realized that I couldn’t save my marriage myself, you lose hope, and that’s what happened. That’s when I came to Christ.”
Miss Kay forgave Phil and took him back under two conditions: He had to quit drinking, and he had to leave his friends.
“Now Kay says, ‘Phil, I’ve been poor with you and you were mean; but now you’re kind, and I’m rich with you. Now rich is a lot better,’” Phil says.
“Let me explain,” says Miss Kay. “When he was mean, and we were poor, I had to manage everything. He wasn’t very worried about whatever happened. That’s why it’s much easier being this way now. I don’t have to worry about making this work, and debt, and somebody coming after us and shutting off the lights.”
“Why do you always cause me debt?” says Willie, jokingly, while signing posters.
“What?” asks Miss Kay.
“Why do you always cause me debt?” he says again.
“Because I have my own bank,” she says, laughing. “It’s the bank of Willie!”
Love & Sex
The talk of dark days and sin leads a reporter to ask a question about fame, and the temptations that come with being in the limelight. Everyone has been in Willie’s office for an hour, and maybe three questions have been asked.
Phil, fittingly, begins preaching again, as if he has 1,000 topics in his mind to choose from at any given time.
“The resurrection of the dead pretty well trumps the momentary pleasure of sin,” he says, wisely, referring to Jesus. “The long-legged chicks that show up, you say, ‘Is it more powerful than the resurrection of the dead?’ Naw, not even a race. You just think about the resurrection of the dead stacking up with anything on this earth, all your sins removed, your dead, cold body being energized and standing back up on the earth—I think that’s going to hold me in place right here.”
Phil pauses, then points at Miss Kay.
“My little sex machine is sitting over there,” he says. Miss Kay looks up at the ceiling and laughs. “It’s like banana pudding;’ I can have it every night if I want to.”
Phil’s sex talk continues for several more minutes, and you’d think it’d be awkward and uncomfortable but it’s not. Al and Willie are used to it, and anyone who watches Duck Dynasty is used to seeing it—the sex talk, not the sex.
“If I could have muted him,” Al laughs, “I would have done it 20 years ago.”
A reporter’s face is beet red, nonetheless, from laughing so hard, and Willie is staring at his desk, shocked but not really shocked at all, perhaps slightly distraught his father just quoted Ezekiel 23:20.
It’s these moments that make you understand why Duck Dynasty’s Season Three premier trafficked 8.6 million viewers, A&E’s most-watched telecast in its history, and why it’s the most popular reality show on cable television. Put four of them in a room, and you can be entertained for hours. Throw Si or Jase or “Mountain Man” in there, and you have a circus.
At the same time, the scene stands in stark contrast to the Robertsons of the 1970s—a marriage that was on the rocks and a family that was falling apart. Here were Phil and Miss Kay, 40 years later, talking as if they had just gotten back from their honeymoon. In a sense, there’s something beautiful and admirable, and not so taboo, about Phil’s adoration for his bride, even after all these years.
“And I usually tell em,’” Phil continues his sex talk, “’When you get my age, you’re just trying to get it over with without getting hurt, without straining a muscle or something.”
Phil pauses, the room flooding with laughter all over again, then looks at a reporter.
“Put that in your magazine.”
Just as the Robertson family wasn’t always thriving, neither was their business.
Phil, the original Duck Commander, laid the foundation for their family’s success. He received a patent for the duck call he created in the early 1970’s and the Duck Commander Company was born. After the success of the calls, Phil began a series of duck-hunting videos that developed a worldwide following.
By the time Willie turned 30, business had become stagnant, and he took over the company. “He was black-marketing gum and candy in elementary school and shutting down the concession booths,” says Phil, who laughs, thinking of Willie’s business roots, “going to Wal-Mart, buying them in bulk…I said, ‘He’s the next CEO!’”
If there’s one thing that gets Willie talking like Phil, it’s business.
He’s the marketer, risk-taker and entrepreneur behind the company. Phil perfected duck calls; he’s the engineer. Willie made it explode. He did more with their sponsors—shot gun companies, shell companies, camouflage manufacturers. He got other movers and shakers on board—guys like Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche, and country stars Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan. Willie started Buck Commander.
Under Willie, TV opportunities arose, and he became the executive producer of their two shows on the Outdoor Channel, “Duck Commander” and “Buck Commander.”
“I pretty much immersed myself in figuring out how that worked,” says Willie, telling the story of the company. “How you made money. If you made money. If you build your brand…I think that was very important because God was setting us up for what was to come, and having that experience really helped us.”
Phil stands up.
“You heading out?” Willie asks.
“Gotta take a leak. I’ll be back.” Phil replies.
Willie laughs, then continues.
“When the opportunity came for Duck Dynasty, it just came from a producer out of Hollywood who was from Louisiana—cold email to the information box at our company. It said, ‘I think you guys actually have the gifts to go big.’”
They filmed two pilots, A&E picked it up, and the rest is history.
Phil returns two minutes later and sits back down.
“They probably had their fingers crossed, hoping it wouldn’t be a functioning family,” Willie laughs. “They probably hoped it would be a train wreck.”
“It’s morphed into a comedy,” Phil says.
“Yeah, they didn’t see it ever being a comedy,” Willie agrees.
“One day,” Phil explains, beginning a story about his brother, Si, “The producers said, ‘Who is that?’ I said, ‘That’s Old Si.’”
“They said, ‘Oh, gosh, he’s dumb enough to be on television.’”
Willie was the one who convinced Phil to do the show.
“Every day,” Miss Kay says, “Phil would say, ‘Why would anybody watch this show?’” Phil scratches his head and strokes his beard, as if he’s still confused why anyone would watch it.
The Robertsons have butted heads with Hollywood a little, but not much.
Early on, for example, the editors in Los Angeles inserted “bleeps” to make it appear like the Robertsons were cursing, when they weren’t. That didn’t go well with Phil. Another time, they cut out “in Jesus’s name” in their end-of-the-episode, sitting-around-the-dinner table prayer. That didn’t go well with Phil, either.
“I said, ‘Why would you cut out ‘in Jesus’ name’? They said, ‘Well, those editors are probably just doing that, and they don’t want to offend some of the Muslims or something.’ I said, ‘Let’s see now, what year is it?’ They said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Well, what year is it?’ They said, ‘Well, it’s 2012.’ I said, ‘2012, A.D. Anno Domini. Year. Of. Our. Lord. I said, ‘You Hollywood cats are counting time by Jesus just like I am. I don’t think it would hurt to throw his name in there time to time. Your calendar is based on it.’”
At the end of the day, however, the show has only expanded their platform. They understand they’re still dealing with Hollywood. “It’s not the Pat Robertson show,” Phil says.
Another story comes to Phil’s mind.
“The other day, some guy got in touch with us,” he says. “He was an atheist. This atheist was watching Duck Dynasty and said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but these people do.’ He said, ‘I don’t have that. I don’t have a family like that. My family, we all hate each other.’ Friction. Drugs. Fighting. He said, ‘I wish I could be like that.’ He got in touch with somebody, they preached the gospel, he got converted, and he sent a letter down.’”
And to think: All of this may have never happened—if Phil hadn’t walked away from football, if Miss Kay hadn’t forgiven Phil, if they hadn’t surrendered to God and gotten their lives back on track. Now, Phil and Willie are invited to hundreds of churches every year. Many have even traveled to West Monroe just to be baptized by the Robertsons—they trickle in each week, Phil says—because they were impacted by the show.
“Obviously, athletically, Dad had the talent and ability to be on a stage like a lot of athletes do,” Al says. “But what’s ironic is that, instead of that, it’s like God had a whole other plan, because this is something totally unique and different. This other door was down the road that we wouldn’t even know, and now, we’re just going through that door—”
“Ohhh, this is the big door, right here,” Phil says, excitedly. “This is our chance to—”
“Preach to millions.”
By Stephen Copeland
Stephen Copeland is a staff writer and columnist at Sports Spectrum magazine.