Feature Story — Winston Justice: Rescued From Justice

Super Bowl XLVIII Media Day

Protecting Peyton Manning, one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks in history, doesn’t come without bumps in the road.

For Winston Justice, those bumps have been numerous.

His storybook ascension started in high school, when Winston Justice started making his own decisions.

Raised a Jehovah’s Witness, Justice defied his denomination’s edict to avoid organized athletics because it would expose children to “unwholesome associations” and started playing football when he was 16. Once he realized his potential, Justice recognized his means to an end: an athletic scholarship would allow him to get an education his family otherwise couldn’t afford and raise his profile among peers.

“I was playing for the wrong reasons,” Justice says. “I was playing because football players at my school were considered cool.”

He starred at Long Beach Poly High, a perennial national powerhouse, and Justice earned a scholarship to the University of Southern Cal, where he started on a national championship team and blocked for three Heisman Trophy winners (quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush). Selected in the second round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Justice started every game for the Philadelphia Eagles at right tackle for several seasons for the Eagles.

An ultimate winner by the world’s standards.

So why did he feel like such a loser?

“You have an all-star football player and everything seemed good,” Justice says of his collegiate career. “But I was really depressed.”

Justice didn’t know why, and he desperately searched for his identity, yet only in what he described as “the wrong things.”

“In women,” Justice says. “In football. In trying to be cool. In drinking.

“And drugs.”

The emptiness persisted.

“It was like drinking water that didn’t quench my thirst,” he says, noting he would visit with counselors.

But through the grace of God, and the love of a Christian woman, Justice has committed himself to Christ, and he’s now leading others to the light.

“Teammates who knew him in college, they say, ‘Man, what are you doing?’” says Theodore Winsley, a pastor at Living Faith Christian Center in Pennsauken, N.J. who mentors Justice. “One of the greatest witnessing tools is to win, not just in the game, but in life.”

New York Giants v Philadelphia Eagles

IN A HAZE

Justice’s parents and grandparents were active Jehovah’s Witnesses, so he regularly attended church.

“I always went there because of them, not because my heart was into it,” he says. “I was never baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness.”

But Justice’s parents didn’t strongly resist when he decided to play basketball and football at 16.

And the more he played and the more he succeeded, the more supportive his parents became.

Inside, though, he was conflicted and confused about his faith.

“I was young and frustrated,” he says, “and I didn’t believe in anything.”

At Southern Cal, Justice often found himself not wanting to get out of bed. Counselors provided him anti-depression meds, which didn’t seem to help.

To this day, Justice wonders how much better he could have been if he were more focused and committed.

“I’d drink, and party the whole night, then go into the 6 a.m. workouts really drunk,” Justice recalls. “So how effective can you really be?”

Remarkably, though, Justice was talented enough to start as a true freshman and throughout his college career for the Trojans.

He coasted even into his rookie season, during which he met a special young woman. After dating for a while, though, she left him.

“I was young and selfish,” he says. “I was very into myself, just like a lot of football players are.”

Justice tried to move on, yet he was still pained by her departure. Attempts to not think about her were fruitless.

He pursued her to her hometown in Florida, but she’d changed: she found the Lord.

“She was very serious about it,” Justice recalls. “I was like, ‘Only way I can get her back is to try this Christian thing.’

And I tried it, and Jesus took a hold of my life.”

MAKING REAL COMMITMENTS

He’s mature enough now to admit that he tried to be deceptive.

“I figured I would fake it to get her back,” he says. “But my plan didn’t work.”

He started to attend Summit Church in Naples, Fla., where he was profoundly impacted by Christian men. He returned to Philadelphia and connected with Winsley, who has been a chaplain with the Eagles for more than a decade and leads a Bible study for players.

During Justice’s rookie season, he declined invitations from his roommate – receiver Jason Avant – to attend the Bible study. But Justice accepted during his second season.

“When I met him, he was clearly lost,” Winsley says, “but he was very open, and he wanted the truth.”

Winsley, who left a national sales management position at a fashion company to become a pastor, noted the unique challenge of professional athletes.

“Money gives you the opportunity to express yourself,” he says. “So some (athletes) crash and burn quickly. When I met him, he had failed, and he knew he failed, and he just wanted the truth, so he was a sponge.”

Winsley provided Justice with a book on world religions, including the beliefs of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“He was in a cult,” Winsley says. “Then I showed him the difference between Christianity and Jesus Christ. He walked himself out, by just wanting what was truth.”

Justice says none of this happened overnight.

“It was gradual,” he says. “You hear about one day it all changes.

“But each year, I grow closer to Christ.”

Still, Justice says temptation is always right around the corner. He married that young woman, whose name is Dania, and they have a son (Selah) and a daughter (Calais).

“Some people say it should be easy, but it’s a constant battle,” he says. “I think the enemy is always out to get you. I always try to keep myself in the Word, to keep it fresh in my mind.”

He talks to children as much as possible about setting goals and valuing teamwork.

During the offseason, he also helped rebuild an orphanage through the Mission of Hope in Haiti.

“I’ve been to third world countries before,” Justice says. “But, this one had a disaster. In Uganda, they don’t know how poor they are. It’s just their reality. In Haiti, they know they’re poor.”

One year, Justice raised money to build homes in Haiti.

“You can build a house for $6,000, for five people,” he says.

Winsley is proud of Justice. The Broncos’ 29-year-old offensive tackle who was signed in September after playing with Philadelphia (2006-2011) and Indianapolis (2012), committed himself to Christ during a Bible study session, and he’s hungry to learn more and more. After each meeting, Justice and Winsley would meet privately for at least another 20 minutes, with the player asking the pastor specific questions about the lesson and life.

“He brought a couple of players to the Bible study, because of his witness,” says Winsley of Justice.

Winsley added that Justice understands something that many other athletes do not.

“Football isn’t a purpose, it’s a platform,” Winsley says. “A purpose doesn’t end. Football has a season.

“If (players) don’t prepare for it, they think their life is going to end. That’s why it’s important these young men are grounded by a relationship with God.”

Justice doesn’t separate football and religion anymore.

“I work to glorify God,” Justice says. “I really felt that God put that in my heart. I think my goal is to be a great offensive tackle. But, my major goal is to glorify God. I want people to see Christ in me, when I play. Not being fearful, to giving his all on every play.”

By Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen has been a beat writer and columnist who covered the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings for the Chicago Sun-Times and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. He is currently the editor of Thrive Sports.

From the Archives – Drew Brees

New Orleans Saints Super Bowl MVP quarterback Drew Brees doesn’t possess the speed of a Michael Vick, the prototype frame of a Peyton Manning, or the arm strength of a Jay Cutler.

“He’s not the biggest guy. He’s not the strongest, or the fastest,” said brother Reid Brees, who is two years younger than Drew. “But he’ll still find a way to beat you.”

Therein lies what makes Brees special.

He doesn’t have the ideal size (6 foot), arm strength or pedigree (second-round pick out of Purdue). But he has thrived at each level.

He led Westlake High School (Austin, Texas) to its only undefeated season (16-0) and a state title in 1996, when his team won the 5A Division II championship with a 55-15 victory against Abilene Cooper. He also led Purdue to the 2001 Rose Bowl, the school’s first appearance in the prestigious bowl since 1967, and a surprising upset of then No. 4 Kansas State in the 1998 Alamo Bowl with a brilliant 80-yard scoring drive with 1 minute, 25 seconds left in the game.

“His work ethic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen,” Reid said. “Even if he weren’t in the NFL, he would still be a successful person.”

Saints coach Sean Payton also notes that Drew isn’t the prototype quarterback, in terms of size. But Payton says he has the prototypical leadership qualities, preparation and intangibles that demand respect.

“Drew is so committed as a player, that I think everyone in the building respects his work ethic and his commitment to our franchise,” Payton said. “He holds himself accountable to be prepared, both physically and mentally, and he sets the bar high for his teammates, and that is crucial to that position.”

In 2008, Brees raised that bar and established himself as one of the league’s top quarterbacks.

He passed for 34 touchdowns and 5,069 yards, the second-most yards in NFL history and only 15 yards short of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino’s NFL record for a single season. Remarkably, Brees threw for more than 300 passing yards 10 times last season, earning Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year and being named to his third Pro Bowl after also being named in 2004 and 2006.

He says he wasn’t aware of how close he was to Marino’s record or even 5,000 yards. But his teammates, particularly his offensive linemen, wanted him to break the mark.

“They were keeping up with the record more than me,” Brees said. “A lot of things have to happen for you to throw for 5,000 yards. That’s a complete team effort. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn into as many wins as we wanted.”

Though he followed that season with a few less yards, he gladly traded it for a Super Bowl ring and gave the city of New Orleans its first title in any of the major sports. He earned Super Bowl MVP and led the Saints to a 31-17 victory against the Indianapolis Colts in the game.

His Faith Walk

Drew and his younger brother Reid grew up in church, learning the songs and stories of the Bible. But the real draw was their countless friends in Sunday school.

Everything didn’t click for Drew, though, until his 17th birthday. He was at his home church, The First Baptist Church in Austin, Texas, and his pastor had a message that registered in his mind.

“Normally, me and my brother would be elbowing each other during the service,” Drew said, “but that day was different.”

The pastor’s message: the Lord was looking for a few good men. He even referenced the popular 1992 movie, A Few Good Men, which was one of Drew’s favorite movies.

“It just clicked to me,” said Brees. “For some reason, it clicked. ‘You know what? I want to be one of those, ‘few good men.’ I really accepted Jesus Christ into my heart.”

While at Purdue, though, Drew acknowledged that he was “more out of touch” than he wanted to be. Sometimes, he slept in Sunday morning after a late night with friends.

“It’s not like I abandoned it. But you go through that lapse,” he said.

But after the Chargers drafted him in 2001, Drew joined the team’s Bible study, which was led by Pastor Shawn Mitchell.

Now entering his 27th season as the team’s chaplain, Mitchell says he has been blessed to work with many good men associated with the Chargers.

“The Lord has been very good to us,” Mitchell said. “I was with the team when we were 1-15 (2000), and also to the Super Bowl (1994). I’ve seen hundreds of players grow in their faith. I’ve married and buried athletes.”

But Mitchell describes Drew as a “standout” and the “real deal,” citing his humbleness, his leadership, his compassion and his spiritual maturity in the face of adversity.

“Drew was a real catalyst to the spiritual dynamic on the team,” Mitchell said. “He was always in the front row of our team meetings, and he was also in the middle of our chapel services.”

Brees endeared himself to his teammates, Mitchell says, with his perseverance. Players were split on Brees and veteran Doug Flutie during the 2003 season, when the quarterbacks each led the team to a measly two victories apiece.

The next offseason, after the selection of North Carolina State quarterback Phillip Rivers in the NFL draft, Brees tearfully and prayerfully asked God for strength, Mitchell said, during training camp.

“We kicked off that year in prayer, then God began to raise up Drew, to the athlete that we see in New Orleans,” Mitchell says.

Drew relied on Proverbs 3:6: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and HE will make your paths straight.”

A year later, after an injury, Drew relied on Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Trials on the Field

Brees weathered several storms before arriving in New Orleans.

The first followed a 4-12 season in 2003, when Brees battled for the starting spot with Flutie. After the season, the San Diego Chargers traded their No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft to the New York Giants for multiple picks then selected Rivers fourth overall.

Still, because of a protracted holdout by Rivers, Brees started the 2004 NFL season, and he resurrected his career (NFL Comeback Player of the Year) and his team (AFC West champions, with a 12-4 record).

Through the ups and downs, Brees maintained his faith.

But he endured another storm at the end of the 2005 season.

Although the Chargers had been eliminated from the playoffs the previous week, the club wanted to win their 10th game of the season against their AFC rival Denver Broncos at Qualcomm Stadium. Attempting to recover a fumble, Brees absorbed a questionable hit (while on the ground) by Broncos defensive tackle Gerard Warren that tore his labrum and partially tore his rotator cuff.

An inevitable question eventually permeated into his mind, if only for a moment.

“That was a real bad injury,” said Brees. “It was my throwing shoulder, and it was potentially career ending. If you don’t think for a split second, right after it happened, I didn’t think, ‘Why is this happening? Why me?’

“But I very quickly snapped out of it, and realized, this is happening for a reason, and I’m going to turn this into a positive. He wouldn’t let me face it if I couldn’t handle it.”

A second-round pick of the Chargers in 2001, Brees had established himself as a leader on and off the field, and he helped turn around the fortunes of the franchise. He and his wife Brittany loved the community, and he even admitted to a San Diego radio station that he was willing to take less than “franchise-type” money to remain with the Chargers.

“I absolutely wanted to stay,” Brees said. “I was part of rebuilding that team and getting them going in the right direction.

“Hey, I was the quarterback,” he said. “That was my team.”

So he was devastated when Chargers general manager A.J. Smith made clear to him and his agent Tom Condon that the club wasn’t convinced of his recovery, with a modest contract offer that included an even more modest guaranteed bonus.

“I said, ‘This is the worst thing that has happened to me in my life,’” Brees recalled.

Yet Brees, considered a “franchise-type” quarterback by two other clubs, opted to play for the New Orleans Saints and immediately steered them to the NFC South title and the NFC Championship game.

“A year later,” Brees said, “I looked back and said, ‘That was probably the best thing that happened to me.’”

More Than Just a Game

Brees doesn’t like to gloat about his statistics. But there is one thing he’s proud to brag about: the Drew Brees Foundation.

In San Diego, his foundation focused on children with cancer. But, upon arriving in New Orleans in 2006, Brees broadened the reach of his foundation to help rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina devastated that region in August of 2005.

After the 2006 season, Drew was named the Saints’ Walter Payton Man of the Year.

“We completed a $1.8 million fundraising campaign,” Brees excitedly said. “In the last seven years, we’ve raised or committed $4.5 million.

“We’re pretty proud of that.”

He is even more proud of his son, Baylen, who was born on a special day, January 15. That is Drew’s birthday, and Brittany naturally delivered Baylen in about an hour, in the mid-afternoon.

In fact, Baylen’s birth bolstered Drew’s faith.

“When you watch the birth of a child, and hold him in your arms, it makes you realize that God is as real as ever, or else there is no way this would be possible,” Drew said. “It’s the greatest birthday present a dad could ever have.”

He said each day he and Brittany have a moment when their eyes connect and one of them says, “How did we create him? What a blessing he is.”

Child No. 2 was born in the 2010 season.

Life couldn’t be better for Drew Brees, as he prepares for his fourth season with the Saints.

“God puts us in positions, all the time, for a reason,” he said. “You can say, ‘Why is this happening to me? But you have to understand that it’s happening for a reason, and God is doing it to strengthen you.”

By Sean Jensen

Sean Jensen is a Bears/NFL columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. This story was published in the Winter 2010 issue of Sports Spectrum.

In the News: Matt Forte

Tonight, two of the top running backs in the league in Philadelphia’s LeSean McCoy and Chicago’s Matt Forte will go up against one another. Forte is averaging 155.9 yards per game and is averaging 171.3 yards in his last four contests. He also has 38 receptions for 419 yards this season as the Bears’ primary receiver. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Sean Jensen wrote this story about Forte for Sports Spectrum’s Fall 2010 issue.

Running in the Right Direction

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte highlighted the positive amid all the negativity last season.

After breaking the team’s single-season rushing record for a rookie (1,238 yards), Forte appeared to experience a sophomore slump and finished with nearly 300 fewer yards.

Or so everyone believed.

Forte’s numbers dipped because he ripped his hamstring in June, and he sprained the MCL in his left knee in September, injuries that slowed him for the duration of the season.

“It’s easy to praise God and be all happy and tell everyone when things are going well,” Forte says. “But when things go bad, how do you act, and what’s your character like?

“That really opened up my eyes.”

He says he thanked God that – despite the injuries – he finished all 16 games. He also thanked God that – after 11 consecutive games below 100 rushing yards – he churned out 101 in the season finale.

Forte may not have secured any Pro Bowl votes last season, but he earned the respect of his teammates and coaches for not using his injuries as an excuse.

“I’m sure he didn’t particularly like it,” Bears running backs coach Tim Spencer says of the criticism. “We knew he wasn’t a 100 percent. But he kept his mouth quiet, and he tried to work through the injuries.”

Forte, who had offseason surgery, is proud that he didn’t use his injuries as a crutch.

“It was difficult. It was really difficult, because I know what type of player I am,” Forte says. “But it builds character. When you can handle adversity like that, when other problems come along, you handle them even better.”

During the offseason, the Bears added Chester Taylor, who gained 1,216 rushing yards in 2006 for the Minnesota Vikings, and they endured endless questions about Forte’s future.

But Forte had a strong training camp, and he broke loose for an 89-yard touchdown run in the Aug. 21 preseason game against the Oakland Raiders.

“Oh man, I’m just so thankful. I thank God every night. It’s just amazing how you could be injured, and then recover, and God can take care of you that way,” Forte says.

Raised in the Church

Forte grew up in church (his late grandfather was a Baptist pastor in Texarkana, Texas) and he says he’s thankful for his Christian foundation.

“It just gives you a better outlook,” Forte says. “Everyone knows what’s right and what’s wrong. But then it’s easier to fight off temptations, when peer pressure and things like that come into play.”

Forte was put to the test during his freshman year at Tulane University, when he witnessed the stereotypical college party scene.

“That wasn’t my lifestyle,” he says.

So he returned to Hartzel Mt. Zion in Slidell, La., and he rededicated his life to God.

“I kind of came to thinking one day, no matter what you do, even if you try to rebel against God, He’s always going to show up somewhere in your life and make you realize, ‘Hey, this is Me. You need to be with Me.’ ” Forte says. “You do that enough, and you feel, ‘This is what I need to do.’ ”

During the service, the pastor invited attendants to rededicate his or her life to Christ.

“So I stood up and went up there,” he says. “It felt good. It kind of instantly makes you feel a lot better, a weight lifted off your chest.

“You know you’re doing the right thing.”

And he didn’t do much wrong on the football field, either.

Forte finished his Green Wave career as the all-time leader in rushing yards per game (99.2), rushing touchdowns (39) and total touchdowns (44). His 2,127 rushing yards in 2007 was the seventh-highest total in NCAA history.

The Bears selected him in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft. They were intrigued by his size and speed, but they also certainly appreciated that he was a young man of high character, a characterization that would not describe Cedric Benson.

In 2005, the Bears selected Benson with the fourth overall pick, and they hoped he would carry on a rich running back tradition that includes the likes of Gale Sayers and Walter Payton.

Instead, Benson only made headlines for all the wrong reasons: a 36-day holdout, some questionable comments and two alcohol-related arrests in a five-week span.

In June 2008, just a few months after the Bears selected Forte, Benson was released.

NFL Ups and Downs

Forte didn’t waste time making his impact felt, gaining 123 rushing yards in his NFL debut against the Indianapolis Colts. He remained productive and positive throughout the season, thanks in part to two men: his father Gene and Bears chaplain Ray McElroy.

Forte says he recognized “something special” about McElroy. The chaplain helped the rookie stay humble, despite all the immediate success.

“He allowed me to stay focused on what I needed to do, and not get a big head, and think, ‘I’m a big professional football star,” Forte says. “I’m just grateful when I came here, I got to meet a guy like him.”

So when he confronted challenges in 2009, Forte says McElroy and his father helped him.

They both told him not to dwell on what’s wrong but what’s right.

“Not harp on the bad things that are going on,” Forte says.

Forte had offseason knee surgery, to repair his MCL, and he returned to the trainer who helped him prepare for the 2008 NFL Combine.

Pete Bommarito has worked with top athletes, including Eli Manning, Maurice Jones-Drew, Andre Johnson, Ryan Howard and Miguel Cabrera, among others.

Forte focused on speed training, determined to regain his explosiveness.

Bears coach Lovie Smith says he’s impressed.

“You want to play at your best… He’s there. He’s focused,” Smith says. “He’s put himself in a position to have a good year by the way that he’s worked.”

Forte is quietly confident he’s going to have a strong season.

But Spencer offers, perhaps, the greatest compliment possible, one that didn’t revolve around football.

“He’s obviously not my son, but I have a son,” Spencer says, “and if you could model yourself after that young man, I tell you, he’s first class all the way.”

By Sean Jensen

 Sean Jensen is the Chicago Bears and NFL Columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. This story was published in the 

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