Each week host Bryce Johnson interviews intriguing guests on his syndicated faith and sports radio show “UNPACKIN’ it.” This issue, Bryce is joined by New Orleans Saints’ tight end, Benjamin Watson. He was the 32nd overall pick by the Patriots in 2004 after finishing his college career at Georgia, and won a Super Bowl during his rookie season. He discusses family, faith and football with Bryce on his radio show “UNPACKIN’ it.” You can listen to the full interview here.
BRYCE JOHNSON: You had a bye week recently. How do you like to spend your bye weeks?
BENJAMIN WATSON: Getting a little bit of rest. The NFL season can be tough on the body, so definitely getting some physical, but also some mental rest. It’s always good to get away from the game a little bit and spend some time with the family. I’m married with four little kids, so we all drove over about four hours to the beach and spent some time there.
BRYCE JOHNSON: Nice!
BENJAMIN WATSON: It’s kind of bonding as a family and making some memories.
BRYCE JOHNSON: What has the experience been like playing for the Saints…at least through this first part of the season?
BENJAMIN WATSON: It’s been kind of what I expected. I have some former teammates who played for the Saints, and told me what a great organization it was with the family atmosphere they have here in New Orleans.
BRYCE JOHNSON: What is your role in the locker room, even off the field—this being your 10th season, being a veteran in the NFL, having been on successful teams and struggling teams, as well, and even comparing it back to when you first got into the NFL?
BENJAMIN WATSON: Off the field and in the locker room is just as important, I think, as what you do on the field. And that’s one of the things that we prayed about a lot when we were free agents in Cleveland and didn’t know what was going to happen—we didn’t know where God was going to lead us to. It happened to be New Orleans, and it was very clear that this was where we were supposed to move our family. We moved down here and we really feel like our role and purpose in being here is not just to play football, but to minister in the locker room and also be involved in the community of New Orleans and serve where we can, and tell people about the Lord where we can. Something my wife always says is, “Benjamin, it’s not always about you, and what you want.” God has a way of moving us to where He wants us to be and He expects us to serve Him where we are. So that’s been our approach since we’ve been in New Orleans.
BRYCE JOHNSON: Take us back to where your faith began, and share a little bit about your relationship with Jesus.
BENJAMIN WATSON: At 5 or 6 years old, my father and I knelt down by my bed and I repented of my sins, and put my faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior to forgive me of my sin debt that I couldn’t pay. I got saved at a very young age and I knew what I was doing, and the Holy Spirit came in and I’ve been a Christian ever since. That’s not to say that I haven’t done some things that I’m not proud of and haven’t had certain struggles. But being a Christian athlete gives me purpose and clarity, and honestly it puts things into perspective. In the NFL there are a lot of ups and downs, and there are a lot of different temptations that all men face, not just in the NFL. But that’s my anchor. That gives me the proper perspective, and in those times when I’m out of whack, I always know what the base line is…I always know I need to come back to Scripture because that’s the solid foundation.
This column was published in the October 2013 Sports Spectrum DigiMag. Print and digital subscribers, log in and view the issue here. Bryce is the host of the “Unpackin’ It” faith and sports podcast. Follow Bryce on Twitter-@BRYCERADIO.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Yawn…yawn. Seemingly just another day at the office for point guard Steve Alford. The smooth 6-foot-2 senior led Indiana University to the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball championship this season, averaging 22 points a game. But his fluid movements on the floor belie the effort and diligence away from the camera that went into his contributions toward the team’s national title.
Alford ended his career as the Hoosiers’ four-time Most Valuable Player. He finished as the number 2 all-time scorer in the Big 10 Conference–a mere deuce behind Michigan’s Mike McGee…
To read our story on Hoosiers star and UCLA head coach Steve Alford from our Volume 1, Number 3 issue, click here.
“He must become greater; I must become less.” John 3:30
Fresno State quarterback and Heisman Trophy hopeful Derek Carr said his faith in Christ was the No. 1 thing in his life. “You can ask anyone who knows me, that’s the first thing they should tell you, and if they don’t, then I’m not doing the right thing,” he said. “Derek Carr is not the Fresno State quarterback. First of all, he’s a Christian and then he’s the Fresno State quarterback; that is what’s the most important thing to me, to be noticed as a Christian first and a quarterback second.”
In a way, it echoes what John the Baptist said about himself in John 3:30 when Jesus began His ministry. “He must become greater; I must become less.”
When Derek Carr says he wants to be known as a Christian first and then to be known for his abilities as a football player second, he wants people to see Christ in him and through his life before they see him as a quarterback. Christ must be first, or greater, and Derek Carr and his abilities must be second—a far second—and he must decrease.
It’s a reminder that the some of the most important things in the world’s eyes (sports and fame) are not the most important things in God’s eyes. If you’re a believer and people look to you and only see you and the abilities God gave you without seeing God, then they’ll miss God. Our lives shouldn’t overshadow God and what He is doing. Our lives should reflect Christ and point people to Him.
Live your life in such a way that when they look at you they’ll see God. As Derek Carr says, if they don’t then you’re “not doing the right thing.”
By Brett Honeycutt
Brett Honeycutt is the managing editor of 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.
Carolina 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
This issue features Brooklyn Nets rookie Mason Plumlee, contemporary Christian music artists Tenth Avenue North and Nicole Jennings, the wife of Minnesota Vikings two-time Pro Bowl receiver Greg Jennings. The issue also includes stories on NFL kicker Ryan Succop (of the 8-0 Kansas City Chiefs), and two World Series participants: St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny and Boston Red Sox player Daniel Nava. Also, our columns touch on a variety of issues: In “Airing it Out,” managing editor Brett Honeycutt writes about pardons; In “Another Angle” staff writer Stephen Copeland writes about grace, and in “Unpackin’ It,” Bryce Johnson talks with New Orleans Saints tight end Ben Watson.
Schilling had just given up four hits over seven innings against the New York Yankees, helping the Red Sox win the game 4-2, forcing Game 7. With the victory, the Red Sox moved one victory away from the most shocking comeback in baseball history.
Schilling ignored the excruciating pain in his right ankle, pain that was caused by a dislocation of the tendons around the outside of his ankle and the stitches inserted to stabilize them. When Albert asked Schilling how he was able to persevere, the reporter was surprised with Schilling’s response…
Read the remainder of our story from our March/April 2005 issue here.
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 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.
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.”
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.