Feature Story — Breaking The Mold

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Lying in bed for two months with a broken neck, 18-year-old Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite made a list of 10 goals. Nevermind the fact that he was uncertain to ever play again after fracturing his sixth vertebra at the bottom of a waterslide.

And forget cautious optimism. These were audacious dreams even for a boy raised on the soccer mania of Brazil—especially one who had needed a medical program to spur his stunted growth and who was yet to crack the starting lineup of the junior squad of São Paulo Football Club. The list began with “Return to soccer” and scaled upward to finish with “Compete in the World Cup” and “Transfer to a big club in Italy or Germany.”

In January 2001 about two weeks after returning to soccer he was called up to São Paulo’s professional team. On March 7, with 10 minutes remaining, he was subbed into the finals of the prestigious Rio-São Paulo Tournament. São Paulo trailed Botafogo 1-0 when the midfielder received a high, looping pass, flipped it behind the back of a defender and fired a low shot beneath the diving goalkeeper. Two minutes later he netted another low rocket to clinch the championship as TV announcers shouted “Goooooooooooooooal!”

Brazil had met Kaká. (The nickname, pronounced Ka-kah’, came when his older brother couldn’t pronounce his name.) He claimed his starting spot for São Paulo and within two years could cross off the entire list of goals, including playing for Brazil’s 2002 World Cup champions. By 2007 Kaká stood at the apex of world soccer, sweeping its highest individual honors: the FIFPro World Player of the Year, the Ballon d’Or for best in the world and the FIFA World Player of the Year.

“I have been very blessed with success—the World Cup in 2002, the FIFA prize of the Golden Ball in 2007, many championships and honors. It may seem that I have everything. Due to my wealth and fame, some people ask why or if I still need Jesus,” he shares. “The answer is simple: I need Jesus every day of my life. His Word, the Bible, tells me that without Him, I can’t do anything. I really believe that. The ability I have to play football and all that has resulted from it are gifts from God. He has given me a talent to use for Him, and I try to improve on it every day.

“I also believe that pursuing excellence with the skills He has given me brings honor to Him. God doesn’t want lukewarm from His followers; He wants our best. First Corinthians 10:31 says, ‘Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory.’ My motivation to win matches…has grown from wanting to be excellent for my Creator.

“It was a dream for me just to play for São Paulo and one game for Brazil, but the Bible says God can give you more than you even ask for and that is what has happened in my life.”

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 Faith and Family

Kaká’s star shot into the stratosphere in soccer-mad Brazil following his breakout game. The press couldn’t get enough of him, and he was an instant heartthrob. He couldn’t go out in public without being mobbed. At first Kaká’s mother answered the 50 letters a day from female admirers, but the flood of attention quickly became too much.

After the initial shock, Kaká developed a warm accessibility with the press and fans, but he avoided the limelight and temptations of the nightclubs and paparazzi scene. As had always been the case, his family and faith were his anchor.

“Many people think that I became a Christian after the accident, but that is not true,” Kaká says. “My parents always taught me the Bible and its values, and also about Jesus Christ and faith.”

Being baptized at 12 was an important milestone for Kaká and one that had a profound effect on his young spiritual life. “Little by little, I stopped simply hearing people talk about the Jesus my parents taught me,” he says. “There came a time when I wanted to live my own experiences with God.”

Europe Bound

There’s a common saying about soccer: “England invented it. The Brazilians perfected it.” The Brazilian game is generally an artful, rhythmic flow marked by skillful dribbling and unexpected passing. The nation brought joga bonita, the beautiful game, to the world and holds more World Cup championships, five, than any other country.

But Europe is the epicenter of professional soccer. The big money of each nation’s pro leagues draws the world’s top talent, and the continent-wide UEFA Champions League ensures the highest stakes of competition and talent. So it was no surprise in 2003 when the then 21-year-old Kaká went to play for AC Milan in Italy’s Serie A.

European soccer is generally considered more physical and tactical than the South American game, but the 6-foot, 1-inch, 180-pound Kaká adapted instantly. His first season he earned a starting role, scored 10 goals and helped Milan win the Scudetto, the Serie A championship. He was named the league Player of the Year.

“[Kaká ] has the technique of a Brazilian and the physical qualities of a European,” Vanderlei Luxemburgo, former Brazilian national team coach, told FIFA.com. “He is the standard-bearer of the modern game.”

By 2005, Kaká and Milan reached the Champions League final where they squandered a 3-0 halftime lead and lost to England’s Liverpool in penalty kicks. The Rossoneri returned in 2007, however, to win the Champions League in a rematch against Liverpool. Kaká ’s string of best-in-the-world awards followed, and he was named to the Time 100 list of the world’s most influential people.

After turning down a transfer offer of $151 million from England’s Manchester City, Kaká and Milan agreed to a $100 million deal with Spain’s Real Madrid in 2009. The record-breaking deal was eclipsed within weeks when Real Madrid paid $131 million to sign Cristiano Ronaldo. Ultimately the team spent $350 million on international stars in order to reclaim domestic and European dominance.

Kaká struggled with some nagging injuries, and the entire team didn’t immediately gel. Expectations on Los Blancos were incredibly high, and fans cried for the firing of coach Manuel Pellegrini when they lost to France’s Lyon in the first knockout round of the Champions League. However, Real Madrid finished second to Barcelon for the Spanish title.

Radical

Kaká ’s accomplishments on the field obviously brought him worldwide prominence, but his personal reputation has also drawn

widespread attention as a novelty among international sports stars. Pick an international soccer—or professional athlete—stereotype and Kaká contradicts it.

He’s Brazilian, so he grew up in poverty playing with a homemade ball? Both of Kaká ’s parents were well-educated professionals who raised the family in an affluent area of São Paulo, and Kaká attended São Paulo FC’s soccer academy.

He must play with lots of flashy dribbling and Brazilian flair? While his fundamental ball skills are extraordinary, Kaká ’s style is strong, yet elegant and efficient.

“He will always try to go vertically rather than horizontally,” AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti told The Observer, a British newspaper based in London. “He will never take the extra, unnecessary touch.”

But what about off the field—another carousing playboy like so many international stars? Hardly. Kaká and his wife, Caroline, famously married as virgins in 2005 and have talked about it openly in the press.

“It was one of the greatest challenges in my life because we made a choice which wasn’t easy,” Kaká says. “We spent a lot of time praying and walking closely with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It was a great challenge, but it was really good to have waited. Sex is a great blessing from God for the pleasure of both husband and wife after marriage, and it is not the trivial or casual thing it has become nowadays.”

Surely he’s self-centered and materialistic? Kaká’s generous giving to his home church in Brazil is widely known. He has also served as a United Nations Ambassador Against Hunger and hopes to be a pastor after he retires from soccer.

“Kaká never changed,” says Marcelo Saragosa, his best friend since childhood and a professional soccer player. “He is always the simple person as when I met him 10 or 12 years ago.”

Most media have shown respect for Kaká’s faith and praised his sportsmanship. His consistency and graciousness matched with his stellar play make it difficult to do otherwise. Yet when some have suggested that his lifestyle is boring, Kaká has countered that it is radical to follow Christ.

As Kaká continues to pursue new goals, he leaves little doubt that he is all about Jesus.

“Today, I have my ministry through sports, but I play because I have a God-given gift,” he says. “I play because He has perfected the gift He gave me in my life. Jesus said ‘without me, you can do nothing’ and I believe this.”

By Jeremy V Jones

Jeremy V. Jones’ biography of Kaká, Toward the Goal: The Kaká Story, was released this spring by Zonderkidz.

 

From the Archives — New York Times

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Familiar words to a Frank Sinatra song became reality for Joe and Kim Girardi on a November day in 1996. After three years behind the plate for the Colorado Rockies, Girardi left the Mile-High City in a trade that sent him east to don the Yankee pinstripes. The Girardis had no idea what was ahead, but with excitement and a bit of anxiety they changed the message on their answering machine to greet callers with, “It’s up to you, New York, New York.”

“I was in a comfort zone in Colorado,” says Girardi. “Getting traded was a faith-builder, and as the season progressed I began to see what God was doing in our lives.”

This archived story was published in the May 1997 issue of Sports Spectrum magazine. Click here to read the rest of the story

Devotional of the Week — Accepted as a Capstone

Distinxion7“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes.” Psalm 118:22

At DistinXion camps, we start our first character lesson by telling a story of a contractor that builds a house that will eventually become his retirement gift. Any contractor will tell you that in order to have the best-built house, only the best materials should be used. Similarly in sports, most coaches will advise that if you want the best team, you should recruit the best players.

However, in Psalm 118, we are told that a rejected stone is turned into the capstone. How amazing! The stone that the builders saw as unworthy, usable, and damaged was the same stone that became the capstone, the stone that holds the entire building together!

When we see ourselves as unworthy, not good enough, and incapable, God sees us differently. When we feel defeated and rejected, God redeems and accepts us. In some cases, God may use our time of defeat to refine us, transforming us into a capstone. In other cases, God takes us as we are, but uses us in a different way to become the capstone. In both scenarios, God loves us so much that instead of throwing us aside like a rejected stone, He accepts us as a capstone and is glorified in the transformation.

By Luke Zeller

Luke Zeller is the CEO of DistinXion, a non-profit organization founded by the Zeller family. Luke is a contributor to 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.

Devotional of the Week — Impact Through Defeat

05coolrunnings_ringsblog-blogSpan“When the centurion and those with him who we regarding Jesus saw the earth quake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ‘Surely he was the Son of God!’” Matthew 27:54

Different isn’t always easy.

Remember the Jamaican bobsled team in the 1988 Calgary Olympics? Seems like an oxymoron, right? Jamaican bobsled?

To cement their involvement in the Olympics, a movie, Cool Runnings, was made about their exploits. The foursome of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Nelson Stokes had little practice and they had to borrow sleds from other countries.

And despite the fact they crashed and didn’t finish, their positive attitude and goodwill toward others won the hearts of the fans.

Having an impact doesn’t always have to come through success. Sometimes having an impact comes through defeat or perceived defeat.

God can use our ups and downs to help people see Him, especially when we have a godly attitude. Just like the centurion saw Christ as the Son of God because of the way Jesus took the ridicule and mocking of the self-righteous people and leaders.

Keep that in mind the next time things don’t go the way you would like. God could be using your circumstance to show people who He is so that they have the opportunity to choose eternal life with Him.

Xtreme Wisedom

David Wise stood on deck at the top of the superpipe in Aspen, Colo. Before him stretched the perfectly groomed ice and snow tube carved 567 feet long into the mountainside. As he mentally prepared, Wise watched competitor Justin Dorey smash into the lip in what ESPN called “one of the gnarliest crashes in years.” (Thankfully, Dorey walked away with only an injured shoulder.) It wasn’t the kind of precursor you want before beginning your own high-speed attempt at defying gravity in a giant geographic playground.

Wise was already nervous about one trick in his run—the first trick in his run—the same trick that had just crumpled Dorey. The 21-year-old freeskier from Reno, Nev., paused to refocus. He said a prayer and told himself, It’s just another run.

But it wasn’t just another run. This was the 2012 Winter X Games finals, the snowy epicenter of the action sports world. And Wise was poised to claim the biggest victory of his freeskiing career. He pointed his skis, picked up speed and dropped into the pipe—backwards. He rocketed down one 22-foot wall, across the floor of the superpipe and up the other near-vertical wall, launching himself into three end-over-end rotations—think flips turned on a diagonal axis. In other words, picture throwing a coffee mug into the air and watching it wobble around rather than flip straight over. Wise was the human coffee mug with fiberglass skis on both feet, spinning around and around 20 feet in the air over the top of the pipe, 42 feet above its bottom. His landing target was the vertical wall. His switch double flip was flawless.

And that was only the beginning. Wise’s height out of the pipe, or amplitude in X-speak, was three feet higher than the other skiers’ average. And he capped his stellar run with a huge double cork 1260 with a mute grab—three and a half diagonal flips while holding a ski with one hand.

The impressive performance secured X Games gold. The victory was the beginning of a breakout 2012 season that also included wins at the next two major contests: the Dew Tour in Snowbasin, Utah, and the U.S. Grand Prix in Mammoth, Calif. And the season positioned Wise as a favorite heading into the Olympic qualifying year before the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.

But before America starts chanting his name in unison, there’s something you need to know about David Wise: He’s not your typical action sports star.

Yes, he loves amplitude and hucking big tricks—he was the first skier to land a double cork 1260 in the halfpipe. Yes, he’s young—though at 21 he was the oldest on the Winter X Games podium in 2012. And yes, he is sponsored by an energy food and drink company.

But Wise is also a husband and father who eschews any of the industry’s arrogant swagger. His image is bouncing his toddler, Nayeli, and leading the youth group at his church back home in Reno rather than partying with the snow sports elite. It’s a difference that the action sports media has quickly noted. Wise humbly views it all as part of who God has and continues to make him.

“Skiing is my art,” Wise says. “It’s the skill, the talents and opportunities that God has given me to show the world what I think skiing should look like and what I think beauty is. Skiing is my way of worshiping.”

Grounded

David and Lexi met in high school at a church leadership camp at Hume Lake. They shared a camp crush; then went their separate ways. Wise was focused on pursuing his career and becoming the best skier possible. He figured he might get married around 30 if that was what it took to pursue his goals. But when he ran into Lexi at church several years after that camp. Things clicked. The couple was married within a year. Another year later, Nayeli was born.

Others have noted that Wise didn’t win any platinum level contests like the X Games until after his marriage and the birth of his daughter. He doesn’t dismiss the insight.

“Being a pro athlete is a selfish trade,” he says.

It’s easy to be consumed with fine tuning every movement, every trick, every morsel of nutrition or every edge to become fitter and better. But Wise has found that his family relationships have turned his focus outside of himself.

“Having a family and being a father figure and supporter of a family instead of just skiing for myself has changed my whole outlook on life,” Wise says. “When I finally stopped worrying about succeeding and making money, then I started winning. There are things that are hard, but you learn you’re no longer living for yourself; you’re living for your wife and family.”

Lexi and Nayeli are with Wise at as many contests as possible. He calls it “so cool and unexpected and different and at the same time so normal.”

Wise also stays grounded by meeting weekly with two friends, including his former youth pastor, Mike Koudreit. He credits those guys with helping him grow spiritually and keeping him from feeling like a spiritual island in his sport.

Koudreit remembers Wise as an energetic middleschooler launching flips and gainers off boulders into Lake Tahoe on church retreats. Now he describes his friend as “passionate, resolute and persistent.”

“I appreciate his level of humility,” Koudreit says. “It’s refreshing to see a world-class athlete hang out just completely as a friend. There’s no hierarchy, just friendship based on history and common belief.”

Of course, a shared practical joke is fairly common as well—like several Christmases ago when the three friends captured a duck late at night. They placed the bird in a box in the living room of a friend. “They found the box, picked it up and ended up with a duck flying around in their house,” Koudreit says.

That sense of humor makes Wise a natural for leading the youth group at his Reno church. Lexi takes point while David travels to competitions during the winter, but the couple serves as youth pastors for the group. “If I can give back, I want to be involved,” he says.

“He genuinely enjoys the kids,” Koudreit says. “He has a good ability of not trying to come from above them or impress them—he jumps into wherever they are with different maturity levels and beliefs. He’d probably work with the group even if he wasn’t skiing.”

Wise knows how vulnerable the teen years can be. He struggled in high school when his parents divorced, and he rebelled against his family’s Christian faith at that time. He was a top national skier then, too, and wanted badly to be the best of the best. He says he would have bought into the whole self-centered lifestyle to reach the top. He could land the tricks the X Games athletes were doing. But his perfect practice runs kept turning to frustration in contests. It fueled his anger at God, and he tried to fill his emptiness with skiing. It didn’t work.

“Some of the ugliness of the world drew me away from God for a little while, but that experience brought me back tenfold,” he says. “Coming back was like Wow, now I can see for myself that this faith is worthwhile. It’s true; it’s real; it’s raw; it’s powerful.”

Different Style

As for the current youth group kids, Wise thinks most of them don’t comprehend the level he competes at. A few do, and some hound him for the ubiquitous action sports energy drinks. Some are clueless, he says. And that’s fine with him.

Wise’s approach to expressing his faith in the ski world is similarly low-key. His style is not Tim Tebow’s. You won’t hear Wise invoking God in most interviews. But you will hear him talking about serving others and placing his wife and daughter’s needs above his own. Those are radical concepts in the circles of individual action athletes and the industry built on promoting image.

As Wise’s performance and profile have soared, a common media angle is “Who is this humble guy who would rather hang out with his wife and kid than party?” The answers are respectful and admiring. They should be. Wise comes across as thoughtful and well-spoken, whether he’s discussing designing and testing new ski prototypes, being a family man or living out his faith. It’s easy to forget he’s still only 22.

Wise says he would rather consistently live out his faith before talking a lot about it. The style matches his personality—not loud and in your face.

“I don’t tell my Christian friends I’m a pro skier. I don’t tell my skier friends I’m a Christian,” Wise says. “But you’re going to find out if you spend enough time with me either way.”

Still he’s been criticized by some Christians for not preaching more.

“He tries to be sincere and honest to himself and to his beliefs and faith,” Koudreit says.

“Sometimes I’m a little too quiet. Sometimes I could be more outspoken,” Wise says. “At the same time, I do enjoy when people come up and say, ‘You’re really different. What’s the deal with that?’”

With Wise’s star continuing to rise, that question will pop up more and more.

By Jeremy V. Jones

Jeremy V. Jones is a freelance writer based in Colorado. His books include Toward the Goal: The Kaká Story and Triple Dog Dare.

Sports Spectrum Global produces Russian magazine for Winter Olympics

SSGlobalRussia2Thanks to your help, Sports Spectrum Global recently produced its second Christian sports magazine for Russia. Our friends in Russia are distributing the magazine through our digital platform, social media, street evangelism through trading cards, and through the local church. This magazine was created specifically as a tool for sports ministers to use in Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

We are building other international magazines, as well, including a special World Cup magazine that will be used in Brazil and translated for other countries.

Click here to view SS Global’s first Russia issue.

Click here to view SS Global’s second Russia issue.

Click here to learn more about Sports Spectrum Global.

Devotional of the Week — Do You Believe In Miracles?

miracle_on_ice-eruzione_goal_celebration“Jesus said to him,‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!’” Mark 9:23-24

Al Michaels’ phrase, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” will be forever remembered as the most famous call in Olympic or sports history. He uttered those words at the end of one of the most shocking upsets in sports history, a 4-3 U.S. victory against the Soviet Union in men’s ice hockey at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics.

It wasn’t the gold-medal game (that would come a game later against Finland), but it was stunning and unbelievable because the Soviets had routed the U.S., 10-3, in an exhibition less than two weeks prior to the upset.

The victory was so unbelievable that a N.Y. Times writer wrote that unless the ice melted that no team stood a chance to beat the Soviet Union, which had trounced a NHL All-Star team, 6-0, in an exhibition before the Olympics.

The U.S. team went in believing they could win, but belief wasn’t enough. They also had to take action.

Is there something that God wants to do in your life, but the only thing in the way is for you to believe? If you’re struggling with a lack of faith, ask God to help your unbelief as Mark 9 shows us. He is willing to help. All we have to do is ask.

By Brett Honeycutt

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