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"Preach the Gospel-use words if necessary." This advice, often found on Christian T-shirts, describes the way Jake Peavy approaches Christianity. He does unashamedly use his words. "The most important thing in my life is Jesus Christ," he says. "I'm not ashamed to say it." But he places more emphasis on conduct than words. When you're involved in professional sports, you're a role model whether you like it or not, according to Peavy.
With talent and determination, Peavy has made it far in baseball. He knows that people are watching how he lives his life-from little kids to fans to teammates. This is why his passion for his faith is rooted in his deep caring for others. When he builds relationships with others and shows them the love God has shown him, he believes they become more receptive to his faith. They want to see what a Christian walk is all about.
Peavy shared his enthusiasm for baseball and the Lord by beginning a prayer time with some players before games and developing a heart for missions after a trip to the Dominican Republic. He is preaching the Gospel not only with his words, but with his life.
Phoenix Sun Jake Voskuhl was giving his testimony to a crowd of over 200 junior- and senior-high students and family members assembled at Grace Fellowship United Methodist Church in Katy, Texas. It is remarkable because of the stark, bare bones honesty he unashamedly offers and the sincere thankfulness he exhibits for the work that Jesus Christ has done in his life.
Voskuhl will tell his listeners that he concluded early in his days at UConn, that he was "a jerk," and that he hated himself and the arrogance that controlled his behavior. He will tell them that God was with him even when he wasn't with God. He will praise God for delivering him from the powerful hold that drugs had on him.
"I've been saved 6 years," Voskuhl says, "and I can't begin to express and give words to what my life has been like and what a blessing it is to have my wife and daughter and our families. The Lord has done so much in changing us."
Suns' chaplain Keith Brown says that at camps and speaking engagements, Voskuhl's love for Christ is the overriding thing he notices.
"He doesn't try to promote himself," Brown says. "He tries to promote Christ."
Once James Thrash's collegiate career was over, he worked hard enough to overcome the odds and latch on with the Washington Redskins for the 1997 season.
"Throughout my whole college career I was living for the world. Then when I went to Washington I made it to a Bible study during training camp," he recalls. "I can't remember exactly what the study was about, but the whole time I knew there was something missing in my life. I knew it wasn't girls and it wasn't money and it wasn't drinking and partying. Something was missing and I just knew it was God; but I didn't know how to have an encounter with Him.
"The pastor there, Brett Fuller, was doing the study, and at the end he asked if anyone wanted to make the decision to allow Christ into their lives. I raised my hand and made that decision and confessed with my mouth that Jesus is Lord and believed in my heart that God raised Him from the dead."
Thrash has learned that the key to living and overcoming life isn't just hard work-it's faith, obedience, and devotion to Jesus Christ.
In a day of contract holdouts and lockouts, injuries and scandals, professional athletes who display the excitement of living out their childhood dreams are becoming a rarity.
Or so it seems.
Meet Jarome Iginla, superstar forward for the NHL's Calgary Flames. Jarome is one happy guy. "Every day I realize how blessed I've been in my life," Iginla says.
Iginla has a job that he loves, plenty of financial freedom, a family full of support, and a wife (Kara) he loves and with whom he has a long history. What else could possibly make Jarome smile?
The fact that he has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior has a lot to do with it. "Growing up I always had a faith, but it was an unclear faith. I was playing in Kamloops (in British Columbia) as a junior when I actually accepted Christ as my Savior," Iginla says.
Why aren't all athletes as happy as Iginla? The answer is simple really. Jarome Iginla is well aware of how fortunate and blessed he is. With a winning attitude, the biggest smile in the game, and a heart for God, Iginla is definitely one Calgary Flame that is burning bright.
Jason Elam watched in a state of surreal wonder as the small twin-engine Piper Seneca pointed its nose toward the heavens and slowly ascended into the bitter Alaskan sky. Here Elam was, watching a plane fade into the firmament carrying his wife, who had just suffered a miscarriage. Tamy Elam, who was traveling on a short-term missions trip, received confirmation from several ultrasounds at two different hospitals on April 24.
Initially, Jason, the Denver Broncos' longtime kicker, balked at the idea of Tamy's continuing her trip. But his worries were soon assuaged by the resolve of his wife. "It was an overwhelming feeling for her, so it was like, I've got to let her go," Elam says. What transpired afterwards was an amazing story of God's marvelous handiwork within the trial.
On the missions trip to two small villages off the coast of Alaska's southwestern panhandle, natives whose reticence had seemed impenetrable to the missionaries shockingly opened up when Tamy shared about her miscarriage. Many revealed their stories of emotional and spiritual pain. Some asked for prayer. At least one woman accepted Christ.
"No life, even a small life, is a worthless life to God," Tamy says. "He had a purpose."
"People are always going to remember me for baseball," says Jason Schmidt. "Is that really the reason we're here? I would like to be remembered as a Christian athlete. They're gonna know when I pass away where I'm going." Schmidt did much reflection after losing his mom to a brain tumor in 2003. He began asking the important, tough questions. The whole experience strengthened him.
Schmidt grew up in a Christian home but began testing the waters and pushing the limits when he was first looked at by the Atlanta Braves as an 18-year-old. Far from home, he felt some insecurity but soon saw success. Then, a serious shoulder injury threatened Schmidt's future, and that's when he opened up his Bible and let the Lord speak to him.
His shoulder has given him problems off and on, but in his own words, "When your perspective and your priority is Jesus, whatever happens you know you can still get through it."
Schmidt may not have all the answers to life's issues, but at least he's asking the right questions. So what question now drives his life? "What kind of impact do we have on other people's lives?"
In his case, an excellent one.
Joshua 1:9 tells us to be strong and courageous, not terrified or discouraged, because the Lord is with us wherever we go. This verse has inspired Jeff Francoeur of the Atlanta Braves, enough so that he put "Joshua 1:9" on his batting gloves. The verse encouraged him at a time in 2004 when Francoeur did not even know if he would play baseball again. Now he shares it as an outreach by throwing his gloves out to kids at games.
Francoeur has more potential than he may even know. According to veteran Braves pitcher John Smoltz, he has the ability to become the next baseball great. Francoeur brings positive energy and his best game each time he plays, winning the praise of manager Bobby Cox and coach Terry Pendleton. He's moved up quickly in his sport, but it's not most important in his life. He learned that sports couldn't fill the void he felt-only a relationship with Jesus Christ could.
Regardless of how much fame Francoeur experiences in this world, he knows it cannot last forever. "[This world] is not our home," he says. "Our home is in heaven, and this is what I want everyone to understand."
The heart and soul of the Colts' offensive line is All-Pro, 8-year veteran center Jeff Saturday, whose rock-solid work ethic and selfless character set the tone for the units' collective commitment to excellence. "Jeff is a leader in a lot of ways," says Colts head coach Tony Dungy. "He is a great Christian leader, a guy our players can talk to about spiritual things."
Saturday came to Christ shortly after signing with the Colts. "I didn't know too many guys, and I was struggling to find my place on the team," recalls Saturday. "Then I met a guy named Mark Thomas who ran a team Bible study. He befriended me and talked with me about my perspective in life. He helped me understand that there is a greater purpose than just playing football."
Whether the Colt's reach their ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl or not, Jeff Saturday's identity as a child of God is secure. His peace and purpose in life are no longer tied to performance but rather to God's faithfulness. "I want to live my life to glorify Him in all that I do and everything else from there will fall into place."
The Super Bowl brings a nation of voyeurs to their television sets like nothing else. These are the stories of three of the players in this drama- a player, a chaplain, and a coach.
"It was a long two weeks," Jeremiah Trotter, linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles, says of the weeks leading up to Super Bowl XXXIX. "There were no big spiritual challenges for me. When I wasn't practicing or game planning, I was with my family."
The types of pressures put on players in the Super Bowl were the reason Patriots chaplain Walt Day pursued the chance to become a team chaplain. "I loved sports and really had a burden for the people of New England and the Northeast, because there really isn't an emphasis on God up here at all."
Philadelphia Eagles running backs coach Ted Williams knows the attention that comes with the Super Bowl. "The players struggle with all the attention during Super Bowl week," he says. Williams gets a chance to be an influence on these very same players. "The players call me the storyteller...I don't preach to them, but I do remind them what the Bible says and what it calls us to."
Call it an action sport or call it extreme. Any way you look at it, observed bike trials is just plain crazy. Jeremy Vanschoonhoven has a slightly different perspective. As one of the sport's best international riders, he's actually seen what it's like at both the bottom and the top of just about every object imaginable.
When VanSchoonhoven hit the professional circuit, he quickly discovered that the road to success was paved with some tough choices. Unlike his sheltered home life, the world of bike trials was not a haven for the Christian faith. "Starting out, it was really tough," he says. "I was one of the youngest pros ever in the United States, and all these guys that I look up to are asking me to go out drinking with them or partying with them."
VanScoonhoven says that things have changed somewhat since his rookie days. "Things have really changed a lot," he says. "Everybody knows that I'm a Christian. They don't really mind too much...I get to talk to people about Christ - people who hardly anybody would get a chance to talk to- just because they respect me for my bike riding."
Jonathan Byrd came from absolute obscurity to become Rookie of the Year for 2002. The 5' 8" 155-pound Elgin, South Carolina, resident was the only rookie to win a PGA event all year, finish in the Top 40 on the money list, and qualify for The Masters. But he certainly hasn't let success derail who he is and whom his focus is on.
Byrd's dad introduced him to golf as a toddler. He also led his son to a life of faith in their Christian family. Byrd first recognized his need for Jesus at a church camp. But what was started at that camp didn't ensure that a Christian lifestyle was certain to follow, particularly after he left home.
It wasn't until the middle of his sophomore year at Clemson University that Byrd began to truly take his faith more seriously. "My lifestyle changed," he says. "My relationships changed. I worked hard on my game. My game didn't blossom, but my life sure did."
Byrd's game definitely has blossomed over the years. His life has, as well, with his wife Amanda and an even deeper faith. He states his life mission. "I want to stay humble and grow in the Word. I have a chance to share Christ, and this is a great platform."
Josh Bidwell, the rookie punter, was sky high after landing his dream job in the National Football League. He was about to learn that his very life was up in the air. Just eleven days before his 1999 debut with the Green Bay Packers he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Bidwell was the picture of health during training camp, but his condition quickly deteriorated.
A second surgery and months of aggressive chemotherapy melted 40 pounds off his 6-foot-3 frame. "My prayer was for the pain and the discomfort that I was going through and for the people around me to see God's strength in me," he says. "I never asked God, 'Why me?' because I'm just a firm believer that every situation we're given is for His glory and His honor."
After recovery, Bidwell capitalized on four solid seasons in Green Bay by signing as a free agent with Tampa Bay. Last year he set a Tampa Bay franchise record with a 45.6-yard punting average en route to his first Pro Bowl appearance.
Bidwell's world revolves around God, who enabled him to survive cancer and embrace a career he had only imagined. The veteran punter is sky high.
No stranger to hardship and seeming failure, Josh Hamilton shares testimony of God's life-changing power. After an addiction to cocaine that stunted his career and separated him from his family, Hamilton is able to say, "It's such a great thing to see how God never leaves your side."
Hamilton, now with the Texas Rangers, was the No. 1 pick overall in the 1999 major league draft. He spent his 2007 rookie season with 19 homeruns and batting .312 for the Cincinnati Reds. But between those years, Hamilton was hitting rock bottom. When Josh's poor choices had brought him to his lowest point, God used the strength of four Godly people to transform his life.
Mary Holt, his grandmother, was someone Hamilton knew he could go to "for any reason, at any time." Katie Hamilton, his wife, "stayed focused in prayer" and heard an important message from God about Josh. Roy Silver gave Josh another chance at baseball. John Narron, a long-time friend, became a support system for both Josh and his wife. Now a changed man, Hamilton's priority is to keep God first in everything; this has strengthened him spiritually, with his family, and in the game of baseball.