Football, Faith and A Flashback to 2005

I didn’t get much work done last week.  NFL Free Agency hit a week ago today, with its rumors and signings and gossip and trades, and it was hard not to get sucked into the frenzy that dominated my twitter feed, my television, and quite honestly, a lot of my conversations.

In between trying to figure out just what my Eagles are doing (honest answer, I have no clue) and just how the Dolphins think paying a defensive tackle more than $100 million makes any sense, another news trend got me thinking – people started retiring.

First, it was running back Maurice Jones-Drew who retired, more proof that running backs over 30 are an endangered species. Then Patrick Willis, arguably the best linebacker of our generation, retired. Closer to home, Titans quarterback Jake Locker gave it up because he didn’t have the passion for the game anymore. But the one that got my attention was when Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds quit instead of signing a free-agent deal worth around $6 million per year. I was hoping he would trade Steelers Black for Eagles Green this year, but he had another trade in mind. Worilds is a devout member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and if the reports are to be believed, he gave up football for faith.

Kudos to him, but that’s nothing new.  In fact, that’s so 2005.

My career in sports wasn’t spent knocking heads on the gridiron but analyzing trends in the press box. For five years in my early 20’s, I covered high school and college sports in North and South Carolina.  By the time I was 24, I had the job most every American male and many American females wanted – I watched college football and basketball every weekend, and they actually paid me to do it. My family was jealous, my friends couldn’t believe it, and one life-long friend nearly wrecked his car when he heard me introduced as a guest on hometown sports radio.

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Picture Day was apparently a bad hair year. T. Wayne didn’t care.

But despite landing the job I always wanted, deep down I knew that it wasn’t what I was looking for. Courtside seats at Cameron Indoor and weekends at Death Valley couldn’t suppress it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it initially, but something wasn’t right. I had experienced a spiritual awakening while in college, and despite everything I tried, I couldn’t get rid of the gnawing sense that for me following Jesus didn’t mesh with my life that involved spending 80 hours a week diving into the daily minutia of the College Sports Industrial Complex.

I responded by doing the one thing you shouldn’t do if you want your life to stay safe and predictable – I started asking questions.  There’s a longer story to be told, but eventually I left the newspaper, enrolled at Emory University for seminary, and began the journey that now has me serving as a pastor in a local church.

Although the Bible might describe the difference in my annual salary at the newspaper and the one Worilds just left with the Steelers as a great chasm, I think I know why he did it.  I know, because there is a universal truth in the search for something more. Once you begin asking those questions – like what am I really here for, who has God really created me to be, what could I do if I was willing to bet my life on what I say I believe – it’s hard not to want something different. Once you consider the possibility that there might be something more than the thing you’ve been dreaming about your whole life, a new world opens up. And when you begin seeing your life over and over again in those call the stories in the Bible, where people are just going through normal everyday life when God shows up and invites them to follow a different path, well, what happens next is inevitable.

Most of my friends were supportive, but not everyone thought I was making a great decision.  The question they asked me was the question I most often get asked these days in church when people find out about my first career – “Don’t you miss it?”  They want to know if I miss the games and the famous people and the ability to be in the know about mostly trivial things that for some reason matter greatly to lots of us. And the honest truth is that I don’t. I don’t miss that stuff.

I do miss the people though – the good and decent people who were just trying to make their way in the often crazy world of big time athletics. People like Mike O’Cain – a faithful United Methodist who quietly witnessed to his love for Jesus in real ways, most notably when he was overwhelmingly gracious while having to meet and talk with reporters after he had been fired. Friends like Jon Solomon – one of the best reporters and writers I ever knew, who showed me every day what it was like to get to do what God created you to do and helped me see that there was something else out there for me.  I miss so many of the good and genuine people who worked behind the scenes, people like Tim Bourret and Anne Miller Holmes, who never got the headlines but every day were doing their best to make their little corner of the Upstate better, and who were always happier when the Tigers won.

Ogle AK Christmas
Some conversations are more important than the ones you have on talk radio.

Some days the church seems like about the craziest place to invest your life – with its ordinary and broken people who remind you of how ordinary and broken you are. There are days when it seems that the least likely place to make a difference in the world is in the church – we are by nature averse to change, we get caught up in a lot of the same fights you see every night on cable news, and we know all too well what its like to not have enough – enough people, enough space, and of course, enough money.

But my prayer for Jason is that he will experience what I have since trading a daily byline for a Sunday sermon.  It’s hard work and there are days when it will push you to the end of your rope, but there’s nothing better than the experience of knowing you are doing the very thing you were made for. The headlines can’t match what happens when someone tells you that your ministry and your commitment made a difference in their life.  There’s no front page story that can top having a front-row seat and getting to watch God changes someone’s life.

Of course, that’s nothing new either. But there’s still nothing any better.

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