How a Former Big 10 Defensive End Made Football a Prayer

Growing up in Florida, I watched Tim Tebow play quarterback every week at the high school I would later attend, and I honestly didn’t think anything could be cooler. Playing under the lights, the exciting atmosphere, the community united and cheering for the team, nothing in my mind could possibly be better than this.

                My dream was to play football at this high school. An early problem to this was the fact that football did not come very naturally to me. I hardly ever got playing time on the freshman team and was even told by one of the coaches that I should quit football and just focus on school. It was not until later in high school that I got an opportunity to play because there was another high school being built in the area. The coaches who told me to quit left to coach at this new high school and many of the players who started over me transferred to that school as well.

                With new coaches and more opportunities I finally got a chance to play football IN THE GAMES! It was my junior year of high school that we learned we would get a chance to play the high school that was built where all my former teammates and coaches were! I saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate to them that I really could be a good player after all!

                With renewed vigor, I wanted to commit to being the best athlete I could be. Extra time was spent lifting in the weight room, I met with my coaches regularly to understand every aspect of the game plan, and I committed to studying our opponents to see where our own weaknesses could be exploited. Hours upon hours were invested in perfecting every aspect of my game.

                After months of preparation, it was the night before the big game and there was still one thing left to do. “I should get God on my side,” was a thought running through my head. That Thursday night before the game I went to my home parish all alone and prayed for close to an hour asking Jesus to help me play well. Honestly, this was going to be our 9th game of the season and as a defensive lineman, I do not think I had ever even sacked the quarterback in a game before. After begging Jesus to let me play well, maybe even get a sack, I went home and got some rest before the big game the next day.

                Jesus answered my prayers. I did not get to sack their quarterback once, but 5 times in one game, tying my school’s single-game sack record. That game alone put me on the map in regards to college recruiting and acted as a springboard into my future as a Division 1 college football player. That overwhelming success led me to make a correlation with praying in a chapel and playing well in a game. Every Thursday night before Friday high school football games I would go to my home parish to pray and ask God to help me play well.

                This pre-game ritual continued through the rest of my high school years. After receiving over 20 Division 1 offers to play college football, I signed to play at Northwestern University in the Big Ten Conference because I saw that as the best combination of academics and athletics. Through my first two years at Northwestern, this pre-game ritual continued where every Friday I would visit a Catholic Church to pray before our Saturday games.

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                Those moments when I would sit in a church asking God to help me play well each week were the only times I would set aside for prayer. I was not living in a relationship with Him but rather kept going to Him as a part of a pre-game superstition. There was one Friday my sophomore year at Northwestern when I walked into the Catholic Church on campus to pray that I met a missionary with FOCUS, Fellowship of Catholic University Students. His name was Derek and he continued to ask about why I was there visiting the church. When I explained that I like to pray and ask God to help me play well in games, he offered to meet up with me to show me some of the ways he likes to pray.

                Though I was very skeptical at first, I decided to meet up with Derek and pray with him because he seemed like a pretty cool guy and was not much different in age than me. When we went into the chapel, he taught me how to do Lectio Divina which is essentially praying with Scripture. We began by asking the Holy Spirit to come and teach us how to pray and then we proceeded to read through a story in the Gospels multiple times slowly and prayerfully.

                Each time we would read through this story, words were seemingly jumping off the page at me. They were not words that really had a lot to do with the story, but had EVERYTHING to do with what I was going through in life at the time. I remember experiencing this and believing that these words were alive and that the One speaking to me through these words desired a relationship with me. It was a surreal experience that let me know that prayer was not a one-way street of petition but an intimate relationship with the God who knows me and loves me.

                I began meeting up with Derek once a week to pray with Scripture throughout the football season. Each time we would meet, Derek would encourage me to go to a national conference FOCUS was hosting in January called SEEK. Because our football team was playing well and we were projected to go to a bowl game over Christmas break, I repeatedly rejected his invitations to attend the SEEK conference until the deadline to apply had passed.

                As weeks passed after the deadline to sign up for SEEK, we found out that our team would be playing in the Gator Bowl in my home town of Jacksonville, Florida, which was one day before SEEK began. There was an extended period for last minute registration for SEEK, and the last day to sign up was the day I was scheduled to meet up and pray with Derek. I picked the Gospel passage we would pray with, and it just so happened to have the word “seek,” in it three different times.

                “Seek…seek…seek,” was all I was seeing throughout this passage. I was reminded that this Word is alive and desires a relationship with me. I remember being convinced that I was being called to attend this SEEK conference and I signed up that night. The day after we played in the Gator Bowl (and won), I drove down to Orlando the next day to attend SEEK.

                At this conference I experienced the Catholic Church alive and on fire for Jesus like I never thought possible. Thousands of college students from all over the country gathered to hear talks about all sorts of topics related to Catholicism but most importantly we learned about deepening our relationship with God and learning to receive the love He has for us. Though I was inspired in many ways by the talks, the encounter I had with Jesus on the second to last night of this conference changed the trajectory of my life forever.

                For all 6,000 attendees of the conference, there was an opportunity to go to confession and attend Eucharistic adoration. After going to confession and being reconciled to God through that Sacrament, I attended Eucharistic adoration for the first time. I saw the priest placing on the altar what looked like a piece of bread and the thousands in attendance dropped to their knees in worship. While reflecting on this moment, I hear in my heart the words from the Gospel of John, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14) When I was taught to pray with Scripture, I was given the grace to experience the living Word of God, whereas in Eucharistic adoration, I witnessed that same Word in the flesh in the Person of Jesus.

                When the grace flooded my heart to recognize Jesus’ true presence in the Eucharist, everything in my life had to change. When I got back to Northwestern, I could not help but go to Mass every day! I desired to physically and spiritually unite myself to Jesus over and over again. To hear those words from the priest, “Body of Christ,” and getting to receive into my body and soul the Author of Life Himself was truly remarkable! The intimacy I was experiencing with Jesus was so real and so exciting that I could not help but go to Mass, spend time praying with Scripture, and read spiritual books about teachings of the Catholic Church.

                Through that desire to grow in holiness, I realized that athletics truly were a template for growth in the spiritual life as well. I knew that one could not simply show up on game day and be successful, but that time in the weight room, meeting with coaches to understand the game plan, taking every opportunity in practice seriously, and the study of our opponents were all essential elements to success as a football player. In the same way, I recognized that I should not limit my relationship with Jesus to once a week on Sunday, but rather I should spend time in the chapel praying, understand the teachings of the Church, and even recognize where the devil was trying to exploit my weaknesses.

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                Jesus kept pouring grace into my heart and I did not just want to set time aside for Him, but I wanted to invite Him into everything I was doing as well, especially into football. I began turning every opportunity in football into a prayer. Each set of a lift, run, or practice would be offered for a different intention. For example, I would say “Jesus, this next set of bench is for my teammate,” or “Jesus, this next sprint is for my family,” or “Jesus, this next drill is for you because I love you.”

                Two things happened when football became a prayer: I began growing in love for the people I was praying for and I gave significantly better effort. I was not going to say “Jesus, this is for you,” and then not give my best effort. I used to think that our relationship with God had to be separate from sports, academic studies, and career goals, but the more I responded to Jesus and let Him in, the more I realized that it is precisely through these things and all the little moments of our everyday lives that Jesus sanctifies us. It is because of Jesus that I began giving effort in all aspects of my life, and this led to playing in 46 college football games, four years of Academic All-Big Ten honors, the Big Ten Distinguished Scholar award, being nominated for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, Big Ten Outstanding Sportsmanship award, and being voted by my teammates to wear the #1 jersey because of living out the values of the football program. Jesus was not a distraction to my life as a student-athlete but rather He was essential to revealing to me my identity as a beloved son of His Father, and this gave me true freedom.

                These are merely a few of the thousands of encounters I have experienced with the Person of Jesus. Through living in friendship with Him, He helped me to get out of my comfort zone and share my faith with others. He not only had me live as a missionary on campus at Northwestern during my time as a student-athlete, but He gave me the profession of serving as a Varsity Catholic missionary with FOCUS at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as well. Through friendship with Jesus, He led me towards the vocation of marriage where I am now married and have a newborn baby girl. Through friendship with Jesus we can live with a purpose, joy, and love that truly transcends the world we know. I pray that all reading this know that Jesus is pursuing an intimate relationship with you and desires to make you into a Saint. Please give Jesus permission to transform you through your sport, your studies, your family, your job, and every other aspect of your life. Jesus, I trust in You!

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