Throwback Thursday – From Backup to Kardiac Kid – Brian Sipe – QB – Cleveland Browns

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Former Cleveland Browns QB Brian Sipe

Sports rivalries are great. As a fan of the Boston Red Sox, and the Boston Bruins, I have enjoyed (and cursed) two of the biggest rivalries in North American Sports. The Red Sox vs the Yankees and the Bruins vs. the Montreal Canadiens. I’ve been on the losing end of those rivalries way more than the winning side but it is always with extra interest that follow these events. One of the rivalries that doesn’t get as much coverage now as when it first began is the rivalry between the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore Ravens. You see the Ravens moved to Baltimore from Cleveland where they were also known as the Browns. The owner, Art Modell arranged a quick move out of Cleveland. The move was not popular with Cleveland and left the city without a franchise for 3 years. The NFL returned to Cleveland but the former Browns franchise has gone on to win 2 Super Bowls in the meantime. Since the teams are in the same division, they play each other 2 times per season. I would imagine that there are still some hard feeling about how it all went down.

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Sipe (#17) was the quarterback for the Kardiac Kids – the 1980 Cleveland Browns

However, let’s focus on happier times for the Browns, specifically the 1980 season when the team was known as the Kardiac Kids because of the number of close games they were in. 13 out of their 16 regular season games were decided in the final 2 minutes. The quarterback for the Kardiac Kids was Brian Sipe who would win the NFL MVP award for his season, where the Browns went 11-5 and won their division. They played a playoff game against the Raiders and were poised again to take the lead late in the 4th quarter but a Sipe interception ended the rally and sadly, their season.

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Sipe was named the the Browns Hall of Fame in 2002. He is their all time leading passer.

For Sipe to win the MVP award that year was an outstanding feat. Sipe who had a had been drafted in the 13th round of the 1972 draft (pick #330 overall). He was on the practice squad for his first 2 seasons before becoming a spot starter in 1974.  In 1976, he took over as the regular starting QB for the Browns and played reasonably well that season and the next one too, although it was shortened by a shoulder injury. Sipe would go on to play 125 games for Cleveland and still holds many of their all time passing records. He was named to the Browns Hall of Fame in 2002. He left the Browns to join the USFL and play for the New Jersey Generals.

In 2011, a book was released by 1980 Browns place kicker Don Cockroft chronicling the season and the time that has passed since. Check out some chapter previews here. One thing that I noticed is the number of players on the team that express faith in God – 9 are quoted talking about their faith on that web-site – including Brian Sipe. This article from Connection Magazine shares the story of Sipe choosing to become a Christian. It was his wife who thought they should start attending church during the final season of Sipe’s pro-football career with the Generals. He says “I had been raised going to church, but bailed out on that deal when I was in high school.  Geri thought it would be good for us to start going to church as a family.” But while attending the church, the pastor challenged the depth of Sipe’s faith in God. Sipe admits “I lied to him in order to do the christening,

Sipe and his wife began attending a couples Bible Study together and over the course of the study Sipe came to see that “God really started to work on me. I came to the conclusion that the Bible was the truth, and I had to do something about it.” What he did was to trust Jesus as his Savior.”

Here are my takeaways from Sipe’s Story:

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Sipe led the Kardiac Kids on the field. And after his playing days, He and his wife began attending church and have made living for God a priority.

1- Never Too Late – The Kardiac Kids made a habit of last minute comebacks in the 1980 season. They were involved in 13 games decided in the 4th quarter or overtime. They also lost their first 2 games and every season we hear how rare it is for a team to make the playoffs after losing their first 2 games. But they kept things close and more often than not, pulled out the win in the end.  They gave their fans a reason to never give up. I’ve had people that have thought the same about me, too. I was not following God during most of my teenage years but I know that there were people that were praying for me and pouring God’s love out for me to see and experience. They had not given up on me and God won me over. Who can you be in prayer about? Do you have anyone in your life that seems like a lost cause, closed off to God and not interested in following Him? Keep praying for them and let God use you to share His love with them. I am grateful for those who loved me even thought I kept messing up and acting selfish. God used those friends to change my life. God is persistent and will give countless opportunities for them to meet Him. And as long as they are living, it is never too late for them to meet Him.

2- Forgiveness is always the best route – I wrote earlier about the issues between Cleveland and Art Modell and moving the Browns to Baltimore. It has made for an interesting side note in their history but honestly, doesn’t really seem to be a big deal anymore. And that is probably a good thing. I mean as mentioned I enjoy a good rivalry as much as anyone but when someone does hurt us, it is always best to forgive them and not wish them ill anymore. Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who make our lives hard. Is there anyone in your world that has caused you hurt or pain? Have you forgiven them? I promise that forgiveness is always  the best choice to make.

Willing to Change – Lorenzo Alexander – LB – Buffalo Bills

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Bills Linebacker and Sack Leader Lorenzo Alexander

When I graduated from high school, my dream was to be a sports broadcaster, traveling around the country or world talking about sports. Over the course of a number of years, God slowly changed my heart and my plan and led me to working with children and teaching them about the Bible. It was not how I thought my life would go, but it is better than I ever could have imagined. I was willing to change and God took that willingness and led me to where he wanted me to be. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

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Alexander has played at least 8 different positions in his career. He is having a career season at age 33 with the Bills this year.

Lorenzo Alexander has been willing to change in career. Coming up to the draft, he was a 315 pound defensive tackle. Now, he is playing linebacker at 245 pounds. Over the 11 seasons that he has been in the NFL, He has been on roster with a half-dozen teams. Alexander has also earned the nickname “One-Man Gang” for his ability to play many positions. He has seen time on special teams, linebacker, defensive tackle, offensive guard, defensive end, fullback and tight end. The key to his longevity in the league was his willingness play many positions. But the unexpected development is that he is now excelling as a linebacker. As you can see in this Buffalo News article, as of last week, he was leading the NFL in sacks – and if he manages a half sack to night at least, he will continue to share the lead at the midway point of the season. It is a very impressive development for Alexander who the article lists as the “unsung hero of the defense so far has to be Lorenzo Alexander, who’s having a career year at age 33 … Alexander is the oldest player on the team. When the Bills signed him to the veteran minimum in April, he wasn’t even the first player they listed on the press release. He was thought to be a core special teamer who could give the starters a breather on defense. Instead, Alexander has become the NFL’s leader in sacks...”

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During his time with the Redskins, Alexander, with the help of some teammates, became a Christian.

But a willingness to change on the field is not the only change that has impacted Lorenzo’s life.  In 2007, some teammates helped Alexander make a change in his life off the field. In this article from bleacher report, Alexander was deeply impacted by the death of teammate Sean Taylor. He says “So looking at my life, I was probably in a similar type of transition—still trying to grow up a little bit. I wanted to give myself to something bigger—and that was Christ—and become more conservative instead of everything being about me. And I think it helped with my career because I no longer was playing for myself.” 

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He played in the 2012 Pro Bowl, primarily as a Special Teams player. He is on track to make the Pro Bowl as a Linebacker this season

He talks about 3 teammates in particular that really lived out their beliefs and along with the team chaplain, answered any questions he had. From a CBN article, He says “I just saw the way they walked through the room, the way they dealt with their families, the way they dealt with their kids, how they approached work every day. Guys like Randle El, James Thrash, Bernardo Wynn. I mean, these guys, It was just pouring out of them. You can’t miss it. If you know El, Randle El, I mean, he bounces around every day. It could be rain, sleet, snow, or shine, he’s walking with God on his shoulder, in his ear, you know, has that Book (Bible) with him. He’s just happy.

It is great to see Lorenzo Alexander having this unexpected success with the Bills this season. I hope he continues to have success so he can continue to share his story of change and meeting God.

Here are my takeaways from Alexander’s story:

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From Position to Body to motivation for life, Alexander has changed a lot over the course of his NFL career on and off the field.

1- Be Willing to Change – Life rarely goes the way we dream it will. But when we choose to follow God’s plan for our life, things go better than our best dreams. I have experienced this for myself and while I occasionally wonder what life would have been like as a sportscaster, I wouldn’t change my life now for anything. But letting go of our plans and surrendering to God’s lead is always the best path we can take. Are you willing to let God change your life? I promise you it will be for the best!

2- Show your Colors – Alexander credits some teammates with being open about their faith. And when the pain and questioning of losing a teammate came face to face with Lorenzo, he knew where to turn to find answers for the questions that came up. About one teammate in particular, he talks about his bouncing around every day and being happy. If you are a Christian, is this how the world sees you? I find this challenging because I can get dragged down by life when it gets hard, but the truth is God is with me and He is able to handle everything I am going through and more. And the reality is that by believing in Him, I am freed from the ultimate penalty of being apart from him forever. That should bring joy to my life, regardless of my circumstances. I pray that it will be so with me.

TBT – Bumps in the Road – Steve Bartkowski – QB – Atlanta Falcons

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Steve Bartkowski played with the Falcons from 1975 through 1985

What does a perfect life look like to you?  It is something we all dream about yet if we were realists, we would know that it is not attainable. We may have moments when things seem to be going great and there is joy, contentment and satisfaction in many facets of life. But it is not sustainable. There are too many things that come along and turn things upside down. I know that this is nothing earth shattering, but this time, as I thought about it, I had a new take on it which I will get to in a little while.

But first, let’s get into the story Steve Bartkowski, former quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons. As you can read in this story from faith talk ministries, Bartkowski had a great life on the go. He was the first overall draft pick in 1975, picked just ahead of Hall of Famers Randy White and Walter Payton and showed that he was deserving of that pick winning the Rookie of the Year award. He would go on the play in 2 Pro Bowls, join the Falcons ring of honor and had his number retired by Atlanta. But life was definitely not perfect for “Bart”. In fact, just before his 4th season, Bartkowski lost his job. But in that loss, he found something greater.

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Bartkowski was the number 1 overall pick in the 1975 draft

In this article from premierespeakers.com, we read more about the story from Bartkowski. He says” I played poorly, the fans were critical, the press was down on me, and I had to face the most critical year of my life. There was no where to turn. I was ashamed of being Steve Bartkowski. In hindsight, though, I clearly see how God was taking all the earthly props away and was getting ready to make an interception in my life. It was during the 5th pre-season game of my fourth year in the NFL, against Philadelphia that the crash came. The harder I tried, the worse things got. The fans were booing and the press was criticizing. The pressure hit me from all angles. That night following the game I knew I had to get alone. I told myself This is it- I have tried as hard as I can in every game and things still continue to get worse. There is nothing else I can do. There is no more ability left in me. Alone in my room, I recalled that a man once told me how to become a Christian*. I bowed my head and repeated a simple prayer. I asked God to put HIS plan to work in my life. I asked Christ to come into my life and take over as Number One. Although, I wasn’t sure at that moment what had happened, the one thing I was sure of was the terrific sense of peace that came over me as I prayed. A huge burden had been lifted. I knew I had an encounter with the living Lord, even though I was not sure how to explain it to anyone.

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When “Bart” retired, he was the all-time leader in almost all Falcons Passing stats. He has since been passed in many by Matt Ryan

Bartkowski got his starting job back, and would go on to set Falcons passing records until knee problems led to his retirement in 1987. His passing records stood until the past couple of years when many were surpassed by Matt Ryan. He is one of only a handful of QBs to throw 30 TDs or more in back to back seasons.

Nowadays, “Bart” remains active in the great outdoors. You can read this interview from Christian Sportsman Magazine where you will learn about his work with Christian Sportsman’s Fellowship. Check out what he says about his purpose in life.

“How do you personally know that God has a specific plan and purpose for your life and what is His purpose or mission for Steve Bartkowski?

I am confident of this one thing…every single day that I’m alive I need to seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness and He will take care of all the details. I have no idea what the future holds but I do know Who holds the future.  My sole desire is to live faithfully moment by moment and enjoy the ride. “

Here are my takeaways from Bartkowski’s story:

1- Bumps in the Road – I’ve talked many times on this site about the hard things that life brings our way. Sometimes they are speed bumps and potholes and sometimes the road seems washed out altogether. Now speed bumps in some parts of the world are referred to as “sleeping policeman”. Because what do you do when you see a police car when you are driving? If you are like me, you immediately take your foot off the gas pedal, check your speed and slow down if necessary to make sure you are not going to get a ticket.

Speed bumps make us slow down like that. And maybe there is a lesson in that for us. We go so fast and focus so much on whatever is going on in the moment in our lives, that often, God can be out of sight and out of mind. But when hard things hit, those bumps in the road can force us to slow down and cry out to God. Maybe that is the challenge that we can take from this. Take time in good times and in bad to slow down and notice how God is working in your situation. 

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Bartkowski spends a lot of time in the outdoors. He even hosted a TV show for a while. He also sees his purpose to be a fisher of men

2- Seek Ye First -“But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Matthew 6:33 has been an important verse in my life. A few verses earlier, Jesus is talking about worry, which I am prone to. I can get stressed about all kinds of things that are not even in my control. But Jesus invites us to focus on Him and His Righteousness – that is important because my righteousness is not worth anything. Isaiah 64.6 says  “all our deeds of righteousness are like filthy rags”. If I am depending on my righteousness, it will cause me to worry more because I know that it is not even close to good enough.

But Jesus lived righteously and died for our sins. He invites us to accept His righteousness as a cover for our sinfulness. Does that give us an excuse to keep on sinning? Certainly not. Instead we follow God’s design to carry out our primary purpose – to seek Him first and to ask for His forgiveness. Chose to live for Him and help others understand His love and the righteousness He offers them.

Throwback Thursday -A Matter of Life and Death – Kevin Mawae – C Tennessee Titans

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Former Titans center Kevin Mawae

How do you make decisions? I know that for me, I like to remain uncommitted for as long as possible as I process what is going on and figure out the best course of action. When there is a proverbial fork in the road, how long can I keep one foot on each path before I have to commit to following one way instead of another. That is my preferred method and it can drive the people around me crazy, especially if I am in a leadership position. But sometimes, I am not afforded that luxury. I need to make a choice and stick with it, regardless of what consequences that choice brings. And those consequences can be significant. Often we hear about important decisions being a “matter of life or death” But for Kevin Mawae, who finished his All-Pro career with the Tennessee Titans and thus earns the “Throwback Thursday” post ahead of tonights Titans-Jaguars game, the most important decision that he made in his life was brought on by life and death. I will explain a little later.

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Throughout his career, Mawae’s teams would see more rushing yards and fewer in sacks allowed – a product of a great offensive line, anchored by Mawae.

First, about Mawae, who was a 2nd round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in the 1994 NFL draft. He played for the Seahawks for four seasons before leaving via free agency to play for the New York Jets. With the Jets, Mawae would find stardom as a member of the line that blocked for Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin. He would also anchor the 2000 Jets offensive line that tied the NFL record for fewest sacks allowed in a season with 20. He would go on to play in 8 Pro Bowls, be named to 7 first team All-Pro lineups and be named a member of the 2000-2009 All Decade Team. He would join the Titans in 2006 and play the final 3 seasons of his career there, greatly improving their running game and lowering their sacks allowed.

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Mawae was named to 8 Pro Bowl’s in his career. His final game as an NFL player was the 2008 Pro Bowl.

But like so many I have written about on this blog, Mawae had some unbearable hardships off the field. As mentioned earlier, the most important decision he made in his life was greatly influenced by death AND life. It was the death of his brother John in a car accident closely followed by the birth of his son that led Mawae to open a Bible and discover who Jesus is. You can read about it in this article from The Goal. Mawae says “Then, just before my third year in the league, my older brother John was suddenly killed in a car accident. He and I were best friends.(…) I was really crushed. Yet, about the same time, my wife Tracy was pregnant and gave birth to our son Kirkland. I couldn’t help but ask, “Why would God take a life away and then create a life?” I wasn’t angry with God, I just didn’t understand. On my own, I started reading from the Bible, starting with the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament. My brother had just been baptized before he died, and in my reading I came to realize that God has a plan for everybody. We can ask why, but there are things that we’ll never know the answer to. That’s where faith comes in.”

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Mawae is very open about his faith in God and sees football as a place where his voice can be heard by many

He continues saying “My questioning brought me to an understanding that what I needed was a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We wanted our son to be brought up in a Godly home, so I committed my life to Christ. We know that God used John’s death and Kirkland’s birth to bring us to Himself – because He loves us.”

Mawae chose to follow God and that decision impacted not just his life and his family’s lives, but his teammates and fans, too. In this article from NY Times, we learn that Mawae sees football as a platform to share about Jesus with others. During his playing days, he would be very open about his belief in God. He says “‘I believe God puts people in places for a number of reasons. My No. 1 reason is we had three Christians on the team when I got here and it’s gone from 3 to 15 guys in our Bible study… It gives me a bigger platform to profess my faith in Christ. I take football as an opportunity to reach out to others, to show I can be a tough football player and a Christian. I feel I have a bigger influence spiritually than physically

Here are my takeaways from Mawae’s story:

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Mawae is in the LSU athletics Hall of Fame. He continues to share his faith story in and around Baton Rouge.

1- Decision Making – I opened this post by talking about my own decision making process and how it can be flawed or frustrating to others (and honestly to myself sometimes). But one great thing about God is that He can show how amazing He is whether we are making good choices or not. I think of the story of Jonah in the Bible. Jonah made bad choices. He ran from God and did the exact opposite of what he knew God wanted him to do. And God was still with him and through an amazing string of events, took Jonah back to the right place and give him another chance. Was it scary, uncomfortable and/or awful for Jonah? I would imagine the answer is a resounding yes! But is it an awesome story of God’s grace and forgiveness? Absolutely. And through the story of Jonah, there are groups of secondary characters that also get to see and experience God’s power, forgiveness and mercy. (The fishermen and the people of Nineveh). Be encouraged to take a chance, commit to following God. And even if you make bad choices, God is still there and can lead you back to where He wants you.

2- You Story is Yours! Use it! – God is the author of countless amazing stories – including the one you are living right now. It is full of hard things, pain, heartbreak, bad choices and hard lessons. But it is also full of amazing things like love, grace, forgiveness and the Creator of all things actively offering guidance and challenges for us to follow. Don’t be afraid of your story. Don’t be afraid of your past or what you’ve been through. But don’t let that be the focus either. Instead, focus on the God who has been with you through it all, and has a plan to use your story to draw others to Him. We saw it with Mawae’s brother playing a role in leading Kevin to choose to follow God, and we see it in Kevin’s story as he shares so openly the importance God plays in his life. How can God use you and your story for His purposes. Let His path for you be the path you choose to follow!

Cannot Stay Silent – Justin Simmons – S- Denver Broncos

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Justin Simmons was drafted by the Broncos in the 3rd round last spring

Last season, the Denver Broncos turned an amazing defense into a Super Bowl Championship. They had future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning under center, sure, but it was the defense that led this team to victory after victory and ultimately the Super Bowl. So then it must be exciting for a defensive player to be drafted by an elite defense. It would be great to join a top defense, but there may be somebody ahead of you on the depth chart that you will have to wait for or overtake to get a chance to play. The best you can do is try to impress and earn a shot.  That is what Justin Simmons did. He impressed, was drafted by a top defense and hoped to earn a chance to play some. As you can read in this article from Mile High Report, Simmons ranked tops in vertical and broad jump at the combine.  And while the starter for the Broncos return from last year, the thought at the start of the season was that Simmons would have add a lot to the defense, too.

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Simmons posted top results at the combine in broad jump and vertical jump.

Simmons played outstanding defense in college too. With Boston College, he finished his career there with 9 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles and over 200 tackles.  But Simmons had an impact on more that just the field during his time at BC. You can read this article from BCeagles.com about how Simmons arrived in Boston from Florida and the transition to college was not easy. He said “It was tough because I didn’t play; I was getting knocked around on the scout team and school was hard… Everything about that time period was absolutely difficult. And that’s when I really needed to dig deep with my relationship with God and find it again.”  He had been a regular at church and bible study growing up in Florida. But with college, something was missing. That is when he, along with teammate decided they wanted to start an Athletes in Action group on campus. They worked through the campus ministries to get an AIA group started and recognized by the school.  Simmons continues “I think I just needed to step back and say, ‘Why did I even come here in the first place? Why did I even play sports?’ I wanted to glorify God’s name and everything he does, so if I quit, I’d be leaving a position that God put me in. I just had to refocus, stay patient and stay humble and have faith that good things will happen.

Aug 11, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears running back Jacquizz Rodgers (35) is forced out of bounds by Denver Broncos free safety Justin Simmons (31) during the second quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Now Simmons is ready to join one of the top defenses in the NFL. 

In this article from Draftwire, Simmons shares the importance of his faith and God’s plan for his life. He says “I knew God beforehand, but I really found my relationship with Him on my own during that time, and really started to grow (in my faith). It was at that point in time that I realized I really needed to lean on Him and His promise for me, and even if its not football, that there is something greater for me.I just learned to be patient and trust in His will in my life.” He continues “My faith hasn’t just changed my life, it has saved my life, and that’s why I’m so outspoken about it. I just want other people to experience what I’ve experienced.”

 

Here are my takeaways from Simmons story:

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Simmons continues to be bold about his faith in God

1- Cannot Stay Silent – I really like the book of Acts. It is so encouraging to see how to early church grew and how that foundation is what the church today is built on. I am challenged by the boldness of Peter and John who after seeing Jesus killed and then encountering the risen Jesus, knew that He was the promised Messiah. They would share that message for the rest of their lives, regardless of the consequences that it may bring. Their boldness led them to be brought before the council for healing a lame man. They had been imprisoned and were being told not to tell anyone else about Jesus. But Peter and John remain bold with their answer in verses 19-20 “But Peter and John replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? 20 We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” I see this kind of boldness in Simmons’ story, too. When he arrived in college and found the connection with God suffering a little, he took steps to create the environment where he and others could study the bible, connect with God and encourage each other.  Have you seen and experienced the goodness of God? Has meeting Him changed your life? If so, it is impossible to stay silent. He is what life is all about and sharing about Him is the mission that He has given us. Let’s be bold and proclaim His greatness to the world around us.

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Justin and Taryn Simmons endured a long-distance relationship. Now married, they know God has strengthened them and brought them together.

2- Finding a great partner – On April 1, 2016, Justin Simmons married his High School sweetheart. A couple of the articles that I read talked about their relationship and the long-distance challenge he and Taryn faced when he was in Boston and she was not. This connected with me because my wife and I met at a training program that lasted from September to December. We got engaged in April and married the following December.  In the 12 months between the end of our program and our wedding day, we were in the same place for 5 months. The rest of the time, we were separated by thousands of miles and as many as 6 time zones. And that time that we had apart really forced us to work on the friendship part of our dating relationship. And it was good. It was hard, there were times when it would have been great to go on a date or hang out together with family or friends, but God used that time to build a foundation of friendship that now, almost 13 years into our marriage, continues to support and strengthen our marriage. Justin and his bride saw God’s faithfulness and grace carry them through their engagement has set them up for married life. I wish them the best and pray that God will continue to be a strong presence in their life together.