Throwback Thursday – The Praying Tailback – Herb Lusk – RB – Philadelphia Eagles

Herb Lusk scores on a 70 yard rush and kneels in the End Zone – October 9, 1977

A couple years ago, the NFL loosened its rules on Touchdown Celebrations.  Since then, we have seen some very creative expressions of joy and celebration. There have been tributes to video games, bowling, movies, and even epic baseball fights to name a few.  Here in Minnesota, the Vikings have won fans over with a limbo contest, leapfrog, Duck-Duck-whatever, and Thanksgiving dinner.

But in the last decade, the most well-known expression by a football player is still Tim Tebow (read the post I wrote about him a few years back). He would often be seen kneeling and bowing his head. He was quick to share that it was an expression of love and devotion to God. It quickly became known as “Tebowing” – a term the former NFL quarterback has trademarked.

And while Tebow was not the first to do it, this pose quickly became something he was known for? So, trivia buffs… who was the first?

“The Praying Tailback” played for parts of 3 seasons with the Eagles before leaving football to become a pastor

That honor belongs to Herb Lusk, a running back that the Philadelphia Eagles drafted in the 10th round of the 1976 draft (273 overall).  He was known as “The Praying Tailback”. He played parts of 3 seasons with the Eagles. On October 9, 1977, Lusk scored on a 70 yard TD run. He knelt down in the end zone and said a prayer of thanks to God.  “It was my way of saying thanks. I hurt my knee in junior college and the doctors said I’d never play football again, but I put my fate in God’s hands. I prayed every day and I knew if my knee healed, it was His will for me to continue playing.” It was actually his second touchdown of the game.  He knelt after the first one, too but it was after a 1 yard run and surrounded by celebrating teammates, it was not as noticed.  But after a 70 yard dash to the end-zone, he was alone to celebrate as he saw fit. Those would be the only rushing touchdowns of his career.  All told, he played in 28 games with the Eagles. But he stayed closely associated with the team. He is a pastor in the Philadelphia area and has served as a team chaplain. Check out this video from the Eagles Super Bowl winning season.

After 3 seasons with the Eagles, Lusk left the team to pursue life as a pastor. “I’m leaving the game very happy and very proud,” Lusk said at the time. “I don’t feel like I’m going to miss the game. I’m moving up to better things.”

And the better things that Lusk has been doing? He became the pastor at  Greater Exodus Baptist Church on North Broad Street in Philadelphia.  When he started there, there were 17 members in the church and large debt – somewhere around $1 million.  “I remember there were leaks in the roof, we had buckets of water everywhere,” Lusk said in an interview with NFL Films president Steve Sabol.

“So how did you turn it around?” Sabol asked. Lusk pointed to the heavens.“Once again, I put my faith in God,” he said.

And God has led him to some great work. The church has grown, Lusk has started a job training program, a charter school, housing for homeless, and food distribution program.

These days Lusk is pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist church in the Philly area. He also serves as a chaplain to the Eagles.

He also has been active in providing spiritual guidance for the Philadelphia Eagles  – a team that has many players and coaches who are outspoken about their faith in God.  When asked if faith in God alienates some teammates in NFL locker rooms, he says “Not really. Not our relationship with Jesus Christ because basically what we do is, we love everybody. The great commandment is that you should love your Lord with all your heart, all your soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. It’s impossible to alienate people when you love them.

While Lusk did not have a long, Hall of Fame career in the NFL, he is leaving a legacy of faith both with his actions as a player and his guidance as a pastor.

Here are my takeaways from Lusk’s story:

1- Always on Display – He took the moment of greatest NFL success to point to his Savior. Many didn’t know the journey he had been on before then – the injury and prognosis that suggested football was done – He trusted that God would carry out His will and Lusk would simply walk in obedience. Before that moment, Lusk continued to pray that God’s will be done. He continued to go through the doors that God opened for him. That is all that any of us can do. God always leads us to the best possible place for us to be – we are called follow and trust, even when obstacles and trials arise.  This is not a simple task, but it is always for the best. And so often, the plan God leads us to is even beyond what we could hope for. When those moments come, may we also just bow in honor and recognition that everything we have is from Him.

2- Do not Alienate People – So often, Christians in an effort to hold true to the word of God, take God’s place as judge of other people and their lives and choices. The only person that we have any control over as far as choices go is ourself. And even then, we sure need God’s help to make good choices. And while there are others around us that make choices that go against God’s teaching, convicting them of their sin is not our role. Our role, the task that Jesus himself calls us to is to love each other. If we are loving others as we love ourselves, we will not alienate them. We will be a channel of God’s love to reach out to them. He will take care of their hearts. We are just called to love. May we as Christians live that as our purpose – to love others with all that we have.

TBT – Living up to His Name – Tshimanga Biakabutuka – Carolina Panthers

Former Panthers running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka

Before I moved to Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I had been to 2 NFL games in my life.  Both times I was privileged to see my favorite player at the time play. In 1997, it was Barry Sanders (who I wrote a post about a few years ag0) and the Lions, and in 2000, it was the Carolina Panthers and Tshimanga Biakabutuka in Atlanta to play the Falcons. I liked Barry because he was fun to watch and arguably one of the top 5 running backs of all time. I liked Biakabutuka because of his unique name and the fact that he was raised in Montreal and there were not a lot of Canadians in the NFL. His name is part of the reason that I am writing about him. The rest of the reason is the way God has been working in his life.

When I started this blog in 2011. I named it Living Up to My Name because my last name “Page” means “servant to the King”. As a Christian, I strive to serve the King of all Kings and live my life for Him. Biakubutuka’s name means “born again” and while that didn’t bear much significance for him during his playing career, in the days since, it has come to represent him as he has become a Christian.

Biakubutuka was born in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974.  He and 4 of his 11 siblings moved to Montreal when he was 4 years old “in search of a better life”.  In Montreal, his mother worked long hours to keep the family fed while his father worked on a PhD. His mom encouraged faith in God but Biakabutuka was not interested. The article that I linked to says that Biakabutuka thought Christians used faith as a crutch.

“Touchdown Tim” got his start in football playing for Vanier College in Montreal

He started playing football in high school, and excelled at Vanier College – similar to junior college – where he earned the nickname “Touchdown Tim”. From there, American schools took notice and “Touchdown Tim” chose Michigan. In his 3 seasons with the Wolverines, he rushed for over 2700 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Carolina liked what it saw from Biakabutuka and drafted him with the 8th overall pick in the 1996 draft. But he played only 4 games in his rookie season before a knee injury ended his season. The next year, it was a rib injury that caused him to miss half the season. In 1999, Biakabutuka became the third player in NFL history to score 2 TDs of 60+ yards in the same game. Then turf toe, high ankle sprain and finally a nasty, one of a kind foot injury. The last one required immediate surgery and there was a possibility that amputation may be needed if it was not dealt with quickly. He would try to comeback, getting invitations to work out with a couple of teams, but as he says “I got invited to Minnesota, Tampa and Houston – but every time I got there, team doctors wouldn’t sign off on it because they’d say, ‘We’ve never seen anything like this.’ At that point, I knew it was over.”

Biakabutuka earned a scholarship to Michigan and played well enough to be drafted 8th overall by the Panthers.

So what was the start of life after football? Biakabutuka, with the help of Panthers owner at the time Jerry Richardson, opened a business – a high end Jewelery story called Beya fine jewelry. He opened 2 stored in the Charlotte area, but after a couple of tough years, he shut down that business and opened 4 Bojangles restaurants in Agusta. The businessman and restauranteur thanks former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson for helping him get started with Bojangles. In his playing days, he had spent some time with the Panthers team chaplain, talking about God and faith. The article I read says “At the same time Biakabutuka began putting his business plan together, he had also immersed himself in religion. At the urging of Bunkley, the Panthers chaplain, Biakabutuka had taken halting, gradual steps toward faith during his playing days. His NFL injuries gave him a sense of vulnerability. Teammates who practiced Christianity — Mike Minter and others — provided compelling examples of how to practice faith without sacrificing strength.” He now says “Nothing in my life brings me more peace and joy than my relationship with God“. During his days in the jewelry business, he offered a line of Christian themed jewelry that he designed himself. He is now living up to his name – as a “born again” believer.

Here are my takeaways from Biakabutuka’s story:

Now Biakabutuka is a businessman, who after a brief stint in the jewelry business, now owns 4 restaurants in Augusta, Georgia.

1- Jesus is a crutch – A Christian comedian said once in a bit, that people say Christians use Jesus as a crutch, but when you are crippled, that is not a bad thing.  The truth is that we are all broken people and the only way to sustain and survive in this life is to lean on the strength that God provides. If we live only in our own strength, when the struggles and hard things in life come our way, it can and does overwhelm. I gladly and freely admit that Jesus helps me in this way. I always need help and someone other than myself to lean on for strength to survive. He is the only One that is dependable.

2- Keep sharing – I love that his mother was faithful to God and shared her faith with her son. For so long, he refused to join her in her beliefs. He went on to college and his pro career, but others came into his life (including Mike Minter who I wrote about a year or two ago) and helped answer his questions of faith, guiding him to choose to follow Jesus for himself. In the end, he did just that. I am encouraged in this to always continue sharing the truth of what I believe to others, even if they reject what I believe. You never know when life circumstances will open them to consider what you and others have been sharing with them.

Modern Monday – Character Through Adversity – Kaden Elliss – LB – New Orleans Saints

Saints 7th round draft pick Kaden Elliss

Last time out, I wrote my first Throwback Thursday post of the football season. Today is Modern Monday, but it is going to have a throwback feel to it as well. Today’s post is about Saints rookie Linebacker, Kaden Elliss – the 244th overall pick in last April’s draft. What’s the Throwback angle on that? Kaden is the oldest of former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Luther Elliss. The senior Elliss played 10 seasons in the NFL, all with the Lions except 2004, his final season, which he spent with the Denver Broncos. After he retired, He now serves as defensive line coach at University of Idaho.

Elliss played Defensive End and Linebacker for the University of Idaho Vandals, and also played some Tight End.

At the University of Idaho, Kaden was a four-year starter. He played edge rusher, linebacker and tight end. The Saints picked him in the seventh round of the draft last spring impressed by his football IQ and sense for the game.  But even as a great player for University of Idaho, Vandals are not frequently drafted in the NFL. Elliss was not invited to the NFL Combine. So what made Kaden Elliss stand out?  Well, his workouts turned heads at the pro days at both University of Idaho, and University of Utah.  Elliss was the first Vandal drafted out of Idaho in 7 years. Then there is the previously mentioned NFL pedigree and time spent in NFL locker rooms as a child, hanging out with the likes of Robert Porcher and Barry Sanders. For me, it is how outspoken he is about his faith in God.

Kaden as a baby with his dad Luther Elliss who played for 10 seasons in the NFL.

This is something he no doubt learned at home – his father, after retirement and at one point filing for bankruptcy, founded a church in Salt Lake City and then spent 2 seasons as chaplain for the Denver Broncos. Luther says “I see a lot of turmoil and struggle that goes on internally for guys on the team and I understand it. It’s a hard life being in the NFL. Even if they have grown up in the church and know Christ, it’s hard to balance being a superstar football player as well as a man of God. Their whole lives have been based on being a football player. This is their identity and a lot of times, when that is taken away they don’t know who they are. They are lost. But if they have placed their hope in Christ, they can know that there’s something so much greater—something that lasts for eternity. Meanwhile, there’s a balance that the players need to find as they ask themselves, “How can I live out my faith while also being a part of the world?”  In fact, this is one of the biggest struggles for all people. 

Kaden got lots of playing time in the preseason games with the Saints this year.

This is great perspective gained from going through life as a Christian in the NFL himself, what a great platform to share with others and help them make good decisions about life and faith. Kaden was listening as well. He says “He went bankrupt after playing football, and honestly seeing the way he grew from that and the way he ran to his faith and then his family in that situation made me idolize him more. Obviously growing up, your dad is always your idol, but sometimes as you get older you see maybe he isn’t as great as he is, but I’d say growing up he has showed me that he is that great, and he is an awesome man. I hope to be like him one day.” “He’s really showed me how to choose character through adversity”

About his own faith, he adds “What I really want is to honor Him, my lord and savior Jesus Christ, before every game by the way I play and the passion I bring. At the end of the day, it’s to honor Jesus Christ with the platform he has given me.”

Here is my takeaway from Elliss’ story:

1- Being Like Dad – Kaden Elliss had a pro football player for a dad. As he sees his dreams of an NFL career of his own coming true, he has someone who has been through it as a role model. And he gives his father credit for showing character through the adversity that he has faced. He speaks highly of the lessons that he has learned from watching his dad go through hard things. As a son, I appreciate the lessons that I have learned from my dad. He has helped me recover from mistakes that I have made and has been a model of faith for me to follow and learn from. I am grateful for the example that God has given me in my dad.

2- Being a dad – As mentioned, I learned in my mistakes from my dad. I also have learned as a dad that I am a role model for my 4 daughters. I am far from perfect. I still make lots of mistakes. And I am challenged from the story of Luther Elliss to own my mistakes. To not hide from them, not blame others for my poor choices or play the victim when circumstances beyond my control make things difficult for me or my family. Instead, like Kaden Elliss saw in his dad, I want my kids to see a strong Godly character that shows at all times, even in the face of adversity. I pray that I will lean on God at all times, and that whether at the pinnacle of a great moment or in the valley of hardship, that my eyes will always look to God and my mouth will always speak of how amazing He is.

 

Throwback Thursday – Run to Win – Carroll Dale – Green Bay Packers

Carroll Dale played for the Los Angeles Rams, the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings during a 14 year NFL career.

As the National Football League kicks off its 100th season tonight, with a game celebrating the league’s oldest rivalry in a head-to-head match. It seems fitting that I launch my football blog season with a Throwback Thursday post in honor of the Bears-Packers rivalry. And so tonight, I start the season off with a look at Wide Reciever Carroll Dale.

Carroll Dale was drafted with the 86th pick in the 1960 NFL draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He spent 5 seasons with them, 3 as a Tight End before transitioning to Receiver. He was traded to the Packers where he was a key part of 3 consecutive NFL championships, including Super Bowl I & II. He was named to 3 straight Pro Bowls as well after the ’68, ’69 and ’70 seasons. He played a total of 8 seasons with the Packers, and after 1 final season with the Minnesota Vikings, Dale retired. He was named to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1987 and the Packers Hall of Fame in 1979.  All told, he amassed over 8,000 yards and scored 52 touchdowns in his career. The football stadium at his high school in Virginia is named after him.

Dale was a member of the Packers teams that won Super Bowls I & II.

Playing for those early Super Bowl era Packers teams means that Dale played for legendary coach Vince Lombardi. He recalls one exchange that he had with Lombardi. Lombardi said “In the New Testament, St. Paul talks about three words, ‘Run to win.’  Then he looked at me and said, “You’ve heard those words before, right Carroll?”  I said, “Yes.” After the game, which we won 33-14 over the Oakland Raiders, I went home, and searched in my Bible and found the words Lombardi talked about: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable” (1 Corinthians 9:24). Lombardi, perhaps inspired by this verse, also famously said “Winning is not everything — but making the effort to win is.”

Dale was a high school student when he came across the bible verse that helped guide his life. I appreciate it because this verse has meant a lot to me in my life, too. It is Matthew 6:33 – “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” He considered it in the context of his life, saying “I didn’t think being a Christian would make me a successful football player, but having this first helped everything else fall into place,”. It all comes down to priorities.  In a message he shared a few years ago while speaking at a church, he said “Priorities, putting first things first, is a life-long message. It’s not just for athletes.” His priority is putting God first. Sounds like an important reminder to me!

Dale is a member of the Packers Hall of Fame

Here are my takeaways from Dale’s story:

1- Priorities – What a treasure that verse in Matthew 6 is! Seek God first, and all the other things will be taken care of. This verse comes at the end of a chapter where a lot of conversation centers around worry. We worry a lot. For me, I worry about being a good husband, a good father, a good employee. Am I a positive influence over the people I have influence over? Will my mistakes catch up with me, or lead people down a wrong path? Several years ago, I was offered a chance to work a dream job, kids ministry at a church I had been attending. I wanted to take it, but for some reason, I knew I wasn’t supposed to. As I prayed and considered my next steps, I felt led to go to a Missionary Training Program and go into full time missionary work. It was scary, it was out of my comfort zone, and I chose it, turning down a job that I really wanted. And at missionary training, I learned a lot about God and grew in my walk with Him. I also met the woman who would (a year later) become my wife. And now, years later, I am doing a job I love – Elementary ministry at a church, and I am still married to this amazing woman that I met at missionary training. I have 4 amazing daughters that teach me and hold me accountable for what I teach them. Has life been perfect? no. Have there been hard bumps in the road? yes. Will there continue to be those? I’m almost certain. But this verse reminds me that my responsibility is to make God number 1 in my life. I can’t do that on my own, but in His grace, He helps me remember to “Seek Him first and look at His example of righteousness”. And the other details in life will work out according to His plan. And His plan is the best!

The Gym at Dale’s high school alma mater has borne his name since 1967

2- Run to Win – Paired along with that last thought, I know that my efforts to follow God on my own will fail. But He has somehow worked it out that He will help me to follow Him. It is not our abilities that please God. It is our willingness to ask for His help and live in obedience to Him. Putting Him first and seeking Him every day is how we run this race of life to win. And because of Him, we are victorious. We are victorious over the challenges and hurdles that without Him would overwhelm us. It is only because of Him. He is the victor and has won for us. We get the benefit of His redemptive work. So let’s run to win, knowing that He has secured victory for those who choose to live for Him.

Divided Loyalties – Jackie Slater -OL- Rams Hall of Fame & Matthew Slater – WR – New England Patriots

The Big Game is just 4 days away.

Imagine the loyalty that you would feel if you were drafted by an NFL team, and played there for the entirety of your 20-year Hall of Fame career. The team has retired your jersey number (78) and you are widely considered one of the best players to ever put on their uniform. You played with the franchise as it moved…twice. You are a key part of the history of a franchise that has been around since 1936.  You were a member of the franchise’s trip to the Super Bowl in 1979 (a loss to the Steelers). The franchise has split 2 Super Bowl appearances since then, and is making their 4th trip to the Big Game. It makes sense that with your history and connection to the franchise, you would be excited to cheer them on to victory.

 Jackie Slater played 20 seasons with the Rams. He was added to the Hall of Fame in 2001

But for Jackie Slater, despite all the deep-rooted connections to the Rams, this Sunday at Super Bowl LIII, it isn’t a cinch that he’ll be cheering for the Rams to win. You see, Jackie’s son, Matthew is a special teams ace for the New England Patriots – the Rams opponent on Sunday. And for Jackie, blood lines run as strong if not stronger that his history with the Rams.  But he sees the positive in it. He says “I can’t lose”.

Their numbers are remarkably similar despite the opposite ends of the football spectrum that they play. Jackie was a big offensive lineman, playing every snap of every game.  Matthew is officially a receiver but has caught only 1 pass and been targeted only 8 times in his 11 year career.

 Matthew Slater (#18) is a spiritual leader for the Patriots

Both have been to 7 Pro Bowls. Both have spent their entire career with the team that drafted them. They both have much sought after rings – albeit for different purposes. Matthew has 2 Super Bowl rings, Jackie has a Hall of Fame ring.

There is another thing that they have in common, too – a deep-rooted faith in God.

For Matthew, his greatest stage to share his faith has been his Super Bowl appearances (3 in a row now and 6 overall).  Check out this video from Super Bowl LI Media Day.

As for Jackie, he shared the importance of God in his life during his enshrinement speech at the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. He closed by talking about all the hard work, great teammates and great coaches that he played with.  “Well, you see, I know that God provided it all. The good health, the teammates, and even the driving desire to be the best, I’m thankful to my Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” 

But even more than to the fans of football at the Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2001, Jackie’s God first approach to life started on the field and at home. Matthew shares the reason he always calls heads at the coin toss to start an NFL game. “Well, I remember as a child watching my father play in LA and him going out and doing the coin toss for the Rams…He always called heads, so I asked him one time, ‘Hey, why do you do that? What’s the story behind that? I think anyone who knows my family knows faith is important to us, and for him, he was always like, ‘You know, God’s the head of my life, so I call heads’. That was something he came up with, and I’ve kind of just embraced it.”

Here are my takeaways from the Slaters’ story:

1- In the end, it’s just a game – As I get older, I see the passion that fans carry for their favorite team. I know that I can get caught up in allowing my mood to be affected by the success of my favorite teams. This can be a heart-breaking habit to form. Because generally in sports, in any year, there is only one champion – the rest of the league ultimately is disappointed with how the season ends. And the fans tend to carry the burdens of success and loyalty more strongly than the players do. If a team fails to win, change is called for. If a player should leave one team and go to another, especially if it is a rival team, hatred and boos greet the player the next time he/she is in town. We can’t allow our identity or our mood to get wrapped up in something as trivial as a sports event or else we wind up in despair more often than not.

 Jackie will cheer on his son on Sunday, but both will use the opportunity to share what God has done.

2- More Important Things – I have often written on these pages the way pro athletes use the platform of fame and success to share their faith with the world. I appreciate that so many take that opportunity. I know that the stories of Christian Athletes and their boldness to share their faith were significant in my faith journey. God used their boldness to as part of His plan to draw me back to Him. And we can take the same challenge on, too.  We may not have the media of the entire world putting a microphone in our faces and asking us about our faith, but we do have opportunities, every day, to shine the light of God’s love in the world around us. Join me in praying for those opportunities and for boldness to share our journey of faith. 

3-Like Father Like Son – I love stories like this. They challenge me to consider the legacy that I leave for my own kids. Will they see the importance of faith in my life? Will they feel comfortable to ask me why I strive to value God above all? Will they understand grace even more when they see me stumble? Will they choose the adventure that God has in store for them? I pray that the answer is “Yes”.