I make no attempts to hide the fact that I am a huge New Orleans Saints fan. Have been since my youth – almost as long ago as when Buddy Diliberto donned the grocery bags and started the `Aints movement. But with that comes the understanding that there is more history of bad football than good football in the Big Easy. Things have been better since for the last decade or so, even winning the SuperBowl 44 in 2010. But since then, the offense has been fine, but the defense has been bad – historically bad. They replaced much of the defensive coaching staff, keeping coordinator Dennis Allen but he had to be feeling the pressure. And then the Saints started off this year 0-2 and it seemed like the defense was not yet fixed. But solid draft picks and key free-agent signings began to gel together and figure things out. In the past 6 seasons, the Saints defense has never ranked higher than 27th. This year, they finished middle of the pack – a vast improvement over recent years and a hope that things are trending in the right direction.
One of those key off-season signings was A.J. Kein, a linebacker that had been playing with division rivals (and today’s Saints opponent Carolina Panthers). Klein was a 5th round pick by the Panthers out of Iowa State. In 4 seasons with Carolina, Klein had risen from ranks of a special teams player to reliable linebacker, gaining much experience filling in for injured players ahead of him on the depth chart. He was part of a deep Panthers playoff run, playing with them in the SuperBowl. The Saints had taken notice and signed him on the first day of free agency last offseason. They put him in their starting lineup and named him captain before he played a game for the Saints. He played very well until an injury sidelined him for the remainder of the season. He will be missed in this playoff run for the Saints, but expects to be ready at OTAs in the spring.
The injury is, of course, not the first adversity that Klein has faced. As you can read in this article from the Advocate, Klein’s father lost a battle to cancer 4 games into last season. Klein said “Last year was not a good year for me; I’ll be completely honest. I don’t want to say I was struggling on the football field, but last year was the most I’ve struggled with off-the-field issues, whether it be my emotions or all that stuff.”
And when the hard times came, Klein knew where to turn for help in dealing with it. He says “My faith is the most important thing to me. I was raised in a Catholic household and a Catholic family. My parents taught me the values of humility and character, obviously faith, and never to stray from your beliefs.” His time in the NFL has also strengthened his faith. As you can read in this article from Cross the Line, he found his niche as a faith leader on the Panthers. He says “Every week I get up and do the readings… I try to share my experiences of what I have been through, with and without God to answer people that have questions. There are a lot of things I can’t explain, but I always go back to having blind faith and I actually just finished reading a book called ‘Proof Of Heaven’ by Dr Eben Alexander, a neuroscientist who was an atheist but then had a near-death experience. The book is amazing and like I said you just have to rely on God’s love and know that no matter what happens to you in your life, he is always there for you.”
Here are my takeaways from Klein’s story:
1- A Crutch – In hard or confusing life circumstances, it is comforting to know that God is by our side and will be with us through whatever life brings. Some detractors call faith in God a crutch. But as a speaker once said “Yeah, but when you are crippled, a crutch is not a bad thing”. Of course we lean on God in hard times. ANd with so much of life being challenge after challenge, we have to use this crutch constantly. That is the way it should be. We need Him and He is there for us. Sounds like a lifesaving relationship to me. Last season, as Klein’s father battled and eventually died of cancer, faith in God is what sustained Klein. I know that in the struggles my life has brought, I can say the same thing. God’s unquestionable presence and comfort in my most heartbroken moments proved his existence again and again to me. Life is hard and beats us up constantly. He will support us, love us and sustain us. Lean on Him!
2- Use your gifts – Klein says “Football for me is a blessing but it’s what I do with that gift from God that determines whether I am using it for right or for wrong. You definitely have to put in the hours yourself but the whole foundation of it comes from him, in any aspect of your life God will give you gifts and blessings. It is then up to you whether you use them or not, I have made the conscious decision to use my gift.” I find this very challenging and important to remember. God has given us so much. We are so selfish by nature, we lose sight of all that God has done and is doing in our life. But he equips us not just to survive, but to be used by Him, too. What gifts has God given to you? Will you choose to honor God by using the gifts He has given you?