Turnaround – A.J. Klein – LB – New Orleans Saints

Saints analyst Buddy Diliberto started the paper bag movement in 1980.

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.

Despite an 0-2 start, Klein and some other new Saints turned the season, around to win the NFC south

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.

Klein’s tattoo pays tribute to “faith” and “family” important parts of his life on and off the field

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.”

Klein won’t get to play against his old team today in the playoffs, but he will cheer them on, and look to be ready again next season.

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!

Klein’s team leadership and play on the field as well as life off of it is all guided by his faith in God.

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?

Teachable – Marcus Mariota – QB – Tennessee Titans

Football players go through “2-a-days” where they have a practise session in the morning and another one in the afternoon. It is a gruelling time of training camp, and leaves most players tired from all the work. The playoffs will bring me to my blogging equivalent. Welcome to Living Up to My Name’s “2-a-weekends” Each weekend, during the playoffs, I will publish a post on Saturday morning before the weekend’s games and one Sunday evening featuring players that will play during the weekend’s games. So grab your water bottle and your athletic tape, cause here we go!

Now that the regular season has ended, some talk about the draft has begun and tends to include discussion about Heisman Trophy candidates. Well, the Tennessee Titans offense features not just Heisman candidates, but 2 of the past 4 Heisman winners – Derrick Henry and Marcus Mariota. Today, we will look at the 2014 winner – quarterback Marcus Mariota.

Titans Quarterback Marcus Mariota

Born in Honolulu, Hawai’i, he wasn’t a starter until his senior year. He went to University of Oregon where, after redshirting for a season, he was a 3 season starter, putting up very impressive passing and rushing numbers. He won a host of college football awards in 2014 and was the 2015 #2 overall pick in the NFL draft by the Tennessee Titans.

And while the on the field accomplishments and the awards that he received make an impressive resume, as you can read in this article from refreshed.com, football and its accolades doesn’t define Mariota.  He says “Coach Frost has helped me learn that football doesn’t define me. It’s just what I do.”  

Mariota and his Heisman Trophy, one of 7 major awards he received after the 2014 season.

You can read more about Mariota’s faith in God in this interview from FCA magazine. In it he talks about dealing with adversity that comes. He says “Knowing that no matter what, you can dust yourself off and be okay. And you know you do it for [God’s] glory.” He also shares about his faith journey and the role that FCA has played in his growing faith. He says “Since I’ve been here at Oregon, I think my faith has grown tremendously. In high school, I learned about God and Jesus Christ, but I wasn’t really invested in it. I think coming here I got involved with FCA and [FCA’s] Tony [Overstake] and it really introduced me into my walk and into my journey. I’m not perfect, but I’m encouraged everyday to continue to open up in my faith.”

He also acknowledges his faith in God, and a tribute to his family whenever he scores at TD, as you can see in this video

Mariota just finished his third season with the Titans and while, statistically, it was his lowest TD total and highest interception total as a pro, the Titans finished 9-7 – their best record since 2011 and their first playoff birth since 2008.  Today they travel to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs.

Mariota seeks to honor God through his life and through his play on the field.

Here are my takeaways from Mariota’s story:

1- What defines you? –  In 2014, Mariota won the Heisman award , the Maxwell Award, the Archie Manning Award, the Walter Camp award, The Davey O’Brien Award, The Johnny Unitas Award, and 3 separate player of the year awards. He was the number 2 pick in the draft a few months into 2015.  If anyone met the definition of football player, Mariota fits that bill. However, there is more to him than football. The same is true for all of us. We are not defined by the sum of the things that we do. Our life and purpose run deeper than our job and our list of accomplishments. Because honestly, if we are going to prop ourselves up on our list of things that we have done in our life, then we will also have to admit and recognize all the bad things we have done in our life. And that list is a lot longer than the good. But our life and purpose is not tied to what we have done, it is instead set for us by the One whose very words and hands created the universe and everything in it. God loves us so much that he made a way for our rebellion, selfishness and bad choices to be dealt with and forgiven. He then invites us to join Him on an adventure of serving others by serving Him and following His plan for us. So what is it that defines us? We are His!

Mariota leads the Titans to their first playoff game since 2008. They play Kansas City later today.

2- Teachable – Mariota is a student of the game. He works hard to be the best that he can be at all aspects of quarterbacking at the NFL level. In order for any football player to be successful and to improve his game, he must admit that there is still much to learn. Mariota speaks highly of his coaches throughout his career, even back as far as Pop Warner. He learns from them and applies what they teach him to game situations. Success comes from continued improvement and growth and learning from mistakes. Mariota talks about lessons he has learned from his college coach, Scott Frost. He also talks about connecting with FCA staff and being helped on his spiritual journey by other people who have challenged him and guided him to owning his faith and making it top priority in his life. Who has helped you on your journey of faith? Have you experienced the importance of being teachable as you seek to live for Him? Are you growing in your faith, learning from your mistakes and seeking the help and wisdom of others who can mentor you? And lastly, are you prayerfully asking God to make you more teachable as the Holy Spirit guides you daily through life? The path is set for you. Trust God and let Him lead you to the best life possible.

It’s Not Rocket Science – Josh Dobbs – QB – Pittsburgh Steelers

Steelers rookie QB Joshua Dobbs

When something is easy to understand, you often hear it said “It’s not rocket science”. Well Pittsburgh Steelers rookie quarterback Josh Dobbs can refer to football, even with all it’s nuances, strategies, rules and schemes using that same descriptor. You see “rocket science”, or as it is known academically “aerospace engineering” was Dobbs’ major at the University of Tennessee. And as you can read in this article from SEC country, he carried a 4.0 GPA through the program.

So far, Dobbs action has been limited to preseason, but he was good in those games, even winning a team player of the week award.

Dobbs was the starter for his final 2 years at Tennessee, leading the Vols to matching 9-4 records each season. The Steelers made Dobbs the 135th player chosen in the 2017 draft – a fourth round pick and currently sits in the third spot of the Steelers Depth Chart behind Ben Roethlisberger and Landry Jones, both of whom I have blogged about in these virtual pages. But there is a plan to have him be the next in line for the #1 job in the not-too-distant-future. And while he continues to learn the NFL game, and await his opportunity to lead the Steelers, he is learning the game and taking it all in.

As you can read in this profile from University of Tennessee, faith in God is very important to Dobbs.  When asked what role spirituality plays in his life, he replied “Wow, I don’t know if there is enough space in this article to fully cover that subject. My personal relationship with Jesus Christ means everything to me. Everything that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to God and my parents. I try to live my life in a way that it glorifies God in everything I do. I was raised in a Christian home, where my parents grounded me in principles that help me deal with the demands of life. I believe in the power of prayer. Whether a situation is good or bad, I am guided by my faith.”

Also, check out this video of Dobbs talking about his faith and priorities.

He talks about how his parents were “hard” on him, not nitpicky, but holding him to a high standard.  They reminded him that sports “won’t last forever or define you, so be strong in your faith, your studies and your community.”  He discusses his faith and it’s importance as well saying that at home, you go to church because you always went, and when you get to college, you learn how important it is to your life. Will you make it a priority when the choice is up to you?

He also talks about making the most of the platform he has to pour into the lives of others. Like he has done for the Cucksey family in Knoxville, and their son AJ.  Check out this video about that story:

Here are my takeaways from Dobbs story:

Dobbs says that his faith in God is most important.

1- How do you know what your priorities are?:Dobbs talks about how growing up in a Christian home, he went to church because that is what the family did. But then when he went to college, the decision about whether or not he would go to church was completely on him. I know that I was in a place in my teenage years, where I likely would have not gone to church if given the choice. I am grateful that my house, like Dobbs’, was one where it really wasn’t a question.  But I have learned (as I am sure Dobbs would agree) that it goes beyond simply attending church.  It is about making your relationship with God a priority, spending time daily reading and learning from the Bible and asking the Holy Spirit to guide you through life and the decisions that come your way.  How do you know what your priorities are? What will remain important to you as you decide how you will spend your time.

Pittsburgh believes they have their next starting QB in Dobbs

2- Not Rocket Science – I mentioned at the top of this post that we often say that something simple is “not rocket science” which Dobbs studied in college. When talking about faith in God, I could also say that it is “not rocket science”. It is actually a very simple story. We are sinners, we are far away from the standard of perfection that God requires. There is no checklist of things that we can do to save ourselves, nor is there a checklist of things we need to do to get God’s attention so that he chooses to save us. We simply need to understand that we have been enemies of God, rebelling against Him and His desires for us. And that while we continued to oppose Him, motivated by his indescribable love for each of us, He put in place a plan to rescue us. Before we even asked for it to happen! He sent Jesus to live a perfect life on earth and then pay the penalty of death for our mess ups and our rebellion. That is what we celebrate at Christmas time, and if our priority list truly puts God at the top, then it is something that we can celebrate every day of our lives. Let’s embrace the simple truth of the Gospel message – We need a Savior and He loved us enough to pay our debt. He offers Himself as our Savior, a gift that brings purpose to our life if we accept it.  Let’s make God the number one priority in our life, and let’s allow Him to lead us onto the best path He has for us, knowing that there will be difficulties along the way, but that He can overcome anything the world throws at us. And  let’s make the most of our platform to share his love and life with those around us.

Fly High – Tyler Lockett – WR – Seattle Seahawks

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver and return specialist Tyler Lockett

Dick Fosbury changed the high jump forever.

In the early 1960’s a high school student changed the face of a sport forever. Dick Fosbury was struggling to clear the high jump bar as a tall 16 year old at Medford High School in Portland Oregon. He began experimenting with different jump techniques and landings since the rules of what was acceptable were fairly broad.

That experimenting birthed the technique that is now used world-wide. It is called the “Fosbury Flop”. And it lead him to World Records and Olympic Gold. Boldness is defined as “willingness to take risks and act innovatively; confidence or courage.” Fosbury demonstrated each of these traits in developing the “flop”. And his boldness changed the way high jumpers jumped.

Lockett has 10 career TDs – 1 rushing, 2 returns and 7 receiving.

As I read the articles I will share about Tyler Lockett for this post, his boldness is what stands out to me. We will see some of the bold stands he is takings in his football career and also in his Christian faith. More to come on that in a little bit, first, some background about Lockett.

Seattle drafted Lockett in the third round of the 2015 draft. He had an outstanding 4 year career at Kansas State where he was used as a receiver and return specialist. He was a two-time Big 12 Special Teams player of the year, a two-time All American and the 2011 Big 12 Offensive Rookie of the Year.  With Seattle, he was named to the 2015 All-Rookie team (at three different positions) and named to the 2016 Pro Bowl. In 2016, Lockett suffered a season ending injury when he broke his leg making a catch against the Arizona Cardinals.

In general, football requires confidence and courage – a certain amount of boldness is necessary to strap on the pads and run full speed across a field where others are trying to take you down. By Lockett’s boldness goes beyond the football field. As you can read in this article from Seattlepi.com. He is bold about his faith, sharing it via spoken word at team meetings at training camp in 2016 and now, for all to see. This is not the first time that I have written about a player’s musical endeavors (Justin Forsett, Quintin Demps and Jonathan Stewart come to mind immediately)  Here is “Fly High” – a sample of his spoken word.

Lockett, celebrating a TD, has vowed to remain a virgin until he is married.

He also has taken a bold stand in talking about some of the temptations that many face, but that seem even more overt when fame and fortune are added to the equation. Here is an article from Sports Spectrum where Lockett discusses how he is waiting until he is married before having sex.  He says I open up to my teammates about it, they all know I’m a virgin,”…”They don’t really trip. I like to talk about things that not too many people really talk about or go down in a discussion… I just want to be able to show that you can be successful and represent God at the same time…Some people wonder because I’m a Christian in the locker room: ‘How do you do that? How do you deal with that?’ It’s not something that you balance. Everybody is human. They act like everybody else is evil, and it’s not like that.”

Also, check out this brief feature done on Lockett by a Seattle TV station about his faith and participation in a church service in the Seattle Area.

Here are my takeaways from Lockett’s story:

1-  Which Lie Doesn’t Matter– I am often encouraged when I read stories like Lockett’s. The openness that he has about his faith and the stand he is making on sex. I appreciate that he is so strong in his faith, and so bold that he doesn’t care what others may say. As Christians, in today’s world, these kinds of stands are difficult to make. It seems that all beliefs and faiths are acceptable to the world at large except Christianity. To me, that is a confirmation that Jesus IS the way, the truth and the life. You see the other faiths all seem to get along and coexist. I think that it is because it doesn’t matter to Satan which of his lies you believe, just that you are not following the one true God. Jesus said in John 16.33 that in this world, we WILL have trouble, but that He wins in the end and He invites us to share in that victory. So when you are facing hardship, ridicule or mockery for your faith, take comfort in that. You are under attack because you pose a threat to the prince of this world. He is not controlling you and he wants to. Stay strong in your faith and lean on your Savior for help.

Lockett is a top-level punt and kick returner.. He encourages everyone to “Fly High” and pursue the dreams God puts in their hearts.

2- Fly High –  Lockett’s spoken word poem was great. It is really encouraging as well, that when times get hard, God is with us. He wants to use us, and the things – good and bad – that happen in our life, to point others to Him.  He says “You ain’t gotta be rich just to be happy, you could still be broke. If you’re lost, but still alive, then you can still find hope. But don’t live to survive, you got to learn how to fly…”  With God on our side, the possibilities are endless. God can use us in many ways, He can lead us on incredible adventures beyond our wildest imaginations, and He will collect us in our moments of brokenness and help us soar again. What is your dream? What amazing adventure lies ahead of you on the path He has laid out? Step out boldly and Fly High!

Leadership – Brett Hundley – QB – Green Bay Packers

Packers QB Brett Hundley makes his first career start against the New Orleans Saints earlier this season

It is time for the “necessary evil”. My annual blog post about a member of the Green Bay Packers. And having just spent a wonderful holiday with my Vikings-loving in-laws, I know that this will be a touchy one, but it helps that the Vikings are rolling and the Packers are struggling this year, largely due to Aaron Rodgers being out with an injury (sustained against the Vikings). You see when he came out of the game, his replacement was Brett Hundley, in his 3rd season out of UCLA.

And while Hundley has struggled a little in the NFL, so far, he has 2 TD passes and 7 interceptions and the Packers have gone 1-3 in his 4 starts, but he has an opportunity to learn the NFL game on the fly.  He will have a chance to grow in his leadership at this level. And leadership is a word that defined Hundley over and over again at UCLA.  Starting with this article about leadership from Brian Dodd, we read 7 leadership lessons learned from Hundley. Here are the 7 marks a leadership:

Hundley was a 3 year starter at UCLA, and was known for his leadership

A great leader…

  • Asks Great Questions 
  • Deals With High Expectations 
  • Never Takes Shortcuts 
  • Changes The Organization’s Culture 
  • Puts In The Proper Amount Of Preparation 
  • Develops Great Intelligence 
  • Offers Solutions

Not a bad list considering the teacher was a college freshman. It speaks volumes about the natural leadership skills that Hundley has, and while leadership skills don’t necessarily translate to Hall of Fame credentials, it is a good set of skills to carry through this life.

Hundley is 1-3 in his starts this year. He is hoping to keep the Packers season hopes alive

Another key piece to Hundley’s leadership is his faith in God. You can read in this excerpt from the book Playing with Purpose by Mike Yorkey, Hundley as a freshman, met with UCLA running back Jonathan Franklin (who was also a Green Bay draft pick) for Bible study and prayer. Word about these meetings spread and “by the middle of the season, more than twenty players met regularly for prayer and Bible Study.”

He also knows that leadership is something that only comes through God’s help. Another example of his leadership mindset can be found in this article from the LA Times.  Here we read about how Hundley, when named the starter at UCLA, set up a conference call to his home church so he could ask the congregation for prayer.  He said “I wanted them to pray for humility and health… I know this can all be gone in an instant.”

He knows that health issues can derail promise. He has seen it with his sister. He says “I play for her… I play because her seizures stopped her from running track, and she was faster than anything. Sometimes I think she can live vicariously through me.”  

Here are my takeaways from Hundley’s story:

Hundley is the starting QB in Green bay after Rodgers (12) was injured earlier this year.

1 – Being a leader – Leadership is one of those funny words that we hear at conferences and read about in books. What makes a great leader? The list above contains some great pieces when we consider effective leadership. It makes sense for a team quarterback to be a leader, but in some ways, we all get asked to lead in some capacity. Where is God asking you to show leadership? Which of the areas mentioned above are you strongest in? Where do you need the most work? For me, I can tend to look for shortcuts, but only when I think I have found one do I realize that I need to make sure I put in the proper preparation. Shortcuts don’t seem to pay off for me. But mostly, I’ve learned that the key to effective leadership is humility. I like that Hundley asked for prayer that he would stay healthy AND humble. My prayer is that God would continually remind me of His work in and around my life and that I would also learn to remain humble,  remembering that all that I have and all that I am able to accomplish is only done through His grace and leadership.

2- Following God attracts people – Hundley, newly named starter at UCLA, connected with another older student for prayer and bible study.  Word spread and the group grew and grew.  It wasn’t a conscious effort to evangelize the team, it wasn’t a church outreach, it was simply a couple guys, knowing the importance God needed to hold in their lives and in their football careers that met to challenge each other and grow in God. And people were drawn to that. How can you allow God into your daily and weekly life? What are some ways where you can be genuine in your desire to know God better? Are you willing to give God that place of importance in your daily world and be open to sharing God with others.