Christians in the NFL – Lessons learned from Mike DeVito – New York Jets

This is the 22nd blog post in my series on Christ Followers in the NFL.  Today, we go into the trenches in New Jersey to check out the story of Mike DeVito – Defensive End for the New York Jets.

Mike DeVito is in his 4th year in the NFL after a decent playing career at the University of Maine where he was a team captain in his senior year and a 2 time all conference Nose Tackle.  He joined the Jets in 2007 as an undrafted free agent, and earned a roster spot.  He made his debut later that year and has since worked his way into a starting position.  This year, he finished with 34 tackles, 2 forced fumbles and a sack despite missing time with knee injuries.  He has also had shoulder surgery since the season ended last weekend.

Now not too long ago, there was some question as to whether this NFL season would happen at all.  The lockout and labor dispute dragged on through the summer, passed the time when teams would normally have started their team activities and training camps.  How did DeVito spend the his time during the lockout?  Well, I am sure that he had his regular exercise regime that NFLers go through on their own.  But he also took on a challenge to build his resume for his post-football career.  Check out this story from bostonhearald.com and this story from thejetsblog.com . We read in this article that DeVito has expressed an interest in pursuing a career in ministry, maybe as a youth pastor when his football days are over. So he accepted the invitation to preach a sermon at RCC in Randolph, NJ . He also enjoys talking to student athletes about their faith and about letting their relationship with God be the foundation that they use for the choices they make for the rest of their lives.

DeVito grew up in a non-christian home in Massachusetts.  But it was an encounter with, of all people, mormon missionaries coupled with the death of a close friend that helped DeVito realize that he needed to figure out who God was going to be in his life.  As he began to search these things out, he started confiding in U of Maine teammate Matthew Mulligan, who is a Christian, and spent this past season as DeVito’s teammate on the Jets.

When DeVito arrived in the NFL, he immediately connected with a couple of Jets teammates who were Christians and they began meeting for Bible Study.  He also met with Jets chaplain Adam Burt, who himself played in the NHL for 13 seasons with the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers and Atlanta Thrashers, and is now a pastor at Morning Star New York.

DeVito (center) in a service led
by Adam Burt.

He continues to earn respect and recognition for his play and his attitude, being mentioned by Jets head coach Rex Ryan as one of the strongest and most underrated players on the team.  He also won the 2010 Kyle Clifton Good Guy award which the Jets give every year to the player that according to Wikipedia, is given in recognition of a players “consistent willingness, cooperation and professionalism in everyday dealings with various departments in organization.”

Here are some thoughts that I had while reading through the Mike DeVito Story:
1- God uses anything to draw us to Him
I think it is really cool that DeVito began his search into who Jesus is by meeting some Mormon missionaries.  Mormons are sometimes grouped in with Christian churches, but there are substantial differences between Mormon theology and Evangelical Christian theology.  The differences are serious and Mormon beliefs do not line up with the true story of who Jesus is, and who God is.  But the fact that they were willing to talk about Jesus stirred DeVito to checking into the story himself.  He decided that he didn’t want to follow the path of Mormonism, but rather follow the God that revealed Himself to DeVito through Bible Study and experience.  Now, a few years later, he is taking whatever opportunities he can to tell others about the real Jesus, who He is and how they can encounter Him for themselves.

2- Study Study Study
I really like how the article on DeVito talks about the importance of studying the Bible, calling it the most important playbook to study.  Life is a battle.  Hard things come at us all the time.  People we know get hurt, we face hurdles we never imagined we would have to face,  it is a battle everyday.  As Christians, we face attacks all the time, too.  Satan wants to steal, rob and destroy.  There is spiritual warfare all around us at all times.  Just like any successful army needs to have a battle plan and every successful sports team has a game plan to key on certain things that will make victory more attainable, we need to have a plan to deal with the hard things and attacks that we face in life.  The book that has a plan to deal with all of these attacks and battles is the Bible.  The more familiar we are  with it, and the more ready to execute what it says – the better our chances for success will be. Ultimately, our greatest success in life will come when we get out of our own way and trust God and the plan he has for us.

3- God challenges us to step out of our comfort zones – 

DeVito mid-sermon at Relevant Christian
Church in Randolph, NJ.
 As mentioned, one of the places where God is using DeVito is to share his beliefs about God with his family.  At first, they were resistant, and that can be some awkward, uncomfortable conversations, but imagine the encouragement he must feel in his own faith when some of his family have come to a relationship with Christ of their own.  When God leads us to depend on Him and share about Him with others, He works in their hearts and changes lives, ours and those we are talking to.

These are some great lessons to take for me.  I can certainly use the reminders to do more studying of the playbook, and trusting God more when things get uncomfortable.  God has an amazing adventure for us.  Let’s pray that He can help us trust Him enough to let Him lead us wherever and to whatever He wants.

Christians in the NFL – Lessons learned from Danny Woodhead – New England Patriots

This is the 21st installment in my blog series on Christ-followers in the NFL.  Today we look at the remarkable story of Danny Woodhead – Running Back for the New England Patriots.

Tim Tebow and the season that he is having has been the story of the year in the NFL this year.  He has earned the praise of his fans and the ire of his detractors, although the latter preface their comments with the fact that he and the Broncos have been on an incredible run.

I bring this up because it bears some similarities to the story of our subject of the day, Danny Woodhead.

For comparison’s sake, with Tebow, we hear all about his poor mechanics, his un-NFLness (to make up a new word), and the lack of sustainability that his play will have in the NFL.  We keep hearing how he “can’t do it”, and we keep seeing him do it. (I know that there are 52 others on the team and it isn’t a 1 man show – but nevertheless) his run has hit some speed bumps over the last 2 weeks but he has the chance today to lead the Broncos to the playoffs – something deemed unlikely when he took over a team with 1 win in week 5.

This ties in to our story today because Danny Woodhead is making a name for himself even though he people have tried to stick him with the “can’t do it” label.  As you can read in this article from STV Magazine,  he has had his share of detractors in his run to the NFL.  For a man his size (5’7″ 195 lbs) he is known for his bruising style, taking on much bigger bodies through in the middle of the field.  But despite his success in high school, and an incredible college run, he was not invited to the pro combine and his name went uncalled in the NFL draft.  Many times he has been overlooked by people who doubt his ability to play at the pro level.

That makes it easy to cheer for Woodhead, because he is an underdog.  He is undersized, but plays a lot bigger than he is.  Check out the video highlights below – he is fast and elusive.

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/4yonSMvWWS4?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0

Even coming out of high school, his ability to play in college was questioned.  He was not strongly recruited for college mostly because of his size, so he went to a Division II school – Chadron State in Chadron Nebraska.  There, his numbers were very impressive.   He rushed for almost 2000 yards as a freshman.  In 2006 he set a record with a ridiculous 2,756 rushing yards, and finished his career with almost 8,000 yards – the most in NCAA history.

He went undrafted and wound up getting an invitation to New York Jets training camp.  After an injury derailed his first season, he came back the next year and made the practice squad, even seeing game action.  But the Jets cut him and he found himself again looking to prove that he could play in the NFL.  4 days later, the New England Patriots came calling.  An injury to Patriots’ Kevin Faulk meant a chance for Woodhead.  And he has been a fixture for the Pats ever since.
 You can read more about his story in the Children’s book “Danny Woodhead – A Football Dream Come True”

He is also easy to cheer for because he is such a likable guy, Watch this video of him selling his own jerseys at a Sporting Good’s store in the Boston area.

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/GjEhEFBu-C4?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0

Danny & Stacia at “Worth It”

Woodhead has been involved with Fellowship of Christian Athletes.  He also, along with his wife Stacia, and fellow NFLer David Thomas and his wife, have been guest speakers at a “Worth It” conference through Home Improvement Ministries – a conference on Godly relationships and purity.  You can read about it in this article taken from facebook.

Here are some things God showed me from Woodhead’s story.
1- The Bible is full of underdog stories.  By giving people like Danny Woodhead a degree of success on a field where few would think it is possible, it captures people’s attention.  When people like Woodhead acknowledge God’s hand at work then others may be drawn to check out this God that motivates these people to play above expectations.  God uses people in the areas he places them for purposes far beyond their own accolades.
     But an important part of this process is reminding us that He is in control and ultimately, his plan is the best plan, even when it doesn’t go the way we think it should.  Woodhead is the all time Division II yards leader.  You would think that would have received some attention from pro teams – but only 1 came calling, and didn’t pursue enough to actually draft him, just give him an outside chance.  Then when that chance happens, there is the setback of a knee injury.  There are some obstacles in the road, no matter where we are or what path we are taking.  These hard times will never disappear, but God can use them for lots of different purposes.  We can learn from them in order to avoid them in the future, or to help others that are going through similar challenges.  He can use them to help us realize that his plan is better than ours.  We can learn that God’s idea of success may not be the same as ours.  We can also learn that when we follow God and live for Him, the opportunities that he will bring to us will exceed our expectations.

2- The other lesson that I take from this story is from Woodhead’s personal life.  His participation in the “Worth It” conference stood out to me.  He and his wife dated for 8 years before getting married.  They made a pledge to remain sexually pure and save physical intimacy until they were married.  My wife and I just celebrated our 7th wedding anniversary and so marriage has been on my mind this week.  The facebook article I linked to above mentioned that the concept of waiting until marriage is being lost in society, and even, sadly, with Christians.  Temptations in this area are very strong and with society erasing the line almost completely, even Christians are compromising in this area more and more frequently.  It is great to read the story of Woodhead, and Saints TE David Thomas (also in the facebook article) who set purity as a goal and then put steps in place to help them resist temptation and protect purity.  I agree that Christians, should hear that waiting until marriage for sex is definitely “worth it”.

Christians in the NFL – Lessons learned from Reggie Kelly – Atlanta Falcons

This is the 20th installment in my blog series about Christ-followers in the NFL.  Today we journey to Hot-lanta to learn from one of the unsung heroes of the Falcons potent offense.  Tight End Reggie Kelly.

Kelly congratulates Tony Gonzalez on a TD

A starter for most of his career, first with Atlanta and then for many years with the Cincinnati Bengals, Kelly rejoined the Falcons at the start of this season to play a role that is greatly reduced from what he did in Cinci.  Tight End isn’t really a glamor position, to start with, and #2 TE playing behind a future Hall of Famer (Tony Gonzalez) is even less so.  And for a guy that has been at this for 13 years now, glitz, fame and highlight reel plays have never really been what he was all about.  He has only twice caught more than 20 passes in a season, maxing out at 31 and has 5 career touchdowns in those 13 years.  But a Tight End’s role is much more than receiver.  He is known as a good pass blocker, giving extra protection for QB on passing plays.

And it is a game that he has been playing at the NFL level for 13 years.  Over the course of 13 years as a professional football player, you are bound to deal with injuries from time to time.  August 2009 was one of those times.  Kelly ruptured his Achilles Tendon during a pre season workout.  That is a serious injury and often will spell the end of a career for a player in their 30’s.  Kelly was 32 at the time.  Surgery, recovery and rehab would take the entire 2009 season.  But he diligently worked and rehabbed as consistently as he could, and he did return to play one more year with the Bengals, before rejoining the team that drafted him to start this 2011 campaign.  You can read about the injury and the recovery process in this article from proplayerinsiders.com.

You can also watch him share his testimony in this video from cbn.com/700club. (this link has a transcript of the interview)

http://www.youtube-nocookie.com/v/L4qvE0cAo70?version=3&hl=en_US&rel=0

Here are some lessons that I take from his story.

1- It is a common story.  Kelly grew up in a Christian family, afraid to rebel too much because word would get back to Mom and Dad.  He called his house a dictatorship.  As he got older, he got more rebellious against this home life.  Jesus was put on the back burner, and attention and energy was put on being liked, popular and happy.    As a parent – I am learning that this seems like a thin line to walk.  I want my kids to grow up knowing and loving God and want to give them every chance to have a genuine relationship with Him.  I know that insisting that they be in church and active is a great way to make sure that they have plenty of chances to meet God and choose to live for Him.  How do I avoid pushing too hard and seeming like a dictator, giving them a bad taste about church and Christian life?  I need them to know how serious and important it is, but ultimately, the decision is theirs and I can’t force them to have a relationship with God.  Oh how I wish that I could!  It breaks my heart to think about my girls growing up and choosing to turn away from God.  It breaks my heart to hear of friends who have chosen to deny God or have friends/family that have done the same.  I know that my role is to pray for them and to model a genuine relationship with God in my own life and let God work on their hearts – since I am not able to change them anyway.  But if we aren’t insistent, does that make it easier for our kids to turn away from God?  I don’t know.  I am glad to hear stories like Kelly’s where he goes off on his own but returns to form his own relationship with God.  But I want my kids to skip the part where they rebel and walk away.  I don’t know how to do that – probably because that isn’t often how it works.

2- When you are open with your faith, people will know it and have to make a choice about you.  Reggie Kelly had earned the nickname “Rev” with the Bengals.  This is because he is open with what he believes and he has earned the respect of teammates to the point that they use this nickname affectionately.  They also know that he is there and ready to help them out if they are going through something hard or challenging.  And he has battled through some injuries, like the Achilles injury mentioned above.  He maintains a great attitude about adversity.  He knows that everything will not always work out the way we want it to every time.  But that God can use the hard things (including disappointments) to share his love with others.  Kelly’s recovery from injury was an example to younger teammates about handing adversity with wisdom, grace and hard work.  We often hear the quote to “preach the gospel and when necessary use your words”  There is truth to that – but it is not an excuse to stay silent about your faith.  Instead it is all about earning the right to be heard.  If you make the effort to earn the respect of the people around you – through your effort, work ethic, friendliness and willingness to listen, then when you do speak, your words will carry more weight to them. Kelly has the respect of his team and as they show by calling him “Rev” they know what he is all about through his actions and his words.

I also want to draw attention to Reggie Kelly’s book – Prepared.   at his website, or at Amazon.com

Christians in the NFL – Lessons learned from Steve Smith – Carolina Panthers

This is the 19th entry in my blog series on Christ followers in the NFL.  Today, we will look into the story of one of the top receivers of all time in the NFL.  Undersized as a receiver at a hair under 5’9″, the diminutive Stevonne Smith aka. Steve Smith.

Smith has been a standout receiver and punt returner for the past decade.  He joined a bad panthers team and helped them turn quickly into a Super Bowl contender.  It is a pretty amazing story of an only child of a single mom growing up in a tough part of Los Angeles. He would make his way through the violent environment with his speed when possible and with his fists if speed alone was not possible.

You can check out his story here in his article at “Jockbio.com” In this story you will read about his love of football and his dream of being a pro receiver.  This was solidified for him at the age of 14 when he was given the chance to be a spectator at the Super Bowl 27 played in the Rose Bowl in 1994.

He battled through school problems (he wasn’t a very good student and didn’t try very hard), a long day of practice, school and work to play at Santa Monica College where he was a teammate of Chad “Ocho Cinco” Johnson.  His coach told him to work hard at school and football so he could get a degree and play for a slim chance at the pros.  He did work hard, earned a scholarship to University of Utah and starred there for 2 years.

He was a third round draft pick by the Panthers and set some goals to be one of the best receivers in history.  Last Sunday, he became the 35th player in history to pass the 10,000 yards mark.  At 32, He continues to be a dangerous weapon and with Cam Newton figuring out the NFL game fast, and the Panthers turning their fortunes around, he may be a force to be reckoned with for a few more years yet.

But he also has earned a reputation through various team based practice issues that have come up.  Between telling coaches that he deserves more chances and playing time (early in his career) to film room fist fights (teammate Anthony Bright pressed charges and sued Smith), to practice field altercations (2008 against Ken Lucas)
 
In the summary of the Steve Smith story on JockBio, it talks about how the Smith that entered the league a decade ago and the one that still leads the Panthers receiving corps today do not seem like the same person.  With age comes maturity and with the help of some veteran teammates and coaches along the way, the focus has been kept more on football and being the best he can be (which is also being among the best we’ve seen in the NFL).  But is there something else to the story?  I would say yes.  Somewhere along the way, Steve Smith entered a relationship with Jesus and has allowed that decision to influence the reactions and choices that he makes.  More than that, it has instilled in him the desire to give back and serve others, even if he resisted it at first.  Check out this story from Campus Crusaade that shares the story of a mission trip he took to Togo and Nigeria in West Africa last Summer.  He didn’t want to go at first, but was obedient and it was an important trip for him.  You can read how the trip gave him an opportunity to see a part of the world that is far from the glamour and glitz that comes with fame and success.  It gave him a chance to share his faith and see how God could use him to reach all people from teammates on the Panthers to poverty stricken kids around the world.

Here are some thoughts I take from the Steve Smith story.

1- And this one comes up over and over again.  It is not our place to judge.  Again, before I started looking in to this story, my impression of Steve Smith is that he is a great receiver and good guy to have on your fantasy football team.  But he is mouthy, volatile, and quick to fight.  And while there may be some truth to those claims,  God loves Him, he knows God and he is working out what following God looks like.  I don’t have a perfect walk with God.  If I were to have all of my thoughts and attitudes, the things that I’ve said and the people that I’ve hurt put out in the public eye for all to see, would people consider me Christian?  Then where is it my right to talk about the mistakes that Smith has made.  Instead, I want to encourage him in the work that he is doing, both to share Christ with others, as well as to grow in his own faith and walk with God.

2- Go on mission trips.  I advise anyone who ever has an opportunity to go on a mission trip.  If your church has a group that is going somewhere, pray and ask God if you are supposed to be a part of that trip?  If your church doesn’t have a group going on a mission trip, pray to ask God if you can organize one, or join another group that is going.   This is for several reasons, and here they are.
     a: God’s heart is for serving others and letting God reach out through you to draw others to him
     b: Service is addicting.  Once you start serving others (even if it is away from your home) you will enjoy doing it and if you look for them, you will find opportunities to serve others in your neighborhood, in your church and in your world
     c: mission trips impact lives of the people you minister to, but also impact the lives of you who are ministering.
    d:  God doesn’t want us to be comfortable, he wants us to be obedient.  When we are obedient, we will have many moments of discomfort, challenge and difficulty.  This is so we will learn to depend on Him at all times and we can see him do “far more then we could ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3.20)

Look at the story of Steve Smith.  He didn’t want to go – maybe it was at a busy time, maybe it was just that it seemed hard or made him feel uncomfortable – but he obeyed and went anyway.  And the result was that he came back ready to take a spiritual leadership role on the team.  He is stepping up, according to the team chaplain, and is planning more trips to Africa in the future.  So get in touch with him, maybe you can join one of his trips to Africa.  Or if not his, you can find countless organizations that offer countless different opportunities.  Go, step out, serve and let God use you and take you on the adventure of a lifetime that will last for a lifetime!

Christians in the NFL – Lessons learned from Gerald McCoy – Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is the 18th installment in my series on Christians in the NFL. Lets take a look at the story of Gerald McCoy – Defensive Tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Gerald McCoy was the 3rd overall pick in the 2010 draft. There was a lot of hype and chatter about him and what a difference maker he could be. The one thing that a high draft pick always comes with is a load of expectations. Comparisons are made to stars that have played the game before and soon, with the names that a player is compared to, it is hard to live up to those names and expectations. It can be a hard load to carry. That is one of the problems that McCoy was having. In a town where Warren Sapp set the bar extremely high. Through his rookie season, McCoy failed to live up to the expectations of those around him – media, fans, etc. There were some critics that began to hint at the “bust” label.

This year, until an injury put him on injured reserve , he was showing some some of the promise that made him a stand out in college. As you can read in this article from pewterreport.com, Critics were feeling encouraged. And McCoy himself talks about the reason for the change in his game.

For more about McCoy, and some of the challenges life has brought his way (like the passing of his mother and becoming a dad at age 17) and how these things brought him closer to God, check out this video.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=udga4A6l_J8]

Here are some things that God showed me through his story.
1- McCoy talked about playing for the wrong reasons.  He was playing not to mess up and not to upset the critics and the fan base.  There is some importance to not alienating people, but it is also important to know that you will never please all people.  Someone will always be upset or find something to tear you apart about.  To do so left him feeling like he was not giving it all because he didn’t want to offend anyone.  In our Christian lives, it is important to not upset or alienate people that don’t know God (it is important not to upset people who do know God).  But ultimately, God rules.  What he says is what we need to do regardless of what people may think or say.  God is our one king, one Lord and His opinion is all that counts.  Luckily, he has a very high opinion of us, so even when we mess up, if we ask Him to, He takes us in, and helps us rediscover his direction.  Last night, I shared the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego at an AWANA club meeting.  Those boys were bold and not afraid of what others may say or think.  Following God was the only thing that matters – regardless of what the consequences are.  Since it is impossible to please all people, let’s strive to please God.  The rest doesn’t matter.

2- When discussing why his game is different now, he talks about having an inner peace that can only come from a true relationship with God.  I remember a few years ago, in a challenging time in my own life, God brought a couple of verses to my attention.  Joshua 21.43-45.  This passage talks about the Israelites settling in the Promised land and having “rest on every side”.  But then it goes on to talk about how when the enemies came against them, those enemies were delivered into the hands of the Israelites.  The enemies were still there!  They still attacked!  But the Israelites, depended on God,  and saw Him work. And in the midst of that, there was peace.  McCoy knows that the attacks will still come.  He knows that the critics will harp on him, there will be injuries, critics, mistakes, and lots of other things that can seems like attacks from the enemy.  But with the inner peace that comes from a relationship with God, he knows that he will be able to face it, and that God can carry him through.  We can trust God for the same thing.  He is the Prince of Peace and he can bring peace to whatever hard things we face.

3- One thing that God gives us to help us find that inner peace is others around us that share our beliefs.  This is not a substitute for depending on God.  But God is there in the lives of other believers, too and so for encouragement, accountability, prayer, and iron sharpening iron, it is good to have a group of people there to help you stand strong in your faith.
This can be seen in this blog post from the wife of a teammate of McCoy’s.  Corey Lynch’s wife, Cissie Graham Lynch (granddaughter of Billy Graham) wrote about inner peace when dealing with last summer’s lockout.  There was some uncertainty about the whole work situation but she talks about peace and about how God is in control at all times.

This is very true, God is always in control.  We just need to keep on trusting.