One single kick can determine the fate of a whole game or even a whole season. As a kicker you can have weeks of glory … but if you miss the kick you are the reason for the loss. Walking out on the football field at crunch time could be a completely nerve-racking experience. But I have learned over the years, that even if I lead the NFL in humiliation, that my hope is not tied up in what happens on the field. My hope is tied up in Christ.
I was fortunate to have been raised in a Christian home with a brother and a mom and dad who weren’t divorced. I loved sports. My main sport was soccer, but I also played a bit of basketball. In high school, all my friends played football and eventually they coaxed me into giving it a try, “Why don’t you come and play a man’s sport?” Because soccer was in the spring and football was in the fall I could do both.
I kicked right away. I tried some other positions but my teammates had been playing for years so I was too far behind. Instead, I just concentrated on kicking the football. My junior year was great and I had a lot of interest from colleges. It looked like I might have a future in the sport. But then I played really badly in my senior year and most of the interest dropped. I was accepted at Stanford University and the team said they were going to sign me. But I never heard from them again. As it turned out, one of my few remaining college options was in my home state of Washington at Washington State University. It was only 1-1/2 hours away and wasn’t even on my radar screen. But by the end of the process it just so happened that I had lots of academic scholarships there. And they were fairly interested in me playing football for them. So I decided to stay in-state.
College is one of the biggest reasons that I know God is real. I originally had no plans of going to Washington State and in the end that’s the door that was open for me. Now in retrospect, it seems like so much of it was God’s planning. I was very successful in football there and I met some very influential people in Washington, including my wife. My choice would have been somewhere else, but God led me there.
I walked on and made the Washington State football team right away and got a scholarship as soon as the season was over. And then the following year I did well. I was a consensus All-American, I was on the Bob Hope Show, and I was receiving all kinds of press, awards, tickets and recognition. I was famous, young and popular. And yet something wasn’t clicking … My homework was still due, relationships were often a struggle and the things inside my heart didn’t change. I was getting the best that the world had to offer, but somehow it still wasn’t enough.
On NFL draft day in 1992, I knew there were some teams interested in me, but I didn’t know who would take me or when. There were definitely two or three teams that I thought were in the running. I thought one of those teams was going to draft me and out of nowhere came Detroit. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Lions’ special teams coach was convinced that I was the guy they wanted and needed.
In the end, I was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the second round. My wife and I were sitting there looking at each other, “Holy cow, where are we going?” We didn’t know anything about the city so it was a big adventure. I have no doubt that God put us in Detroit. If I’d have picked, it would have been Miami or the Super Bowl champion or to stay home in Seattle. But we ended up in Detroit and that’s exactly where God wanted us.
When I was a kid we went to church regularly. I suppose I was like most kids who thought Sunday school was fun, but the sermon was boring. There was a time around junior high when I began to realize that I wasn’t saved or going to heaven just because I went to church or because my parents were Christians. One summer I went to a Bible camp and it was at that camp that I finally understood that it was my heart and my decision that mattered. I needed to decide if I believed that Jesus is who he said he is and that God is real or if it was just going to be religion. It was clear to me that I needed to have a relationship with Jesus myself, not just practice a family tradition.
I did my biggest growing in college. I would never describe myself as being on the wrong side of the line of right and wrong or going off the deep end. But you get to a point in college where suddenly you are making decisions on your own for what may be the very first time in your life. Suddenly, you are in total control over what you do, what you say, what you see and what you think. In college, you are exposed to so many different things – ideas and philosophies and lifestyles – that you quickly come a point of determining what you believe. And I came to really believe that what the Bible says is true and that my faith was real … that God is real. There was never a neon sign, lightening and thunder or a dramatic conversion moment. It was more like a slow process of growth … I became convinced that it’s not just a belief. I was sure.
For the last 17 years I’ve played professional football. And I’ve found that there’s no peace in performance. And there’s no peace in material things, because they’re all so temporary. The fame, popularity and possessions we get from the pro experience just don’t last. And there’s no peace in my field goal percentage. But I do have peace knowing that I have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. In Philippians 4:7, the Bible talks about the peace that passes all understanding. There’s no other place I’ve found that peace – I guess that’s ultimately what has convinced me, knowing that who I am doesn’t depend on my performance on the football field. That’s not what the world says, but it is what the Bible says. And that’s more important to me.
That peace carries onto the field. But it doesn’t take away the adrenaline or the anxiety of that huge moment when I’m kicking the football. One single kick can decide the outcome of a game or even an entire season. It’s tempting to use God as my rabbit’s foot – you know, if I pray really hard I will be successful. Maybe God does impact my games, but I know it’s deeper than that. Simply knowing that if I try my hardest and give my absolute best, that I can leave the results up to God. Who I am doesn’t rest solely on my sports performance. Don’t get me wrong, when I miss a field goal, I’m more upset than anybody. I take pride in doing my job the best that I can. But at the same time, I never despair. I know that being a successful football player doesn’t answer the inner question of what happens when I die, how to have peace in my life or who is going to forgive me. Fame and fortune is the wrong place to look for answers to those questions. I know that God has a plan and a purpose for my life whether I’m a pro bowler or bow out on the football field.
I see God working in my life all the time. In the huge things like when there’s an illness, we all go to God because it’s so out of our control. But he’s also interested in the smaller challenges in daily life. I know that when we have trusted God with every little part of our family’s life we’ve always had an answer. Like purchasing a home – what does God care about that? Yet when we were looking for a home in Detroit we could see the doors open and close and found the perfect place where God wanted us to be. My family has experienced times where we could have just decided things on our own – we’re intelligent enough to figure it out. But we stepped out and let God be in control, because we knew that the God we serve is real and that he would have a better plan for us than we could ever even imagine. That’s something that has convinced me even more – the way he has taken care of the little things.
I don’t know why I’m so extremely blessed. Sometimes it’s overwhelming to think that God cares about me individually. Many think that Jesus is a myth or just another story, until they actually meet him. I’m not going to claim that I understand everything, but to me it’s not just a nice belief system or some kind of philosophy, it’s really true. And I can claim that reality, because my relationship with Christ is true. God worked through my success to draw me closer to Him. And I’m never leaving his side.
Autographed copies of HOW DO YOU KNOW HE’S REAL can be purchased at www.hesreal.com. Books are also available through all online retailers and most retail stores.