I was recently leading a devotional for four couples at The Hideaway Experience when something hit me like Franco Harris did on a play up the middle (or a ton of bricks for you non-football fans). I have been one of the therapists that guide distressed couple through this four day experience for 6 years now. I listen to them, I cry with them, and then I try to help them find hope. Christ is at the center of the experience which takes hearts that are in pain to a place where they can find peace. As I was talking to them on the third day of their intensive, it just dawned on me that God was really using me in a way that when I was 19 could never have imagined.
In my younger days (much younger), God had blessed me with very good athletic abilities. My passion was football and even in high school I was the envy of every high school coach. I was big, fast and agile. This opened a lot of doors for me including an opportunity to go to the Naval Academy to play for the Midshipmen. Being from West Virginia, there was really only one option, and that was to paint myself gold and blue and head over to Morgantown. It was a dream come true for any Mountaineer.
God also found in me a very tender and open heart towards Him. During High School this heart was motivated to be respectful and obedient to God. In college it transformed to a heart motivated out of a deep love for my Savior. I was a leader in Campus Crusade for Christ on Campus and Coach Bobby Bowden put me in charge of the campus’ Fellowship of Christian Athletes. A couple of my fellow players and I would fall asleep trying to be faithful to God with an early morning prayer time.
My freshman year was exciting as I excelled on the football field. Freshman at that time had their own coaches and their own schedules. The tragedy of the plane crash at Marshall University had not yet occurred, so freshman players were all put in a holding and development pattern until they were sophomores. I personally had a great year. Having played both ways in high school and all special teams, to only play one position (linebacker), was like a vacation. The play was definitely at a higher level but I continued to excel.
My spring training ended with me securing a first string position. Bobby Bowden would give little overview statements to the press and public after each practice and he noted often that I stood out to him. I continued to get more and more attention from the general public and from the student body.
The fall of 1971 was filled with excitement as had every fall previously since I was a child. However, this one was special because I was playing on my dream team, at my dream position. With every game came more recognition and even as a sophomore, rumblings of me being in position for All-American status were circulating. The attention I was receiving was being tempered by my desire to please God and to be a clear spokesman for Him. There was also a clear conflict taking place as the notoriety was beginning to put me in positions that was clearly compromising my values as a Christ follower. If you can just imagine a naïve young man from small town USA thrust into a liberal college campus during the sexual revolution, anti-war demonstrations, and pot smoking students. While I was strong in my resolve to not fall victim to the behavior of the status quo, I was finding myself in more and more situations that were uncomfortable. There was a battle for my attention and my loyalties. Again, I can remember clearly telling God that the more popular I could get the more people I could reach for Him.
Penn State came into Morgantown for our 7th game of the season. They were ranked high in polls and filled with All-Americans like Franco Harris, Lydel Mitchell, and John Hufnagle. Before the second half ended, I was rolled off the field on a stretcher. My leg had been hyperextended at the knee 75° and then twisted another 65° outward. My surgeon who operated on me the next day said he could take my toe and touch it to my hip… in the wrong direction. I was paralyzed in my foot for 18 months and even today only have 90% of the feeling back. The full cast I wore after the surgery left my leg with atrophied muscles which I never regained. The doctor said I might not ever walk right again. My career was over in a flash.
While I was in the hospital, the campus director of students from Campus Crusade visited me with a verse from Hebrews 12.
And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6 because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”[a]
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined–and everyone undergoes discipline–then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Well, I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to make of this scripture. It just kind of sat on my heart while I digested the full meaning. My injury actually brought another kind of notoriety for me as I would speak at youth dinners and churches. Then, as in the case of most athletes, my popularity waned. Also, the move to Texas after graduation to be with my parents didn’t help either. What happened to my plan? I had dreams to reach thousands for Christ on the back of a great football career? That was over 40 years ago.
In my heart of hearts I believe God saw a direction for me that my athletic career was not going to help achieve. In His always loving way, He redirected me. It was not pleasant, but it has “produced a harvest of righteous and peace”. He proved he didn’t need my direction. He could manage the universe just fine without me. He always has my best interest at heart. My ways are not God’s ways. I keep trying to tell God how to run the universe and even make deals with Him to try to persuade him in my direction. You would think I would learn. Next time I say, “God, if you would only__________”, I hope I remember the devotional that hit me so hard on day 3 at the Hideaway.