Christian Music Spotlight – Austin French

Austin FrenchFor this week’s blog post, we venture away from hearing from Christian Athletes to focus on a Christian musician, Austin French.  Austin French will be performing at the Walk on Water Winter Fest in my small hometown of Chelsea, Michigan this weekend.  If you are interested in attending, tickets can be purchases here.

Contemporary Christian musician Austin French describes his journey on his web page as follows;

“Rising contemporary Christian music artist Austin French has lived a lot of life in his 24 years. Originally from small-town Georgia, he’s spent time in Los Angeles, competing on reality singing competitions like ABC’s “Rising Star” and NBC’s “The Voice.” He’s been a worship leader at a church where 80 percent of the members were recovering addicts. And he and his wife went from having no kids to having two—one biological, one adopted—within months of each other. Now, to add to the list, he is about to release his first full-length studio album.

A life with this much adventure can only happen when you hold the posture that French does.“Life is meant to be lived wide open,” he says, “not closed off, not safe, but living close to the Lord where he leads us…our job is to live our lives with our hands wide open.”

This openness to God’s leading is largely what inspired the album, Wide Open. Released on Awaken Records/Fair Trade Services September 7, 2018, the album debuted at #2 on the itunes Christian album chart. The 12-track album features songs that speak to the ups and downs that inevitably occur while living the wide open life. The album is refreshing in its honesty, addressing the brokenness in all of us, providing empathy in our most painful moments as well as presenting the hope of Christ. Wide Open was clearly written by an artist who has experienced both joy and hardship and who has come out the other side clinging to Jesus, rather than running from him. 

But this was not always the case for French. Growing up a minister’s kid, French experienced first-hand what hypocrisy in the church can look like and just how broken people can be. “I was really hurt by the church,” says French. “I was really over it….I was going to have nothing to do with Christianity.”

In eighth grade, while attending a Christian music camp, he heard a speaker address the hypocrisy he had experienced growing up. During the altar call, he says he felt God ask him what he was going to do about it? How was he going to let others know that Christians don’t have to be two-faced, that they can be real, truthful and honest?

French responded to this call with his most natural gift: music. French, whose mother is a music teacher, has been singing since age two and grew up surrounded by music. “So I decided that day in eighth grade that I wanted to be a Christian artist,” French recalls, “and write music for my friends who didn’t go to church, and music for the broken people in my church.”

He created a band with friends in his youth group and they toured all over the country, playing music at whatever church would have them. Today, although he is now touring with major artists like Ryan Stevenson—whom he will tour the album with later this fall—and is working with some of the most established people in the industry—Jeff Pardo is producer on the album and his management, Jason Davis with First Company Management, the company also manages the Newsboys and Ryan Stevenson—he is still responding to this call to write and play honest songs that speak to the broken.

Even when French competed on “Rising Star,” where he placed second overall, he remained true to that God encounter he had in eighth grade: “Everybody on the show was like, ‘Oh, you should do mainstream. You should do pop. You should do country.’ But the day I auditioned for the show, I walked in and told them that I was a Christian artist, and this is what I believe.”

French’s vocals could make it in any genre, but his passion is for writing music that meets people in their brokenness and introduces them to the freedom of Christ.

French’s first single on the album, “Freedom Hymn,” was inspired by some of the most broken yet joyful people French has ever known. He wrote the soulful anthem after spending time on staff at a church in Delray Beach, Florida, the recovery capital of the world. French says that 80 percent of the church was in active recovery. “They were the most broken people I had ever met, but they were the freest people I had ever met,” he says.

As someone who grew up singing hymns in the church, French says he knew he wanted to write his own hymn one day, and, he says, “what better place to write it than probably the most addicted community in the world, this recovery community? You have to admit you need a savior to actually find saving.”

The song’s rings of a hope that’s for anybody, no matter how broken: This is the sound of chains breaking / This is the beat of a heart changing / This is a song of a soul forgiven / This is my freedom hymn.

When French initially set out to write this record, it was not as self-revelatory. He wanted to focus on the good moments in life, not the hard ones. But three years ago, when his dad was in an accident, everything changed. His dad miraculously recovered but spent six months in a coma. The traumatic event refocused French’s life as well as the music he was writing. 

As he explains, “I was just desperate for God…. It really changed the course of my record. What do I want my record to sound like? What are the songs that I want to write? Yes, God is a God of victory, but he is also a God that comforts us in our sorrows.”

Several songs on the album reflect this type of God, the one who is present in our darkest moments. “Why God?”, a contemplative and piano-driven track, asks the question we all do in the face of suffering: Why?

French doesn’t answer this old-as-time question with a Band-Aid or a bow. His lyrics are honest: I don’t understand / But I understand / Why, God, I need you / It’s why, God, I run to your arms / Over and over again.”

One of the many Bible Verses that has influenced French is John 5:19-23.  In this text, Jesus explains; “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.  For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. And greater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.  For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will.  For the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.”

French explains on his Instagram page; “In a world full of chaos and uncertainty there’s a God, our God, who knows exactly what He’s doing.  I have to believe that Jesus is doing greater things than just healing us.  He is rescuing us from ourselves and the grip of death.  There is Hope.  There is Truth.  There is True Love.  Look to Jesus.”

 

 

 

Trey Flowers – One of Eleven

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Sketch of Trey Flowers by Jack Kurzenknabe

One out of eleven.

Each individual on the football field is one out of eleven players representing his team.

New England Patriot’s defensive lineman, Trey Flowers, had a long time to get used to that ratio.  Growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, young Trey was one of eleven siblings.

In a family that large, you have to pitch in.  Trey’s father, Robert, owns Flowers Construction Company.  By the time he was 10-years old, Trey was already constructing walls, hanging shingles, and helping build houses.  Robert explained to Mark Daniels; “I’m a contractor. I worked hard. I wanted them to work, too.  Trey worked as hard as I did. When he was 12-years-old, he was worth $25 an hour to me. He could put on as much shingles or do as much construction work as any grown man.”

Trey learned as a young man the value of quiet, honest, hard work.  He has carried that blue-collar work ethic all the way to the NFL.  Flowers explains; “We grew up on a construction site.  It was just something about coming home, you’ve been gone from 6 in the morning to 8 at night coming home to a good meal, take a shower, go to sleep and do it all the next day. It was something that was instilled into us at a young age.”

Flowers worked hard; on the job site and on the football field.  His work was rewarded with a scholarship to the University of Arkansas.  The staff had discovered him through a YouTube highlight video and scouted him at a basketball game.  He was not, however, heavily recruited.  When he went to Arkansas, he found himself quickly buried on the bench.

That didn’t discourage Flowers.  Instead, he did what he did best; worked hard.  In time, his hard work payed off.  He became a starter and eventually got drafted by the New England Patriots in the 4th Round of the 2015 NFL Draft.

Reaching the NFL hasn’t changed Trey Flowers.  He’s still known for being quiet, humble, and working hard.  Defensive Coordinator, Brian Flores, gave him a nickname; “The Quiet Storm.”

Patriot’s defensive back Jason McCourty told the Boston Globe that the nickname “makes a lot of sense. I remember when I first got here, Trey always had his headphones on and I’m like… ‘he doesn’t talk at all.’ And then when you kind of get to know him a little more, you see he does talk, and laughs and jokes a lot.  He represents what we want to be as a defense, a guy that does more with his play than with his mouth and a tough guy that whatever is asked of him — setting the edge against the run game or getting pressure on the quarterback — he’s able to be versatile.”

Flowers adds; “I didn’t know about the nickname, but I do feel as though it’s one of those things that it does fit my personality.  I don’t say much, just put my head down. Anytime I am saying something, it’s obviously something that needs to be said. I guess people appreciate the words a little bit more than saying, ‘Nah, he’s just talking.’ I think it’s just describes who I am.”

One of the reasons Flowers doesn’t brag or boast about his success is because he knows he didn’t make it here alone.  He knows that his success comes from God.  He explained to Rob Maadi on the Faith on the Field Show; “You go through life and you have different experiences and you just understand that nobody but God could have put you in that situation, So, you just know that and know that, no matter what you do, no matter how good you are, you’re not at this level without Him, so you’ve got to always stay humble and stay grounded and understand to give Him all the glory.”

A man who was one of eleven siblings, one of his favorite Bible Verses also has a one and an eleven; Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Flowers explains; “So, you know, that’s just the definition of faith which is you know the thing you’ve got to have just in life generally, and definitely out here on the football field; You gotta understand that a lot of things probably don’t look to good or your situation might not look to good but you’ve got to continue to keep the faith and continue to work hard, so that’s a big Scripture in my life.”

Brandin “the Archer” Cooks

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Brandin Cooks back in his New Orleans Saints days.   Photo by Keith Allison

The Archer.

It sounds the latest movie the ever-expanding universe of Super Hero movies.

But to football fans, the archer is someone else; Rams Wide Receiver Brandin Cooks.

Cooks was drafted in the 1st Round of the 2014 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints.  He played in 10 games his rookie season, starting in 7 of them, racking up 550 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns.  He’s been a staple in the league ever since, starring for the Saints, the New England Patriots, and now the Los Angeles Rams.

Cooks is a man of faith, known around the league for his character.  He’s never been in the spotlight for any controversial reasons.

That all changed in 2016.

After scoring touchdowns, Cooks has a go-to celebration.  With his left-arm push straight-forward, He pulls his right arm back, as if shooting a bow from an arrow.

During the 2016 season, Redskins Defensive Back Josh Norman celebrated in a similar fashion.  He was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct and fined $10,000 for performing what the league deemed to be, a symbol of violence.  The NFL then banned players from ‘shooting a bow from an arrow’ in future celebrations.

The ban wouldn’t stop him.

Cooks explained to NOLA.com; “Well, there are different forms of doing it. You just can’t shoot [the arrow].  I’m still going to pull it out. Whatever happens after that happens. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize my team, but I’ll figure something out.”

For Cooks, the bow and arrow symbolism are not a symbol of violence.  If not a symbol of violence, then, what it is a symbol of?

One of Brandin Cooks favorite Bible passages is found in Genesis 15-21.  God had promised Abraham that he and his wife Sarah would have a baby boy – even though they were both quite old at this point.  Beginning to doubt God’s promise, Abraham and Sarah agreed that he should have a child by Sarah’s servant, a woman named Hagar.  After agreeing, Hagar soon gave birth to a son, whom they named Ishmael.  In time, God fulfilled His promise, and Sarah gave birth to a son named Isaac.  As you can imagine, there was great tension between Sarah and Hagar – as well as rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac.  After one specific blowup, Sarah asked Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their house and out of the community.  Abraham obliged.  When all hope seemed lost for Hagar and her son, God appeared to her, promising that He would protect and provide for them both.  He also promised that, out of Ishmael, a great nation would arise.  Ishmael cared for his mother and became a great archer in the process.

That story stuck with Cooks.  So did another verse; Psalm 144:6; Send forth lightning and scatter your enemy, and shoot your arrows and rout them.

Cooks recalls. “I just remember it sticking with me for such a long time, I remember thinking, maybe I can do something with this.”  The symbolism matters so much to Cooks that he calls himself “The Archer” and had a gold pendant custom-made in the offseason to wear on a gold chain around his neck.  For Cooks, the bow and arrow is equivalent to pointing to the heavens or dropping to a knee after he crosses the goal line.

“It’s one of those things that keeps me honed in and keeps me humble through the success and the gifts that I’ve been given,” Cooks said. “I think it’s a pretty cool way to give God the glory in a different way, and for other people to see it and buy in.”

The next time you see Cooks score a touchdown or make a great play and you see him draw his arm back as if shooting an arrow, remember God’s promises.  He promises to protect us from our enemies, as he said in Psalm 144 and He promises to watch over us, as He did with Ishmael the archer.

Faith Brockers – the Woman Behind the Lineman

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Los Angeles Rams Defensive Tackle Michael Brockers.  Photo by Keith Allison

Though there are many variations of the phrase, you have often heard it said; “Behind every successful man is a strong woman.”  Whether it was a mother, a wife, or another caring, supportive woman, this phrase rings true to many.  Los Angeles Rams defensive lineman, Michael Brokers, is no exception.

Brockers is a 7-year NFL veteran, having spent each of them with the Rams (initially in St. Louis).  He’s a team leader on the defense and man whom many of the younger players look up to.  Rookie John Franklin Myers shared his thoughts regarding Brockers to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times; “Usually, after meetings, he has two pages of notes of what he needs to do better for that day.  That’s a guy you look up to – how can you be like him.”  Fellow rookie, Sebastian Joseph-Day added; “Every time I ask him for some advice, he’s always been open and always getting extra work with me.  They’ve got me playing multiple positions, and he’s helped me develop.”

Coach Sean McVey calls Brockers “one of the more underrated players” in the NFL, noting not only his strength but also his presence.  He says of Brockers; “Anybody that knows Michael knows he’s got a great personality where you can’t help but kind of be in a good mood when you’re around him.  He’s got that contagious enthusiasm in a positive way that rubs off on his teammates. … He knows the influence that he has.”

When asked about his dedication to helping young players succeed, Brockers responded with the humility that he demonstrates on so many occasions; “Just trying to help those guys get up to speed, because that’s what I feel it should be about – giving back and helping somebody else grow their game.”

Brockers is an exciting player, a leader in the locker room; a man of devoted faith and excellent character.  In so many ways, Michael Brockers is a successful man.

Behind him is a strong woman; his wife, Faith.

Faith is a devoted mother of two, a blogger, the host of a podcast on woman’s issues, and a dedicated woman of faith.  Her father was a Baptist minister, who taught her – and her brothers Isaiah and Jeremiah, about the Lord.  Her father, however, died when she was 13, leaving her struggling with her faith.  It wasn’t until her first year of marriage that she began to take her walk with the Lord seriously again.

Even after recommitting herself to the Lord, however, she still had her struggles.  She writes;

“I always knew I wanted to start a family, however upon attempting to do so my dreams were soon crushed. The day after my wedding, I soon started to prepare to be a mother. However, a year and a half in, my husband and I were shocked with the news that one fallopian tube was blocked and the other being partially blocked (meaning it would be extremely difficult to have children). Though I was devastated by the news we still needed answers so we sought out a fertility doctor whom recommended IVF. During this emotionally and physically draining process I prayed to God to bless my womb and pondered on the scripture about Sarah in 1 Samuel 1:27, also I was reading Psalms 113:9 daily. It gave me such peace and trust in my Lord that all my prayers would be answered. Sure enough, three months later we conceived our daughter through in vitro fertilization. My husband and I were so thankful to God for trusting us with this precious gift, August 2015 we welcomed our baby girl. Just seven months after the birth of our daughter we found out we had naturally conceived our second child. I have to admit at first I was extremely nervous because it was an unplanned pregnancy. I now realize that nothing is unplanned with God, & now I take pride in carrying my baby boy. When man said it was unlikely, God said other wise. Oh the blessings my God has given to me — I am so very thankful and am joyful that He is a merciful God who loves me so much.”

Faith calls Psalm 139:14 her favorite Bible verse; I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; wonderful are your works, and my soul knows it very well.  She explains;

This scripture resonates deep, because though it took me my whole childhood I now know that I am made in His likeness and that I am fearfully and wonderfully made. I am a black woman of a darker skin tone and my whole childhood I was mocked and teased for it to where I too believed I was not beautiful because I was “too dark.” Today I revert back to this scripture often when I need reassurance, peace or to thank God for bringing me so far in life through my many storms. His works are indeed wonderful and marvelous. I thank Him for not only healing all my emotional scars but also sending me a Godly man who loves me with all of my flaws. Additionally he lives by the Bible as a priest over our household and loves his family just as Christ loved the church. My God is truly an amazing God!” 

As we watch the Los Angeles Rams take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII, we see a great deal of successful men on the field.  We give thanks to God for the many faithful women who helped them get there!

 

Jackie Slater – Los Angeles Legend

Super Bowl Series: Many of you will undoubtedly attend Super Bowl parties this year, watching the big game with friends and family members.  As February 3rd approaches, A Lamp unto My Cleats will feature players from the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots each day.  My hope is that you will read these stories and prepare to share them with others as you watch the game together.  Use this unique opportunity to share the story of the faith and the good news of Jesus Christ as you watch the game together.

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Each year, as the calendar turns from January to February, Football fans all across America anticipate the Super Bowl.  Fans across the country pick a side – a team to root for – and hope to cheer that team on toward victory.  As we prepare for Super Bowl LIII, fans choose between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams.

I wonder who Jackie Slater will root for.

On one hand, Slater is a Los Angeles Rams legend.

On the other hand, Jackie’s son, Matthew Slater, plays for the New England Patriots.  (More on him next week).

Jackie Ray Slater was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. He attended Jim Hill and Wingfield High Schools where he competed in football, track, and basketball. Jackie was the first in his family to attend a desegregated High School.  He recalls; “It was a different time in the South. A lot of young people back there now take it for granted that they’ll go to school here, or go to school there, do this or do that. It makes me feel real good to see the positive change that has taken place.”

Slater received a scholarship to play football at nearby Jackson State.  At that time, Jackson State’s running back was none other than Walter Payton! In a Paul Zimmerman article entitled Last Stand, featured in the July 10, 1995 edition of Sports Illustrated, Payton told the story;

“I was coming off my freshman year at Jackson State.  All they were talking about was this big tackle here in town, in Jackson, at Wingfield High–6’4-1/2″, 285 pounds, agile, great basketball player. They sent me to his house to pay a visit. He only lived five minutes away from the college.  Of course a lot of my interest was selfish. Nothing better than recruiting another good offensive lineman. He was not at all cocky, always seeking information, kind of amazed at everything that happened. And dedicated. You could tell that right away.”

After a successful collegiate career, Slater was selected in the 3rd Round of the 1976 draft by the Los Angeles Rams.  Slater says that, as a rookie, his overall objective was to “to become the best offensive tackle in the history of the game.” But his more immediate goal, he confessed, “was just to make the team.”

He achieved far more, however, than simply making the team.  He went on to play 20 seasons with the Rams, which, at the time of his retirement was NFL record for the most seasons with one team.  He also played 259 regular-season games for the Rams which was also the most ever by an offensive lineman. He blocked for 24 different quarterbacks and 37 different running backs – 7 of which rushed achieved 1,000 yards seasons behind him (Lawrence McCutcheon, Wendell Tyler, Eric Dickerson, Charles White, Greg Bell, Cleveland Gary, and Jerome Bettis).   He was elected to the Pro Bowl on 7 occasions and named the Lineman of the Year by USA today three times.  He played in 18 Playoff games, 5 NFC Championship games, and 1 Super Bowl – Super Bowl XIV in 1980 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  His success made him an easy choice as a 1st ballot Hall of Famer.  Walter Payton summed up his evaluation of Jackie Slater by saying, “Of all the people I played with or against, he’d be one of the first three I’d pick if I were starting a team.”

Jackie Slater enjoyed a long and successful career.  Playing until he was 41 years old made him the butt of many jokes.  Quarterback Jim Everett once said; “Jackie Slater is proof that they were playing football in the prehistoric days.  I’ve seen the calluses on his feet where he used to have to stop his car like Fred Flintstone.”

Playing for 20 years also put him in a leadership position in which many young players looked up to him.  Slater says; “I’ve been blessed with a mind and an attitude that I feel you just have to have to compete with guys who are ten years or twelve years your junior. I’ve also been blessed with an excellent support group in my family, and good coaching, and good guys on either side of me.”  Throughout his career, he was admired for being deeply religious, humble, and a hard-worker.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Slater didn’t sometimes struggle.  As a man who played with great passion, one of his greatest challenges was his temper.  In the Book “Men of Integrity,: A Daily Guide to the Bible and Prayer,” Slater provides a devotion based on Proverbs 14:29: A patient man has great understanding, but a quick-tempered man displays folly.  He explains;

“Even though I had become a Christian while in college, I still had a terrible temper.  I was ready to fight anytime, anywhere.  Until the Lord let me seem myself as others saw me.  I was out on the practice field going through one-on-one drive-block drills with the rest of the Los Angeles Rams, when I noticed a problem developing between two players.  A young guard was blasting a long-time veteran so hard he was driving him right off the board.  After this happened several times, the veteran got mad and started throwing punches.  Before the young hard could fight back, however, it was broken up.  I watched the young guard storm off the field and stand along the sidelines, seething with rage.  ‘That’s you, Jackie,’ the Lord seemed to say to me.  ‘That’s just the way you look when you lose your temper.’  I knew it was true.  I decided I didn’t like what I was seeing.  Right then and there, I resolved to seek the Lord’s help each and every time I felt myself beginning to lose control to my anger.  As long as I have remembered to do that, He has never let me down.”

Many of us struggle with our tempers.  While our list of accomplishments isn’t as impressive as Slater’s, we often think highly of ourselves and become frustrated when people don’t see things our way, do things our way, or simply aren’t as impressed us as we think they ought to be.  We should all commit the words of James 1:19 to our hearts and minds; “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

Slade Heathcott’s Inspiring Journey

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Slade Heathcott, playing for the Trenton Thunder.  Photo from Flickr

 

On January 14, 2019, there was a small piece of baseball news.  It wasn’t enough to push rumors of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado’s free agency off the front page.  It was barely more than a footnote.

Slade Heathcott announced his retirement from baseball.

You might have missed Heathcott’s career.  He only appeared in 17 major league baseball games, all with the New York Yankees in 2015.  It was a short, but memorable run.  In only 28 plate appearances, Heathcott put together a slash line of .400/.429/.720.  He hit 2 homeruns, collected 8 RBIs and garnered an OPS of 1.149.  Ultimately, though, he ended back in the minors, bouncing from team to team, spending time in the White Sox, Giants, and A’s organizations.

On January 14, Heathcott announced that his baseball career had come to an end and that he would now pursue a new path, aiming to become a commercial pilot.

The inspiring part of Heathcott’s story, however, are not so much the 17 games he spent with the Yankees as they are the rocky path that led him there.

Heathcott’s childhood wasn’t exactly ideal.  He grew up in Texarkana, Texas with his brother, Zane.  The two were raised by their mother, Kimberly, and their step-father, Jeff.  Jeff had his share of troubles, ultimately leading him to spend a portion of Slade’s high school years in jail.  In time, Jeff and Kimberly’s marriage began to fall apart.  Many nights ended in screaming and yelling.  Slade couldn’t take it anymore.

The tipping point came one night during Slade’s junior year of High School.  In bitter anger, Slade pulled out the family shotgun, a Remington 12-guage, and aimed it at Jeff.  He told  Gene Sapakoff at the Post and Courier (I highly recommend reading the entire piece); “I was ready to do it.  Had my finger on the trigger.  It was just a matter of where I was going to shoot him.”  Thankfully, Slade never pulled the trigger.

Early in Slade’s senior year of high school, his mother, Kimberly, moved to Alexandria, La., leaving Slade behind.  He spent the year bouncing from one friend’s house to another.  At times, he lived in his truck.  He was lonely.  He was probably scared.  Most of all, though, he was just angry.

To cope with the anger, he turned to the bottle.  Predictably, everything started falling apart.  He was arrested with DUI.  He tore up his knee playing football.  He got kicked off the baseball team for academic reasons.  But he kept on drinking.

One night, Slade went to a party, had way too much to drink, and left the party intoxicated.  Things spiraled out of control that night, ultimately leading him to having a gun pointed at his head.  He doesn’t remember many of the details, but eventually was able to piece the story together.  He told Sapakoff; “I didn’t know what happened until later.  I went up to a random house and started pounding on the door. Then I punched my arm through a kitchen window. The woman who owned the house said she just bought [a gun] from a drug dealer and was really afraid. She would have shot me but said she forgot she had unloaded the gun.”  He was able to get away.  The police found Heathcott that night a bloody, blacked out, mess.  They took him to the emergency room where he had a deep slash several inches up his right forearm.

Despite his troubled youth, Heathcott was receiving serious consideration as a first round pick in the 2009 draft.  The Yankees were doing their homework on him.  They sent their director of mental conditioning, Chad Bohling, to Texarkana or two separate occasions to interview Slade, as well as his friends and coaches.  His High School coaches believed that, deep down, he was a good kid, and they gave him a glowing endorsement.  The Yankees were concerned about the giant scar on Heathcott’s right arm.  “I told the Yankees a story about how I cut it trying to hop a barbed-wire fence,” Heathcott said. “They believed it.”  Ultimately, Bohling reported that Slade was a good kid who had made some mistakes.  The Yankees believed in this young man enough to select him with the 29th pick of the first round of the draft.

Heathcott went to Tampa to begin his minor league career.  Part of his development would include a week-long trip to the Dominican Republic.  The night prior to his planned departure, Heathcott went out drinking.  He told Sapakoff;  “Let’s just say that people in Tampa know if you’re a first-round pick and that even at 19 I could get into any bar I wanted to and not have to pay for anything.”  He blacked out.  When he woke up, he rushed to pack his belongings, but his passport fell out of his bag.  When he tried to explain himself, the truth about his alcohol addiction came to light.

The Yankees weren’t ready to give up on him.  They sent him to Alcoholics Anonymous and introduced him to Sam Marsonek, a high school coach and former professional pitcher.  “Sam started talking to me and took me to church.  At first none of it mattered. I didn’t grow up going to church so I wasn’t really paying attention.” 

In time, that all changed.  The Gospel began to touch his heart and change him from the inside out.  By the following spring, Heathcott was sober and, for the first time in his life, at peace.  He was able to pick up the pieces.  Marsonek explained to the Joel Sherman of the New York Post; “Before, he was a reckless kid starving for attention. He didn’t get it at home growing up. Once he found out what he was here for, it changed his focus from himself to trying to serve the Lord.”  Yankees scouting director, Damon Oppenheimer added; “I think he has done a lot of growing up with us, and what more can I say than this: I would trust my kids with him.”

The knee he damaged playing high school football ultimately prevented him from being able to stay healthy and greatly hindered his development.  But, through hard work and dedication, he was able to make it all the way to big leagues for that memorable 17 game stretch.

Slade’s greatest mission, however, became to share his story.

His step-father, Jeff, was one of the people who was touched by Slade’s journey.  He, too, came to hear and believe the Gospel, and turned his own life around.  Now, the two text Bible verses back and forth to one another.  Jeff told Sapakoff; “It’s been tough for me.  Finding the Lord was the best thing that happened to me, and Slade was a big part of that. It just kind of fell apart for me for two years. It was just hard.”

Slade knows that it was God who made all these changes possible.  “The way I look it now, God gives us grace.  He was there for me even when I was not there for Him.”  He added, in an interview with Chad Raines; “God is my light in a very dark world. Without Him I would be lost, I wouldn’t see how amazing life can and is each second of each day, and I would have a gap in my heart that can only be filled by our awesome creator.”

Heathcott’s favorite Bible verse is Colossians 3:23; Whatever you do work heartily as for the Lord and not for men.  Heathcott explained to Chad Raines; That right there sums up how I view and how I try to attack each second of every day. In my opinion and belief none of us are entitled to anything, we all have to earn what we want in life. I know that every second I am on Earth it is a blessing. So with saying that, when it is time for me to go home I want to know in my heart I didn’t waste one day, that every single day I became better at every facet of my life. My daily goal is to make every second as productive as I possibly can, without passing by all the small amazing things throughout the day.”

Slade Heathcott’s baseball career has come to an end.  But now, he continues a new chapter, striving to serve God in each and every moment.

Brandon Mebane – Walking by Faith

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A sketch of Brandon Mebane and Joe Pawelek sacking Brett Favre by Jack Kurzenknable

Prior to yesterday’s Division Round Playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Chargers, there was a moment of silence.  The football world paused for a moment to remember Makenna Mebane, daughter of Charger’s Defensive Tackle, Brandon Mebane.

While still in the womb, Brandon and his wife, Amena, were informed that Makenna had something called Trisomy 13, a rare chromosomal condition that can cause intellectual disabilities and physical abnormalities in addition to heart defects, brain or spinal abnormalities and weak muscle tone.  In Makenna’s case, she didn’t have a heart valve.  She was due in December, and would have heart surgery soon after.

Those plans quickly changed.

On November 12, Makenna was born early, thankfully without any complications.  However, just two weeks later, she was diagnosed with Necrotizing Entercolititis – an intestinal disease that often affects premature babies.  She had surgery to remove parts of her intestines and her heart surgery had to be put on hold.

Watching your child suffer is among the most painful challenges in the world.  At first, Mebane would fly back and forth between Los Angeles and Omaha, Nebraska, where Makenna was receiving care.  He called watching his daughter suffer “harder than anything I’d ever dealt with in my life.”  After Week 11 of the season, after prayerful consideration, and with the blessing of the Chargers, he missed 4 games this season to care for his family.

During this challenging time, Mebane and his family turned to God in prayer.  He explained at Chargers.com; “We’re just praying (a lot).  We thank everybody that’s been praying for us.  It make me pray even more, and up my relationship with God and talk to Him more throughout the day…  (This is) something that made me more aware of talking to God more, praying way more, praying not just as night with my kids, but before we drop them off at school…”  He added in an interview with USA Today Sports; “at this point, man, when you talk to God and pray, you can’t worry about the things that’s happening, you just got to have faith.”  During an interview with USA TODAY Sports, Mebane took out his phone, opened an app for Bible scripture and scrolled down until he found what he was looking for;  2 Corinthians 5:7; “For we live by faith, not by sight.”  Said Mebane: “That’s my all-time favorite.”

On January 3, Makenna was called to glory.

After losing his daughter, Mebane didn’t lose his faith.  He explained to ESPN; “I’m still thankful and I thank God every day.  I still pray.  We’re taking it one day at a time.”

Mebane was able to suit up and play for the Chargers in their playoff games against the Ravens and the Patriots, albeit with a heavy heart.

Mebane’s story reminds us of King David, who also lost a child in 2 Samuel 12.  After losing his child, David faithfully proclaimed that he believed that he would one day be reunited with his son.  He declared that now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”  Brandon and Amena Mebane can rest assured that they, too, will one day go to heaven where there daughter Makenna will be waiting for them.

How blessed we are knowing that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose again on Easter Sunday, winning eternal life for all who believe.  As Jesus famously declared in John 3:16, For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”

That is God’s blessed promise to the Mebanes and to us all.  Through the tragedies, hardships, challenges, and struggles, we rest hang on to our faith and rest on God’s gracious promises, giving thanks that we, indeed, walk by faith and not by sight.

*****

On Sunday, January 13, Amena Mebane posted the following on Instagram, which was too beautiful not to share;

Missing my baby.  I would whisper to her every morning ‘every day with you is a blessing sweet Makenna.’  If you had told me I would only get to hold her for seven weeks, I would still have chosen to carry her to term, to move across the country for care, to move my family across the country, to enroll my kids in a new school, to be admitted to the hospital for weeks, to have a c-section, to pump every three hours even when she couldn’t eat, to sleep in a chair in the NICU night after night.  I would have still chosen to fight for her, because she was worth it.  Smelling her, seeing her face, holding her hand, tickling her feet, feeding her milk swabs, singing to her, listening to her cry, seeing her furrowed brow… was all worth it.  Her life mattered and despite her genetic difference, she was worth fighting for.  And although her time here was short, her impact on us was immeasurable.  her impact on us will last a lifetime.

 

 

 

Cody Parkey – a Champion in Defeat

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The name Cody Parkey is now a part of NFL history.

A week ago, Cody Parkey was anything but a household name.  Growing up fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, I remember him beginning his career in the Metallic Green and Black, and I fondly remember his Pro Bowl Season back in 2014.  After that season, though, Parkey faded into obscurity.  Prior to the 3rd game of the 2015 season, Parkey tore all 3 muscles in his groin, causing him to miss the entire season.  He was released the following fall.  From there, Parkey bounced around the league, going first to the Cleveland Browns, followed by headed to Miami to play for the Dolphins.  He finally found a new home prior to the 2018 season with the Chicago Bears, signing a 4-year contract.

The season didn’t go the way Parkey had planned.  The low point of the regular season came on November 11th in a game against the Detroit Lions.  Parkey famously – and know somehow fortuitously – hit the uprights on 4 separate kick attempts – two field goals and two extra points; none of them going through.  Following that game, however, Parkey seemed to return to form.  He connected on 10 of his 12 field goal attempts to close out the regular season.  He also opened the Post Season on January 6th against his former team, the Philadelphia Eagles, by connecting on his first 3 field goal tries.

But then, in an instant, everything changed.  In the final seconds of the game, Parkey had the opportunity to win the game.  He lined up for a 43-yard field goal.  If he was successful, the Bears would win 18-16 and advance to the next round of the playoffs.  The snap was good.  The kick felt good.  Eagles defender Treyvon Hester got a finger on the ball, but it was so slight that no one seemed to notice.  The ball drifted to the left, hit the goal post, fluttered down to the cross bar, and bounced out.  The Bears lost.  Their season ended.  Parkey hung his head in shame while being consoled by teammates.

And then in happened.

Parkey lifted his eyes to sky, and pointed upward, giving glory to God.

Parkey had failed.  His team had lost.  He will go down in infamy in the annuls of Chicago Sports History.  He will be the most hated man in the city, joining the ranks of Steve Bartman.  His future, both with the Bear and in the NFL is, at least for now, in question.  But Parkey still gave glory to God.

After most of the cameras had left the downcast Bears sideline and the jubilant Eagles as they stormed the field, they found Parkey again.  He was kneeling in between Bears punter Pat O’Donnell, Eagles offensive lineman Stefan Wisniewski, with a group of players from both teams in prayer.

His response was everything it should have been; beautiful, inspiring, puzzling.

For some, Parkey served as an inspiration.  He reminds us of what it means to keep all things in their proper perspective, to give glory to God in all circumstances, to support fellow Christians – even if they play for the other team.  Dan Andros wrote an article the following morning entitled; “Why I’m Telling My Sons to Be Like Bears Kicker Cody Parkey.

To others, Parkey’s faith made no sense.  Barstool Sports went to Social Media to mock Parkey, writing “Look, I know some people put a whole lot into their faith and it’s their whole live and blah blah blah, but you gotta tell God he’s at least sleeping on the couch tonight.  I’m not saying forget everything and rebuke him and all that, but let him know you’re upset.”  The post continued with more foul language and disregard for the 2nd Commandment.

Our basic human response when things don’t go our way to is to get angry at God; to blame Him; to want nothing to do with Him.  But Parkey took a moment of weakness and showed the strength of his character and his faith.  He reminded us that God is good, even when life doesn’t go our way.

On Parkey’s Instagram page, he has one Christian Devotion posted.  The devotion asks “What mountain is in front of you this morning?  It suggests that perhaps one’s mountain is a sickness, a troubled relationship, or a floundering business (it never suggests a missed field goal).  As we consider our obstacles, a verse in mentioned – Joel 3:10, which reads beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” 

In his moment of weakness, Parkey acted like a warrior.  He kept his head up and found a way to give glory and honor to God at a moment when many of us would have felt like hiding in the shadows.  He may not have won the game, but Parkey reminded us what a champion truly looks like.

Mike Dunn – The Long Road Home

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Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes through the Father except through Me.” – John 14:6.  Photo by Alan Levine

Sometimes the road back home is a long and arduous one.

Mike Dunn was born in Farmington, New Mexico.  He spent the first 17 years of his life there, where he attended Piedra Vista High School.  His journey away from home began in 2003 when he moved to Nevada for his senior year of high school; a move designed to get him in front of professional scouts while playing for Cimarron-Memorial High School in Las Vegas.  The moved worked!  In 2003, he was drafted by the Houston Astros in the 14th round of the draft.

He didn’t sign.

Instead, he enrolled at the College of Southern Nevada in Henderson.  In 2004, he was drafted again, this time by the New York Yankees in the 33rd round.  He was the 999th player selected.  He signed with the Yankees, making his debut in the Gulf Coast league in Florida and was promoted to the Staten Island Yankees.  In 2007, he pitched in Charleston, South Carolina and in 2008 he played minor league ball in both Tampa and Trenton, New Jersey.  In 2009, he was promoted to AAA, bringing him to Scranton, PA, and finally, in September, he made it all the way up to New York to make his major league debut for the Yankees.  After the 2010 season, Dunn was traded to the Marlins, whom he played for through the 2016 season.

Florida, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.  5 states; none of them home.  As his baseball career moved him across the country, to Dunn, the Southwest would always be home.  He told the Farmington Daily Times; “I come back all the time.  Of course, I lived there my whole life, so I had a lot of friends there.  I come back to Farmington at least two, maybe three times every off-season.”

In 2016, that would all change.  Dunn signed a 3-year deal with the Colorado Rockies, who play about 380 miles from Farmington.  Colorado is rarely the top destination for pitchers, and Coors Field is famous for inflating pitcher’s statistics, due largely to the high altitude.  For Dunn, though, Colorado was the top choice.  He explained; “It was probably the one destination spot I wanted to go, based on the team they had, but also close to home.  Once Colorado got involved, I told my agent ‘let’s really try to push this,’ and if not, we were gonna go back to the other guys.”

It was a long road, but the game of baseball finally brought Dunn back home.

In the Bible, Jesus talks about another road that leads us home.  The Greek word “odos,” means road, though it is often translated as way.  Jesus says that He is the road; the only path that one can take to make it to our heavenly home.  Jesus says in John 14:6; “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

This is one of Mike Dunn’s favorite Bible verse.  He told Rob Maadi in the book “Baseball Faith:“In one little sentence, Jesus tells you there’s no other way to heaven except through Him.  No one can boast.  No one is better than anyone else.  Everyone is made the same in God’s eyes.  Everyone is equal, no matter your race, gender, or anything.  It’s about doing what you can for the Lord while you’re here on earth.  Jesus will get you to heaven.  The road to hell is wide.  It’s an interstate, fifteen lanes wide.  The road to heaven is one way…  It’s right there in the Bible.  You can’t earn your way to heaven.  The only way is to go through Jesus.  He took the punishment for us.  We’re all sinners.  It’s our nature.  Repent, ask for forgiveness, and you will be saved.”

Jesus truly is the only way to heaven.  We can’t earn our way into eternal paradise through our good works or by being a good person.  It’s only by admitting that we are sinners and relying on the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross on our behalf that can take away our sins.  Faith in Him is the only way to heaven and the only road home.

Memorial Day and the Greatest Sacrifice

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Memorial Day is a special day.

It’s important to take some time out of our lives to give thanks to the brave men and women who have risked their lives and sacrificed so much to protect us and to ensure our freedom.  Today we especially honor and remember those who have made the greatest sacrifice of all, giving their lives for our freedom.

On Memorial Day, though, I am always reminded of an even greater sacrifice.  I’m reminded of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who sacrificed His life on the cross.  He died, not to serve one country, but to pay for the sins of the world.  He died, not for political freedom, but to free us from sin and hell.  He won the victory, not against a nation, but against death and the grave.

By sacrificing His life on the cross for us, Jesus won the free gift of eternal life for all who cry out to Him for salvation.

Today, as we remember those who died serving our country, we should also remind others of Jesus Christ, who died to give us life.

Former major leaguer (and current minor leaguer) Daniel Nava put it this way in an interview with Rob Maadi for the Faith on the Field Show:

“A lot of us athletes look towards the military men and say those are the people who sacrificed the most for us.  But then Jesus sacrificed everything for us.  And He knew He was going to die and He still chose to do it.  Those who serve our country – I mean I have the utmost respect for them – they’re willing to lay their lives down for us.  In a similar fashion, but obviously Jesus was the ultimate sacrifice.”

If you would like to read more about Nava’s story and his faith, you can read more about him in this blog’s previous post.