Carson Wentz: Strength on the Sideline

 

Carson Wentz

Eagles Quarterback, Carson Wentz.  Photo by Keith Allison

 

On February 4, 2018, millions of people had their eyes fixed on U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, as the Eagles defeated the New England Patriots 41-33 in Super Bowl LII.  As we watched Nick Foles lead the Eagles on the field, however, something amazing was also happening on the sidelines.

Carson Wentz.

Wentz is the Eagles star quarterback.  The Eagles paid a king’s ransom to trade up to the 2nd selection of the 2016 draft to select him and have been building their team around him ever since.  Wentz has done nothing but prove that he was worth it.  He’s not only been a great quarterback, but he’s also demonstrated strong character, and a selfless, team-first attitude.  He’s been quite vocal about the reason behind his attitude; his faith.  Wentz started a charity called AO1 – Audience of One.  During Week 13 of the 2017 season, the NFL sponsored a “My Cause, My Cleats” program, in which players could wear custom cleats promoting their favorite charity.  Wentz and other Eagles wore AO1 cleats, complete with the Bible Verse, Romans 5:8, which reads; but God shows His love for us in that, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Wentz spent the 2017 season, not only leading the Eagles to the playoffs, but by telling the world that he’s a Christian.  Wentz accomplished a great deal!

But he didn’t play in the Super Bowl.

In Week 14, in a game against the Rams in Los Angeles, Wentz tore his ACL.  After his injury, however, what Wentz did was perhaps more impressive than any of his on-field accomplishments thus far in his young career.  Instead of leaving his team to focus on his own rehab and recovery, Wentz stuck by his teammates on the sidelines.  He took on the role of encourager, mentor, and friend.  When the defense was on the field, he would sit by his replacement, Nick Foles’, side, helping him make in game adjustments.  He genuinely rooted for his team to succeed – even when that meant winning the Super Bowl without him.  Even in his weakness, Wentz showed the world what the heart of a Christian ought to look like.

Wentz, along with several other Eagles players, put together a devotional series for the YouVersion Bible App.  Here’s what Wentz had to say;

One of my favorite things about God is His creativity.  He’s blessed us all with different skills, different abilities, different passions, different things that we’re good at, and I think that’s so unique, and in 1 Peter 4:10 it says; “Each of you should use whatever gift you have receive to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”  And various forms is what really jumps out to me, ‘cause, you see, I’ve been gifted to play football, as a professional quarterback.  But there’s other people who have been gifted to be pastors, to be businessmen… to be teachers, dentists, nurses, you name it.  And we all have this different mission field.  We all have this different platform and potential reach with our influence, but, at the end of the day, we all have the same mission.  And what’s our mission?  In Acts 1:8, Jesus says; “but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Samaria and Judea, and to all the ends of the earth.”   So, at the end of the day, no matter what your job is, not matter where you’re at, no matter who you’re surrounded by, God has put it on your heart, and your mission is to tell the world about Him. To spread the Gospel.  To do it with love.  And that is our ultimate mission.  And it’s ultimately to do it for the Lord and to further His kingdom

Wentz had hoped his job this season would be to lead the Eagles to the Super Bowl as their starting quarterback – and to bring God glory on the field.  It turns out, his job was to serve as a supportive voice on the sideline.  He embraced this unexpected, unwanted job with the same zeal he uses on the field, and has brought God glory in his humility and his love for his teammates.

 

Carson Wentz 2

A photo of Carson Wentz, Zach Ertz, Nick Foles, and 3rd string quarterback Nate Sudfeld with Tony Dungy’s son, Justin, after the Super Bowl.  While Philadelphia celebrated, these 4 men of God found a quiet place to pray together.  Photo from Tony Dungy’s Twitter account

 

Trey Burton – James 1:22

 

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Trey Burton (#8) back in his University of Florida days.  Photo by SAM_5363

 

On a football team, you never know when the coach will call your number and need you to step up.

The Eagles have lived that reality this year.  It all started after week one, when kicker Jake Elliott was brought in for an injured Caleb Sturgis.  Than it was running back Lagarrette Blount (and, later, Jay Ajayi) stepping in for Darren Sproles.  The list kept growing.  Linebacker Joe Walker for Jordan Hicks – and then Dannell Ellerbe for Joe Walker.  Left Tackle Halapoulivaati Vaitai or Jason Peters.  Nick Foles for Carson Wentz.     For a short time there was another need for a player to step up.  In a crucial Week 14 matchup in Los Angeles against the Rams, star Tight End, Zach Ertz, was out, leaving backups Brent Celek and Trey Burton to step up.  Burton was ready.  He explained to the Increase

The biggest thing I’ve learned this year, especially in the past few weeks, is that you never know what’s going to happen, so you have to be ready at any time to step in and lead. Whether on the field, in the locker room or in team Bible study, you have to prepare as if you are the starter. On the field you never know what might happen; you have to be prepared for the worst. One of your teammates might get injured and end up out for the season. You need to be ready to give it all you have on every play. As a Christ-follower, I want to be prepared in my knowledge and trust in Him so that if anyone asks me a question about my faith, I’m ready.

God has also been teaching me to appreciate my teammates more this year, not only as they compete for our team, but as many of them work hard to build up the Kingdom of Christ. As a team needs each player — gifted specifically to execute in their position on the field — so the Church has members who are all a critical part of God’s mission, able to benefit the Church with their gifts and talents. Not one teammate is greater than the others. Everyone is needed for this mission.

We, as Christians, always need to be ready to step it up.  Whether it means stepping it up to preach the Gospel, to help someone in need, to show compassion to someone who is hurting, or to defend someone who is vulnerable.  Christians are called to be people of action.  Burton explained the following in one of his portions of the Eagles You Version devotion series;

James 1:22 says. “Be doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving yourself.”  I love this verse for many reasons.  Probably the #1 reason, though, I love this verse is because it’s counter-cultural to what we believe here in America.  A lot of times we go to church on Sunday and we listen to a great sermon or we hear our pastor preach on a topic, and that’s it.  We’re not doers, we just hear.  And so, when I started reading James, I truly fell in love with it and it kind of gave me a totally different mindset about church.  Not only should we go to church; Not only should we be listening to sermons on podcasts or YouTube or whatever it may be.  But that’s not the end of it, that’s really just the beginning.  And the same with reading the word, you know, when we’re in the Word and we’re studying Scripture – that’s not the end of it, that’s just the beginning and now it’s time to act on it.  And that’s something myself and my teammates have taken to heart this year; Not just sitting and listening and those types of things– which are great – but taking the next step and being doers of what we’ve been reading and what we’ve been studying.

We’re all called to step up as Christians.  We’re called to doers of the Word.  We’re called to rise to action and serve Him wherever and whenever we have the opportunity.

Marcus Johnson; Baptized Into Christ

 

Marcus Johnson

Marcus Johnson being baptized by Pastor Kyle Horner in the presence of some of his teammates.  Photo is from Marcus Johnson’s Instagram account.

 

The week of October 8, 2017, is one that Eagle’s receiver, Marcus Johnson, will never forget.

It was the week he went viral for a reason he never expected.

It was a week that nearly never happened.

Like many young men, Marcus Johnson grew up in the church, but gradually drifted away from it.  He explained in episode 36 of the Faith on the Field Show with Rob Maaddi;

“when I was younger, my family and I always went to church – every Sunday.  We did a little bit of Sunday School; my grandparents have always been strong in their faith; and it’s always been around me.  But as I got older and I got to high school – closer to the time that I was getting ready for College – we moved from where we originally were and We hadn’t really found a church… Then, once I got to College, I was on my own.  I wasn’t going like I should have.  And it wasn’t like we didn’t have outlets.  We had FCA at the time at the University of Texas; different churches that people were going to… I just never really took advantage of it for whatever reason…  I spent 4 years at Texas, you know, just on an up and down path, you know, my life was all over the place… I guess those 4 years I hadn’t really completely bought into all of it and I hadn’t pushed myself in my faith the way I should have.”

But even as Johnson’s life was going through a time of change and instability, God was supporting him and surrounding him with people to help him through.  He says; “I always had people in my corner the whole time.”  After college, Johnson went undrafted by the NFL.  On May 13, 2016, he signed a rookie contract to the play for the Eagles.  That’s when everything in his life began to change.

He tells Maaddi that being a part of the Eagles is

“everything you could ever ask for.  Going into the NFL, last year, my rookie year, you always hear people talk about the locker room; how dysfunctional they are; how players are selfish; how they only play for money and this and that.  And Immediately, when I got here, I had so many people who were just supportive.  [There] really wasn’t anything negative in that locker room.  From that point, I knew it was something special here…  It’s been encouraging for each and every person and, like I always say, we just hold each other accountable.  We’re not afraid to speak up about our faith.  We’re not afraid to hold each other accountable, to continue to make sure that we all stay on the right path.  And it’s such a blessing to have a group of guys you can come to about anything and just be like, ‘I want to grow in this area; I feel like I need work in this area.’  And, you know, they all have their own wisdom from their growing up and whatever course their life has taken and they can all give you good, honest advice.  They’re not going to tell you what you want to hear, they’re going to tell you what you need to hear… Since I’ve gotten to Philly, I’ve grown in my faith so much… If it wasn’t for the guys in this locker room, family, and friends really uplifting me and pushing me forward, there’s no telling where I’m at right now; if I’m moving, stagnant; if I’m growing in my faith; if I’m working in the community.”

This great moment in Marcus Johnson’s career however, ended before it really ever began.  On September 13, the Eagles cut Johnson from the team.  His faith, however, got him through it.  He explains; “It was just me never doubting what God had for me and, before I got cut and everything kind of happened the way it did, You know, I heard something powerful what somebody said, you know, what God has for you, no man can take.  And you just have to trust the process.  You have to be committed to it.  And you have to know it wholeheartedly… When I got cut, I didn’t look at it as anything but a business decision from the Philadelphia Eagles I didn’t take it personal, I just took it as motivation.  I went home, I worked out and stayed ready.”  It’s a good thing he did.  In December, the Eagles brought him back!

As he rejoined the team, he continued to grow in his faith.  Through the encouragement of players like Trey Burton, Carson Wentz, Torrey Smith, and others, as well as through local pastors and his friends and family, Johnson grew in his faith.  He began feeling called to be baptized.  He wanted a local Philadelphia Pastor, Kyle Horner, to baptize him.  As the desire to be baptized grew in his heart, the whirlwind week began.

It started on Sunday, October 8.  Johnson recorded his first NFL catch in a 34-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals.  The celebration would have to be short, as the Eagles would be flying to North Carolina to prepare for a Thursday night primetime showdown against the Panthers, in a battle of 4-1 teams.  Pastor Kyle would be travelling from Philadelphia to see the game, and Johnson wanted him to baptize him while they were all there.

Johnson says that “it’s been a true blessing.  You know, when something like that happens – not talking about the catch but being baptized, it’s something that you can’t do alone.  When you take a step like that, it’s a lot of people behind the scenes and not everybody gets to see and know that helps make something like that possible and, just leading up to it, I had been talking to Pastor Kyle about it for a while, and we were trying to get it all worked out and God had it meant to be right before the game. And Kyle flew out because he was going to watch the game, and he was like ‘Man, we can do it at the hotel if you want to, and I was like, it doesn’t matter where we have it or where we do it, I just want to go ahead and take the next step and be baptized.”  On Wednesday, October 11, 2017, Marcus Johnson was baptized into Christ, surrounded by his teammates.  The following evening, the Eagles defeated the Panthers, and began to receive a great deal of attention by the national media.

That’s when the unexpected happened.  Johnson posted a picture of the baptism on Twitter and on Instagram.  The picture went viral.  Even secular sports media outlets were covering the story.  Johnson’s baptism was featured on Fox News, CBS Sports, and 247 Sports.  That was something Johnson never expected when he posted the picture.  He tells Maaddi;

“As a football player, you kind of think something I do on the field – or something else might inspire or motivate people, and that’s how it’s been for a lot of my life. I didn’t think that me being baptized would blow up the way it did and it’s just amazing how God is using it… I’m just so thankful that something like a baptism could be so wide reaching.  I’ve had so many people reach out to me; from people who are believers who are just happy for me, from people who are like ‘you know, I’m not really a believer but I really like the growth that you’ve made and, you know, it’s inspired me and, you know, it’s really a beautiful thing when something like that happens.  It’s truly a blessing… I want to show the world and I’m glad that, like I said, the baptism went viral and a lot of people were able to see it.  And, I always pray for things like that – using my platform and influence for the better and for positivity; pointing every bit of success In His name… Just like you’ve seen in the power of this post going viral.  You know, anybody can post being baptized and it’s just another picture or another video.  But, it shows how powerful our platform is and our influence is… It’s amazing to see Him use me in that way, and I just want to continue to do that.”

Baptism isn’t the end of a Christian walk.  It’s the beginning.  Johnson’s plan now is to focus on “moving forward and just diving into the Word and learning more and being more committed in the Bible; Being more committed in community; Being more committed, in His Name…  I want to continue to uplift of the people around me.”

The Nightmare Season for Chris Maragos

 

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Chris Maragos of the Philadelphia Eagles.  Photo by Keith Allison

 

Thursday, October 12, 2017 was a great day for the Philadelphia Eagles.  They defeated the Panthers in Charlotte on a nationally televised Thursday night game, bringing their record to 5-1.  The night before the game, something even better happened!  Eagles Wide Receiver Marcus Johnson became baptized into Christ!  It was a great day for the Eagles!

But not for Chris Maragos.

Maragos is a unique football player and an inspirational human being.  In NFL terms, he’s a little guy, measuring in at only 5’10” and weighing 200 lbs.  After high school, he enrolled at Western Michigan University as a wide receiver.  He played sparingly as a freshman, reeling in 25 catches for 222 yards.  With his football career not getting off to the start he desired, he felt God leading him to transfer to a different school. 

Maragos had a great option.  He could transfer to a Division II school, Grand Valley State, where he would receive a full football scholarship, start at wide receiver, would live relatively close to his girlfriend, Serah, (who is now his wife), and, because he would be transferring to a lower level, he would get to play the very next season (NCAA rules require that a player who transfers from one Division I school to another to sit out a year).

He never attended Grand Valley State.

Instead, he felt called to enroll in a different school, the University of Wisconsin.  His friends thought he was crazy.  He says in an interview with the Increase that people were asking him; “If you can’t even make it on Western Michigan, how are you going to make it at Wisconsin?”  But that’s where he felt called, so that’s where he went.

The transition to Wisconsin wasn’t an easy one.  He received no scholarship.  He would have to sit out for a year.  For a while, he wasn’t even sure he would make the team!  They wanted him to change his position from wide receiver to safety.  But as time passed, things began to fall into place.  He made the team, earned a scholarship, became a team captain, and ultimately played well enough to sign an NFL contract with the San Francisco 49ers.  He only played in 3 games with the 49ers, but signed with the Seahawks the following year, with whom he would win the Super Bowl following the 2013 season.

The 2013 season was a dream season for Maragos.  On October 12, the 2017 season turned into a nightmare.  On what he calls a ‘fluke play,’ Maragos tore his posterior cruciate ligament, ending his season.  The injury has been a difficult one.   Maragos explained the process to The Increase;

After surgery I went from 200 pounds to 178 in a few weeks. The procedure literally zapped me of all my strength; I couldn’t eat for 10 days after. During this extremely hard time, one thing became really clear to me: just how dependent I am on the Lord. I had to completely lean into Him and trust that He would bring me through this. I felt like I had been stripped down to nothing as I learned to rely on Him for all the mundane, daily things that are easy to take for granted. I was barely able to move or eat; the simplest things suddenly became almost impossible and very time consuming…  [After] surgery, suddenly I had to trust in God for every detail and find my strength in Him for even the smallest of things. It’s been a painful process and recovery is slow, but I’ve found a new contentment in the Lord unlike anything I have experienced before.”

 “I can’t imagine going through this time without Jesus by my side. When difficult times come, all I have to rest in is the love and sovereignty of God. I’m continually asking the Lord, “How can I honor and serve You with my life? How can I draw others to You?” But during this time I’ve realized that though I can still point others toward Christ through this situation, God wants to refine me in this time. He wants me to draw closer to Him as He both challenges and encourages me. The Lord is meeting me here in the pain.”

It hasn’t been easy for Maragos.  He confesses that “these circumstances have definitely not been easy for me. My heart is heavy as I wrestle with this every day.”  What’s gotten him through it is his faith.  One of his favorite Bible verses is Hebrews 11:1: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Maragos explains; “The Christian walk is not about following something blindly. It’s about trusting in God’s Word and gaining assurance from His promises, which He makes very clear to us. This is what gives us strong faith. We can have confidence in things not seen because of the resurrection of Christ and the hope God has given us through His Word and His Spirit.  This is true. This is accurate. This is sure.”

Regardless of what happens on February 4, the 2017 season will not have a fairytale ending for Chris Maragos.  But he knows for certain that God will be there to help him through these difficult times, and that the fairytale ending he’s looking forward to most – eternal life with Christ – is a sure thing! 

Stefen Wisniewski and the Grace of God

Galatians 6-7

Old school football fans know the name “Wisniewski.”

Steve Wisniewski was an 8-time Pro Bowler, playing all 13 of his seasons with the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders.  Steve’s older brother, Leo Wisniewski, was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1982 and remained with them through their first season in Indianapolis in 1984.

Leo is a devout Christian and he brought his son, Stefen, to church every week.  He wanted his son to learn God’s Word and to have a personal relationship with Jesus.  Like many young people, however, Stefen didn’t realize how much he needed God in his life.  He explained in an interview with Beyond the Ultimate; “I grew up going to church every week, but for a long time that was all that being a Christian was for me – going to church for one hour a week…  At the time, I felt like my life was perfect: I was at the top of my class academically, I had a very successful football season, and lots of colleges were offering me full scholarships. I felt like I was invincible.”

But Leo didn’t give up.  He kept bringing his son to church, listening to Christian radio with him, and sharing the Gospel with him.  The hope was that something would stick.

Something did.

Stefen says; God planted a verse [from the Bible] in my mind when I was listening to a Christian radio station in the car with my father.  A pastor was preaching on Galatians 6:7 which says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” I remember hearing it and thinking that it made sense that our actions had consequences and that we would get what we deserved, but I never thought about what the verse meant in regards to my life.”

One summer night, that would all change.  Stefen was in a car with some friends.  He was driving too fast around a sharp turn.  He hit a guardrail, lost control, and ended up going down a hill and into someone’s back yard before finally coming to a stop about fifty yards in front of a lake.  The car was totaled, but, thankfully, no one was hurt.

Stefan recalls; “as I stood around waiting for the tow truck and police to arrive, I had a lot of time to think about what happened. The verse from Galatians immediately came to mind. I thought I could mock God by doing what I wanted, but on that night I finally reaped what I sowed. In reality I received not justice from God, but mercy, as He protected all of us in the car from injury.”

Stefen learned something beautiful on that challenging day.  “That’s one of the great things about God that I learned from the experience: God either treats us exactly how we deserve, which is called justice, or He treats us better than we deserve, which is called mercy, or He treats us so much better than we deserve that it almost defies logic, which is called grace. And grace is what God offers us for eternity because due to our sins we deserve death for eternity. But if we believe that Jesus died for our sins and receive the forgiveness that comes only from Him, we can have eternal life in heaven with Him. 

Stefen survived the accident, went on to follow in his father’s footsteps, playing football at Leo’s alma mater, Penn State.  He also followed in his uncle Steve’s footsteps, being drafted to play offensive live for the Oakland Raiders.  Stefan is now trying to do something no one in his family has done; win a Super Bowl.

But, most importantly, Stefen has followed the example his father set for him in becoming a man of God.  He says that Christ is now a part of my life every day, and my relationship with Him has given me a purpose, it has given me strength, and it has given me peace.

 

Nick Foles – the Backup Plan

 

Nick Foles

Philadelphia Eagles Quaterback, Nick Foles.  Photo by Matthew Staubmuller

 

There may not be any two better words to sum up Nick Foles’ NFL career so far than these; “Backup Plan.”

It all started with the 2012 NFL Draft. The Eagles and head coach Andy Reid went into the draft with two pressing needs; Defensive Front (linemen and linebackers) and a Quarterback. The top of the draft was loaded with quarterbacks, but the Eagles first pick wasn’t until #12. The big names went off the board before they got their chance to select one. Andrew Luck went 1st overall to the Colts. The Redskins traded up to the 2nd overall pick to select Robert Griffin III. The Dolphins selected Ryan Tannehill at pick 8. But that was fine with the Eagles front office. The guy they really wanted wasn’t expected to go in the first two rounds. So, with pick 12, the Eagles drafter future Pro Bowl defensive tackle Fletcher Cox. With their second-round picks, they drafted linebacker Mychal Kendricks and defensive end Vinny Curry. A few more quarterbacks went off the board in those two rounds. With the 22nd pick of the 1st round, the Browns selected Brandon Weeden and in the 2nd round, Brock Osweiler went to the Broncos. The man they coveted was still available.

The Eagles were set to pick their quarterback of the future with pick #76. As their 3rd round pick approached, no other quarterbacks were taken. Their plan was about to come to fruition. Then the announcement came; “With the 75th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Seattle Seahawks select Russell Wilson; quarterback – Wisconsin.” With that, their plan fell apart.

The Eagles were left scrambling. They traded pick #76 to the Houston Texans for linebacker DeMeco Ryans and the 88th pick of the draft and went back to the drawing board. When that pick finally arrived they had come up with a backup plan. University of Arizona quarterback, Nick Foles.

Foles had a stellar preseason, but 2009 starter, Michael Vick did enough to keep his job. Vick, however, didn’t play much like a starter. He threw 10 interceptions in 10 starts, and led the Eagles got to a 3-7 start. For several weeks, fans were calling for Reid to bench Vick and give Foles a shot. He didn’t listen. But then, in week 10, Vick suffered an injury. With that, backup plan Nick Foles took over. Foles put up similar numbers to Vick’s, and the Eagles limped through the remainder of the season. They ended the year with a 4-12 record, resulting in the firing of Andy Reid.

In 2013, the Eagles hired a new coach, Chip Kelly. Kelly decided to spend training camp evaluating quarterbacks, announcing that he would choose a started out of Vick, Foles, and rookie Matt Barkley. Like Andy Reid, he chose Vick, leaving Foles to once again serve as a backup.

Vick performed better under Chip Kelly. The Eagles started out 3-4 with him as a starter, but in week 7, he got injured once again. In came backup plan Foles. The Eagles lost in his first start again the Giants in week 8. But then, something amazing happened. Beginning in week 9, the offense seemed to click. Foles led the Eagles to win 7 of their last 8 games. He finished the season with a quarterback rating of 119.2. He threw 27 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. He was named to the NFL Pro Bowl team and the Eagles made the playoffs. Foles seemed to be the Eagles quarterback of the future.

But then, 2014 happened. The Eagles played well, beginning the season with a 6-2 record. But that was more despite Foles than because of him. Then, in week 8, he broke his collar bone and was placed on injured reserves. With that, Chip Kelly decided to move on. After the season, he traded Foles and a pair of draft picks to the Rams for a quarterback he’d rather have; Sam Bradford. Foles began the 2015 season as the Rams starter, but then lost his job to Case Keenum. In 2016, the Rams moved to Los Angeles, and were ready to move on from Foles as well. They drafted Jared Goff with the 1st pick of the 2016 draft and released Foles. Now out of a job, former coach Andy Reid (now with the Kansas City Chiefs) signed Foles to be the backup to Alex Smith. That was his only season in Kansas City.

It’s got to be tough being seen as nothing more than a backup plan and being continually passed over. At one point, Foles considered leaving the game of football. He says in a devotion series created by Philadelphia Eagles players for the You Version Bible App; “I wanted to retire from the NFL, and I really struggled. I couldn’t pick up a football for about eight months. I had no love for the game; it was tough.”

It was actually a Bible verse that changed his mind! The verse was 2 Corinthians 12:9; “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’”

Foles explains; “this Scripture… has really been a big verse for me these last couple of years. I’ve gone through ups and downs of the NFL. I’ve gone from being a starter, traded, benched, backup, backup, but this verse has brought so much meaning to my heart and in my life. I wanted to retire… but, I kept reading Scripture. I kept praying. I kept asking God. And so many of us ask God for signs. We ask God; ‘Hey, please just put it on the wall; I want to know.’ But that’s not how it works He’s not always going to do that. He can put something on your heart, but He’s not always going to give you a flat-out sign. And as I read this verse, looking back, He was shaping me. He was bringing me down to my knees.

I’ll never forget the moment when I decided that I had the heart to play football and I wanted to use the platform that God had given me to glorify Him with everything I have… I remember praying to Him, and at that moment when I prayed to Him I sort of felt this sense of calm. And what I felt in my heart was, ‘Nick, I’m going to be with you, you just need to make a decision…’ And at that moment, through that prayer, He said, ‘Hey, just take a step of faith. You’re either going to stop playing the game of football and you’re going to go onto a different area of your life and I’m going to be with you; I’m going to be the most important thing in your life – or you’re going to step back into football and you’re going to continue to play and I’m going to be with you every step of the way and you’re going to play to glorify me.’

And, in that moment, I decided to go back to the game of football and it was the greatest decision I ever made. I was so weak at that time, but… I wouldn’t change a thing because I grew so much through everything I went through. That’s a story I can share with friends, with loved ones – if I’m speaking at a church – or if I’m in the locker room; wherever that might be. Because everyone feels weak at some time in our lives. But we have to realize that, when we’re going through that, God is shaping our hearts, allowing us to grow, and helping us become who He created us to truly be.

In 2017, Foles signed with the team that first drafted him, the Philadelphia Eagles. Of course, he signed to be a backup; this time to another devout Christian, and soon to be close friend, Carson Wentz. On December 10, in a game against the Rams, Wentz tore his ACL, presenting Foles the opportunity to be the starter once again. He has responded by leading the Eagles all the way to the Super Bowl!

Foles has experienced high points and low ones. He’s suffered injuries. He’s been humbled. He’s lost his job and been passed by. But he has seen each struggle as an opportunity to grow. Even though no one enjoys suffering, God uses painful moments to help us grow. When we suffer, we can take Foles’ story to heart. God uses our worst moments to prepare us for best. As Paul says in Romans 5:3-5; Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Against All Odds – Torrey Smith

Josh Norman, Torrey Smith

Eagles Receiver Torrey Smith.  Photo by Keith Allison

Torrey Smith didn’t have it easy.

Smith was born on January 26, 1989 in Richmond, Virginia.  His mother, Monica, became pregnant with him when she was only 15 years old – his father was 25.  When Smith was born, he was ill with meningitis and jaundice, and weighed only 5.6 pounds.  His first 10 weeks were spent in an incubator, fighting for his life. It wasn’t easy, but tiny Baby Torrey pulled through.

Things didn’t exactly get any easier from there.  Over the next 4 years, Monica would give birth to 3 more children.  Raising 4 children before her twentieth birthday was too much to bear, and she needed help.  She turned to the man of the house; 4-yearold Torrey.  He immediately began learning how to prepare food and how to feed his siblings.  He spent his elementary school years changing diapers, doing laundry, and getting his siblings ready for school.  He saw and experienced violence and faced challenges that would be difficult for even a grown man.  But, through it all, In between school and helping raise his siblings, Smith found a place to find refuge, solace, and strength; sports.

It wasn’t easy, but Smith found a way to focus on baseball and football and to achieve great success.  Against all odds, it appeared that he would have the opportunity to attend college.  He was recruited by Division 1 schools including Virginia and Virginia Tech, but he chose Maryland, because it was the closest school to his home north of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  It didn’t take long for the coaching staff at Maryland to realized that they had struck gold.  In addition to having immense talent, Smith was an impressive human being.  Maryland’s coach at the time, Ralph Friedgen once said of Smith; “the good Lord made a perfect person right there.”  But things still weren’t easy for Smith.  During his junior year of college, his mother was incarcerated, and Smith had to help his siblings from afar.

During that difficult junior year, things in Smith’s life began to change.  He said in a video the called “The Locker Room’s Binding Force;” I went to Bible study, I went to church often growing up, but it wasn’t until I was my last year of College when I realized I was kind of living off of everyone else’s salvation.  Like, I wasn’t really finding out things on my own.  I wasn’t really diving into the word and experiencing that the way I experienced everything around me.  That’s when I realized I was living the wrong way.”

Smith’s newfound dedication to his faith gave him the strength to persevere amidst the challenges.  He had a strong season for the Terps and impressed NFL scouts.  Finally, the summer following that difficult junior year, after a season in which he caught 67 passes, Smith finally caught a break.  He was drafted in the 2nd round of the draft.  And, of all the teams to select him, he was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens – a team close to home.  He played in all 16 games of his rookie season in 2011, catching 50 passes for 841 yards and 7 touchdowns.  He helped the Ravens make it all the way to the AFC Championship game against the Patriots.  Smith showed his skill in that game, hauling in 3 receptions for 82 yards and a touchdown.  It was almost enough to carry the Ravens to the Super Bowl.  Almost.  They fell just shy, losing 23-20.  Smith was just 22 years old and his future seemed bright.  It seemed as if “happily ever after” had finally arrived for a young man who had been through so much.

It hadn’t.

In week 3 of the 2012 season, the Ravens had a dream matchup on their schedule.  They would square off at home against the New England Patriots in a Sunday Night prime time matchup.  Smith and company would have their opportunity to get revenge on the team that kept them out of the Super Bowl.

But then, tragedy struck.

The night before the game, Smith received news that his 19-yearold brother, Tevin Chris Jones, had been killed in a motorcycle accident.  In the middle of the night, Smith left Baltimore to be with his family.  While his teammates, coaches, and fans couldn’t blame him for leaving, the city of Baltimore was bracing themselves for an important game without their rising star receiver.

That day, Coach Harbaugh received a text message.  It was from Torrey Smith.  He would return for pre-game warmups and be ready to play.  Harbaugh said “If you’re around athletics, I guess you feel like it’s an escape, an opportunity to do what [Smith] does.  He’s been doing it his whole life; he knows what to do. When Torrey said he wanted to play, the decision was finished. He was going to get the opportunity to play, he deserved that.”

It couldn’t have been easy, but Smith played through the pain- and he played the game of his life.  He recorded 6 catches for 127 yards and 2 touchdowns.  It was just enough.  The Ravens won 31-30.  A few months later, the Ravens would get another matchup against the Patriots; this time in the AFC Championship.  The Ravens defeated New England for a second time that season, and would go on to win the Super Bowl.  He finally got his happy ending.

Smith knows that it was God who helped him through the difficult times in his life.  Now, he dedicates his life to helping others through difficult times and showing them that they can go to God for strength.  Smith said in “The Locker Room’s Binding Force;” I feel like it’s a part of my purpose.  If you knew all the things I’ve been through; I probably shouldn’t be sitting here in front of you.  And for me, I think it’s important that other kids know.”

Smith strives to be the one who lets them know.  He said that his purpose is to “go out and show people that He’s real.  And talk to them about it, because when I was young, you couldn’t tell me. [I was] like, ‘man, if God’s real, why is all of this happening to me?   If He loves me so much, why are we in this situation?’  That’s a real struggle for a lot of people.  And when you’re young and you’re growing in your faith, and you go to church because that’s what your mom told you to do; that’s kind of how I was living, so I can relate to them.  So, I can talk to them like, ‘hey man, this is just a storm.  This is just a trial.  It’s the first of many.  Just continue to stay steadfast;’”

In 1 Corinthians 15:58, Paul charges the people of Corinth with these words; my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord you labor is not in vain.  Remaining steadfast in the Lord is a major focus of Smith’s walk with the Lord.  He says that being steadfast “is something that’s said a billion times in the Bible, which kind of hit home with me.  That’s what I try to do.  I’m not perfect.  I’m never gonna be perfect, actually.  But it’s something I try to grow and try to share that with the youth as well, when I have that opportunity.”

God gave Torrey Smith the strength he needed to remain steadfast in times of trouble.  He promises to do the same thing for us.  We can all live in God’s promise from Isaiah 41:10; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

 

Note: I strongly recommend watching “The Locker Room’s Binding Force” in its entirety.  If you’re hosting a Super Bowl, consider showing it during your Pre-Game activities.

Brandon Graham – Life Lessons from Mom and Dad

 

Brandon Graham

Brandon Graham of the Philadelphia Eagles.  Photo by Keith Allinson

 

Young Brandon Graham was like any other kid.  Full of life.  Full of energy.  And, sometimes, he could be a handful.

His mother, Tasha Graham, recalls on a video entitled “Brandon Graham’s Story;

“We would always go to my Auntie’s house and they had a bird.  And it would always call Brandon’s name because he would always get in trouble.  ‘Brandon!  Stop Brandon!  Stop Brandon!’  It was just funny because we all knew, even if he wasn’t in trouble the bird would say it…

Brandon’s kindergarten teacher, she told me – he had good grades for the whole year – but she said, ‘you gonna have a disciple problem.’

And, you know, I didn’t know how to take that because I’m like, ‘I’m doing the best I can, and this boy’s still ain’t acting right?’

But she started it when she told me ‘you gonna have A discipline problem!  I said, ‘well, not on my watch!  Not my kid!’

He was playing too rough with the girls.  Didn’t know that a girl don’t play like a boy… But I wasn’t gonna accept it…  So, I was like, ‘I’m gonna ask his dad, what should we do?  What do we recommend?’

He was like; ‘Little League Football.’  I never knew it could turn into what it turned into.”

Graham’s father, Darrick Walton, had a great game plan on how to keep his son out of trouble.  He wanted to keep his son so busy with school and with football that he didn’t have time to get in trouble.  One play, however, nearly ruined it all.

Tasha Graham explains; “we found him a team.  He only played one game. Quit.”

Brandon himself adds; “I remember, clear as day, this dude named Marcus Green.  He wore #3, I still talk to him to this day.  We did this drill where we line up, he got the ball, I’m the defense player and I got to make the tackle and sure enough, he run me over.  I actually quit.”

His parents, though, decided that they weren’t going to let him quit, and told him that he had to finish the year.  Walton says ‘I couldn’t have him quit, so we made him play his first year out and once he got the hang of it, ‘cause he caught on real quick cause he’s an active kid.  I knew he was something special then.  That first year, I knew he was something special.’

The real reason they wouldn’t let him quit was their desire to keep their son safe.  Walton goes on to explain; “Detroit is a rough city.  It’s rough.  We all grew up in the roughest area, so you really had to be really, really close to your family.  Keep your kids, you know, out of all that stuff, ‘cause it was bad.  He went to summer camp, stayed all day at summer camp, he had football in the evenings.  When he got home, He was too tired to eat.  So, we just basically kept him busy.”

His mother adds, “so many traps out there.  A lot of guys out there are not good for these young men.  And I wasn’t going for that.  You know, I had to keep him busy instead of the streets keeping him busy.  If you stay out of trouble, which you can, it can’t get you.”

Their plan worked.  Brandon became a star at Detroit’s Crocket High School.  He went on to become an All-American at the University of Michigan and was then selected in the first round of the 2010 draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.  His mom says, looking back on it all; “Football turned into something that I really did not expect.”

Graham realizes now that it was his parent’s love for him that kept him out of trouble and paved the way for the success that he enjoys today.  Graham and his wife, Carlyne, are parents now themselves.  He sees that his purpose now it to do for others what his parents first did for him.  One of his goals in life is to help youth stay out of trouble and focus on more constructive things.  He has a charity, Team Graham 55, which focuses on providing at risk youth with the opportunity to play football.  He also visits elementary and middle schools during the offseason, spending time with the children and reading to them.

Graham explained to the Increase; “I love kids. I just want to share my life with them so that they feel comfortable with me and then maybe the door will open for me to share my faith with them.  But I don’t want to push it on them; it’s all in God’s timing. I just want to change someone else’s life the way God changed mine.  I know a lot of people are watching me.  I want to use that for His glory. My favorite verse is Jeremiah 29:11 which says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Nobody is going to care for you like God cares for you.  No matter what happens, I know God is in my corner.”

Hebrews 13:7 says; ‘Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the Word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  That’s what Graham is doing with his Team Graham 55 charity.  He’s passing on to others the blessings his parents lovingly gave to him.  God urges all of us to consider the people who have blessed us, whether those were our parents, teachers, pastors, role models, and friends.  He urges us to consider how we saw those people emulate Christ in their lives and follow their example.

Halapoulivaati Vaitai – Philippians 4:13

As the Philadelphia Eagles prepare for the Super Bowl, there is a lot of talk about backups.  Mostly, the conversation centers around Nick Foles, the backup quarterback who has been filling in admirably for starter, Carson Wentz.  Wentz, though, is far from the only Eagles starter who will be missing from the Super Bowl.  Also injured are running back Darren Sproles, middle linebacker Jordan Hicks, and special teams specialist, Chris Maragos.  But perhaps the biggest missing piece is 9-time Pro Bowl left tackle, Jason Peters.

 Filling in for Peters is Halapoulivaati Vaitai – also known as “Big V.”

Vaitai is no Jason Peters.  Peters is one of the top Linemen in the NFL, while Vaitai is just a second year pro; one who wasn’t even selected until the 5th Round of the 2016 draft.  Jason Peters knows what it’s like to enter the NFL without much of a pedigree.  He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent.  Peters continually encourages Vaitai and reminds him not to let his draft slot define him.  But, when Peters got injured in week 7 and Vaitai took his place, that’s exactly what others were doing.  Some people wanted Lane Johnson to shift from the other side of the line to play left tackle, because they didn’t trust Vaitai to protect Wentz’s blindside.  Others didn’t think to seem it mattered what Coach Doug Pederson did, assuming that replacing Peters with Vaitai spelled inevitable doom for the Eagles season.  Even the most optimistic Eagles fans seemed worried.  Vaitai sought to prove them all wrong.  He told the Philadelphia Inquirer; “I want to prove everyone wrong. I want to prove I belong, that I can hang with these guys.  I don’t want to be that guy they say, ‘He was a wasted draft pick.’”  I don’t think there’s any way you could call Vaitai a wasted pick.  He’s filled in well for the Eagles, helping them make it all the way to the Super Bowl.

 When Vaitai first became the Eagles starting left tackle, NJ.com ran a feature about him.  They claimed that his greatest strength is his strength.  That makes sense for a guy who benched 27 reps of 225 at his Pro Day.  But Vaitai has a different kind of strength as well; the strength that comes from knowing the Lord.   He told the Philadelphia Inquirer; “I’m religious. I’m playing through Him. There’s a Bible verse my mom recites: Philippians 4:13, ‘I can do all this through Jesus Christ, who strengthens me.’”

Philippians 4-13

Vaitai is a big, strong guy, and he always has been.  When Halapoulivaati and his two brothers, Kevin and William, first registered to play football at Watauga Middle School near Fort Worth Texas, his coach, Joe Ward told Penn Live that he immediately whispered to himself “our team just got a whole lot better.”  Halapoulivaati was already 6 feet tall, and his brothers, who were just 11 months younger, were nearly as large.

Their size and strength, however, never went to their heads.  Ward tells Penn Live that, even as the Vaitai brothers began to receive attention, they never displayed an ounce of cockiness with their actions. He says that Halapoulivaati rarely spoke out of turn – through really he never spoke much at all, for that matter.  Ward says “He was such a respectful kid, and he was very into his family and his faith.  The rest, everything else around him in football and all that, was secondary. He was just nice to everyone.”  Vaitai is a man a great humility.  I personally love the first words of his Instagram; “Don’t follow me.  Follow God.”

Because of the strength he has in the Lord, Vaitai lives with a sense of peace.  Even when he was a rookie, Penn Live noted that he never appeared “overly antsy or amped.”  When he first became a starter, and found himself the center of attention, his humble response was to simply smile and softly say; “I’m not used to this.  I’m not used to the cameras and stuff.  I guess I got to get used to it.”  Even now, as a starting lineman for the NFC Champs, he’s still quiet and humble.  Former Eagles lineman Matt Tobin says; “Yeah, he’s a great kid.  He just doesn’t say much.”

But there is one place where Vaitai loves to use his voice.  In church.  Vaitai and his brothers sang in their church choir, singing praises to God.  Ward insists that quiet Halapoulivaati has a singing voice that matches his 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame.  Ward say; “He probably wouldn’t tell you he’s good singer, but trust me, he can sing.”

As Ward quietly and humbly fights to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Philadelphia, he will playing for the Lord, from whom his strength comes!

The Gospel According to “G” – with Garry Cobb

A quick note: I was born in Philadelphia.  Needless to say; I have been a diehard Eagles fan for over 30 years now.  As the Eagles prepare for Super Bowl LII, “A Lamp unto My Cleats” is going to shift our focus for the next week or so.  Instead of looking at the game of baseball, we’ll talk about football; taking a look at some of the stars of the Philadelphia Eagles, their stories of faith, and their favorite Bibles.

Before we look at their players, there’s another person you’ve come to know over the years if you’ve followed the Eagles – Garry “G” Cobb.

 

Cobb

Garry Cobb met with fans and signed photos prior to and Eagles game at Lincoln Financial Field (Thanks to my Dad for having him sign this for me!)

Garry Cobb, affectionately known as “G,” was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys out of USC in the 9th Round of the 1979 draft, though he was waived prior to the start of the season.  He signed as a free agent with the Detroit Lions, and remained with them through the 1984 season.  Prior to the 1985 season, he was traded to Eagles for legendary running back Wilbert Montgomery.  While with the Eagles, he played alongside Jerome Brown, Clyde Simmons, Seth Joyner, and, the minister of defense himself, Reggie White.  Prior to the 1988 season, he signed once again with the Dallas Cowboys until knee problems ended his career in 1989.

 

After his playing career, Cobb transitioned into radio.  He became a popular sports talk show host on Sportsradio 610-WIP in 1991, where we quickly became a Philadelphia fan favorite.  He also worked as a sports anchor and reporter on CBS-3 television in Philadelphia for nearly a decade.

While many younger sports fans may not know the name ‘Garry Cobb,’ he has become a bit of a legend in Philadelphia.  He’s known for his infectious smile, his passion for life, his loving heart, and his constant desire to help people.  Those characteristics make him the perfect match for his current job.  Cobb works as an NFL Legends transition coach for NFL Player Engagement.  That means that he works with former NFL players, helping them adapt to life after the NFL.  The job, though, is really larger than that.  As Cobb explains on the NFL Player Engagement website, “You’re not just dealing with the player.  You’re dealing with his wife, his family. When a player retires or gets released, his wife and family retire or get released, too. And that’s the difficult part. That’s where problems happen.  We do whatever we can to help.  We’re not counselors, but if we think a player, or his family, needs counseling we tell them. And for the most part they’ll listen to us, because they know we played. We went through the same things…  I love what I’m doing.  I really do. I’m giving advice to guys and helping guys. That’s all I ever wanted to do.’’

Cobb is a great story-teller.  He uses his own personal experiences to help players.  He’s got the type of charisma where, when he talks, you can’t help but want to listen.  But there’s another topic that Cobb loves to speak about; his faith.

Cobb grew up in a Christian home, where his father served as an influential example of what it means to live for God.  He told Rob Maaddi on the “Faith on the Field show;”Well, really, I came up in a family… We were in church every week.  And as a youngster, I got saved when I was about 7 years old.  I remember going up because they were preaching that fire and brim stone and I was going like, ‘I know one thing, I don’t want to go to hell!’  So I went up and receive the Lord.  Growing up, my mom and my dad, they lived the kind of life where they loved the Lord…  The big thing about my dad is, 1st of all he lived what he preached in front of us, meaning, like, I never heard my dad curse… It was always God first… I’ve never really seen him look lustfully at another woman…  I think about my mom and my dad’s relationship; it was like they were together, and you never even thought about them not being together – there was never even a discussion or anything – and so that gave me that foundation.”

Just because he was raised in a good Christians home, doesn’t mean that young Garry Cobb didn’t struggle with his faith.  He explains; “But really, though, I had one foot in and one foot out, you know?  I wanted to be the man at the same time, you know; out, be cool, have ladies, and be successful and everything, and that’s really what my mind was.  But when I went to college, see, I met a young lady who is now my wife and everything.  But, you know, she got pregnant when we were out there and, really, I had some decisions to make. And really, what happened from that time, I really got serious about my relationship with the Lord because I really knew I needed to because I wasn’t ready to be a dad.  I was not ready to be a husband.  I wasn’t ready to live the kind of life I saw my father did in front of us and everything.  So I knew I got to get serious about it.  So, thankfully, I found a good church. I started finding out that God cares about us…  He’s got a purpose for our lives…  We can put all of our trust in His Word and know that He will help us…  And So, I’m able to really be the kind of person and grow and be the father that God wants me to be.”

While Cobb is growing as a man of God, he also knows that he’s still far from perfect.  He says; “at the same time, I know that there are times when I have to look in that mirror and say, ‘you have to straighten up there, young fellow’ and ‘we got to take this to another level…’  He will walk with you and He will take His time with you.  I mean His patience – it’s just ridiculous how good His patience is and how long it is.”

Growing into a personal relationship with Christ has changed Cobb’s life.  He says of being a Christian; “it’s just a fascinating life.  It’s the only way to live, it’s really real living, living with the Lord, because we can love people and we can care about them and we can share and we can break down a lot of walls and It’s just a fascinating life.”

Garry Cobb learned how to be a man of God by watching his father.  Now, he dedicates his life to showing others how to live and helping them make the most of their lives.  Peter told young Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:11 to set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.  That’s God’s charge to us as well.  We’re called to look at the life of Jesus – the way He loved, the way He lived, and the way He sacrificed Himself for us – and strive to give thanks for what He’s done for us by living as much like Him as we can.  None of that earns us a place in heaven – Jesus already did that by dying on the cross for us.  Instead, we strive to honor God and the sacrifice that Jesus made for us in the how we live, all with the hope that others will come to know Him through us.

 

I strongly recommend listening to the entire interview with Cobb and listening regularly to Rob Maaddi’s Faith on the Field show.