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100 pro athletes in new book reflect behind-the-scenes faith

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When Cleveland Browns lineman Tony Jones checked into a local hospital for routine elbow surgery, he never expected to face death. But an allergic reaction to anesthesia triggered a massive heart attack. Suddenly his monitor flat-lined.

With an injection into his heart, doctors brought him back to life. When he had recovered enough to speak, Jones, now with the Denver Broncos, talked about his frightening brush with death.

When his heart stopped, he faced total blackness. He realized if he died he was definitely headed for hell. That experience literally turned his life around.

“I sat there and thought, ‘God … I don’t care if I ever play football again,” Jones said. “I don’t care what happens to me. I just want to be able to see my son being born.”

God answered that prayer, Jones said, and restored his health and his football career.

Jones is just one of 100 athletes whose stories appear in “Heart of a Champion: Profiles in Character,” a new release from Broadman & Holman, the trade book division of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Authors Steve Riach and John Humphries look for the book to be the first in a series aimed at promoting the teaching of positive values in America’s public schools.

Their Dallas-based Heart of a Champion Foundation is preparing curriculum for students in grades three through 12 that will relate principles from the book. Among them are commitment, leadership, teamwork, discipline and overcoming adversity.

The foundation’s character education materials will be introduced in Dallas-area schools this fall then move to national distribution.

“We really take the call to be salt and light very seriously,” said Riach, executive producer of Vision Quest Communications, a sports media firm. “We do that predominantly in mainstream areas, which is why our emphasis has been on the ESPNs of the world.”

The book will benefit from the participation of network commentator Clark Kellogg, lead basketball analyst for CBS. The former Ohio State star wrote commentaries for each of the 12 chapters.

The authors felt the foundation needed a “signature” book that would spotlight people who have embraced the qualities of a champion, Humphries said.

While 98 percent of the athletes they profiled are Christians, the book differs from testimony-style collections that relate individuals’ salvation experiences.

Much of what makes a person a champion is how he or she lives outside of the spotlight, said Humphries, a deacon at Aurelia Road Baptist Church in Dallas.

So their goal was to share more behind-the-scenes stories that often escape notice amid the glamour of competition.

“Those are the stories that need to be told because those are the stories that I believe makes their faith real,” Riach said.

“Many people can’t relate to a guy who makes $25 million a year or a guy who wins an Olympic medal or [makes the] winning basket in an NBA game. But they can relate to somebody who has to walk through adversity, failure and tragedy.”

The authors, whose company has produced programming for the National Football League and ESPN, hope Heart of a Champion appeals to church members and unbelievers alike. Christians will be able to draw encouragement and hope from reading about high-profile people who have overcome various obstacles, Riach said, while non-Christians will read about the reality of Christ and God’s work in the lives of ordinary people who have been given extraordinary platforms.

While centered on character-building principles, the book doesn’t overlook faith. For example, among Humphries’ favorite stories is one about James Naismith, the inventor of basketball.

“There’s a whole spiritual element in how he was thinking of a new game, how he chose basketball and why he did it,” Humphries said. “Then the book mentions how, in the early years, the main training for basketball coaches was done by Naismith, in the context of the YMCA and the whole spiritual component. You never hear about that now.”

The book can also become an evangelistic tool by opening people’s eyes to the truth, Riach said.

“When I think of evangelism, I don’t necessarily think that people have to follow [a strict guideline to become a Christian],” he said. “Obviously they have to trust Christ as their Savior. But there are many ways the Holy Spirit can illuminate that to people.

“By reading the stories of these [athletes] and seeing how faith has been an integral part of their lives, I think the Holy Spirit can use that to open people’s eyes. He can show them this is real, this is true and this is something they need to follow.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: HEART OF A CHAMPION BOOK COVER. See BP Sports– at www.bpsports.net — for news, features and columnists reflecting “Sports with a Spiritual Attitude” each weekday.

    About the Author

  • Ken Walker