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Georgia coach recalls moment Bobby Bowden led him to Jesus

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–God used a player and a coach in the 1980s to bring a young man named Mark Richt to saving faith in Jesus Christ.

The player was a free safety at the University of Miami named John Peasley. The coach was none other than Bobby Bowden, whom Richt will now face as a fellow head coach in the Nokia Sugar Bowl when his Georgia Bulldogs take on Bowden’s Florida State Seminoles.

Peasley did everything he could to convince Richt, a backup quarterback, about what needed to happen spiritually in his life. They even roomed together one summer at Miami, but Richt wound up resisting the work that the Holy Spirit was doing at that time.

“I knew in my spirit that’s what I wanted and what I needed, but I backed off on it then,” Richt told BPSports, citing peer pressure and a desire to be perfect as barriers to him being justified at that time. “I didn’t really understand God’s grace. I didn’t really understand that Christ really came to save those of us who are sick.”

A few years later he was into his second season at Florida State as a graduate assistant. As he watched Coach Bowden tenderly handle the death of a player, Richt let down his last line of defense. Bowden talked quite openly in a team meeting about heaven and hell, helping it all come together for Richt. Finally he came to the realization that he needed to be made whole by Christ alone because he was a sinful man who was dead in those sins.

“Coach Bowden talked about his own faith, where he had assurance of salvation, eternal life with Christ in heaven,” Richt said.

As he kept on talking to the team, Bowden pointed to a chair where Pablo Lopez, the player who had been shot and killed, used to sit. The head coach then said to a player near the open chair, “If that was you last night, do you know where you’d spend eternity?” That question was what God used to pierce Richt’s heart.

“When he said that I was like, ‘I don’t know,'” Richt said. “I wanted that peace. So the next day I went into his office and he led me to the Lord right there.”

Bowden and his time-tested system at Florida State made room for Richt to succeed, and the offensive coordinator with success stamped all over him would end up becoming the head coach at the University of Georgia. For every victory that Richt enjoys at Georgia — and there have been plenty of wins to go around — a strength coach named Dave Van Halanger stands right by his side. The two of them spent 15 years together at Florida State, and many of their moments during these last two seasons of 8-4 in 2001 and 12-1 in 2002 have been like an extension of their days with the Seminoles.

“He’s a great friend,” Richt said. “He’s a great strength coach, No. 1, a great person, a great friend, but he happens to love the Lord, too. He’s a friend that I can talk to about anything and everything. His spiritual strengths have really helped me.”

Another help in Richt’s life has been the ministry of Prince Avenue Baptist Church. Pastor Bill Ricketts, a 29-year shepherd of the church in Athens that usually has about 1,200 people for worship, says that it is a joy to care for Richt’s soul.

“Our church family appreciates his Christian walk,” Ricketts said. “He and his wife are faithful to our church. His wife sings in both the choirs on Sunday morning, they attend Bible study, their children are in our Christian school. They’re just very supportive of our church, and he knows that we pray for him.”

What Richt has orchestrated over a mere two seasons is nothing short of amazing to veteran Georgia watchers like Ricketts. A victory in the Sugar Bowl will put these Bulldogs on a plateau that neither the national championship team of 1980 nor the Southeastern Conference championship team of 1982 reached. Neither of those clubs won 13 games.

“That is quite a feat, to win the SEC at his age (42) and in his second year of coaching,” Ricketts said. “It’s been 20 years since we won the last one, and I remember that one. I can remember when Herschel (Walker) was here, too. It’s not easy. There’s a ton of competition in the SEC.”

Richt is a successful coach who seems to be quite at ease in a 12-minute interview where football is not even discussed. His relationship with the Master means that much to him. Talking specifics does not scare him.

“Without Christ I wouldn’t have peace of knowing where I’m going to spend eternity,” Richt said. “His death and resurrection are the reason why I know where I’m going to be. Accepting His gift is the thing I’m most thankful for, but because of that sacrifice that He gave for me and for all who choose to receive it, I’ve learned that my main goal is to live a life that would please him. If you make that your priority, your No. 1 goal, it really simplifies your life.

“Before I became a Christian I was always worried about serving me, and after becoming a Christian, I began to serve others. I began to try to serve the Lord.”

Richt, and his wife, Katharyn, were members of Celebration Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., before having their membership switched to Prince Avenue Baptist, a body that has come to feel like home to them.

“The choir’s wonderful, it’s got great programs for our children and Pastor Ricketts is preaching the Word,” Richt said.

Ricketts sees an absolutely authentic churchman whenever he looks out into his large flock and happens to focus his eye on Richt.

“Coach Richt really wants to honor Christ in his life,” Ricketts said. “I think he’s very gifted. I think he’s very knowledgeable. I think he’s a leader. I also know that he has humility, and it’s not some phony-baloney thing. I think he really desires to have a walk with God, and that has so encouraged my heart. It’s made me very, very thankful to be his pastor.”

Richt also has close ties with former Southern Baptist Convention president James Merritt, a bonafide Georgia Bulldog fan. Merritt, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Snellville, Ga., has spoken at team chapels and Richt recently sent televised greetings to the pastor on the occasion of his 50th birthday.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://ww.bpnews.net. Photo title: MARK RICHT.

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  • Allen Palmeri