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Player-turned-pastor reflects on the last Bama-Miami game, making Christ the center

"The vertical part of the cross reminds us to raise Christ up and glorify Him," says pastor and former football player Martin Houston. "The horizontal part points to loving others, to open up our arms like Jesus did for us."

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (BP) – Martin Houston remembers well the last time the universities of Alabama and Miami faced off on a football field. Specifically, he can relive a key moment of that Jan. 1, 1993, national championship game few others recall. It doesn’t make the highlight tape. However, it all but secured the win for the Crimson Tide.

After Alabama dominated the third quarter, heavily-favored Miami returned a punt for a touchdown to draw closer, 27-13. Back on offense but now also on their heels, the Crimson Tide faced fourth-and-inches at midfield. A turnover would have provided a significant momentum boost for the Hurricanes and their record-setting offense.

“Coach [Gene] Stallings looked right at me and said, ‘Can you get the first down?’” Houston told Baptist Press today (Sept. 3), one day before the two teams meet each other again for the first time in 28 years. “I said ‘yes,’ and he said, ‘You better.’”

He can laugh about it now, but Houston felt the pressure of the moment.

Martin Houston credits his wife Cassandra with leading him back to his faith.

The senior fullback took the handoff but immediately saw his running lane filled. He bounced a step to the right and met Miami linebacker Darrin Smith, a second-team All-American, head on a yard behind the line of scrimmage. Smith was quickly joined by linebacker Michael Barrow, another All-American and the Big East Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.

Twisting and using his 1,300-pound-leg-press quads, Houston bulled forward for the first down. Moments later, Alabama scored another touchdown to all but put the game away.

“When I hit the first guy, I thought for a split second I was going to be stopped, but then I spun off him a little bit,” he said. “I had really strong legs, so I knew I could push and get a little bit more. After that play, I realized we were going to be national champions.”

That play serves as a metaphor in Houston’s current role as senior pastor of Harvest Church in Northport, near Tuscaloosa. Like other ministers, he’s had to learn the importance of flexibility. Before the snap on that play 28 years ago there was a plan, but he had to make a quick, almost instinctive adjustment.

And yet, sometimes change requires time and happens as you look in the mirror. That was Houston a few years after the Sugar Bowl. He’d earned an invite to the Pittsburg Steelers camp, but that didn’t work out. Still living in Tuscaloosa, he had a solid marketing job but was at a crossroads.

Since his days wearing #35 for the Crimson Tide, Martin Houston has stayed busy in Tuscaloosa. In addition to pastoring Harvest Church, he sells insurance, hosts The Martin Houston Show on Tuscaloosa’s Tide 100.9 each morning and is a motivational speaker.

“I had moved past football, but not fully embraced who I was going to be after football,” he said. Houston, who had been the Fellowship of Christian Athletes president at Alabama and awarded the Charlie Compton Christian Leadership Award his senior year, was adrift and not even attending church.

His wife, Cassandra, could tell a difference. Now married for 31 years, the two began dating in their tiny Alabama hometown of Centre when she was a cashier and he bagged groceries for the Big E supermarket.

“She said she didn’t know me,” Houston recalled. “I looked in the mirror and felt God saying He didn’t know who I had become, either. I had to agree.”

So he began the road back – back into church, back to spending time with others and being shaped into the Christian he had been in college. In time he answered a call to vocational ministry and planted a church, then another one.

“I haven’t been perfect since then,” Houston said. “But I’ve committed myself to live in a way that glorifies God. I want to make Him the center of my life.”

But obstacles came. The second congregation, Catalyst Community Church, had met for 18 months before completing a building. Their first worship service was Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011.

It would be the last in that location. Three days later, a deadly tornado outbreak hit Alabama and the Southeast, killing 348 people and leveling hundreds of structures, including the one Catalyst Church had just built.

Catalyst continued to meet in another church’s building, and eventually the two congregations merged. Then, in December of 2014, Houston guest preached one Sunday at another church.

Harvest Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Tuscaloosa, had up to 1,000 members at one point. In January 2015, though, that number had fallen to 65 or so. An aging, white congregation, they asked Houston to be their pastor.

“Prior to that I told them that I just wanted to encourage them to be the church they could be,” he said. “I said they could turn things around, but it wouldn’t be easy.”

At Houston’s suggestion, he served on an interim basis for six months. Six years later he’s still there.

“It’s been a good journey,” he said. “We’ve added people. We’re more solid financially. Over the last year, even during COVID our giving increased as did the number of people joining the church. We’ve been meeting in person since August of last year, but only had our first recorded COVID transmission at the church two weeks ago. To be safe, we met remotely for a week to help protect our senior adults.

“One of the coolest things I’ve seen is that many of the people who had left the church (before his arrival) have started to come back.”

Houston has stayed busy in Tuscaloosa in other venues. In addition to being a pastor, he works full-time as senior director for Membership Growth at Alabama One, a statewide credit union. He also hosts The Martin Houston Show on Tuscaloosa’s Tide 100.9 each morning and is a motivational speaker through The Empowerment Academy, hosted on his website MartinHouston.org. Recently, he was also a candidate for mayor of Tuscaloosa, but finished second to the incumbent who was seeking a fifth term.

That’s a lot going on, but Houston is well aware of the importance of laying the proper groundwork and sticking to what matters. At one point at Alabama, he was the only Tide football player in FCA. By his senior season, though, that number had grown to as much as 70. Jay Barker, Alabama’s sophomore quarterback that national championship season, was another outspoken Christian and remains a teammate of Houston’s, in a matter of speaking, not only as a fellow believer but by having a noontime slot of his own on Tide 100.9.

“Back then we put in the work to get guys more serious about their faith. By the time Jay and those other guys were seniors, I think there were a couple hundred involved [from various campus sports],” said Houston.

Another community role placed him as a volunteer coach at Northridge High School, where his son was a standout running back. But even though he was set to continue his playing days at Mississippi College, Simeon Houston’s desire had grown for something else.

That desire was to follow his dad not onto the gridiron, but into the ministry. “If he’s going to copy me on one thing, I want it to be that,” Houston said.

A lot of divisive issues stand in the way of pastors and churches today to meet their goal, to get that one yard, Houston pointed out. Sometimes, you just have to refocus and forge ahead.

“We’ve gotten so busy and distracted that we’ve forgotten the basics. In football you can have all the talent in the world,” he said, “but if you don’t have the workers in the trenches, you’re not making a difference.

“It’s about loving God and loving people. The vertical part of the cross reminds us to raise Christ up and glorify Him. The horizontal part points to loving others, to open up our arms like Jesus did for us. That can be hard to do, but Jesus bridged the gap for lost people to connect with God the Father.

“We’re to keep the main thing the main thing, Christ as our center.”