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Although his decision was ill-timed, Coffee decided to forgo millions of dollars and the adulation of millions of fans in order to devote himself to the common good. Coffee represents the opposite from what you see with Christianity in sports as a whole, which entails players pointing to the sky after they score a touchdown, or the taking of a knee in prayer. At worst, you see former Lions quarterback Jon Kitna attributing fast recovery from a concussion to divine intervention, or the late Reggie White saying that God told him to take a contract from the Packers, when they happened to be offering the most money.
What you rarely hear about is how some of these Christian athletes are helping the poor and less fortunate, which seemed to be the main quest of the God they’re following – Jesus Christ. In fact, those who do devote energies and resources to those efforts often don’t do so because that’s what Christ did. They do it because they see a need.
Take Alex Smith. For the last few years the non-religious quarterback sponsored foster kids by providing guidance, scholarships, money and mentors to steer them through college. Cornerback Shawntae Spencer is on a campaign to erect a YMCA in his hometown of Pittsburgh, PA.
“I just want kids to be able to have a safe place to play, where they can be themselves,” Spencer said. He was aghast on Wednesday, because he heard the city of Pittsburgh just shut down youth football because of a shooting.
“A shooting at a youth football game!” Spencer railed. When asked if there was any religion behind his effort, he said, “No, I just want kids to have a place to go after school where they don’t get in trouble.”
Running back Michael Robinson, who is deeply religious, admitted God is behind anything he does. However, his motivation for starting his Excel2Excellence program in his hometown of Richmond VA isn’t directly attributed to his religious underpinnings. Robinson found it troubling that many kids from his former high school were not even considering college. Excel2Excellence teaches kids strategies to get to college, such as note-taking, counseling, study habits and application-writing.
Some Christian athletes keep their faith alive through works. But many don’t. Robinson said some players use faith as a flimsy crutch to live a Godly existence during the season, when the media onus is upon them. Then they abandon that lifestyle in the shadows of the off-season.
“It’s tough to be young, away from home and to have a lot of money,” Robinson said as a reason why players look to faith during the season. “But then they don’t keep up with it.”
Robinson and former 49er receiver Isaac Bruce used to tell their teammates that Christianity was a year-round endeavor. “Guys would say all the right things and then go listen to 50 cent on their head phones before the game,” Robinson said. “I know that’s supposed to get them ready, but that’s not really following God’s path.”
The late Reggie White attributed to God nearly everything in his life, including choosing the Packers as his free-agent landing place, after Green Bay offered the richest contract. What’s mostly unknown is that before he died, White repudiated the shinny veneer but ultimately empty Christianity he once espoused. He said that he “prosituted” by those who wanted him to speak not because he was theologian, but because he was a football player. In the end, White became private and spiritual, preaching quietly at his own church in Tennessee, which he rebuilt after an unknown arsonist burned it to the ground.
“I used to have people tell me, ‘God has given you the ability to play football so you could tell the world about him,’ ” White said shortly before his death. “Well, he doesn’t need football to let the world know about him. When you look at the Scriptures, you’ll see that most of the prophets weren’t popular guys. I came to the realization that what God needed from me more than anything is a way of living instead of the things I was saying. Now I know I’ve got to sit down and get it right.”
White did, learning Hebrew so he could read the scriptures in their original form.
Seemingly, Glen Coffee is turning to the same deep spirituality. He plans to return to school and then he’s not sure where his devotion will lead him. But he seems extremely comfortable with his decision to walk away from riches and adulation.
Coffee explained on Comcast Sports Bay Area what it felt like to cut off the tape on his ankles for the last time. “It was like a slow motion type of thing,” he said. “It was almost like shackles falling off my feet.”