When I was a boy, my super-athletic brother was my hero. As a grade-schooler, I would bring in news clippings of him and share them during show and tell, bragging, “This is my big brother!” So, it was only natural that I set out to be as good of an athlete as he was.
By the time that I got into high school, I walked onto the school campus for the first time and one of the football coaches approached me and asked, “Ray, do you think that you’ll ever be as good as your brother was?” Up til then, that was a question that I had never been asked before. Then, during the first week of school, I raised my hand to ask a question and the teacher actually called me by my brother’s name instead of my own. I remember sitting there, with all my friends around me, realizing for the first time that I was living in the shadow of another person.
So, sports became the vehicle that I used to climb my way out of that shadow. By the time I was a senior in high school, I captained a championship football team, I was All-League Honorable Mention, and recruited to play football for several colleges.
Eventually, I earned a scholarship to play at San Diego State. While there, I had the opportunity to learn from three of the greatest coaches to ever walk a sideline: Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs and John Madden.
At San Diego State, I was a typical college student athlete: I went to all the parties, joined a fraternity, and strove for little else than having a good time a playing football.
One night, I received a call from a stranger. He said that he had gotten my name from some people at the school and he’d like to meet me for lunch. He was offering to buy, and I had very little money, so I took him up on his offer.
It was there that I heard a statement that I had never considered before. He said, “Ray, either Jesus Christ is the Son of God or He’s a fake and phony.” He then went on to ask me if I was a Christian or even knew much about God. Well, since childhood, I had attended church with my family – standing up, sitting down, and praying at all the appropriate times – but in all reality, my prayer life consisted of a quick prayer before each game. “Lord, help us win. Let them get hurt and not us. Amen.” Very self-centered, to say the least.
Yet still, I was convinced that I belonged to God. After all, I attended church, I prayed, and I even read my Bible every now and then. But, then he directed me to John 1:12-13, which says:
But as many as have received Jesus Christ, to them God gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
That was my first realization that I truly wasn’t yet a Christian.
Well, the two of us continued to meet regularly for several months. He taught me about what it meant to be a Christ-follower, but he never mentioned church or a list of “do’s and don’ts”.
He simply said that Jesus was the key. I had to make my mind up: who is Jesus Christ and what part would He play in my life?
And so, one night, right before a football game, Coach Coryell said, “OK, guys, take a few minutes and get yourselves focused for tonight’s game!” I then went off into a separate part of the locker room and said a simple prayer.
I said, “Jesus, for the first time in my life, I think I really know who you are; and I want to admit, I’ve blown it – I’ve sinned and fallen short. I’ve done a lot of things to impress other people and I know they’re not the right things to do. And I thank You that that’s why You came – so that You could give me forgiveness for the things that were wrong in my life and I accept You as my personal Savior. So Lord, I do that. I open the door right now and I ask You to come into my life and be my personal Savior and Lord.”
And with that, I got up, joined the team, and went out on the field. That night, we were playing for the number one ranking in the nation. And we lost.
Not only did we lose, but we lost 7-0 and their winning touchdown was blamed on me.
Now, you can imagine a guy who has been trying to outperform his brother all his life, trying to do everything to the utmost level on the playing field every play of every game – to have the team’s national number one ranking in the balance – and we lost it all because I did something wrong.
However, walking off the field that night, there was something different about me. I had become aware of the reality that my value was not tied to my performance. I knew that God loved me and had a plan for my life. And even though I was a part of losing a huge game (film would later prove that there were more blown coverages other than my own), I wasn’t down on myself or beating up on myself.
I once shared this story with a friend who told me that what happened then happens to too few people and they end up missing Heaven by a mere twelve inches. You see, they can have all the head knowledge in the world about who Jesus is and what Christianity is, but if that truth doesn’t make it the twelve inches from their head to their heart, and they don’t make Jesus their Savior and Lord, they miss Heaven.
So, that was the beginning of my Christian life. That night, having received Christ, walking off the field and realizing that something was different about me that I had never experienced before.
To learn more about Ray’s story and how God is using him today, check out Cadence.org