In 1966, I was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. I went up to training camp in Santa Rosa, CA and immediately, I was hit with the fact that every single player there was really, really good. So, to make the team, I had to fight every minute, every day on the field and off.
This started pretty much minute one, when I walked into my room, where they had assigned me two veteran players for roommates. Now, this was about a year-and-a-half after I had received Christ and I was very solid as a Christian; yet I was a determined rookie, as well. So, as I put my belongings on my bed – my suitcase and a framed picture of Jesus – I got the attention of one of my new roommates. He got up, strode across the room, pointed his All-Pro finger at my picture of Christ and said, “Hey rookie! What’s this?!” He then picked it up, turned it upside down in the air and slammed it back onto the bed. I knew right away that training camp was going to be tough.
So, I reached out, politely said, “Excuse me,” and turned the picture over.
He then flipped it upside down again, and there we were – two grown men playing “Flip the Picture”.
Later that afternoon, the whole team gathered for lunch. One commonality amongst almost all NFL teams in their “Rookie Hazing Rituals” is to select a rookie at mealtime, have them stand up on their chair, place their hand over their heart and belt out their college alma mater or fight song.
So, there I was eating my meal and I starting hearing this chant rising throughout the mess hall: “We want a rookie. We want a rookie!” As fate would have it, they chose me. But, unfortunately, I didn’t know San Diego State’s fight song nor alma mater. So I prayed, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”
So, I stood tall on my chair and said in a cracked voice because I was scared to death, “I’m sorry guys, I don’t know my alma mater, but I do have a song that I’d like to sing and dedicate to someone.” And as the guys began to laugh and elbow one another, I dedicated my song to the veteran who had played “Flip the Picture” with me.
I took a deep breath, and I sang:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
For the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Him belong,
They are weak, but He is strong.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me.
The Bible tells me so.
As I sang “Jesus Loves Me” to the whole team and coaching staff, the room grew silent. None of them had ever heard anything like this. And then they began to yell and razz my “Flip the Picture” partner – “You gotta chance, buddy! You just might see the light!”
And then we went out and played football. As a rookie, I knew that I had to play harder, run faster and hit harder than the other guys or else I wouldn’t make the team. And I hit hard! My teammates seemed to have a difficult time putting together the dichotomy of me being a Christian and yet hitting people as hard as I hit them. But, as a linebacker, hitting hard was one of the things I did best and loved most.
And if you know anything about linebackers – they’re paid to meet people. And that’s what I loved to do.
So, I made the team and it was while I was a Raider that I experienced some of the most meaningful moments of my life.
Imagine, if you will, being a rookie taking the field in a brand new stadium in Oakland, CA. Decked out in silver and black with your name on the back of your jersey – you’ve made it! You’re an Oakland raider in front of your home crowd!
Yet, as I got to know my teammates who stood alongside me – despite having their athletic dreams come true, despite having more money than they knew what to do with, despite having the most exciting social lives they could ask for – many of them were disillusioned.
So, there we were, about to kick off on a nationally televised game, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around, and standing there in front of me was the All Pro Defensive Tackle who played “Flip the Picture” with me and to whom I dedicated “Jesus Loves Me”.
He said to me, right then and there, “Ray, would you pray for me? I’ve done so many things wrong lately, I can’t talk to God anymore.” Of course, I prayed for him. We talked later after the game. He was indeed humbled, yet to my knowledge, he never got to the point of surrendering his life to God’s plan.
The following year, I returned to training camp, but I didn’t have a peace in my heart that I had previously known. It was so weird because I was playing well and things seemed to be going my way. In fact, that year, my college coach, John Madden, had come up from San Diego State to be my linebacker coach. And yet, that peace wasn’t there.
So, I told the Raiders that I was going to quit playing football. I didn’t quite know what I was going to do or where I was going to go, but I was pretty sure this wasn’t where God wanted me.
So, they asked Coach Madden to sit me down and talk me out of it. Coach said to me, “Ray, you can be a Christian and work on Sundays playing football. Look at me- I’m a Christian and I coach on Sundays.”
I replied, “Coach… you’re a Christian? Tell me about it. What makes you a Christian?”
He told me some of the things that he thought made him a Christian – he believed in God, had gone to church some, etc. But I learned that he actually had never come to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. So I asked him if he’d be interested in beginning a new life as a Born Again Christian and he said, “Ray, I know what you’re saying is right, but I just don’t think that I’m ready for that.”
So, if you think about it, pray that the Gospel that was shared with Coach Madden will come to fruition and he’ll receive Christ someday if he hasn’t already.
If you’d like to learn more about what God is doing in Ray’s life today, check out his site at cadence.org
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