Written by Joe Hubbs. Media by Ryan St. Hill.
The world of sports is a riveting place that has captivated the eyes of audiences everywhere since the beginning of human existence. From the day a boy is born, daddy clothes him in a football jersey and subjects him to any sport contest he can find on T.V. As the boy grows up, he picks up on several societal messages which tells him “sport is life.” Unfortunately, the people we idolize playing sports on screen don’t always have the best morals. We worship prima donnas, quickly forgiving their antics off the field because they are such gifted athletes. I won’t buy it. I believe that all our worship should go to God and God alone. No, sports are not the devil, like Bobby Bucher’s mother would suggest, and we should not deter kids from playing a game they love. However, I wonder if there is a way we can bring God into sports. Every coach at Greenville College would agree that the athletic program is probably the biggest area of ministry on campus. Athletes from every state in America don’t care that Greenville is a Christian campus; they just take any opportunity they can to continue playing their sport. This is when the ministry comes in. Instead of taking Herm Edwards’ profound words that you play to win the game, our coaches here insist that you play for God. If you do truly play for God, and put your heart on the field, or court for him, that should be enough regardless of win or loss. But how can we play for God? Can sports bring us closer to God? For those of us who are Christians, how does our faith change the way we play a sport? These are some of the questions I want to look at this semester as I continue to discover the role faith plays in sports.
Cody Lopez, a senior from San Diego, California, is currently starting his third straight year at linebacker for the Panthers. Growing up in the Golden State, a young Lopez tagged along with his older brother, learning the ways of man and sport. He played travel baseball for several years before finally shedding his parents’ worry of safety hazards and pursuing football in high school. From then on, Lopez has excelled at football, and is now a feared linebacker in the UMAC, recording 7.6 tackles per game in 2012.
Lopez, like several athletes at Greenville, came here to play football and avoid a stint at a junior college. Lopez admits that the Christian aspect of the school was a little unnerving at first. “I was skeptical about what Christian football was going to be about, but I knew I loved football and that I was going to be in a successful program.” Lopez said. Lopez did not grow up in a Christian home, so the idea of football and God mixing didn’t make sense. During his freshman year Lopez grew annoyed of the faith talks Coach Walker gave to the team every Tuesday night, and quickly found himself as an outcast among several teammate believers. Over the course of the season however, the words Lopez shut out at these football meetings began to tug at his heart. “After hearing [Coach’s] talks I would think, ‘I’m not a Christian, but I believe I should do these things. I shouldn’t curse. I should help pour into others. I should not follow the crowd.” Despite his skepticism of Christianity, Lopez started to hear Coach Walker’s words as truth.
When the season ended his freshman year, the Tuesday night talks did not. When spring break rolled around, Lopez found himself in a unique situation with an opportunity to go on a mission trip to Philadelphia with the football team. Looking back Lopez sees this as the first time he noticed God working in his life. “Through that trip I developed relationships, and opened up with the players and coaches.”
Coach Jake Schenk, a previous defensive coordinator, and teammates Jordan Cernek, and Cody Hutchin, all developed relationships with Lopez, and gave him life lasting mentorship. “[Cernek] always tried to evangelize to me. I told him a lot about my life and where I come from, and the problems I had with Christianity at the time, thinking I can never change…He helped me be more understanding, instead of being so closed minded about it.”
A successful sophomore year on the field was followed by the departure of Coach Schenk and the graduation of Jordan Cernek. Lopez’s interest in finding truth did not dwindle with the loss of close friends. He took it upon himself to find a new mentor, and Coach Walker filled those shoes perfectly. “I told [Coach Walker] I wanted to become a Christian. I believe in Christ now, but I don’t know how to become a Christian.” Lopez said of his new mentor. “He helped me understand that even though I am far from being a Christian, nobody is perfect. Just have a relationship with God.”
Coach Walker taught Lopez how to pray and read the Bible to grow in faith. Every weekend the two would get together and go over chapters in the book of Acts, discussing how God’s Word affected their lives. “He taught me techniques of prayer and to put God first and surrender [myself] to Him.” Lopez said.
The following summer, Coach Walker sent an email out to the football team, informing them he was leaving Greenville. Initially Lopez battled through feelings of confusion, but he understood the reason for the change. “He was a big part of my spiritual growth.” Lopez said, admitting that the change is still hard for him today.
It is evident in the way Lopez plays football that Coach Walker’s philosophies and mentorship have not died with his exit. He plays with the same aggression and tenacity as any good football player, but his mindset on the field has changed. “God ball” is not Herm Edwards football. Do Christian athletes want to win? Yes, of course, but that is not why they play. “We don’t care what the score is. We don’t care who we’re playing. The one thing we want is the best from them, and the best from us.” Lopez said. Lopez would love it if the Panthers went on to the playoffs this fall, but in the end, the thrill of competition and relationships with his teammates are the real rewards.
I love Cody’s story, because it shows the ministry of Greenville College athletics. If Cody hadn’t loved football enough to come test his talents at the college level, he never would have found Greenville, and he may have never found God’s love. “Greenville College Football has led me to Christ, and changed me as a man.” Lopez said. “Going to Greenville and playing football was the best choice I made.” A love for sports ultimately led him to Christ, and that is something Cody Lopez will never forget.