by Danielle Kinvig | Staff Writer
From homeless shelters to hospitals, Athletes in Action (AIA) delivered messages of true strength during the 2017 Grey Cup week in Ottawa.
At 6’5”, 265 pounds, Craig Roh is an imposing figure—even more so when he’s fully decked out in his helmet, shoulder pads and cleats on a BC Lions game day, ready to compete in front of thousands of screaming fans.
But on a chilly Thursday evening in Ottawa, the hard-hitting defensive end is far from the crowds and cameras. Instead, he’s crouched behind the wheelchair of a young girl named Stacy, a patient at the Roger Neilson House hospice for pediatric palliative care.
Craig helps Stacy align her fingers on the laces of a toy football. Together, they launch it four feet down the hallway, just past the other footballs thrown by Craig and several other pro athletes in attendance.
The room erupts in cheers.
Nearby, Canadian Olympic runner Jenna Martin-Evans places a tambourine on a giant drum. Wielding large sticks, three children cluster their wheelchairs around and hammer on it, creating an entirely new sound of bells and drums and laughter.
Amidst the fun, the sober realities in the room seem to be forgotten.
“We have the opportunity to step into people’s lives and make a difference… Every time we go in the name of Jesus, God shows up.”
Jack Knight, AIA chaplain
Across town at the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, DeQuin Evans roams the yard. It’s a setting all too familiar to him. Growing up in Compton, California, much of his youth was spent with street gangs and in juvenile detention. He’s left that all behind, though—these days, he’s a defensive lineman for the BC Lions.
The inmates start to file into the yard. They’re frustrated and in no mood to talk, but DeQuin and Adrian Tracy of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats start tossing around a football to get their attention.
When DeQuin shares his testimony, a dozen inmates gather to listen. DeQuin tells them about how he met Jesus and the difference that has made in his life. It’s a simple story, but the Spirit of God is at work. When DeQuin invites the inmates to know Jesus for themselves, every one of them prays to receive Him. Later on, 12 more inmates come to DeQuin to hear his story, and they too accept Christ.
Jack Knight, a former corrections officer who now serves as an AIA chaplain, looks on in amazement.
“This usually doesn’t happen,” he says. “This is a really special time for us. I know there’s a huge party in heaven today with much rejoicing.”
Am I good enough?
There’s no denying that professional athletes have an influential position and platform in society; it’s what they choose to do with it that matters. During Grey Cup week (November 20-25, 2017), an AIA team comprised of five pro athletes and six Canadian Football League (CFL) chaplains visited schools, hospitals, homeless shelters, and churches throughout Ottawa. Their sports fame gave them an instant connection with people, allowing them to share Christ. Each had his or her own unique testimony, but a common thread wove them together.
“If your identity is rooted in sport, you will never be enough,” Ron Omara, linebacker for the Ottawa Redblacks, said to students at Ottawa Christian School. “Someone will always be better. You have to constantly fight to prove yourself.”
The scrutiny that high-profile athletes face can be intense. Their worth is continually and publicly debated in the media or over a drink at the pub. They also deal with devastating injuries and the rejection of being released or traded.
“If your identity is rooted in sport, you will never be enough. Someone will always be better. You have to constantly fight to prove yourself.”
Ron Omara, linebacker for the Ottawa Redblacks
When Craig Roh was cut from the National Football League’s (NFL) Carolina Panthers in 2014, he wrestled with God about the direction of his life. God revealed to him that his pursuit of perfection made him afraid to take risks. Craig came to realize that risk is necessary, and in light of God’s unwavering love, possible.
“What people say about you doesn’t matter because you are worth so much more to God,” he said to student athletes at Ottawa University.
You don’t have to play football to experience the pain of rejection and the shame of never being enough. The intense adversity that athletes deal with allows them to speak into the fears and insecurities that everyone faces and point to Jesus.
The topic of identity is a popular theme within AIA. For over four decades, it has been a powerful way to introduce people to the gospel.
In 1974, eight CFL players were searching for a way to share their faith with their teammates and make an impact for Jesus in the entire league. They joined Campus Crusade for Christ Canada (now Power to Change) to form the ministry Athletes in Action.
With former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Bob Kraemer at the helm in 1975, they organized the first CFL vs. NFL exhibition flag football game in Edmonton. In the week prior to the match-up, the Christian athletes attended high school assemblies throughout the city, playing games with the students and sharing their faith stories.
That week 11,000 people heard the gospel and over 3,600 indicated decisions for Christ. Within months, varsity athletes were organizing AIA ministries on university campuses across Canada.
In 1978, AIA hosted the first annual Grey Cup Breakfast in Toronto. Just as they had done at the flag football game three years earlier, athletes spent the week prior sharing the gospel in the community. That tradition continues today.
“The Grey Cup Breakfast is about sharing a message of hope, courage and faith,” said Dave Klassen, National Director for Athletes in Action. “It gives football fans a chance to hear CFL players, coaches, and alumni share how faith in Jesus has impacted their lives.”
Almost 40 years have passed since that first breakfast; during that time, AIA has built a strong presence and a respected reputation within the CFL. At the 2017 Grey Cup breakfast in Ottawa, the CFL commissioner addressed the crowd, where many past and present CFL players and their families were in attendance.
Beyond the big game
On Sunday, November 26, 2017, fans flocked to TD Place Stadium and millions more watched on TV as the Toronto Argonauts defeated the Calgary Stampeders to win the CFL’s 105th Grey Cup. However, football’s impact on Ottawa that week went far beyond a single game.
As a CFL chaplain, Jack Knight approaches football with an eternal perspective. “Every time we go in the name of Jesus, God shows up,” he said. “We have the opportunity to step into people’s lives and make a difference. God is using AIA and this platform to reach athletes and the world for Jesus Christ.”
Through AIA, professional athletes like Craig Roh have been challenged and empowered to use their status to proclaim the name of Jesus. “The Grey Cup week with AIA was life-altering for me,” he said. “The gospel can bring redemptive work to so many different aspects of life and communities.”
Although AIA’s roots are in football, the ministry has expanded over the years to include basketball, hockey, soccer, volleyball, running, triathlon, and wrestling. Currently, AIA has ministries on over 25 university campuses and runs more than 150 summer sport camps, connecting with people from all walks of life, from inner-city kids at summer camps to varsity athletes at top universities. High performance AIA teams also tour internationally, leveraging their mutual love for sport to share the love of Jesus around the world.
“We encourage athletes to think critically about their identity and place within the world of sport,” said Dave Klassen. “Through the integration of faith, life and sport, we aim to see people experience true victory in their lives.”