(Photo courtesy of Florida State Athletics)
One of the funny things about God's plan is that He knows what's best for us, even better than what we think is best for ourselves.
The Bible study started to gain a following among my teammates, and players like Allan Houston were soon encouraging others in their faith. We started to attend chapel at Madison Square Garden before my games with the Knicks, and then once we saw NFL players gathering together at midfield after games, we decided to share our faith at center court after the final buzzer. God's message of redemption and forgiveness was not just working in my life, but in others as well.
“It wasn’t a traditional prayer, it was just guys saying whatever was in their heart or on their mind. It was daunting for guys to go out on a limb to say something in front of their teammates and be that transparent.” - Allan Houston from The Athlete, Greatness, Grace and The Unprecedented Life of Charlie Ward by Jon Finkel
What's so ironic to me is that if things had gone according to my plan, I would have never stepped foot on an NBA floor. You see, I always wanted to play in the NFL, and all the way up through the end of my senior year in college, that dream still seemed attainable. In fact, after winning the Heisman Award in 1993, I was viewed as the best college football player in the country. In just a few months, I thought I would be playing on Sundays.
Little did I realize that I would become the first Heisman Award winner in the Super Bowl era to go undrafted. 7 rounds. 222 picks. None of them included me.
All these years later, Jason White and I are still the only people who won the award and then watched as the draft came and went without hearing our names called.
I think what was most upsetting to me was that it wasn't for a lack of talent or work ethic that I went undrafted. It was because I was a two-sport athlete at Florida State, and I wouldn't turn my back on the basketball team by quitting to focus on football.
Instead of appreciating my loyalty to my basketball teammates, it was viewed as a lack of commitment to football. It didn't make any sense to me, especially considering I started the basketball season late so I could finish the football season with my teammates. But I had a good excuse - we were playing for a National Championship.
It was a position few people expected us to be in just a few weeks earlier. With just one game left before the ACC finale, we played an out of conference game at Notre Dame. It's rare to play an out of conference game in mid-November, especially with the No. 1 vs. No. 2 teams, but this was a big opportunity to solidify our spot as the top team in the country.
We ended up digging ourselves an early hole and lost 31-24, but not all hope was lost. Notre Dame lost the following week at home, while we responded with wins over N.C. State and #7 Florida to finish the regular season at 11-1. When it came time to select who would play undefeated Nebraska for the National Title, the Orange Bowl Committee selected us.
The game was like a metaphor for the season wrapped up into 60 minutes. Things seemed to be going our way until some late miscues put us down with less than two minutes remaining. But just like God never gives up on us, our teammates never gave up on each other. We drove down the field, one play and one penalty at a time, until we got to the 3-yard line. The hero of the game was my buddy Scott Bentley, who kicked his fourth field goal of the night to give us an 18-16 lead. Just 21 seconds later, we were National Champions.
It was the greatest moment of my sports career.
My NBA career didn't bring any championships, but it brought me two valuable lessons: humility and perseverance.
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