Inspiring Athletes

Inspiring Athletes

Minnesota Twins outfielder Denard Span on faith, community and the life of Christ

posted by Chad Bonham

TUESDAY CONVERSATION: Denard Span

Denard Span is one of baseball’s rising stars. In his fourth Major League season, he anchors Minnesota’s defense in center field and has made some flashy defensive plays to back it up. Span is also one of just 29 players in MLB history to hit three triples in a single game.

In my interview with Span, he shares how his family influenced his beliefs, why there needs to be a baseball renaissance in the black community and how he hopes to model his life after Jesus:

Bonham: Tell me about your spiritual upbringing.

Span: I was pretty much born into the church. I was fortunate to have two parents that were saved and kept me in church. My mom was saved at a young age. So that’s been my life. That’s all I’ve known as far back as I can remember. I didn’t start to get serious about my own salvation until I became a teenager. That’s when I started to understand that I’ve got to do it for myself. I had to accept God and live it out myself—not through my parents, not through anyone else’s prayers.

Bonham: What got you interested in playing baseball?

Denard Span (Photo by Robert Rogers/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Span: I was five years old when I started playing. There’s a handful of African Americans in the league right now—not a whole lot. So I think it’s important that we promote the game to the younger generation. When I was growing up, I remember that my friends and I all played baseball. But as we got older, a lot of them put baseball on the back burner. They wanted to play basketball and football. I was pretty much the only one who stuck with baseball. What got me excited about playing baseball was back in the 80s and 90s when there were a lot more African Americans playing the game. That was back when the Mets were really good and you had guys like Darryl Strawberry. The younger guys understand why there aren’t more of us playing now and we just need to reach out into the community and show our faces more and speak out and show that there’s an opportunity to play Major League Baseball.

Bonham: How has your faith impacted your career?

Span: There are so many ups and downs in just playing the game every day. It’s so easy to lose confidence and lose faith in your ability. You can get down on yourself so quickly. But then you’re calling God a liar. He wants us to trust Him in everything. Sometimes we struggle in this game. It’s a humbling game. But by not trusting in Him, we’re pretty much calling Him a liar. Then that leads to other temptations that come with being an athlete.

Bonham: What inspires you about the life of Christ?

Span: He had such humility. Nothing deterred Him from what He believed in what He stood for. A lot of times, its hard to do that. It’s not easy being a Christian. In the world, you’re outnumbered and it might be easy to get talked out of what you stand for. But then you realize what Christ stood for and that’s what you want to strive for. Everyone’s going to fall short in some ways, but He’s the role model that I can look to and say that who I want to be like. I want to be like Him.

Bonham: How does your faith come out in the way you interact with those around you?

Span: I never like to push anything on anybody. But if they ask, I always try to relate what I’ve gone through and tell them about the downfalls. I make sure to tell them how much God has helped me, and that without Him I wouldn’t be where I am today.

Join me tomorrow for a talk with Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Aaron Kampman who will share about his recent trip to El Salvador.

The Inspirational Sports Report: Allgaier coasts to victory, Bayne makes impressive comeback, Pujols blasts back-to-back gamewinners, Miller focuses on the family, Christian schools impact college baseball and WNBA team reaches out in Joplin

posted by Chad Bonham

The college sports season is winding down along with the NBA and NHL championships while Major League Baseball, NASCAR and professional golf seems to just be getting started. Here are some highlights from last week’s action:

Allgaier outlasts Nationwide field on fumes

NASCAR Nationwide Series rising star Justin Allgaier got his second career win Saturday night at the STP 200 in Chicago. It was especially meaningful for Allgaier who is racing for his new team at Turner Motorsports and even more so because the track is about 150 miles from his hometown in Riverton, Ill. Allgaier picked up the win when race leader Carl Edwards ran out of gas with less than a lap left in the race. Allgaier ran out of gas too but was able to coast to the victory.

Watch the final lap highlights below:

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Allgaier is one of several young men in NASCAR that have relied on their faith to get them through the extreme highs and lows of the sport. Here’s a preview of an interview with Allgaier that I’ll be posting later this week: “Every day in life there are challenges; whether you’re an accountant, a race car driver or whatever you do,” he told me. “Obviously in this sport, there are more challenges than maybe others but I’ve just had to put my faith in God. This is the person I am and I’m not going to shy away from it. I don’t think I’ve changed as a person from early in my career when I was able to be in church every Sunday morning to now.”

Bayne finishes third in first race back from illness

Fellow Nationwide “young gun” Trevor Bayne also had a big impact at the race in Chicago. The Daytona 500 winner was making his first start in the Roush Fenway #16 Ford since being struck by a mystery illness caused by an insect bite several weeks ago. Bayne, age 20, started in 31st place but consistently charged forward to a third-place finish. Bayne has been an inspiration during his time away from the track. Always upbeat and positive, he once Tweeted to fans during the ordeal, “God has something cool going on that we can’t yet see.”

Pujols’ wins two in a row with the walk-off

Also last Saturday, Albert Pujols was at it again. Despite an uncharacteristically slow start, the former MVP and perennial All-Star Cardinals first baseman has been heating up of late. He showed everyone what they’d been waiting for in a 12-inning game against the rival Chicago Cubs. Pujols hit two home runs in the game including a walk-off solo shot that gave St. Louis the 5-4 victory. The Cubs were snake bitten again the next day in a 3-2 loss when Pujols provided a game-winning blast. Pujols now has 10 career walk-off home runs. That’s tied for second among active players with David Ortiz. Only Jim Thome (12) has more.

For highlights of Saturday’s game including Pujols’ game-winning home run, click here.

Miller focuses on family during NBA Finals

Heading into the week, Miami held a 2-1 lead over Dallas in the NBA Finals, but don’t be surprised if Heat guard Mike Miller is a little bit distracted. During the Eastern Conference finals, his wife Jennifer gave birth to the couple’s third child, a daughter named Jaelyn. It’s been a struggle ever sine. Jaelyn was born with four holes in her heart and was kept at the hospital until May 31st. While not completely out of the woods, the Millers, who previously donated roughly a million dollars to a children’s hospital in South Dakota, are thankful for the progress made so far.

If you missed Miller and his wife’s story during halftime of Sunday night’s game, you can watch the inspiring video here.

Small Christian schools make big impact on college baseball

As the NCAA baseball regionals wrapped up Sunday night, there were three small Christian schools putting their collective stamp in a sports arena dominated by major conference programs. Oral Roberts, having already eliminated Oklahoma, defeated Dallas Baptist 6-2 and forced a regional final tonight at 8 p.m., ET. The winner will advance to the College World Series Super Regional. Belmont, on the other hand, went much farther than expected before falling to #1 seed Vanderbilt in its regional final.

WNBA’s Tulsa Shock reaches out to tornado victims in Joplin, Mo.

Tulsa, Okla., is just over 100 miles and 90-minute drive from Joplin, Mo. Perhaps that’s why so many from Northeastern Oklahoma are among the throngs visiting the city that was devastated by tornadoes two weeks ago. Among the volunteers were members of the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock who took a bus up 1-44 and spent the day helping where they could.

Former track star Marion Jones and second-year player with the Shock was so moved that she sent out this message via Twitter: “Words cannot describe the total destruction that we witnessed today in Joplin but the one thing that was so evident from our trip was how God was at every turn. He is so mighty and powerful and the community is so overwhelmingly thankful to have their lives. I was so overwhelmed and honored to be part of this team today.”

To view a photo gallery of the team’s experience, click here.

Come back tomorrow for a conversation with Twins outfielder Denard Span. Later this week, be looking for interviews with Aaron Kampman, Andy Pettitte and Justin Allgaier.

NASCAR legend and Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip on racing ministry, Dale Earnhardt and the unique faith community within stock car racing

posted by Chad Bonham

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THROWBACK THURSDAY: Darrell Waltrip

Darrell Waltrip is not just one of NASCAR’s living legends. He’s a cultural icon. Over a 29-year career, the patriarchal figure won three Cup championships, 84 Cup races (including 1989 Daytona 500) and 13 Busch (now Nationwide) Series races. These days, he’s equally famous for his work on Fox Sports and the Speed Channel as a race analyst and the creator of such recognizable phrases as “Boogity, boogity boogity! Let’s go racing boys!”

Did I mention his role as announcer Darrell Cartrip in the Pixar classic Cars (and its forthcoming sequel Cars 2)? If he wasn’t a household name before, that surely puts him over the top. Still, Waltrip would much rather be known for some other things: His life as a devoted husband, father and follower of Christ.

I had a chance to sit down with Waltrip in his motor coach at last October’s race in Kansas and here’s what he had to say about the next generation of Christian drivers, the story behind Motor Racing Outreach and his unique relationship with the late Dale Earnhardt:

Bonham: What are your thoughts on some of the young drivers who are becoming more vocal about their Christian faith?

Darrell Waltrip with Trevor Bayne at the 2011 Night of Champions event in Phoenix (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for Phoenix International Raceway)

Waltrip: At some point, we’ve all realized there’s a lot more in life than just winning races. I hear that a lot. As I was becoming successful, I’d listen to other athletes and they’d say, “Well I had it all, but there was something missing.” There’s always that, “There’s something missing.” It’s that void you have in your life when you don’t know the Lord. You’re real selfish and everything is focused on you and how you feel until you realize there is something missing and that’s your relationship with Jesus Christ. It takes time. But I hear some of these young drivers like the Allgaier kid, Justin. He’s a strong believer. Michael McDowell is another strong believer. It’s the same thing with the two Childress grandkids, Austin and Ty (Dillon). When Austin won the race at Vegas and got out of the car and said he wanted to thank the Lord. That’s exciting to me because these are young men. I didn’t think about that until I was pretty far down the road in my career. I didn’t think about giving the Lord any glory at all. It’s exciting to me when I hear young men in this sport that give the Lord the credit for their success.

Bonham: What do you know about the historic and longstanding connection between NASCAR and the faith movement?

Waltrip: My wife (Stevie) and I decided we were going to start a Friday night Bible study along with Lake Speed and his wife Rice (pronounced Ree-suh) and Bobby Hillin and his wife Kim. We started praying that the Lord would bring us someone that would be an ordained minister that was credible and someone that would be a good representative of a ministry. Lo and behold in our praying, the Lord brought us Max Helton. Max was out in California. In 1987 he came to a race at Riverside. Stevie was in the car reading a book and he came over and pecked on the window and asked if he could visit with her and he told her that the Lord had called him to move back East and start a racing ministry. We were blown away because this is what we’d been praying. That’s how we met Max. Eventually he moved to North Carolina. He had a church out in California. He had a wife and children. It was a big leap of faith for him. But that’s always what he’d wanted to do and what he felt like he was called to do. He moved back and helped all of us start Motor Racing Outreach.

Darrell Waltrip in Victory Lane with Junior Johnson at the first NASCAR All-Star race in 1985 (Photo by RacingOne/Getty Images)

That was the beginning of what we have today. Everybody loved Max. He was a great guy, a great teacher. He walked up and down the coach lot and he’d knock on the door, come in and sit down and ask for some ice cream or he’d ask what was going on or if he could pray with you. He created what he called a hangout ministry. At the track you just hang out. His vision was that when you’re at the track, you just hang out with the guys, and when you have the opportunity you give a profession of faith or talk about the Lord. He really is responsible for the ministry that we have today. Then the six of us created a board and raised funds. I went to NASCAR and introduced him to Dick Beatty and Les Richter and Bill France and those guys and told them, “This is the guy we want to represent us as a chaplain.” They said, “As long as the drivers want you here, we want you here.” That was the beginning of Motor Racing Outreach.

Bonham: From a ministry standpoint, isn’t NASCAR a completely different environment than most other sports?

Waltrip: I think overall, one of the mistakes that has been made with this sport is when you try to make it like all the others. It’s never been that way. It’s unique in a lot of different ways. It’s 43 teams on the field at one time. The ministry is the same way. This is a Southern sport. It’s a Southeastern sport. That’s where it grew from. That’s the Bible belt. Most drivers have always had their wives and their kids and everybody at the track with them. So it’s a different environment. This has usually been a core group of guys that are pretty stable in their lifestyles. They’re family men. The opportunity to worship and to have a ministry has been a whole lot easier in this environment than it would be in any other professional sport I can think of. Plus every guy here for the most part, even guys that aren’t strong believers, they still like to know that there’s a chaplain on duty. There are people around that can help you, pray with you and witness to you. If something happens and you’re in the hospital, it’s good to see somebody that knows the Lord standing beside you. It’s a little bit different environment than you’ll find in any other sport and I think that’s why the ministry has been so successful over all these years.

Bonham: And this isn’t by any means a sanitized environment either, is it?

Waltrip: There’s nothing pretentious about this crowd. Not at all. What you see is what you get. Guys that are strong believers, they still smoke and drink and like to have a good time. But if you look at what MRO has been able to do, our presence here every week with the community center, the Bible club for the kids, I mean it is truly like having a church at the track. And all of us miss going to church. I can remember when I first started driving. Stevie has always been a strong believer and she hated it because we were always at the track on Sunday and away from our home church. That was another motive for us to create an environment with MRO to where it would be like your home church so that on Sunday when the drivers meeting is over, we have chapel service and we sing, we pray, it at least had that feel of going to church. You didn’t feel like a total non-believer because you didn’t even try. The Bible club and everything we’ve done with the kids over the years, there have been kids who have gone back to their motor coaches after the race or on their way home and led their moms and dads to Christ because of what they learned in Bible club. Kids would really put their moms and dads on the spot.

Bonham: As other sports have gotten away from public expressions of faith and now even high schools have shied away from things like pre-game prayer, do you ever worry that the political correctness of our society is ever going to catch up to NASCAR?

Darrell Waltrip speaks to the media at an event leading up to the 2010 opening of the NASCAR Hall of Fame (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Waltrip: One of the things about MRO is that we’re very low-key. We’re not out here beating on doors, toting our Bibles around. We’re very low-key. We’re very laid back. We’re here and everybody knows we’re here, and if you need us, that’s what we’re here for. But we’re not out promoting. Our chaplains go through the garage and most of the drivers know the chaplains and they know who is with MRO and who isn’t. If they need something, then they will ask. We let them know about our Sunday service. We let them know about any Bible studies. Certainly everybody knows about the family community center. We try to blend in. We’re not here to make a “look at us” statement. We never have been. That’s never been who we are because we do understand and we do appreciate the fact that we’re able to mingle in the garage and do what we do without a lot of problems.

Bonham: And what about more public things like the pre-race prayer? Will that eventually become a problem for NASCAR?

Waltrip: I don’t know why it would be unless somebody just wanted to create a problem. Most people just realize that’s who we are. This is who we are. That’s what I like about our sport and our leadership. If you don’t like it, don’t come. This is what we do. This is the way we race. This is the way we officiate. This is the way the sport is run. This is who we are and if you want to be a part of it, we’re glad to have you and we want to have you. But whether its drivers, owners, crew chiefs or crew members, don’t try to come in here trying to change us.

Bonham: So ultimately is the reason for NASCAR strong commitment to the faith community simply because of the sports roots?

Waltrip: Yeah. Definitely. Definitely. It’s a tradition. These are the things we’ve always done. We’ve done them 60 odd years now. It’s worked just fine up to now and it no reason it shouldn’t continue another 60 years.

Bonham: Where else would you be able to see a guy like Morgan Shepherd do his thing with the Jesus car?

Waltrip: Yeah. He’s 69 years old and still out there trying to make a living.

Bonham: And again, where else could you see such a strong public expression of faith in the sports world?

Waltrip: Well, you’ve got Tim Tebow and what he did in college football. There are places where people seem to accept it and say it’s okay and there are other places where people are saying, “What’s the deal here? What’s going on?” This is a dangerous sport. If you’re going to have a relationship and walk pretty close to the Lord, this is a pretty good sport to do it in. Up until the last few years, you could get killed doing this. I’ve had a lot of people tell me, “I’m just not ready to give it up. I’m not ready to do that yet. I’ll (accept Christ) when the time comes.” I always think of a couple of examples and Dale Earnhardt is one of them. Do you think in a blink of an eye he had time to say, “Lord, forgive me?” At 180 miles an hour, he wasn’t thinking about that. I think everybody in this business knows that you need to keep your house in order because you never know who’s going to knock on the door.

Bonham: Larry McReynolds told me a story about your wife putting a scripture in your car for every race and how Dale Earnhardt started asking for her to give him a scripture too. What was the scripture she gave him the day he died?

Waltrip: It was Proverbs 18:10. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower and a rock. The righteous will run to it and be safe.”

Bonham: And he had really come to expect a scripture every week.

Waltrip: Oh yes. He insisted on it. He’d get out of his car and go looking for Stevie if he didn’t have it.

Bonham: Was that a surprise to you?

(L-R) Teresa Earnhardt, Ron Hornaday Jr., Jack Ingram, Darrell Waltrip, Lesa France Kennedy, Brian France, Richard Petty and Junior Johnson put in their hard cards to officially open the NASCAR Hall of Fame on May 11, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR Hall of Fame)

Waltrip: It probably would surprise a lot of people, but there was a side to Dale that he kept to himself. He didn’t want anybody to think he was a softie. He was “The Intimidator.” There was a side to him that he didn’t let a lot of people see. My wife and he had a great relationship. She prayed with Dale. Dale and I prayed together a lot. We were competitors and we competed against each other as hard as anybody could compete, but we still had a great deal of respect for each other.

Bonham: You guys got after it pretty good.

Waltrip: Oh yeah. We had our moments.

Bonham: People probably thought you hated each other.

Waltrip: I always like to say we were “frienemies.” We were friends part of the time, and enemies part of the time. When we were friends, we were really good friends. When we were enemies, we were good enemies.

Bonham: Is the danger of the sport the other X-factor as to why drivers are so dialed in to the need for faith in their lives?

Waltrip: Yeah. The last few years they’ve made the cars so much safer. The tracks are safer. Guys are getting’ shaken up now and then. But up until 2001 when Dale got killed, you could get killed in one of those things and we all knew that. Every time you got in that car, there was no guarantee you were going to get back out. It hasn’t been like that so much lately. That still doesn’t mean guys don’t feel like they need to have a profession of faith. I’m just saying there’s a bigger comfort zone in driving these things than there has been in the past. Getting hurt is part of it, but the other part is performance, being on the right team, keeping your job, keeping the people around you happy. There’s a lot of pressure, and that pressure sometimes will get to you if you’re not careful.

Bonham: So why then do these guys ultimately show up for chapel every Sunday?

Waltrip: For the most part, I think its encouragement. If your down and you’re struggling, you need to hear those words of encouragement. If things are going well, you want to be sure that you’re doing what you should be doing biblically. That’s one thing that makes this community strong. It’s how we do encourage each other and how we do lift each other up and how if there’s tragedy, everybody rallies around each other. Spiritually, that really helps us all bond closer together.

Come back tomorrow for the Friday Feature with St. Louis Cardinals MVP and All-Star first baseman Albert Pujols.

Hot Topic Tuesday: Should Christian athletes care about winning?

posted by Chad Bonham

For years, Christian athletes (especially those at the professional level) have been plagued by the notion that their faith inherently makes them “soft” or perhaps less interested in winning than their non-religious teammates.

I’ve talked to many professional athletes about this idea and the responses have been fairly uniform. I’ll share some of those thoughts in the near future (as well as comments from Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Jeremy Affeldt and others) in my personal response to the question, but for the next few days, I want to hear from you.

Please post your thoughts on this question: Should Christian athletes care about winning?

Looking forward to seeing what everyone has to see. — cb

Join us tomorrow when we’ll hear from legendary LPGA golfer Betsy King and how her foundation “Golf Fore Africa” is making a significant impact.

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