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Athlete Faces Identity Crisis at Career's End

CBN.com -To former NFL player Derwin Gray, football was much more than a game. “Football was my god. It told me who I was, how good I was, and what I was going to do,” he remembers. "Football was my ticket to the heaven called 'the American dream' to escape the hell that I was in."

For Derwin, hell was growing up in a poverty-stricken area of San Antonio, Texas. His dad left when he was a child, and his mom struggled to care for him. Early on, Derwin says he felt the sting of rejection. “’Why isn't my dad around? I don't live that far from him, you know, why isn't he coming to my games? Why do I only see him sporadically?’"

It was his grandmother that kept him focused on school and told him he could be great one day. She always encouraged me – ever since I was a little boy. She always said, ‘You're going to be somebody.’ And I remember saying, to her, ‘I'm going to do something with my life.’”

That something was football. “I learned real-quick, football gives me an identity. I'm a football player. Football gives me significance. Man, I am a good football player.”

It was his bitterness toward his dad fueled the fire to succeed. “In my mind I was like, ‘I'm going to make it without you.’ I would find myself, saying, ‘I'm going to prove you wrong. You should've stayed.’ I think really what was happening in me is I was trying to prove to him that I was worth staying for.”
 
Derwin also saw football as his ticket out. He worked tirelessly and earned a scholarship to Brigham Young University. “My main concern was this: I can go play football, I can play for a great coach, I can be on TV, and I can get a great education.” On campus, Derwin met Vicki, a track athlete. They married while still in college.

After graduating, he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in 1993. It was a dream come true. “It was exhilarating. It was vindicating. It was like, ‘We did it!’ My family may have been happier than I was, because we didn't have a lot of good news to share out of the Gray family, and this was good news.”

As his NFL career took off, Derwin admits he wasn’t a good husband. “Because I really didn't care” he says. “All I cared about was football. And so, I loved my wife, but I didn't know what love was. I didn’t know what being a husband was.”
One day, a teammate asked him if he knew Jesus. “Every day after practice he would take a shower and dry off, wrap a towel around his waist and then ask my teammates, ‘Do you know, Jesus?’ I didn't want nothing to do with him. I didn't want nothing to do with Jesus. I didn’t want anything to do with a half-naked preacher.”

At home, Vicki had come to faith in Christ, and began to pray for her husband’s salvation. “I found myself just wanting Derwin to have the same feeling, the same peace, and the same hope that I had,” she said.

As the violent collisions began to take their toll on him physically, Derwin realized that his NFL career would come to an end. “I knew one day they would tell me, ‘you can't play anymore,’ and that would just blow away this god of football that I had constructed,” Derwin realized. “Because if they took football they'd take my identity. They'd take my significance. They'd take my mission. Therefore, they'd take me.”

As the injuries mounted, Derwin needed encouragement, so he started asking his teammate about Jesus. “I saw the way he loved his wife. We would talk about spirituality and stuff. But when I started getting hurt, I started listening. And so we go through year four and it's going pretty good, we make it to the playoffs, but man, I get hurt again!” 

Derwin’s health continued to deteriorate. He realized he needed more than football. “I just had this feeling I had never felt before. It was just like the chasm of emptiness. My words don't even do justice to it. But what I knew was this: ‘man, I need to really need be loved. I need forgiveness. I need rest for my soul. I need to forgive my dad. And I recognized that I had this woman that I could not love no matter how hard I tried.” Then, he called Vicki. “I said, ‘I want to be more committed to you.’ Then before she could even say anything, these words rolled off my tongue, ‘and I want to be committed to Jesus.’ And man, when that happened, the best way I can describe it is; I knew for the first time in my life, I was loved. That when Jesus went to the cross, that that was God the Father saying, ‘Derwin, I love you.’”

Vicki noticed the change in her husband. “Once Derwin came to faith in Christ, I think some of the biggest changes that I saw were what he valued changed. I was watching Derwin's passion to be a husband and a father grow, and his passion to be a football player started to lessen.”

He went on to finish his career with the Carolina Panthers before injuries forced him to retire -- but that decision was an easy one. “At that time Jesus was my God. So, man, I was happy. I was smiling,” he remembers. “The more I studied, the more I learned, it was like, ‘I want to know Jesus more.’ The more I knew Him, the more I loved Him – and the more I loved Him and knew Him, all of a sudden, my life was being transformed.  It changed the way I interacted as a husband and as a father and even my purpose for life.”

Derwin says he also forgave his father and put away the bitterness. Since then, with two children, he and Vicki have started Transformation Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. “He defeated my past. He defeated my sin. He broke the chains in my life,” Derwin recalls. “Looking back, I see that every rejection I received would make the invitation of Christ so much better because rejection meant that somebody did not want me. But Christ's invitation says, ‘I want you.’"

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