BUDAPEST — This is a story of wasted youth and a dead-end life suddenly transformed by the power of God. It's about a troubled teen whose only dream was to someday be a mafia boss, but whom God brought to a new life in Christ and to athletic greatness.
There's an old saying that "youth is wasted on the young," and Zoltan Gera wasted his youth on drinking, gangs and drugs. But then he was radically saved, and he became the greatest soccer player in Hungary.
Even though Zoltan Gera was a gifted footballer as a young person, he was far too distracted by trouble to ever make a career in professional sports.
He used to watch first-division games as a young person and tell himself, "'Listen, you have better quality and talent than these players.' But I also said to myself, 'For you it's too late. You're finished. You'll never be a football player because you wasted your talent.'"
Gera found it hard to even play soccer on a high level, because he had lost his full lung capacity from sniffing glue.
Facing a Life of Crime
And as he spiraled deeper into trouble, his father decided that this was a life that only God could save.
"My dad tried to keep me in a good way," Gera said, "but in the end, he told me, 'Listen, I cannot help you. I take you to the church and see if God can help you or not.'"
So his father took him to church. Gera had never seen evangelical worship before and thought it was fascinating to see people so excited about God, but when his dad asked him if he wanted to go forward and be saved, he said, "No."
His dad took him to church again and asked him again, did he want to give his life to God?
"No…no" Gera told his father, "But my dad, he grabbed me and he pulled me in front of the church and yeah, I prayed with others. From that point, I was a new man."
Radically Saved but Still Damaged
Gera quit the gangs, drinking and drugs immediately and found that he had a lot of time to practice soccer, but his body was still damaged from drugs.
"They said 'You'll never be a professional footballer,' so I began to pray, 'Please God, help me get back into football. If you lift me up, I will praise your name with my football.'"
God answered his prayer, and soon, while still a teenager, he began his professional career.
God Takes Gera to Sports Greatness
As an attacking midfielder for the club Ferencvaros, Gera has been named Hungarian Player of the Year three times. He also played for professional clubs in England and won championships.
Zoltan and his wife, Timea, have two children. They met at church, but she knew about his troubled background and didn't trust him at first.
She said, "I knew Zoltan as a football player but not personally, and I knew that before he was a Christian he was a very bad guy. He was very aggressive. I wasn't sure Zoltan's life totally changed. So we started to meet and I could realize that he had changed and God saved his life."
Zoltan and Timi have been married now for 13 years and told me they're regular viewers of the 700 Club in Hungary.
Both have brought a Christian witness to a sport that desperately needs it. But perhaps more than anything, Zoltan Gera is an example for all of us that it doesn't matter how hopeless we think our lives have become, God will have the final say.
"For God nothing is impossible," Gera said. "He can change you when you're 60 or 70 or 50. It doesn't matter. My life is an example that it's never too late."