As we approach this year’s Super Bowl, former NFL footballer-turned pastor, Derwin L Gray, shares his remarkable story of how he came to faith
Derwin L Gray is a former NFL football player who, along with his wife Vicki, founded Transformation Church – a multicultural, multigenerational, mission-shaped church in South Carolina. He is also the author of ‘How to Heal our Racial Divide’. Derwin recorded four episodes of Unapologetic with Justin Brierley, where they spoke about numerous things including what the Bible says about racial reconciliation, building multi-ethnic churches and how he became a Christian. The testimony below is an adaptation of an excerpt taken from their first episode. To watch or listen to the entire show, click here.
I’m one of those guys that is a very unlikely NFL player. So, the first football team I tried out for when I was about 9 or 10, I was so bad, I didn’t make the team. And usually every kid makes the team! Moving into my junior and senior year of high school, I really learned what work ethic was, what discipline was. And this incredible thing called testosterone began to kick in and I began to grow!
For me, football was not just a game, football was my life. The family I came from, we had a God awareness but we didn’t go to services together or anything. I love my family, but it was incredibly dysfunctional. And so I knew from an early age I wanted to get out of there. Going to college, I wasn’t going to do it on my grades, I wasn’t going to do it on money. The only way I was going to do it was through a football scholarship. And so I worked really hard.
I ended up getting a football scholarship to Brigham Young University, which is a school that’s led by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Mormon Church. As an unbeliever, I didn’t care about theology. I cared about getting an education, and how I could play football and maybe one day have a chance at the National Football League.
So I went to BYU, met this girl named Vicki. I was 18, she was 19 and we’ve been together ever since. My BYU career was like a fairy tale. There are banners of me hanging in the stadium there, like I had a legendary career! I ended up getting drafted. And for me getting drafted to the NFL was like my heaven, because I knew that if I made money, I could help my family, I could show them a better way I could help them get off substance abuse.
But it didn’t help any of that, it actually made it worse. So, about three years into it, I found myself as a team captain, I was incredibly successful, I had the beautiful wife, I had everything. But I also had unforgiveness towards my dad. I also had unforgiveness towards myself. I lived in incredible fear because I knew one day the NFL would end.
The NFL actually stands for “Not For Long”. So, even if you have a 10-year career, you’re still in your 30s. What do you do the rest of your life? And my whole identity was built on being a football player. And when your life is built on a house of sand, that sand’s going to collapse.
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The naked preacher
I had a team mate, his name was Steve Grant, but his nickname was ‘The Naked Preacher’, because every day after practice, he would take a shower, dry off, wrap a towel around his waist, and ask my teammates: “Do you know Jesus?” And in my mind, I was like: “Do you know you’re half naked, bro?” I mean, it was the strangest thing to me. So I asked the veterans on the team: “What’s up with the half-naked black man walking around asking: ‘Do you know Jesus?’ and they said: ‘Don’t pay any attention to him. That’s the naked preacher!’”
One day in the locker room after practice, I saw him coming and I turned away to avoid him. And he said: “Rookie D Gray, do you know Jesus?” And that began a five-year relationship in which the house of cards I built my life on began to collapse. And this good news began to overwhelm me.
The game of life
On August 2nd 1997, it was my fifth year in the NFL, we were in a training camp at a college in Indiana and after lunchtime, I went to my dorm room. And the best way I can describe it was that I had this Grand Canyon size void in my soul. It was like an existential crisis, a moral crisis. But underneath it all, it was a spiritual crisis. My soul was longing to meet its maker. So I, got to my dorm room – this is back in the day where phones were still on the wall – and I called my wife and I said: “Sweetheart, I want to be more committed to you and I want to be committed to Jesus.”
And I was born again at that moment. The only way I could describe it is that it was like love just attacked me. Love overwhelmed me. Grace subdued me. My whole life was built upon how big you are, how fast you are, how good you are. In order to get drafted by an NFL team, they have to look at your playing, they have to look at your film and say: “OK, we think he’s good enough, we’ll draft him.” Well, Jesus looked at my game film, and it said: “Sinner.” And it said: “Totally depraved.” There was nothing I could do for him.
It overwhelmed me that Jesus played the game of life for me, that Jesus sacrificially took my place, that Jesus rose again, not just to forgive me, but to give me his life. And I just cried for three nights. I didn’t even know I was crying. And I just kept saying: “How could you love someone like me? How could you love someone like me?” And now I know, God could love someone like me because people like me is all he has to love.
I have been infected with grace and the symptoms have just got better ever since! I am wildly in love with Jesus, because there’s no one more beautiful, there’s no one more loving and kind. And he was good to me when I didn’t even know what good was.