A.J. Steward (Photo: The Shriver)
Believe is the theme and motto of the Kansas University Football team this year. Believe is a powerful tool that will motivate a team to win, that last year had a 3-9 record and this year has a real tough schedule. I believe they will win plenty of games this year and maybe even the Big 12. To believe means to believe in the team and to hold yourself accountable as a team and as an individual and to be a better player so that the team will be successful.
One of the players has really lived this word out in his personal life and on the field. I had the opportunity to visit with A.J. Steward, Senior Tight End from St Louis, MO on Tuesday night. We spent about 45 minutes visiting not just about the upcoming season but more importantly his spiritual journey and spiritual walk. I really enjoyed our visit Tuesday night and just got a glimpse of the young man. I want to share his story with all who read this and both A.J. and I hope this will encourage you in your spiritual walk with Christ. First of all, A.J. is a young man who I want my son to grow to be like and would love for A.J to mentor him. After getting off the phone with him, I watched the Kansas Training camp part 2 video on KUsports.com and I saw A.J. in action, not just as a football player but as a leader, as a friend, as a funny guy and as someone who is very passionate about Christ.
A.J. grew up in St Louis,MO and while growing up he had to choose to cheer for the Missouri Tigers of the Fighting Illinois, and he chose Missouri until like A.J. said, he came to his senses. This is A.J.’s last year at Kansas as he is a Physical Education Major and will be student teaching next semester. A.J. told me that he doesn’t really have a favorite class; they are all just the same since this is his last semester taking classes. He told me he has always wanted the opportunity to make it to the NFL but will be fine if he never makes it. He has other aspirations in life that are more important to him than being the next NFL star. He works hard every practice but more importantly works hard being a disciple of Jesus. He would like to teach and coach football or basketball at the High School Level. I was very impressed when he said one of his aspirations in life was to mentor younger guys in urban communities to show them there are opportunities out there and the sky is the limit.
A.J. also said after coaching and teaching he would like to be like Shaq and do different things like getting into sports broadcasting or becoming a sports chaplain. His main aspiration is to be the best disciple he can be for Christ. Before every game he spends time in prayer alone asking God to look over him during the game. A.J. after every practice leads the team in prayer to thank God for the practice and for what they accomplished that day. Around 95% of the team prays before every game. That is very impressive to me that this football team knows how to start their game out right. Former players did this in the past and they passed the baton over to A.J. to assume this role on the team. He inspires the team by being voted the funniest player on the team. He wants to make everyone laugh and hates seeing people down. So he spends time making the team laugh, cracking up jokes, running into camera guys, and just being himself. One of the big reasons he wants to put a smile on his team’s face is to get the guys to be loose and not so tight.
Our spiritual journey in life is a great story to tell others about. A.J.’s story is so inspiring about being a disciple of Jesus. He grew up in a single parent home where his mother worked hard to take care of her family and came home tired from working. Because of her being tired and work schedule they didn’t have much time to go to church. He considered himself a Christian and was raised as one. They prayed together and had the motto of believe in their heart but never had any consistency. They study the bible together as a family and tried to live daily by the word. The spiritual influences in his life growing up were his grandparents who installed him his faith along side with his mother. His grandparents attended church and his grandpa was a deacon and his grandma worked for the church. He remembers that him and his brother in the summers would go and help his grandma fold the church bulletins and he remembers going to vacation bible class. His family were believers but not consistent and not disciples.
Three years ago, a young upper class white guy from Texas, Willie O’Quinn took this black guy from the urban community of St Louis under his wings as A.J. puts it. They spent time studying the word together and going to church for about 2 years straight. In this past April, A.J. was baptized into Christ and is heavily involved in his campus ministry group at the Lawrence Church of Christ, where Willie is now the campus minister. His mother is a big motivator in his life, because she started going back to church about 3 years ago and that really has motivated him spiritually by seeing her dive into her faith. He gives props to Willie for mentoring him and helping him to be the disciple of Christ that he is today.
One other guy who really has helped him since he has been at KU is the former NBA player and Jayhawk basketball player, Wayne Simien. A.J. really looks up to Wayne, as a black athlete that knew what his calling was to mentor to younger guys and bring them into the word of God. Wayne gave up professional basketball to go into full time ministry. A.J. gives all the glory to God for sending these two men to be part of his spiritual journey and his life. He looks up to them and respects them for sharing their faith with him and helping him grow to be a better young man. A.J. said he was being lazy in his spiritual walk and Willie and Wayne both called him out on it. He also told me that Dan Coke and Wayne Simien are the sport chaplains for KU and hold bible talks and bible studies with the team and they help him stay spiritually strong. Before every game there is a pre-game chapel that Dan or Wayne spends time giving a 10-15 minute lesson about the bible and the field and how to be the young man of God on the playing field. Around 15-20 guys show up for the chapel and Coach Gill comes often. I asked him is he had to ever chose between faith and sports growing up or even today. A.J. said that church is good but it doesn’t define your faith. He has a devotional time weekly and spends time daily in prayer and in the word.
It seems to me that it would be hard to live for Christ and be an athlete. A.J. said there are times when things get in the way and we all make mistakes but he tries to be the leader because he wants to be the best example he can be. The rest of the KU Football team for the most part knows that he is a disciple of Christ. A.J. doesn’t drink and is heart is in the right place. The team knows he is just a goofy good guy and they see him leading prayers and at chapel and they see him at everything. He tries to be the best disciple of God by staying consistent and works on stay strong every day. When he makes a bad play, he gets on the sideline and spends time in prayer and also when he has a bad game, he goes home and spends time in the word and in prayer.
Temptation is all around for college athletes and as A.J. put it when you have teammates that are your family and are not in the right place and end up doing wrong and tempts you to go with them. A.J. takes the time to think about the example that he is setting and repents when he knows he sinned. He wants to step up and be accountable for his actions. There are those on the team that helps him do this, one in particular is Steven Johnson. Steven is also a spiritual leader on the team and has helped A.J. keep on the right track. We need this in our lives, others who can help us be accountable for our actions and help us grow spiritually.
There is one scripture that has really stood out to A.J. in his life because it really has opened his eyes about the every day things we go through in life. That passage is 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. This passage has been very powerful in A.J.’s life and has made a difference in his life. So he puts this passage in his walk and runs for the prize and spiritually trains himself every day to be that disciple that God wants him to be.
A.J. also gave some advice to my 10 year old son who is playing tackle football for the first time in his life. A.J. told me to tell him that he was the backup to Kerry Meier and had limited playing time when he first got to KU. So he said that my son need to stay strong, be a good teammate, help the team and be prepared when your name is called and the time comes for you to step up to the line. You can’t control others but you can control yourself and pray. A.J. can mentor my son any day.
So how will the Kansas Jayhawks do this season in football? According to A.J., they will be a lot better and will have a lot of success. They have a lot of young guys on the team and they are clicking as a team and the world will be surprised what they will do this year together because they BELIEVE!
After finishing our conversation I asked if he had any comments he would like to make before I close. A.J. said that he was humbled by the opportunity to share with others about his faith.
“It means a lot to me that I can share with you and others my faith and I hope this can help others out a lot and encourage them in their walk with Christ.”~ A.J.
A.J. mentioned that Christian athletes don’t always get the opportunity to share their spiritual journey with others. With his campus ministry group this year, A.J. will be doing this be leading a Lifegroup (small bible study group) this year. His campus ministry group has a goal of reaching out to 21 students and bringing them to Christ this year. What an awesome goal to have.
“This interview has motivated me to be humble because others look up to me and it motivates me to let others know that I’m a Christian, a disciple of Jesus.” ~ A.J.
I truly appreciate the opportunity to visit with A.J. Steward, TE of the Kansas Jayhawks who by just listening to him inspired me to be a better spiritual leader. Thanks A.J. for your story, for your faith, for your passion for God, your passion for sports and passion to mentor young men in this world. I know you are someone I would want my son to look up to. You wear Jesus on your heart and on the field. Keep believing because I believe in you. What a great lesson we can take from this young man’s life about Jesus and being his disciple is more important than anything else in life, even sports.