We can be so quick to put them on a pedestal. So quick to assume professional athletes live a fantasy-camp life, away from the everyday pressures and pains facing the rest of us.
We subtly treat them as almost a different order of being, somehow immune not only to our daily grind, but our need for a Savior.
Unashamed for Jesus
Enter Twins slugger Josh Willingham — by all accounts an extraordinary athlete, and manifestly a normal human, and Christian, unashamed about his need for Jesus.
Willingham is a regular guy, even if his baseball stats aren’t. This year he batted in 110 runs (third in the American League) and became the first Minnesota Twin to hit 35 homeruns in a season since Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew in 1970. He also once hit two grand slams in one big-league game — no ordinary feat. (Update: On November 8, Willingham was given a Silver Slugger Award as the top hitter at his position in the American League for the 2012 season.)
But as he sits down in the Desiring God studio — for a moment forget the bright lights and multiple cameras — he sounds so ordinary, and isn’t afraid to look the part in jeans, sandals, and a long-sleeve thermal tee. Mention hunting and he’s ready to talk. Fishing will do just as well. When I try to relate as a fellow deer-hunter, I quickly learn he’s a bowman, and I’m kindly put in my place as he informs me with a smile, “My five-year-old could kill a deer with a rifle.” That must be why they call him Josh.
It’s a Wild Life — Sorta
Without the major-league uniform, and 40,000 on-looking fans, Willingham seems so ordinary off the field — like one of the guys I played high school baseball with. So when I ask what the life of a professional athlete is like in the everyday, out of the public eye, I’m not too surprised to hear a litany of disclaimers following his initial claim, “It’s a wild life.”
Turns out it’s not so wild in the ways we amateurs might expect. The life of a pro athlete definitely has its wildness, according to Willingham. Wild inconvenience. Wild irregularity. Wild frustration. Wild temptation. Wild stress.
But press deeper, and you’ll discover a surprising sense of normalcy in the things that really matter. Deep down it’s very ordinary and very human. This life is a vapor’s breath, “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14), and a view from the brink of eternity has a way of adjusting one’s perspective.
Willingham may be an extraordinary athlete — at least for a short season — but he’s a very ordinary person in the ways that really matter.
Catching a Glimpse of the Normal Side
Josh Willingham grew up in Florence, Alabama — about 15 miles from Tennessee and 15 miles from Mississippi — and still makes his home there in the off-season. He attended all 12 grades at Mars Hill Bible School, founded by his great grandfather, before playing college ball in town at the University of North Alabama. He married his high-school sweetheart Ginger in 2001, and they have three young sons (Rhett, 5, Ryder, 2, and Rogan, born just this year).
Through Willingham’s refreshing frankness and down-to-earth attitude, I was able to get a glimpse of the typical life behind an atypical athlete.
“Even when I go back home and talk with my friends, nobody really understands what we go through as professional athletes.” The way non-dentists don’t get dentistry, or non-plumbers misunderstand plumbing.
“But we’re really no different than anybody else,” Willingham concedes. “We all have our problems. People see us on the baseball field, playing baseball, making a lot of money. And that’s all they see. But we have problems to deal with in our families. We have difficulties going on all the time in everyday life.” Chief among those difficulties was the turning point of his life: the tragic death of his brother Jon in June 2009 that taught him all the more to lean on God.
“It’s very much a normal life, but we just happen to play a professional sport where everybody can see us playing. We have to deal with the normal stuff everyday, with normal trials and problems everyone else has to deal with.” And Willingham has had his share.
The Daily Grind
Willingham is not afraid to disavow us of the idealistic notions we have about professional athletics. As much as he enjoys baseball, it’s plain that the field is now his office, not his playland. Baseball has become vocation, not recreation. Most days he spends nine hours or more at the office (1:30pm to roughly 10:30pm) — and that’s for home games (not to mention the 81 games big-leaguers play on the road each year).
“You find out early in your career that you have to be very flexible. You have to pick up your things and move a lot.” Spring training begins in late February and goes six weeks through March. April to September is the regular season, and the playoffs happen throughout October. That leaves about four winter months for the Willinghams to be back at home in Alabama.
As an evangelical Christian and ordinary guy, Willingham needs the normal things to keep his spiritual life strong. There’s no major-league version of the gospel or Christian community. No professional-athlete avenue for prayer or Bible intake. It’s the ordinary means of grace that shape his life and keep fuel in the tank of his faith.
“It all comes back to priorities,” he says. It takes relentless prioritizing to make daily time to relate not only to his wife, but also to God through prayer and “time in the Word.”
Sharing What We Believe
Willingham’s aware that many devout religious folks criticize professing Christians who also are professional athletes. They might bemoan how out-of-proportion sports have become in our society, with fans shelling out so much for tickets, apparel, and memorabilia. And yes, there’s something to be said there. But then what?
Where some see worldliness to avoid, Willingham sees an opportunity for gospel advance.
“Jesus associated himself not only with believers,” he reminds us, “but he went out into the world and shared himself.” Which doesn’t mean there’s any room for spiritual coasting.
“We’re all sinners. We’re tempted everyday,” whether professional athlete or professional accountant. But as Christians, Willingham contends, “we’re not supposed to be sheltered, but get out and share what we believe.”
Still in Need of Prayer
For now, Willingham’s calling involves big-league curveballs, pop flies, and homeruns, as well as 9-hour days at the office and frequent business travel. He glorifies God by playing his best, providing for his family, and helping orphaned and abused children through a foundation he started, even while sharing his faith with teammates and others through interviews like these.
At age 33, Willingham knows his time in pro baseball is short, and eternity’s just a breath away. As a man unashamed of his daily need for Jesus, he and other professing Christians who happen to be professional athletes would love to have more than your applause or disillusionment. They also would appreciate your prayers.
Josh Willingham on his hometown, family, and rhythms of life annually and daily (4:10)
Josh Willingham on making daily time for Bible and prayer (1:11)
Willingham on normal life off the field (1:08)
Willingham on big-league homeruns as a little foretaste of heaven (1:49)
For more on WIllingham, see "A Big-Leaguer Who Learned to Lean on God"