April 2009 The Master Pat Summerall Nick Dunn FCA Prayer Breakfast
As a dynamite athlete growing up in Lake City, Fla., Pat Summerall would glance at the Bible from time to time, but it was really more of an afterthought than a priority. Other options were much more appealing.
Years later, at the Betty Ford Center in 1992, as a struggling alcoholic whose drinking problems had damaged his relationships with his family and friends, the Bible was Summerall's only choice.
Click here to listen to audio of Summerall
at April's FCA Golf Breakfast.
"They wouldn't let you read anything else," he said.
So, Summerall read. And he read some more. And he kept reading that Bible until the end of his 33-day stay at the Betty Ford Center. ("The normal stay is 28 days," he said, "but they kept me a few extra days because they said I was so angry in the beginning that the first few days didn't count.")
What Summerall found was that, as he read, his interest in the Bible grew. As a 62-year-old sports and broadcasting icon at the time, he was finding answers to some lifelong questions. Sure, more questions were also surfacing, but his curiosity was piqued, and that didn't cease when he went home from the center.
Soon after, his wife's pastor approached Summerall about joining the church. Summerall had one question: "Could I be baptized?" That, of course, was not a problem, as long as he was comfortable getting dunked with kids a fraction of his age.
Summerall's story in his later years is so vastly different than the rest of his life that even those who know him best find it hard to believe sometimes. But it's a story of God's mercy and how, no matter what the situation, it's never too late to give your life to Him and help build His Kingdom.
Pat Summerall is no stranger to sports fans. He's been there for some of the most unforgettable sports moments. He was there when Marcus Allen darted his way through the Redskins' defense for a 74-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XVIII. He was there when Joe Namath followed through on his guarantee with a victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III. He was there as champion after champion was crowned at the Masters.
Summerall has been etched permanently into sports history — first as an NFL player, then as an elite broadcaster. His smooth, baritone voice is difficult to imitate, yet easy to remember.
For all of Summerall's adult life, he only experienced success. A 10-year professional football career was quickly followed by a meteoric rise through the broadcasting industry. It all seemed to come so easy for him, and the endless string of accomplishments left little room for anything else.
"Everything seemed to have worked out so well that I didn't need any help," he said. "I didn't need any friends. I didn't need any associates. It was all due to me. And I had become very self-centered because of that."
What Summerall did make time for was alcohol. Drinking was such a part of the celebrity lifestyle, and it soon became a part of his. Summerall did a lot of things then that he'd not even consider doing now, but it wasn't until an intervention by his friends in 1992 that he realized he needed to change. The breaking point came when a friend read a letter from Summerall's daughter in which she said she was ashamed to share the same last name.
"I realized that if all these people I respected were confronting me with the fact that they had seen me do some things — and I remembered that I had done some ridiculous things — I thought, 'Hey, if all these people think that I've got a problem, maybe I do have a problem,'" he said.
Pat Summerall's career included time on the NFL field and in the broadcasting booth (pictured with fellow commentator John Madden).
It was then that Summerall agreed, albeit somewhat angrily, to go to the Betty Ford Center. And it was then, through the power of Christ, that his life began to change.
David McKinley has never known Pat Summerall to turn down an opportunity to speak publicly about his faith. As Summerall's former teaching pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas, McKinley was a firsthand witness to the spiritual growth of Summerall and his wife, Cheri.
"One of the blessings of getting to know Pat, of watching him over a period of time, has been to see the gentleness and humility of his faith and his walk with the Lord," McKinley said. "I've seen his walk be consistent as he has grown in the Word of God. I've seen his witness become strong as he takes the opportunity to unashamedly say, 'Hey, there are a lot of things you know or may not know about me, but let me tell you what matters in my life, and that's my relationship with Christ.'"
The voice that so many immediately relate to sports is now being used for a much greater purpose — to bring glory and honor to the Lord. And since Summerall's decision to quit drinking in the early 1990s, he has never had the urge to take another sip.
"I consider myself to have been very lucky because I never had a craving," he said. "I never had a desire to drink again. I never had a wish to go to any of those places or do any of those things that I did previously. I just didn't want to do it."
That, he said, is just another illustration of the power of God in his life. And, goodness, there have been plenty of those.
Most notably, of course, was the time in 2004 when he was in need of a liver transplant. He had seen his good friend, baseball legend Mickey Mantle, go through the same procedure several years earlier. A former alcoholic as well, Mantle's end-of-life conversion to Christianity left everything but his physical self healthy. The transplant only delayed the inevitable, and Mantle passed away a few months later.
Racked with guilt over the way he had treated his body for all those years, Summerall was also consumed with another remorseful thought: someone had to die for him to live. The obvious spiritual parallels aside, he also questioned why he deserved to live. When he was relaying these thoughts to two friends — former Dallas Cowboys chaplain John Weber and the minister who baptized him, Clark Thomas — they both responded simultaneously: "Because God's not through with you yet."
No, God wasn't done with Summerall. After a successful transplant, the Lord continued to work with him, using him to bring others to Christ. God gave Summerall another life, both spiritually and physically, and Summerall continues to do his best to use that gift. In the process, he has allowed God's Word, that same Word that he first truly experienced at the Betty Ford Center all those years ago, to guide him along the way.
Since his liver transplant, Summerall has had some other health problems, but right now he describes his overall condition as "good." He credits his wife, Cheri, for helping him grow spiritually and being such a "tremendous support" since he quit drinking. The couple resides in Southlake, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, and every Sunday they can be seen sitting in the second row at Prestonwood Baptist. That is, of course, if Summerall is not off preaching on his own.
Summerall is happy speaking candidly about not only his battle, but also his victory. He knows that his story can be an encouragement to the many out there who might be dealing with their own struggles.
Pat Summerall with his wife, Cheri
This eager attitude made McKinley, now at Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., immediately think of Summerall as a possible speaker for this year's FCA Masters Prayer Breakfast on April 7.
Yes, it's true. The voice of the Masters for 30 years is coming back.
While Summerall isn't exactly returning as the voice of the Masters itself, he will be in Augusta during tournament week to use his voice for a different purpose: to talk about his Lord and Savior.
The free-of-charge breakfast has been steadily growing in popularity since its inception in 1999. But this year, with the addition of Summerall, things are taking a step further into the big-time. (See below for more on this event.)
There's more than one lesson to be learned in the story of Pat Summerall. First, that God has tremendous power to provide strength to overcome temptation. And the second, no matter how successful we have become, no matter how much we might think we can do it all on our own, we still thirst for that relationship with Him.
Perhaps the most important lesson, though, is that Jesus never stops pursuing us. He never stops loving us. And, just like Summerall, He's never finished with us until it fits with His perfect timing.
FCA PRAYER BREAKFAST
When David McKinley left Prestonwood Baptist Church in October 2008 to take over as the senior pastor of Warren Baptist, he immediately began thinking of ways his new church could reach out during Masters week. Located only a couple of miles away from the front gates of Augusta National Golf Club, McKinley thought Warren Baptist was a church with gigantic potential.
PGA Tour pro Stewart Cink with FCA's Greg Wilson at the 2008 Prayer Breakfast
Fortunately for McKinley, there was already at least one wildly successful ministry event surrounding the tournament: the FCA Prayer Breakfast. FCA Area Director and church member Greg Wilson spoke with McKinley about the breakfast, and the two brainstormed possible ways to make it even better.
"(McKinley) wondered if Pat Summerall could be involved," Wilson said, "and I told him I thought that would just put this thing over the top."
In its 11 years of existence, the Prayer Breakfast, which is a combined effort between FCA and Warren Baptist, has had no shortage of notable guests and speakers. In 2007, a prayer group started gathering a month before the breakfast, asking God that whoever spoke at the breakfast would finish in a position at the Masters where he could use his faith to magnify Christ. The speaker that year was Zach Johnson, the Iowa native who came out of nowhere to win the tournament. And, sure enough, he talked about his faith in Christ at the green-jacket presentation.
The next year, Stewart Cink joked about needing to speak at the breakfast to perform well, so he gladly accepted the invitation.
In all, the attendance has swelled from approximately 100 in 1999 to between 1,100 and 1,300 currently. Besides Johnson and Cink, other speakers have included K.J. Choi, who spoke through an interpreter, Jonathan Byrd, Larry Mize, Steve Jones and Augusta's own Franklin Langham.
"It's just kind of morphed into a real community event," Wilson said. "It's a thing that the people look forward to coming to every year. It's some community folks from Augusta, but it's a lot of outsiders, too."
Attendance at the FCA Prayer Breakfast
is between 1,100 and 1,300 every year.
McKinley sees the Prayer Breakfast as part of a bigger vision for the church for all of Masters week.
"You can't mention Augusta without people mentioning the Masters," he said. "It's a city of dreams when it comes to golfers. One of the things I have cast in front of our people is that I want us to be the church in this city that is associated with a broad ministry to the community through golf. I want us to use what is symbolic of this city as a gateway for us to share the gospel of Christ around the world."
No, that doesn't mean Warren Baptist will be setting up a driving range or a putting green on its campus. But, McKinley cracked, he might set up a Masters flag outside the building so people know where to park before they take a shuttle bus to the course.
Since it is McKinley's first Masters and Wilson's second, they don't know exactly how everything will pan out. It's more of a "wait and see" at this point. But they're both glad to have Summerall as a part of it this year.
"I never dreamed that would happen," McKinley said, "but wow, here it is, and Pat's a part of this breakfast, so I'm excited."
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Summerall Sports, Greg Wilson.