June/July 2009 Worth a Shot Allison Whitworth Joshua Cooley
It took all of four days for the spiritual inquest of Allison Whitworth to begin.
On March 5, Whitworth, a goalkeeper in the first-year Women’s Professional Soccer League, was riding in the car with some of her FC Gold Pride teammates. The players were just getting acquainted, having started preseason camp on March 1, but it was already evident that Whitworth was different. She was handling the pressure of rapid-fire roster cuts with remarkable poise. Her demeanor was kind. Her language was clean.
No one, though, had really broached the subject — until a Jeremy Camp song came on the car radio.
|Team: FC Gold Pride|
Born: Dec. 11, 1985
Hometown: Birmingham, Ala.
College: Auburn University
How Acquired: Selected in the eighth round (54th) of the WPS Draft
• 2008 All-SEC First Team
• 2008 SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year
• Collected a school-record 132 saves in 23 games as a senior giving her an Auburn-best 356 stops in her career.
"Wow, that's old school!" Whitworth blurted out.
"Jeremy who?" her teammates asked. Then, like a shaken can of soda being opened, their curiosity gushed out in personal, peppering questions:
"What kind of music do you listen to?"
"Do you drink?"
"Do you have sex?"
"Have you ever...?"
"What are your beliefs about...?"
Political topics were covered. So were Catholic-or-Protestant questions. They good-naturedly teased Whitworth, a Birmingham, Ala., native, about being a Bible Belt-bred goody-two-shoes.
"They definitely had some hard questions," Whitworth said.
Speaking of hard questions, here's another: How does a young woman, raised in the comfy confines of a Christian upbringing, navigate all the challenges of a promising professional sports career and the accompanying perils of worldly temptations?
It would be naïve to think Whitworth, 23, didn't experience these tests at a large university like Auburn, where she played from 2004 to 2008. But she no longer has the comfort zone of an FCA Huddle like she did in college. And her parents, once a quick two-hour drive from campus, are now 2,300 miles away from FC Gold Pride's base in Santa Clara, Calif.
"Being across the country has been hard," Whitworth said. "I'm away from my family and friends. But it's also exciting to start a life somewhere without a ton of people that you know. It's up to God to place us, and I'm keeping that perspective. It's doing it for Him and not performing for coaches or teammates or people back home."
Whitworth's vocational path is as uncertain as it is intriguing. The former first-team All-Southeastern Conference goalie is now a backup for the Pride, one of seven teams inaugurating Women's Professional Soccer this year. The league, which kicked off on March 29 and finishes with an Aug. 22 championship, is hoping to avoid the fate of its predecessor, the Women's United Soccer Association — a league that failed to sustain the momentum of the U.S. national team's inspiring 1999 Women's World Cup title run and folded after three seasons.
WPS, though, is adhering to a simpler, more grassroots-oriented business model than WUSA, and it also signed a multi-year deal with Fox Soccer Channel to televise its games. While Whitworth admitted that the league's viability, especially in light of the current economy, is "definitely a concern," she remains undaunted by the unknown future.
"Be a professional athlete while you can, and, if it dies three to four years down the road, the experience will still be worth it," she said.
So what exactly does rattle Whitworth? Well, spiritual insecurity once did.
She enjoyed an idyllic upbringing in a godly family, and, with all the athletic bloodlines in the family, she quickly became a bit of a tomboy. Having three brothers meant lots of tackle football games. One of her cousins plays college basketball, and another cousin, Andrew Whitworth, is an offensive tackle for the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Jesus is the only thing I have that can't fail me."
"I was always a rough-and-tumble girl," she said.
Growing up in Briarwood Presbyterian Church and its educational affiliate, Briarwood Christian School, Whitworth placed her faith in Christ at age 9. But, once at Auburn, she started wrestling with deep questions about the validity of her faith. During one daytime car ride, a friend told her frankly, "You have to know if you're a Christian. We're not talking again until you have an answer." For the next few hours, the two drove in silence. A few days later, Whitworth called her friend and exclaimed, "I want my life to be about Jesus!"
"That was a turnaround point," Whitworth said.
At Auburn, she got involved with FCA and began serving on the Huddle's leadership team in 2007, her redshirt junior year. Under the guidance of FCA staffers Carly Thomas and Marla Williams (now at Clemson), Whitworth's faith grew exponentially.
"FCA was a lifeline for me," Whitworth said. "When you come into a college sport, your teammates become your friends. I loved my team, but I never really had people I clicked with. I was searching for a best friend or a close friend. I ended up getting into a couple situations where God wasn't my first priority. Then, one of the older players invited me to FCA. I found some close friends, and I was able to be real."
As a fifth-year senior last year, Whitworth started inviting teammates to her apartment for Bible studies and home-cooked meals. She joined the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and volunteered for organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Read Across America, Auburn Food Bank, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund Walk and a local abused women's shelter.
"FCA was a lifeline for me ... I found some close friends, and I was able to be real."
— Allison Whitworth, pictured far right in
each photo with FCA friends from Auburn
"Her faith grew in leaps and bounds last year," Williams said. "I could brag about her so much."
Whitworth's leadership and skills were also obvious on the soccer pitch at Auburn. She earned a starting spot as a redshirt freshman in 2005, but a shoulder injury forced her to the sidelines. She returned later that season as a defensive midfield substitute but won back the starting goalie spot the following year and held onto it for her final three seasons. She left Auburn as one of the best goalies in SEC history: a two-time all-conference performer whose 356 career saves set a school record.
Not bad for a player who entered a major NCAA Division-I program with only two years of high school experience in the net.
"She's just such a tremendous athlete," Auburn coach Karen Hoppa said. "It's neat to watch her sign with a pro team from where she started. It says a lot about her. She's very coachable and tremendously committed."
After being drafted by the Pride in the eighth round (54th overall) in January, Whitworth beat out three other players for the right to back up goalie Nicole Barnhart, a U.S. national team veteran. She will likely get at least a few starts this summer when Barnhart briefly transitions to the national team.
Hoppa, for one, can easily envision Whitworth becoming a WPS starter and eventually making the national squad.
"I think it's up to her," Hoppa said. "She grew so much in the college game and became such a great player and athlete. She's got so much room to grow as a goalkeeper."
While Whitworth is working hard to refine her skills, she is also keenly aware of her blessings.
"Getting to this level is all God," she said. "He's the one who has brought me this far. He's the one who has given me talent. When I'm playing, it's His blessing in my life I get to use."
Whitworth is taking a broad-viewed approach to her future. An excellent student — she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology with a 3.88 GPA — Whitworth is planning to finish her graduate degree in health promotions and work as a volunteer assistant soccer coach at Auburn this fall. College coaching interests her as a long-term career.
For now, though, she is relishing the chance to play in a women's professional soccer league that didn't seem possible just a few years ago. It's a drastic lifestyle change, but one she feels prepared for because of her spiritual convictions.
"Really, it has just been a constant reminder to be completely satisfied in Him and not to try to satisfy myself with my soccer career," she said. "Being out here and being lonely, there are new friends to chum around with, but He's the only one who satisfies."
And who knows? There might be another Jeremy Camp-inspired witnessing opportunity right around the corner. Whitworth would relish that, too.
"I want to make a difference in someone else's life," she said. "I want to impact people and let them know Jesus is the only thing I have that can't fail me."
--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 FC Gold Pride/Pattricia Giobetti; Perry McIntyre; Allison Whitworth.