It was as good as done the moment the Lions signed free agent quarterbacks Jon Kitna and Josh McCown. The path back to Christ was illuminated long before Dan Orlovsky could see it for himself. No one who would be spending so much time with two such evangelists could escape the Holy Spirit.
No, Orlovsky had no shot.
So, on September 23, 2006, following a team chapel the night before the Lions’ early season matchup with Green Bay, Orlovsky responded to the Spirit’s “nudge” and bent his knee to Christ. What was actually a rededication for Orlovsky (he’d grown up in the church, but had eventually gone his own way), turned out to be a familiar scene for the Detroit Lions in 2006. While a nation watched as one of the most glorious teams of the early 90s continued to spiral deeper into the depths of the NFL cellar, those inside the locker room witnessed one of the most spiritual six months as handed down from Heaven.
| “I can’t describe what happened in our locker room last year. Everybody in the organization saw it—it was undeniable. Christ was the issue. Christ was proclaimed.” |
– Dave Wilson, Lions’ Chaplain
Men were saved. Broken marriages were mended. Christians deepened their faith. And a team that had for so long succumbed to the devastating effects of back-biting and selfishness, congealed into a unified front.
Their record was 3-13. But last season, no team won more than the Lions.
+++It hasn’t been an easy decade for football fans in Detroit. In fact, if anyone was handing out prizes for the most jabs taken by NFL commentators since 2000, the Lions would take home the biggest teddy bear.
The 9-7 record of 2000 was somewhat misleading. After starting out hot, winning five of their first seven games, the Lions were expected to make the playoffs. Instead, they lost three of their final four games, finished just over .500 and missed the postseason. When the team resumed play in 2001, the oozing wound tore wide open. They finished with a franchise-worst 14 losses, burned through three quarterbacks and closed the final season of the Pontiac Silverdome in less-than-memorable fashion. The Lions haven’t had a winning season since.
Tangled up in the losing environment and bad press was a team full of men bred to win. When that winning didn’t happen, men’s attitudes soured. When the attitudes soured, the team concept was all but abandoned.
“You could feel it walking into the locker room,” said Dave Wilson, the Lions chaplain of 23 years. “Nobody wanted to be there. Some guys hated each other. It was like, ‘How many more games do we have until we can get out of here and start over?’”
So much dissention created a catch 22. They couldn’t get along, so they couldn’t win. They couldn’t win because they couldn’t come to together.
“There was so much talent here my first year, but there wasn’t a team,” said Orlovsky, who was drafted by the Lions in 2005. “It was a lot more ‘me, me, me.’ There was so much of a losing concept.”
The wounded Lions weren’t fooling anybody. They were in trouble.
So, in 2006, following a controversy-laden season of quarterback juggling and coach firing, the Lions were forced to make major moves. One of the most notable was the signing of Cincinnati quarterback Jon Kitna, who had been with the Bengals for five seasons, backing up Carson Palmer in the final two. But in Kitna, Detroit got far more than a veteran with a rested arm. They got a leader and a man of God.
+++Kitna’s reputation followed him from Cincinnati to Detroit. His new teammates knew about his faith and were aware of his famous cross-embroidered hats, which had earned him a fine from the NFL in 2004. But they’d also heard about his devotion to his teammates and how his locker-room presence facilitated unity. Even Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, earlier this year, admitted that Kitna was responsible for saving his career via a post-game heart-to-heart in 2004.
Still, nothing wholly prepared the Lions for the man brought in to return stability to their day-to-day environment. Especially not the Jesus part of him.
The FCA Factor
In 2006, FCA Area Director Brad Griffin experienced a first when the Lions new wide receiver Mike Furrey called him to say that he wanted to start an FCA Huddle and host it in his own home. The season hadn’t even started yet, but Mike and Koren Furrey, who had been involved with FCA in their previous home of St. Louis, were ready to dive in.
The Huddle they established included schools from Detroit’s Plymouth-Canton Community School District and grew to include 30-40 kids by the end of its first year.
“It was amazing the impact that we could have on high school kids because of what I do for a living,” said Furrey. “There are kids who will come just because it’s my house, and then three or four weeks later they will jump on board with Christ. It’s great to see that transition. And the kids in the Huddle are just awesome. We’re looking forward to what will happen this year.”
While the Furreys appreciate the opportunity to reach kids through FCA, Brad Griffin returns the sentiment, acknowledging the unique enthusiasm of the couple.
“In my 30 years of involvement with FCA and 3 on staff, he is the only professional athlete to contact me first,” said Griffin. “They’re just very hands-on. They don’t just want to sponsor a Huddle, they want to host it, be a part of the meetings and even facilitate community outreach events, which they also take part in. They send kids to FCA Leadership Camp and even go with them. Mike and Koren are incredible people.”
Facilitating many of the outreach events for the Lions is Community Relations Director Tim Pendell, who has been with the team for 23 years. During that time, he has come to understand the importance of sports ministries like FCA as an outlet for Christian athletes to share their faith.
“You have to have a vehicle, a mechanism, to make it happen; and FCA brings that all together,” he said. “And I know in Detroit, Brad is right there getting all the stuff done behind the scenes. He’s great at getting things done without being on the forefront. He’s the guy who cements everything.”
“One of the first things he said to me was, ‘So, are you going to Heaven?’” recalled Orlovsky, who added that Kitna’s spiritual discussions, even that one, were never overbearing or forceful. “He didn’t bring up God too much, but rather offered advice. Jon would always be there as a friend, and I think he does that with a lot of guys on our team.”
Kitna’s brand of leadership was one unfamiliar to the men in the Detroit locker room, but it was refreshing. As he did his part to pour into his teammates, they responded with trust and friendship.
“When Jon came in, the entire locker room started to tilt toward his locker—his and Josh McCown’s,” said Wilson. “The thing that led people to want to hang out with him was joy. He was laughing all the time. He and McCown were playing games. There was just this joy factor that I don’t think most people see in Christians. I would walk in the locker room and everybody would be over by Jon. Even the loudest guys in the locker room were hanging out with Kitna. And I was like, ‘You know why they’re over there? Because they are attracted to joy.’”
It wasn’t long before that joy turned into camaraderie, which turned into team unity, which turned into a spiritual momentum that no one could have predicted.
+++But to attribute the Lions’ spiritual upswing to one person would be unreasonable and flat-out untrue. More Christians, including new wide receiver Mike Furrey, joined Kitna, McCown and veteran Lions believers. Together, they pressed in with Dave Wilson to live Christ in their locker room.
The results became evident through the team’s attendance at faith-based events. Teammates and spouses began crowding the Kitna house on Monday nights to hear Wilson and his wife, Ann, share a biblical message on marriage. Team chapels and prayer times overflowed. The wives also enhanced the spiritual growth through their own Bible study with Ann Wilson on Wednesday nights.
On the field, however, the team kept losing, starting the season 0-5. To the public, they were the same old Lions; but the tide was turning.
“I don’t think anybody outside the team could understand it, because all they saw were the wins and losses,” said Wilson. They’d say, ‘You guys stink. It’s another terrible year.’ And it was. But on the inside it was different. I’d tell people, ‘You don’t understand. Something different is happening.’”
That difference eventually presented itself not on the field, but in the spiritual realm, as God engulfed the organization in a virtual tidal wave. A staggering 18 Lions players or spouses were baptized, marriages that had been on the edge of destruction were salvaged, and during team prayer almost no one turned away.
Little did anyone know, the Lions were winning.
+++At the end of December, the nation ridiculed a 3-13 football team. Inside, however, a small, tight-knit team found victory as they rejoiced with new brothers in Christ.
“I can’t describe what happened in our locker room last year,” said Wilson.
“Everybody in the organization saw it—it was undeniable. Christ was the issue. Christ was proclaimed.”
But what could the Lions say to a world that was keeping score?
“I look at it as we did everything we could,” said Kitna. “I tried my best to be the best quarterback I could, and at the end of it, we were still 3-13. But guys were getting saved. People’s lives were changed. Their names were written in the Book for the first time ever, and that’s a blessing. That’s always going to override wins and losses. So, while the losses were very disappointing, I don’t think God looked at last year as a disappointment for this football team.”
+++Still, on a team of trained competitors, losses don’t sit well for long, which is why it would be unwise to bet against Detroit this season. After a year of team-building and hard knocks, the Lions are turning a corner.
They opened the 2007 season with a win at Oakland (unfortunately having to defeat McCown’s new team in the process), rallying with 19 points in the fourth quarter to take the
victory, and followed that performance with a gutsy overtime victory against the Minnesota Vikings the next week.
“I think last year grounded us,” said Kitna. “When you don’t have a lot of success, as a Christian you really start to learn God’s character and how much He really loves you. And then you become grounded and rooted. Then when you have the success that I think God is bringing our way, we already have a solid foundation.”
And talent paired with team unity is an explosive combination.
“It feels like the pieces are there,” said Wilson. “The leadership’s there. The community’s there. All the intangibles that you need to win that have never been here, are here now. So, whether we win or not has yet to be seen, but if you could walk around that locker room, you’d say, ‘You know what? This feels like a winning team.’ There’s something good happening, and that’s going to eventually have results on the field.”
+++Remember Dan Orlovsky? He just passed the first anniversary of the day he reconnected with his Savior. He barely recognizes the man in the mirror now—the child of God, the man walking the way of the Lord. And what really gets him is that it all happened in Detroit, the last place he’d have guessed he’d want to spend his NFL career.
“My first year I was like, ‘How did I end up in Detroit?’” he quipped. “Now I look at how lucky I was to go to Detroit. Obviously it was meant for me to be here. I thank God every day because I know He brought me here for a reason. I don’t know what that specific reason is, but I’m pretty sure it is going to be something special.”
For the entire Lions locker room, few words could say it better.
Q&A with Jon Kitna
To sit down with Jon Kitna is to have a Scripture-filled theological discussion. He’ll go as deep as you ask and certainly won’t subdue his passion or conviction. If you feel challenged by the Holy Spirit in the conversation, then praise God. You’re feeling just a small dose of what guys in the Lions locker room feel every day. No wonder it’s such a spiritually charged environment. Kitna leaves little room for error and makes no excuse for sin.
Below are highlights from Kitna’s interview with STV. To further benefit from this quarterback’s wisdom, watch the video interview above.
STV: You have a reputation for bringing unity to a team. In your opinion, how did Christ set the model for that unity?
JK: I think a lot of people misconstrue who Christ really was. They want to say He was just loving and totally accepting of everyone. And yeah, He did love everyone, but He didn’t accept everything that they did. He told you the truth. I love reading Revelation chapters 2 and 3, because He talks to those churches and says, “Yeah, you do this right or this right.” He encourages them. But then He tells them, “But this is something you need to work on.”
In our locker room, we try to speak the truth. We don’t go around pointing things out, but if someone asks a question, what they’re saying is, “I want to know the truth. I want to know what the Bible says.” And ultimately, that’s what every person really wants to know. What is the truth?
Jesus always saw the good in somebody around the bad. And I always remind myself: “What have I been forgiven of? Where would I be if it was not for Christ?” And when I do that, it’s easier to be in the locker room and handle situations.
STV: As a quarterback rebuilding a team, how can you use the situation you’re in right now to draw others to Christ?
JK: I think by being steadfast and having the attitude of coming to work each day and running the race to win. As Christians, we often want to say, “Well, God will handle it.” Yeah, God does make things happen, but He also relies on us to handle what we can handle. He gives us abilities, and we have to do our jobs here on earth. Then He takes care of the circumstances we can’t control.
As a quarterback, it would be nice if I could say, “Well, I can just throw the ball anywhere, and if God wants it completed, He’ll get it completed. If He doesn’t want it to be intercepted, it won’t be intercepted.” That’s not reality. The reality is that I have a job to do, and I have to do everything as if unto the Lord.
People say, “How would Jesus play football? It’s too violent a game. He wouldn’t have played.” That’s not true. Jesus would have been the most intense guy! He would have knocked people down, but then He would have helped them up and would have probably given them Scripture along with it. So, there’s a right way and a wrong way to play the game. You just try to play it the right way—within the rules and within the biblical confines of how you’re supposed to approach your craft.
STV: You also have a reputation for being very bold with your faith. Many Christians are afraid to speak the name of Jesus. How would you encourage coaches and athletes to be bolder in their faith?
JK: You become bolder the more you read the Bible. When you understand Romans 12, you understand what Christ has done for you and the fact that you’ve been saved from an eternity in Hell and have nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of. It’s mind-boggling to me because sometimes I am timid or am intimidated by certain situations. You know, “Maybe I shouldn’t say anything. I don’t want to rub anybody the wrong way.” That’s ridiculous.
I’ve been taught 1 Peter 3:15. The most important thing is to live my life with Christ set apart as Lord of my life. If I set apart Christ as Lord of my life, then I don’t have to beat people over the head with it, they’ll come to me and ask questions. Because that’s what the verse says: be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have when people ask you questions, and then do it with gentleness and respect.
STV: Tell me about spiritual warfare on the field. What are some of the ways that the enemy attacks you and tries to distract you?
JK: That happens all the time. You can have a bad practice or there might be something a coach says to you, and the enemy will use that and start throwing those flaming arrows—throwing those accusations at you, trying to get you to doubt your destiny and that God has a plan for your life.
There are times when you’ll go to the line of scrimmage and the enemy’s telling you, “You’re gonna throw an interception here. You’re gonna fumble this snap.” And those are battles that I fight all the time. Because if I’m a child of God, it’s not natural for me to think that way. That can only come from the enemy. So, if there are two voices in my head and one’s negative and one’s positive, the enemy’s the negative.
STV: What would you say to high school or college quarterbacks in situations similar to yours?
JK: Number one is to be yourself. People are very perceptive, and you can’t be somebody you’re not. I’ve seen guys try to fake being a leader. I’ve seen guys try to be rah-rah guys who weren’t. I’ve seen guys try to be tough guys, but that’s not who they are. People see right through that, and they say, “I’m not going to follow that.” They know that when times get tough you won’t be who you are right now. They’re not going to follow that. Be who you are.
The second thing is that if you’re a Christian you have to look for divine opportunities. You have to listen for the small, still voice in you, which is the Holy Spirit saying, “Say this to that person. Ask them if they know where they’re going if they die today.” And so many people say, “Oh, I can’t do that. That would turn them off.” Well, the devil would never tell you to ask a question like that. So, if that’s in your mind, then ask somebody, “How can I pray for you?” Do you know what kind of lines of communication that opens? If you do those things, God will continue to work in and through you.
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of Gavin Smith/Detriot Lions; Koren Furrey