One is an unassuming, 6-foot-2 junior point guard who chooses to strike from afar. The other is a 6-foot-8, senior forward whose flashy, aerial deeds make the highlight reels. One comes from a Methodist background; the other Catholic. One was raised in a well-to-do family where life’s big challenge was growing up between two sisters. The other’s parents worked hard to steer him away from the dangerous, sometimes fatal, lawlessness that plagued his extended family.
There are plenty of differences between Trent Meacham and Brian Randle. But the common denominator—the bond that ties them together like a sturdy knot—goes much deeper than just being good friends and star teammates for the University of Illinois basketball team.
“The similarity is our faith,” Randle said.
“It plays itself out in how they treat other people, the way they live on and off the court and what they value. By no means are either of them perfect, but they both strongly desire to do the will of God.” – FCA’s Marcellus Casey
It can be tough to shine for Christ in big-time college basketball. So much narcissism. So many ungodly distractions. But Meacham and Randle have found a way to do it, and do it very well. Their story is a tale of two different guys enjoying unity in the body of Christ and finding a far greater purpose than their own gain.
“Within the culture of college athletics, a lot of times it’s not popular to live the way God wants you to live,” said Marcellus Casey, one FCA’s two campus representative at Illinois. “But they are cut from same cloth and similar in their values and what they do in their off-time.”
Oh yeah, and they play some pretty sweet hoops, too.
Faith in Action
Randle remembers the anger, the pain and the questions. Once, frightening irrationality seemed ubiquitous in the life around him. Once, death came to call on his family’s doorstep.
Life at Peoria Notre Dame High School, about 90 minutes northwest of Illinois’ campus in Champaign, was nice enough. Randle was a model student who was involved in several clubs. On the court, he was a consensus top 50 recruit who was showered with accolades throughout his prep career.
But life on Peoria’s south side, where some of Randle’s extended family lived, was a much different story. Drugs and gang violence ate away at the family like a disease. Friends rotated in and out of prison. A few cousins survived gunshot wounds. One family friend, who failed to duck quickly enough during a drive-by, did not.
Randle was in middle school when the drive-by killing occurred on the porch of a cousin’s house. He remembers seething when he pondered the horrible choices some of his loved ones were making and recalls feeling “like I never wanted to talk to them again.” But thanks to the guidance of his parents and two ministers in the family, he never followed in those deadly footsteps.
Randle now appreciates life’s tough lessons.
“What my parents and extended family taught me made my resolve as a person and a Christian stronger,” he said. “Some of their decisions were not the best ones, but what we take from that shapes us. I’ve definitely grown.”
Meacham’s childhood was much less tumultuous. Involved with FCA since his youth, he grew up about 10 minutes from Illinois’ campus and always dreamed of wearing Illini orange. He spent his freshman year at Dayton in 2004-05 before transferring to Champaign and sitting out a year per NCAA regulations. Last season, he became a part-time starter and began rooming with Randle.
“I see his daily motivations, and it’s all about Christ,” Randle said of Meacham. “He just gives off an aura. He really keeps perspective. He can really lift me up.”
Both players have translated their faith into action. Each was a Huddle Leader last summer at FCA’s day camp at Centennial High School in Champaign, where Meacham starred during his prep career. They invested in the lives of third through eighth-graders not only by teaching them basketball skills, but by leading them in small group discussions about the Lord.
#1 Trent Meacham|
Class: RS Junior
Birthdate: Sept. 26, 1985
Hometown: Champaign, Ill.
High School: Centennial
Academics: Majoring in sports management.
“The biggest thing is seeing how much the kids look up to you,” Meacham said. “It makes you realize how much impact you have as an athlete.”
Meacham and Randle also serve on FCA’s leadership committee at Illinois where they plan Huddle meetings. They also train themselves spiritually through prayer and reading the Word.
“They’re both so humble,” Casey said. “When you see the guys on campus, whoever they’re talking to is going to feel special and important. [Camp] kids see that they’re just normal. They’re not walking
around like they’re something special.”
For the past two summers, Meacham has also traveled to Europe to play 10-day tours with Athletes in Action. Two summers ago, he went to France. Last year, he traveled to Berlin, where the AIA team went 5-0 against German professional teams. On both trips, he shared his faith with the crowd at halftime.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Meacham said.
These days, Bruce Weber’s eminently salt-and-pepper coiffure looks even grayer. His Illini have struggled more this season than any other in the head coach’s five-year tenure in Champaign.
This is all very odd to Illinois fans, who had grown accustomed to abundant success. The Illini’s 112 victories over Weber’s first four years tied Duke and Florida for the national lead in that time span. But this year’s squad started off 8-5, including a shocking loss to unheralded Tennessee State on Dec. 30, before opening conference play in the top-heavy Big Ten.
With this year’s slow start and early NCAA tournament exits the last two years, the glory of the 2004-05 season, when Illinois reached the NCAA final, sometimes feels like a distant memory.
“We’re just trying to improve every game, every day,” Randle said. “We’re trying to stay on a positive note. The biggest thing is to stay together, stay a family.”
#42 Brian Randle
Birthdate: Feb. 8, 1985
Hometown: East Peoria, Ill.
High School: Notre Dame
Academics: Earned a bachelor’s degree in agri-finance in May 2007 and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in sports management.
It’s that kind of affirming, optimistic leadership that has made both Randle and Meacham such vital parts of Illini basketball.
“They’re both very committed and very intense,” Casey said.
While neither player is a consistently prolific scorer, each brings plenty of skills to his starting role. Meacham’s value is seen in understated ways, like his ability to calmly dictate the pace of games and find open teammates. He totaled 60 assists, compared to only 40 turnovers, in 2006-07. But he certainly can light up the scoreboard, too. He tied a school record last season with eight three-pointers against Florida A&M, and he scored a career-high 26 points, including five three-pointers, in a 78-61 win over Weber State earlier this year.
“He’s like water,” said Massachusetts Associate Head Coach Tim Maloney, who coached Meacham on the AIA team in Berlin. “He blends in and does what needs to be done to be successful.”
Randle, meanwhile, has experienced a bit of everything at Illinois. After helping the 2003-04 team reach the Sweet 16 as a freshman, he broke his hand the following preseason—the first of many injuries—and had to sit out the team’s amazing run to the NCAA final. He averaged 8.5 points per game and earned Big Ten All-Defensive Team honors as a redshirt sophomore in 2005- 06, but his production slipped last season when he missed nine games due to injury.
Still, when healthy, he is a playmaker whose dunks have landed on SportsCenter’s “Top 10 Plays of the Day” several times.
“Brian is an amazing athlete. We call him The Freak,” Meacham said. “He’s been through a lot with injuries. I think, personally, that has helped him grow and understand how fragile life can be.”
While Meacham and Randle are long shots to reach the NBA, the future looks bright for each. Both are Academic All-Big Ten recipients, Randle is currently working on his master’s degree in sports management, and Meacham has another year of eligibility left.
Regardless of future paths, they know their faith will take them further than basketball ever could.
“It plays itself out in how they treat other people, the way they live on and off the court and what they value,” Casey said. “By no means are either of them perfect, but they both strongly desire to do the will of God.”
*For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Photos courtesy of the University of Illinois