Birds of a Feather
By Susie Magill
The faint of heart need not apply.
It takes grit to play at Rice University’s Reckling Park on game day in front of 3,000 fans. It takes nerve to battle under the shadow of a preseason No. 1 ranking. Expectations overwhelm, and stomach knots tangle themselves inside even the most tested of athletes. Why? Because players know that a single performance can make or break an entire season.
But really, that’s all hogwash … and Rice juniors Bobby Bramhall, Joe Savery and Brian Friday know it. They understand that the fear is unnecessary, the knots are in their minds and the make-it-or-break-it theory is a myth. Standing boldly with other Christian teammates, their relaxed shoulders and genuine smiles affirm this truth.
Making a 180
“I came to Rice and had a terrible freshman year,” says Friday, the Owls’ All-American shortstop. “I went straight downhill because I didn’t have anything else to hold on to.”
| “...I had hit rock bottom. I viewed myself as worthless, not just in baseball, but as a person.” - Friday|
But that was before his defining moment. In front of a home crowd and television audience, he had his career-worst game in the showdown against Texas A&M. “I made a few crucial errors, which let them back in the game,” he says. “I honestly think the scorekeeper started to feel sorry for me because he began scoring some of them as hits.”
To add insult to injury, Friday struck out looking with the game tied, a runner on third and one out in the bottom of the ninth. He’d had it. He went home after the game and broke down.
“It was at that point that I realized I had hit rock bottom,” says the Houston native. “I viewed myself as worthless, not just in baseball, but as a person.”
Validated his entire life by how well he performed on the baseball field, Friday was completely lost. But an encouraging phone call from his dad reminded Friday that there was more to life than how well he swung a bat. He took his dad’s words to heart and began analyzing his life and just how empty it had been. He knew he needed more than baseball. His mind wandered to something he’d heard at a recent Rice FCA baseball Bible study—that surrendering his life to God would provide fulfillment—and Friday knew what he had to do. For the first time, he called out to Jesus Christ for help. And he has continued doing so for the past two years.
“Day by day, I just keep reading and praying and growing,” he says. “It has been a process, but it has led me to where I am today. I am so thankful for my freshman season. Although it was miserable, it was meaningful.”
Looking back, Friday says his life has taken a 180-degree turn. Now, instead of a good batting average, a life that reflects Christ is the source of his joy. He has surrendered his dreams, his passions, his relationships and his lifestyle.
“I never thought I would be able to give up some of the stuff I did,” says Friday of beginning his walk with Christ. “I thought I would just wait until later in life. But with God, it has been amazing. He has convicted me more and more until I feel I can do absolutely nothing but give up temptations. And I want to give them up, whether it is drinking, sex or whatever.
“I still struggle with things, but through the power of God, I have been able to avoid temptations.”
From Good to God’s
Joe Savery grew up in church and gained a “good kid” reputation. But it wasn’t until he came to Rice that he learned how to truly honor God with his life.
"I felt like God was testing me... He was challenging me, asking me if baseball was becoming my god." -Savery
As freshman roommates, he and Bobby Bramhall developed a strong friendship through which Savery was exposed daily to a Christ-reflecting life.
“I knew from the first time I met Bob that he was a man of faith,” says Savery, Rice’s All-American starting pitcher and first baseman. “I could tell he was farther down the road in his walk than I was.”
Savery’s relationships with solid Christians contributed to his outstanding “rookie” season. He started 63 games: 17 on the mound, 34 at first base, nine as the designated hitter and nine in left field. He finished the season with 129 strikeouts and led Conference USA in batting average (.382). For his efforts, Savery was named the National Freshman of the Year by both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, and he earned a spot on Team USA’s international tour, following in the famous footsteps of many major leaguers, including Ryan Howard and Nomar Garciaparra.
Rice’s #20 certainly seemed to have it made.
“Everything that could have gone my way in baseball did,” Savery says. “But during the season, I started to succumb to the pressures and temptations of college ball.”
During this time, Savery began to attend the FCA baseball Bible study, read his Bible and pray. Through the examples set by Bramhall and other Christian teammates, he identified areas of his life that were holding him back.
In the fall of his sophomore year, he laid it all down at the feet of Jesus. But what followed was the hard-knock lesson many Christians learn after fully surrendering to Christ: It’s a tough growing process.
“Soon after I rededicated my faith, I had a very tough first half of the season,” Savery admits. “Not only was I hitting terribly, my arm was hurting and I couldn’t pitch—I couldn’t even throw the ball 30 feet. I felt like God was testing me even though I put those temptations behind me. He was challenging me, asking me if baseball was becoming my god.”
Like Friday, Savery had based his identity in athletic success. This was the first time in his life he had ever struggled with his performance. But the spiritual results were worth the fight. Through his trial, Savery learned for whom he was to play.
“I realized how much I wanted baseball to be everything,” he says. “I wanted every accolade, every recognition that I could get. I wasn’t using [my success] as a platform [for God]. I was using it for me.”
Iron Sharpens Iron
With a lifetime of encouragement and the positive examples set by his parents, Bobby Bramhall made the decision to follow Christ early in life. But it was in college that it all clicked. He found God’s calling.
"Whenever you are alone, you hide things. You don't want everyone else to see that you have faults. But in an accountability relationship, you can share and feel like it is normal to go through struggles." -Bramhall
“I grew up being told to give Christ everything, but it isn’t until you are at the
Division I level that you see your days revolve around how well you play,” says Bramhall, the Owls’ most experienced southpaw reliever. “I’ve gotten to a point where I am like, ‘Wow, I really need to be glorifying God in all I do,’ because it is an example both on and off the field. It isn’t just limited to my quiet times or going to church; it is much more.”
And although Bramhall’s path to Christ had fewer detours than Savery and Friday’s, the three roads all intersected at Rice. Now each plays a key role in keeping aflame his brothers’ fires of faith. They encourage one another to be bold and to live lives pleasing to Christ. In a group dynamic reflecting Proverbs 27:17*, these men understand the importance of accountability.
Not only are Friday and Bramhall roommates, with Savery living in the same complex, but all attend the FCA baseball Bible study and are leaders in the campus Huddle. They spend time every week in fellowship with one another, asking tough questions and expecting real answers.
“We come together and ask how things are,” says Savery. “We know each other pretty well, so if someone isn’t giving us the whole story, we know it.”
Over the past three years, each member of the trio has served as an unyielding foundation for the others. Whether elevating their teammates and each other on the field, in the classroom or in their Christian walk, this cord of three strands remains taut.
“I don’t know where I would truthfully be in my relationship with God if I didn’t have Joe and Bobby on the team,” says Friday. “Just being able to look over at first base or the pitcher’s mound and see those guys is pretty comforting.”
“Whenever you are alone, you hide things,” Bramhall adds. “You don’t want everyone else to see that you have faults. But in an accountability relationship, you can share and feel like it is normal to go through struggles. It gives you somebody to fight the daily battle with. Fighting alone is hard, and you are going to fail a lot more than when you have someone right there, picking you up when you are about to fall.”
Bramhall, Friday and Savery also provide support for other athletes on campus. “These guys don’t just show up to FCA just because they have to or to give lip service,” says Joe Hornberger, North Houston/Rice University FCA Area Director. “They recognize themselves as Christian leaders on campus and try to show that in every part of their lives. They hold themselves to a higher standard.”
As a former Rice athlete and a 2002 graduate, Hornberger knows the challenges of maintaining a godly standard at Rice.
“I see where these boys are at now, and I wish I was there when I was in college,” he says. “They are hungry and want to keep improving. There is always something in their lives they want to work on. They are so motivated in their faith and walk.”
Maintaining and sharing this walk is what it all boils down to for Bramhall, Friday and Savery. Even being on a top-ranked team and playing for the title of champion, these athletes will be leaving Rice with more than just baseball memories.
“We come from different families and have different personalities, but the common link of pursuing God and remembering what matters most in life has brought us together,” says Savery. “What I will remember about these guys and our college experience is not only performing on the field and in the classroom, but that we were put in each other’s lives for a reason and, along with other athletes, really made an impact through FCA.”
Rice FCA baseball Bible study
Started in the mid-1990s, the Rice baseball Bible study has been meeting for more than 10 seasons. Led by former Rice baseball stars Jake Baker and Damon Thames along with FCA’s Joe Hornberger, the study gives athletes an environment in which to lay down pretenses and grow as a team.
About a third of the team attends each week to challenge each other in their faith. They speak openly on topics such as spiritual discipline, dating and playing aggressively; and they engage in detailed character studies on prominent biblical men such as Joshua and David. The study has even drawn MLB All-Stars Andy Pettitte and Lance Berkman, who have both shared their personal testimonies with the group.
“It gives the chance for everyone to be open and to fellowship and become closer,” says Joe Savery of the meetings. “The closer you are to your team, the harder you will fight for them and have their backs. And the more we are brought together and the more things we stand firm in, the better we will play.”
“It is incredible to have a core group of guys you can be real with,” adds Bramhall. “It is not just talking about drugs, sex, alcohol and other things that tempt a college athlete. We talk about relationships, how our Christian walk is going and our prayer lives. We get deep.”
For Baker, he feels grateful just for the chance to minister to those with whom he identifies so closely.
“I feel so blessed to have the opportunity to invest in these guys’ lives,” says Baker, who played in the Kansas City Royals organization from 1999-2001. “I’ve walked in the same shoes they have, so I can relate to them on a very personal level. They encourage me as much as I encourage them.”