March/April 2012 seeing the light dave pond
"All He wants is all we got.”
It’s a simple phrase, yet one that means everything to former two-sport Baylor University star Melissa Jones, who ends every email with those encouraging words.
Over the last four seasons, “MJ,” the Big 12 Conference 2011 Female Sportsperson of the Year, was just as comfortable sharing Christ’s love with others as she was distributing the rock to her teammates. Her work ethic, athleticism and faith shined both on and off the court—even as darkness, quite literally, crept in.
During a February 27, 2011, road matchup against conference rival Oklahoma, Jones dove for a loose ball in an attempt to gain possession for the Lady Bears. As she fell, Jones’ right temple struck the ground, and another player landed on top of her. Over the next few minutes, the vision in Jones’ right eye faded from normal to fuzzy and then to complete blackness. During a timeout, she talked her way back into the game and played the remaining minutes of the Lady Bears’ 82-81 victory with one good eye. Then it was off to the hospital.
“...it seemed like nothing was going the way I wanted it to. And I think that in and of itself was the problem. It was how I wanted my life to go; I wasn’t leaving it in God’s hands.” – Jones
“I thought my eye was just swollen shut from the hit, but I held my eye open with my fingers and was still unable to see,” Jones said. “I was a nervous wreck. When I was getting checked out, our trainer had to remind me that we did indeed win the game, because I couldn’t remember.”
After undergoing a battery of tests in Norman, Okla., Jones returned to Waco where she began a three-day steroid treatment to try to restore her sight. She sat out the next game, a home showdown against Missouri in which the Lady Bears entered the arena wearing shirts displaying Jones’ No. 5 in honor of their injured teammate
Less than a week later, before the Bears’ March 5 game at Colorado, Jones, who was still completely sightless in one eye, spent several hours shooting and playing defense, trying to adjust and learn how limited sight would affect her play.
“It obviously didn’t take long to realize that it was going to make things a lot more difficult,” said Jones, a native of Thornton, Colo., and two-sport all-state prep star in both basketball and volleyball. “I couldn’t see players or anything that was going on the right side of my body. It felt like I was making myself dizzy by spinning my head so much, and I even ran in circles sometimes.”
Despite her handicap, Jones started against the Buffaloes and played 24 minutes in Baylor’s 81-59 win. To Jones, however, the score didn’t mean as much as the simple gratitude she felt to God for enabling her to play.
“It was a special moment for me to see God’s work,” she said. “I received so much support, not only from my teammates, but also from Colorado’s players, their coaching staff and fans. I realized that there are things so much more important and bigger than the game.”
Still undergoing treatment for a yet-undiagnosed condition, Jones played in Baylor’s final seven games, including those in the conference and NCAA tournaments. The Lady Bears finished the season with a 34-3 record, making it all the way to the Elite Eight before being ousted by the eventual champion Texas A&M Aggies.
Regarding individual honors, Jones was named to both the Big 12 and NCAA Regional All-Tournament teams, and her jersey was retired by Baylor after the season. She also finished as the Lady Bears’ 2010-11 leader in both assists (135) and steals (67) despite the injury.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to contribute 100 percent, but I was determined to do whatever it took to help my team,” Jones said. “Whether that meant me being on the court or showing support from the sidelines, I wasn’t going to give up. I wanted to give back to my coaches for all they had given me and push through for my teammates who had shown how much they cared for me.”
After finishing her basketball eligibility, Jones hoped to continue her hoops career in the WNBA. According to many predictions, she had the stats and reputation worthy of a draft spot. But on draft day, her phone remained silent. When coupled with the disappointment of having only regained partial vision, Jones felt defeated.
“I was at a loss because it seemed like nothing was going the way I wanted it to,” she said. “I think that in and of itself was the problem. It was how I wanted my life to go; I wasn’t leaving it in God’s hands. It took me a while to realize how selfish I was in all of it, but looking back on it now, I see how much it helped me grow.”
Read justing her mindset, Jones made new plans. Instead of heading to a WNBA training camp like she’d hoped, Jones joined several fellow athletes and Baylor Athletic Chaplain Wes Yeary—also the Baylor FCA Huddle Coach—on a mission trip to Nairobi, Kenya—her third trip as a Bear. But this trip would be different. Not only would it serve as vehicle through which Jones could continue serving Christ via sports ministry, but it also would open a new athletic door for her back in Waco.
Along for the trip were several members of the Baylor volleyball team. As a former standout in that sport as well, Jones played with them on several occasions during the mission and began to sense a new development. Realizing that she had one year of eligibility remaining in which to play a different Baylor sport, Jones returned to the States, talked with volleyball coach Jim Barnes, and found herself on the roster for the 2011 season.
“MJ’s desire was to play in the WNBA, so it was tough when her injury kept her from doing so,” said Yeary, who serves in the chaplain role along with Katherine Johnson, wife of FCA Multi-Area Director Ben Johnson. “But the way she handled it and adjusted to God’s plan was great. It really showed the depth of her faith in Christ.”
While volleyball came naturally to Jones, the on-court dynamics were a challenge. Instead of playing almost every minute of every game like she had on the hardwood, Jones moved into the role of a sub, backing up All-Big 12 setter Kate Davis.
According to Yeary, the move could have been a blow to any college athlete’s ego, but that wasn’t the case for Jones.
|The Passion of Palmer|
Baylor Buds: Jones and Palmer
A story about Melissa Jones wouldn’t be complete without an accompanying account regarding Lady Bears’ guard Lindsay Palmer. After all, the fun-loving, Christ-seeking teammates are constant companions on and off Baylor’s Waco campus.
In addition to spur-of-the-moment skydiving and train-hopping escapes, Palmer and Jones have become heavily invested in the university’s flourishing FCA Huddle, helping provide leadership for fellow Baylor athletes. It is a shared journey that started four years ago after a routine recruiting trip and Jones’ invitation to Palmer to join her at FCA.
“College was a pivotal point in my relationship with God because that is where my faith became my own,’ said Palmer, who graduated in three years and is now pursuing a master’s degree in public health/community health education. “I instantly fell in love with the FCA atmosphere. The people there were welcoming and fun, and it was a good way for me to help keep my priorities in check and to find support from other athletes adjusting to similar changes.”
Wes Yeary, who has served as Baylor’s athletics chaplain and FCA Huddle Coach since 2008, is equally thankful for Palmer and the role she plays in FCA and the lives of her teammates.
“It inspires me to see a student who is so unwavering in her faith, who won’t compromise to please the crowd, and who desires to honor God in every aspect of life,” Yeary said. “Lindsay is certainly one of those athletes.”
Jones, even before her eye injury, also credits Palmer with encouraging her to pursue Christ in a variety of ways.
“Lindsay has been one of the most influential people in my life,” Jones said, “not just as a friend, but as the one who has helped me realize that having a good understanding of God in my head is completely different than having the kind of ‘heart’ relationship I can have with Him.”
As for Palmer herself, she’s just happy to help in whatever way she can—to both bless and be blessed. And she remains thankful for the influences God has placed in her life that allow her to stay close to Him.
“The start of college comes along with a lot of new challenges—time management, difficult workouts, making new friends, and being away from home—which allows FCA to play a key role in our lives,” she said. “It provides a place for us to meet other student-athletes, and for different team members to intermingle and support one another. It really gives us a chance to vocalize our motivation for playing, and it gives us a platform where we can live it out.”
“In every challenge, we either turn toward the Lord or away from Him,” he said. “MJ has certainly struggled at times, but she has sought God through it all. She’s given her all and has been an ultimate team player and encourager. And personally, I’ve just admired her hunger to learn and grow and hear from Him through everything.”
Jones’ faith in Christ initially began in the home. She credits her mother and grandmother for teaching her to give God glory in all things, but it wasn’t until she arrived at Baylor that she began to really blossom spiritually—a transformation she traces back to a teammate’s invitation to FCA.
During Jones’ freshman year, teammate Haylee Abbe was going to a Huddle meeting and invited Jones to go along. After accepting the invitation, Jones was immediately captured by the environment.
“After experiencing one night at FCA, all I wanted to do was go back and get more involved,” she recalled. Jones quickly began to experience a deeper relationship with Christ by immersing herself in FCA. She became a member of the Huddle’s leadership team, a regular speaker and a participant in events both on and off campus. Jones also started investing spiritually in her teammates and classmates and became well-known in the community.
“Because MJ is a very contagious person to be around, the whole city of Waco embraced her, and she became tagged as the ‘Most-Loved Female Athlete at Baylor,’” chaplain Katherine Johnson said with a laugh. “I don’t think the Baylor basketball team had ever seen somebody who worked so hard and committed herself so deeply as Melissa did.”
The FCA Huddle at Baylor—in addition to weekly meetings, discipleship groups and chapel programs—currently serves the Waco community by working with local homeless shelters, a juvenile correctional facility and local schools.
Right in the middle of it all is Jones.
“MJ makes the people she’s around feel important and valued,” Yeary said. “The memory etched in my mind is one of her kneeling down and looking eye-to-eye with a homeless boy living on the streets of Nairobi. When I saw her smiling and talking with this boy—his clothes covered in filth and a glue bottle in his sleeve—I thought of Jesus and how He saw through the exterior and into the heart and just loved on people. I know He has used her many times to do the same thing.”
Some of those included on that list of impact would be Jones’ teammates, who have watched as she has endured challenges with faith and authenticity, all while continuing to reach out to them with the love of Christ.
Senior guard Lindsay Palmer, also a member of the Kenya team, recalls being invited to FCA by Jones in 2008. The two became fast friends and practically inseparable through competing, worshipping and ministering together.
“When MJ got injured, I wondered how it would affect her,” Palmer said. “It was amazing. She didn’t view it has a roadblock, but as a speed bump. Of course she continued playing—anyone who knew Melissa wasn’t surprised by that. She had hard times, but she remained strong in telling herself the truth that God had a plan for her life, that He was with her every step of the way, and that she still had one good eye to be thankful for. By the world’s standards, she had every right to complain, but she focused on what she could do rather than what she couldn’t, and that’s just one of the many reasons why she’s an inspiration to me.”
As the book closes on Jones’ time as a college athlete, the light of Christ continues to shine through her, from Waco to Nairobi to every Google image that shows her sporting sunglasses on the basketball court—a true testament to the power of God in an athlete sold out to Him.
Currently, Jones’ vision remains a day-to-day challenge and one that she continues to entrust to God and His work through a variety of doctors.
“None of the doctors have an exact diagnosis, really,” she said. “One said it was just the swelling of my optic nerve, while another said they thought some of the fibers from my optic nerve were detached. They’re all very optimistic, though, and feel that my eyesight should return. In some cases like mine, it has taken between six days to six years for full sight to return, and in some it hasn’t returned at all. So, it really is a daily question mark.”
But Jones doesn’t view her story as one of tragedy or missed opportunities, but rather as one of God-given resiliency, determination and passion to share how He has worked in her life. And according to Jones, whatever comes next will be the Lord’s doing—whether that’s playing, coaching or any other surprise opportunity that comes up.
“I have a goal now to live life in such a way that any experience, action or conversation will help make someone’s life better,” she said. “Above all else, I want to make God’s name known. He sent His Son to die on the cross and forgive us of the sins we have committed, are committing, and will commit. The least that I can do is give Him all of my efforts in everything I do, in every aspect of life—no matter what.”
--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.
Courtesy of Baylor Photography; Lindsay Palmer