As fans of professional football whipped themselves into a frenzy over the 1998 NFL playoffs, the quarterback of the team that was the odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl seemed strangely at peace.
He is Randall Cunningham of the Minnesota Vikings. Cunningham, the self-described "jumpy little quarterback" of games gone by, has come a long way to reach where he is now -- at the top of his game athletically and spiritually. A talented but troubled 6-foot, 4-inch star, Cunningham was known for making stunning plays, but also for being selfish and self-centered, alienating his teammates. In 11 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, he gained a reputation as an excitable quarterback who often bolted quickly from his pocket of pass protection, running down the field.
Cunningham bolted from football altogether in 1995. He walked away from the Eagles after the 1995 season, disgusted with his final seasons, and sat out the next year, saying he didn't feel like playing. He spent a year cutting marble for kitchen fixtures, apparently washed up as a player.
Cunningham said he left football needing a good shot of humility, and got it. "I was egotistical in certain areas of my life," he told the Associated Press. "I thought a lot about myself. And to get down and be with those guys in the trenches, laying tile and grinding countertops, and dirt flying in your face...it made me realize how tough it is out there."
Then came the "miracle comeback," a cliché to sportswriters but something real in more ways than one for Cunningham. He gave his life to Jesus Christ, was baptized, and then waited for God to let him know what to do next.
He didn't make any phone calls to see if he was welcome back in football, but decided that if a team called him he would consider it God's leading. Cunningham, then 35 years old, had told every team that he intended to remain retired from football, and none of them knew he was reconsidering, he said. "I said, 'Jesus, if it's your will for me to play football, give me a sign. Have teams call me," he told Knight-Ridder news service. The Vikings called, and at the end of the 1997 season Cunningham strapped on shoulder pads again and became their back-up quarterback.
But he wasn't the same player when he stepped back onto the field. The skittishness of the past had given way to a new sense of patience. "I used to drop back and have fear that I was going to be sacked. It's different now. I see the linemen coming forward, but I see a sense of peace."
Cunningham's new poise impressed his coaches. "I can promise you that his faith is real, and it's as single a reason for his play on the field as any," Vikings offensive coordinator Brian Billick told USA Today. "And that calm has rubbed off on me," said the coach, who is himself known for outbursts of temper.
After injuries to the first-string quarterback, Cunningham got his chance to start. As he dropped back to pass he waited more patiently behind his big offensive line for his receivers to make their moves, making tremendous plays and leading the Vikings to 16 wins with one loss, the best record in the league. He finished second in the NFL most-valuable-player voting to running back Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos.
"I'm overflowing with Jesus," he told reporters. "Some people don't want to hear about that and they get offended by it. I guess those are the people who have not received Him. Because once he's touched your life, you can't deny Him. I can't deny Him."
In January 1999, Cunningham said he hopes God will use him. He has his eye on the Super Bowl and its worldwide television audience as a platform for the gospel. The Bible "says the gospel is going to be preached in every nation and every language," he said. "In the Super Bowl, there are going to be 800-something million people watching. I have to tell you that God will use that to show people who he is."
Let’s take a lesson from Randall and take the opportunities God gives us to preach the gospel no matter what the stage.
16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me.
-1 Corinthians 9:16-23 (New International Version)
Dear Lord we thank you for men like Randall that are willing to stand for what they believe in. We pray that we would be bold and always take the time to share Your love with those around us. In Jesus’ name, amen.