By Marilyn Tinnin
Swayze Waters—Chasing Dreams but Trusting God
Thirty-year-old Swayze Waters has held on to a childhood dream to play in the NFL. He has chased that dream around the country with some hopeful highs and some disappointing lows. He made it to the final cuts with the Detroit Lions, the Oakland Raiders, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He spent four years in the Canadian Football League with the Toronto Argonauts where he was voted Special Teams Player of the Year in 2014.
Despite that success and despite the security of a sure position in Toronto, he seized an opportunity this past summer to try his skills once more in the NFL. He signed with the Carolina Panthers, headed off to training camp, and felt like this time would be the charm. He would compete for punting rights against 13-year NFL veteran Mike Scifres.
But despite putting up good numbers and performing at what he thought was his optimum; he received that dreaded call one morning when he least expected it. He was cut after the first exhibition game, earlier than he had ever been cut before.
Swayze handled the disappointment with unusual grace. It is because of his complete faith and trust in God’s faithfulness and God’s good plans for his life that he can resist feeling devastated.
When ESPN featured Swayze in their Undrafted documentary series this past fall, the reporter shot hours and hours of film here in Jackson following Swayze through his every day routine as he continued to practice his punting on his old Jackson Prep alma mater’s football field, work his other job as a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, and tackle a significant number of honey-do lists around the house as he and wife Kendal prepared to welcome their first child.
The footage that was aired provides a well-done glimpse into the emotional roller coaster of a young aspiring athlete, and, in this case, one who handles disappointment with remarkable maturity. Swayze’s only regret was that his faith is the major component of who he is, and the documentary omitted every vestige of that!
While thousands of young men leave college with the same dream Swayze has, there are only 256 who are selected in the NFL draft each year. Those who are left out can either abandon the dream or become free agents staying in shape and hoping for another chance.
Swayze is fortunate for many reasons right now. He has an offer on the table to return to the Canadian Football League for the 2017 season, is “talking” with a few other teams, and has a fulfilling job in sports ministry with FCA. Add to all of that the safe arrival of son Taitum Carr Waters on December 8 and the close proximity of family, it is not hard to explain the contentment he feels despite the fact that his NFL dream is still that—a dream that has not come true.
“I’m focusing on my family right now,” he says, adding that he and those interested teams will talk again after the Christmas holidays.
Closed Doors Aren’t All Bad
An all-around high school star at Jackson Prep, Swayze was the leading receiver all three years and voted as Most Valuable Player his senior year. He had his sights set on a chance to play at a Division 1 school, and it appeared that he was going to get his chance with Ole Miss. Shortly before the offer was set in stone, Ole Miss fired Coach David Cutcliffe, and the staff who had recruited Swayze were sent packing as well.
Instead of the opportunity to play in the SEC, Swayze received a scholarship to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). It may have felt like a great disappointment in the beginning, but what a blessing that turned out to be.
It was through his friendship with UAB quarterback turned Nashville recording star, Sam Hunt, that he met his soulmate and future wife, Kendal Carr. She just happened to be one of many of Sam’s cousins from Cedartown, Georgia, who often came to Birmingham to cheer for UAB’s football team.
It was also at UAB two team chaplains, Scotty Hollins and Dusty Davis, led Swayze to a deeper and more personal relationship with Christ than he had ever experienced before. As one who had spent his entire life around the church and around other Believers, he had never had anyone outside of his father or grandfather spend the one-on-one time pouring into him the verities of what a real walk with the Lord looked like.
As Swayze said, “I got it—really got it—for the first time. I was immersed in team Bible studies, discipleship groups all week long, and I was not bored. In fact, I wanted more of it.”
In retrospect, Swayze can trace God’s hand in the timing of this spiritual awakening. The two previous summers he had been to Honduras with the Jackson-based Salt and Light Ministry. It was there on his second mission trip Swayze describes an encounter with God that seemed to strip away all the shallow “good Christian church kid” games that he had played for years without even realizing it. He observed a kind of sold out brand of worship as the Honduran people came together with the mission team that last evening. There was an authenticity to their faith that Swayze did not have, and as they were praising and singing in their native Spanish, Swayze decided he no longer wanted to just go through the motions. He craved the real thing.
God was surely smiling. He had quite a number of plans, people, and prayers in place to help Swayze discover exactly what relationship with the Living God could be.
The Man Who Wouldn’t Take No
One of the great influences in Swayze’s life has been his grandfather, Sonny Steel. Swayze describes him as the “single most consistent persistent person I’ve ever met.” His entire life is an intentional awareness of living and sharing the gospel. Attentive to the spiritual nurture of his family, Sonny asked Swayze to come to his men’s Tuesday morning Bible study the summer he graduated from college. There were outstanding men of all ages who were faithful to that gathering and Sonny wanted his grandson to be around them.
The late Bill Buckner, director of the state office of FCA, was among them and was one of the men God put in Swayze’s path to make a great difference in his life. He took a special interest in Swayze and approached him about working for FCA. Swayze describes a three or four-month process of Bill trying to sell him on the idea and his coming up with all the reasons that was not going to happen. He was not anywhere close to giving up his NFL dream.
The very persuasive Bill finally said, “Okay, will you at least meet with one or twice a week and pray about it?” Grandfather Sonny said, “If all you do is spend time with Bill Buckner, it will be worth it.”
How could Swayze refuse? “I got to spend a lot of time with Bill learning and watching how he did things, how he talked to people, how he didn’t just teach the gospel but he lived it even when nobody else was around.” Swayze realized how right his grandfather had been to say that whether he went to work at FCA or not, he would never be sorry he had spent a lot of time with Bill.
As Bill began to call on Swayze to share his faith with young athletes and young coaches, God began to show Swayze how a sports platform provided a natural venue for introducing others to Christ. “Sports are a vehicle in today’s culture that connects everyone.” His personal motivation began to change from a desire to play professional football for the sake of football to a desire to excel at football because of the platform it affords to talk about a relationship with Jesus.
When Bill told Swayze that FCA would love to offer him a place to work in his off-season, he was out of excuses as to why he could not entertain the idea of working for FCA. It was no longer a choice between one door and another. God—alongside Bill Buckner—was giving him the opportunity to walk through both doors.
A Passion for Sports Ministry
Since Swayze’s defining moment on top of a mountain during a worship service in Honduras, he has been back to Honduras working with Salt and Light at least ten more times and each time feels that he is the recipient of fresh blessing.
Through his experience with FCA, he has seen the impact a sports ministry can have. Swayze made it a personal mission to encourage one in Honduras. A soccer ball can be a mighty ministry tool. It can bridge the language barrier and bring disparate cultures together.
It’s also far easier to sell another person on a new idea when you are passionate in your belief. That has been true for Swayze. The native clergy in Honduras were opposed to such a thought in the beginning. Sports and church? They did not think the two should ever be integrated. It took some patience and some relationship building to tear down some walls between church leaders and their preconceived notions about sports ministry. But when Swayze asked a pastor, “Who is your church reaching? Where are the men? Where are the kids?” The pastor could not deny those two groups congregated in mass numbers on a soccer field.
Through some creative planning, a lot of prayer, fundraising, and God’s blessing, the Salt and Light ministry, through a partnership with FCA, will have a staff member who will spend half of his time in official sports ministry as of January 1, 2017. FCA will provide the training and the support. It is a huge win for evangelism in Honduras.
And Swayze Waters will just continue to keep one foot in the door of his potential professional career and one foot in the door of FCA ministry. Either way, he says, “God is directing my path.”
A God Ordained Path Looks Like What?
So many people, Believers and Unbelievers alike, have set their hearts on dreams that don’t come true in exactly the way they imagined. Parents say to their children, “You can be anything you set your mind to,” but that is not true. Swayze laughs when he says, “If I could be anything I wanted to be, maybe I would be a singer right now, but no amount of hard work and perseverance is going to turn me into a singer! I have extreme limitations there!”
On a more serious note he says thoughtfully, “Scripture says, ‘In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.’ (Proverbs 16:9). I think that’s the perfect scripture for this scenario. For me, I was making my plans and I wanted to be playing for the Carolina Panthers right now. It looked like everything was going to work out, but here I am. If my identity had been in my plan or in my profession and a certain amount of success in that, then I certainly would right now be feeling like a failure and thinking my life is over. But since my identity is in Christ and I am grounded in who He is and I have confidence in the plan He has for me, there is really nothing to be sad about.”
Kendal Waters, cradling baby Taitum, is also the picture of contentment and peace. In the five years of their marriage, she has moved from pillar to post a couple of times. The future does not keep her awake at night. She says, “God has always taken care of us. It doesn’t matter where He calls us. When He opens the door, we’ll walk through it.”
2017 beckons. New adventures are there, and Swayze is just awaiting his orders, ready to walk through whatever door God opens. That’s when the best dreams come true.
To learn more about Swayze’s journey, be sure to google NFL.com and search Swayze Waters. Clips from the Undrafted video abound!