Sports Spectrum – Cover Story
September – October 1992
by Carey Kinsolving
Darrell Green’s most important race began one evening in 1988. He was driving home from one of those personal appearances that professional athletes make – the kind that gets them good publicity but adds little to the lives of those they visit. Green had gone to a downtown Washington apartment complex, but as he made his way home, he started thinking about what he had just done.
“I started asking myself, ‘What did I do for these kids?’” Green recalls. “All I did was sign a few autographs. I was on my way home knowing some of those kids didn’t have underwear.
“All I had done was pass out a few generic gifts, none of which were necessities. I started to cry, not because of the kids, but because I had not done anything for them.”
Green decided to get off the sidelines. The Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation was born. He asked his teammates for clothing and food for inner-city youth, he loaded a used van with the donations, and he began a series of trips into downtown Washington. “I just asked God to lead me to the right places,” Green says about the foundation’s first efforts. “I would pull up to an apartment and say, ‘Hey, I’m Darrell Green, do you need some clothes?’”
What the NFL’s fastest man had started was a race for the hearts – and indeed the lives – of America’s children. It is the kind of response this country needs to conditions reported by a 1990 Senate committee. Their “code blue” report concluded that self-destructive behavior causes the most suffering among America’s youth.
· Homicide ranks second among causes of death for adolescents.
· Unmarried teen pregnancies have risen 621 percent since 1940.
· 85 percent of teenage males abandon the teenage girls they impregnate.
· 25 percent of young black males in America are either in prison or under court supervision.
· Average age for first time drug use is 13 years old.
Sitting in the clubhouse of the Bretton Woods Recreation Center in Germantown, Maryland, with small white specks from a pre-season case of the chicken pox still on his face and arms, Green talked about his work with Washington’s inner-city kids. Admitting he should probably be in bed, Green had just spent a couple of hours posing for photos with golfers who played in the annual Darrell Green Hope Springs Golf Tournament.
Although Green receives help from fellow Redskins and friends in his efforts to help inner-city kids, he often feels like a lone player trying to score against an All-Pro defense. “In this type of service, you’re full, yet you remain hungry. We’re not winning the way we want to win; we’re not as strong as we would like to be,” Green says.
Green’s forays into the inner city have led to activities in city parks. Green and some helpers wearing Super Bowl rings show up in Washington’s inner-city parks with hot dogs, kickballs, volleyballs, and clothes.
Last year the foundation launched its most ambitious project, the Darrell Green Learning Center. Bible-based computer reading programs aid volunteers in teaching children both character development and technical skills. About 50 students enrolled in the pilot program last winter, and Green expects about 300 students this fall.
Trying to tackle the difficulties of these children at risk is not like a football game with instant results, rather “it’s a lifetime for children – from one grade to the next and one crisis to the next,” Green explains.
Green readily admits that it’s easy to become discouraged, because the pats on the back don’t come as frequently as they do in a football game. “But if God gives you a work to do, He’ll supply you with the strength, endurance, and courage that you need,” Green says confidently.
Green likens his role to that of John the Baptist. Just as John said he must decrease so that Jesus could increase, Green said the emphasis on his high profile must diminish so that the foundation’s work can expand. Green sees his football fame as a tool to cut through bureaucracy so he can focus attention on the obvious needs of inner-city children.
In this way, Green seems to be following in the footsteps of Redskins’ coach Joe Gibbs. In the early 1980s, Gibbs led members of his Sunday school class to work at a Washington halfway house for teenage boys. This eventually led to a first-class boys’ home called Youth for Tomorrow, with a budget of more than $1 million a year and accommodations for 29 boys.
“It would have been very easy for him [Gibbs] to keep a lower profile,” explains Gibbs’ former Sunday school teacher, John Fitzgerald. “He used his fame or celebrity status to God’s glory. He said, ‘Okay, people are attracted to me because of my fame, but I’ll use it to build this boys’ home.’”
Gibbs and Green also followed similar paths before launching their youth works. Both admit that they were distracted by football fame before understanding God’s design for them to use their status as a vehicle to help others. Green uses the term “self deception” to describe his spiritual condition when he came to Washington as the Redskins’ first round draft choice in 1983. He had a new car, a new condo, and money in the bank, and no one could tell him anything. “I was untouchable,” is how he described the young Darrell Green.
Green admits he was looking for his identity in the adulation of football fans. “It’s a struggle,” he says now, “because people are not made to be glorified like that.”
Green credits his spiritual recovery to a persistent pastor, now his best friend, Brett Fuller. Green explains that Fuller made no personal demands on him. Through a Bible study, Green felt the Holy Spirit begin to convict him of the vanity of depending upon fleeting football fame for his identity. This was the second major turning point in Green’s life.
The first came when he attended a college Bible study at Texas A&I. “When I heard the gospel, I was shocked,” Green recalls. He always considered himself a “good kid.” While winning all-state honors in track and all-city in football at Jones High School in Houston, he was too busy to get in trouble.
“But when Jesus revealed himself to me, I said, “I’m as wicked as anybody else.” In my standards, I’m okay, but in the standards of Christ, I nailed Him to the cross,” Green says. “I had lived life in my own righteousness, and the Bible says we are the righteousness of God in Christ Jesus.”
Green led a Bible study soon after his conversion – perhaps too soon, he admits. People wrongly assumed that his leadership on the athletic field would translate to leadership in the spiritual realm. It didn’t. The leadership role contributed to the spiritual delusion that characterized his life as a rookie Redskin, he says.
Green makes a clear distinction between being a disciple of Jesus and a convert of Jesus. A disciple is dangerous because he is disciplined in spiritual matters, but a new convert is vulnerable and needs time to learn how to follow Jesus. Green says that he trusted Jesus as his Savior at Texas A&I, but he didn’t allow Him to become master over his life until the Word of God began to perform a “spiritual autopsy” on him under the ministry of his friend Brett Fuller.
Studying the Bible and applying its principles has opened Green’s eyes to a realm in which kids are perishing for lack of spiritual vision. Green wants to reclaim lost territory of the inner city by helping young people obtain the skills necessary to compete in the job market, while at the same time imparting the eternal values of the gospel.
Green sees the lack of leadership in the home as his biggest challenge, but he hopes to attend hundreds of graduations, weddings, and baby showers of the children who receive help through his foundation. “I want to bring back that old society of responsible moral families and children. My hope and dreams are for righteousness to prevail. In righteousness there is joy, peace, victory, and blessing,” Green comments.
Those affected by Green’s vision are not limited to children. One of the highlights of the year for Redskins’ players, coaches, and friends is the Christmas party organized by Green’s foundation, where the Redskins give personalized gifts to needy children. Each gift-giver receives a photo of a child with clothes sizes, and then buys three gifts, which are given at the party.
Green says he gets a bigger kick out of hearing the players tell about their experiences with the needy children than seeing the kids open their gifts. The first year Green threw the party, he received a locker-room standing ovation from his teammates. Some of the players continued their relationships with the children by writing and calling them. At this year’s Christmas party, First Lady Barbara Bush is scheduled to read Christmas stories.
One of the players most affected by Green’s dedication is free safety Brad Edwards. “Darrell has had a real direct impact on me,” Edwards says. “This year I really got tremendously involved with individual kids. Now that I realize the time and effort it takes to work with kids, I’ve gained so much respect for him [Green].”
Edwards became a Christian at the age of 10 in a South Carolina church, but held back on a full commitment to serve Christ. In August of 1991, after years of vacillating, Edwards said, he realized the futility of seeking happiness in the heady perks of pro football. Edwards said Green and other Christians on the team exude a spiritual aroma that is difficult to resist.
“They were driven, yet content,” Edwards explains. “They just seemed to have incredible purpose. I began to get a flavor for that, and God really spoke to me.”
Edwards also has grown on the field. Last season started with a question mark and ended with an exclamation point. He became a starter only when Todd Bowles left in the Plan B draft, but finished runner-up for the Super Bowl MVP award, pulling in two Buffalo interceptions.
“Brad did an excellent job for us,” says defensive backs coach Emmit Thomas. “He is a leader.”
Another Redskin who supports Green’s work with kids is defensive tackle Tim Johnson. The foundation and its activities have become an off-the-field rallying point for the Redskins, Johnson said. “Most of the guys that have been around for a while have been involved at one point or another,” he notes.
Johnson says the benefits of winning a football game are fleeting, but “when you can touch the lives of other people, especially in the name of the Lord, that lasts a lot longer than winning any game.”
Last year, the 283-pound Johnson led all defensive linemen for the Redskins with a career-high 82 tackles. Redskins’ defensive line coach Torgy Torgeson says of Johnson, “He’s all you could ask for in a defensive tackle.”
Asked if it’s easy to trust the Lord when you’re a Super Bowl champion, Johnson said, “You need to be more aware of grace when you are winning because of the temptation to pride. Bible study gives you the focus for what we’re really living for.”
Johnson is thinking of a pulpit ministry after his playing days, but says he’s in no rush. “The Lord is doing a lot in my life that needs corrected. When it’s time, it’ll be time. I want to know my heart is pure.”
With one Super Bowl victory under their belts, Johnson and Edwards are relative neophytes compared to the veteran Green, who has played in three Super Bowls and five Pro Bowls. But neophyte or veteran, they know that God’s grace is there to help them reach out to the children in that all-important race for their hearts.
Joe Gibbs is as much an action-oriented Christian as he is an action-oriented coach. When Washington sportscaster Glenn Brenner, already hospitalized with a brain tumor, took a turn for the worst last winter Gibbs went to his bedside with the game ball from the Skins’ playoff victory over the Falcons.
John Fitzgerald of Gibbs’ church recalls another incident that typified his sense of priority. Gibbs had taken some boys from his boys’ home to training camp. After practice, while the coach was being interviewed in a forest of reporters and TV cameras, one boy asked Gibbs if he could talk to him.
“Joe just put his arm around this boy and turned around and walked away with him,” Fitzgerald says. “He just kind of said, ‘Hey, this is more important.’”
Gibbs’ friend Joe Meade sums up his philosophy, “He’s a true man of God whose actions speak louder than his words. He focuses as his No. 1 priority his relationship with God.”