Football Hero: Winning is Just Step One in His MissionBRIAN MCGUIRE
Josh Heupel led his team, the Oklahoma Sooners, to an undefeated season and this school year’s college football national championship. Then, the Associated Press named him player of the year. So did the Sporting News. He was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. But all of that isn’t what’s most impressive about Josh Heupel. “He has really given his life to God and is trying to live up to what God’s plan is for him,” explains his mother.
There are only two groups of people who don't get along with Josh Heupel: The teams he's playing against (they lose), and people who tell him he can't run a service organization and be a top quarterback at the same time (they eat their words).
He led his team, the Oklahoma Sooners, from a 19th-place ranking in the pre-season Associated Press poll to an undefeated season and this school year's college football national championship. Then, the Associated Press named him player of the year. So did the Sporting News. He was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, and winner of the prestigious Walter Camp player of the year award.
He told the Register he didn't know where he would end up, but more news is certain to follow later this month at the NFL draft.
Yet, while most college football stars might be inclined to party under the limelight of so much success and to soak up the attention of the press, Heupel is sticking to a mission he first envisioned as a boy.
He was in the second grade. I remember it well," recalled Josh's mother Cindy, a high school principal in Aberdeen, S.D. "I picked him up after school and he said 'Mom, I know what my mission in life is … to help kids that get into trouble.'"
"You know I'm going to be a football player, Mom," Josh told her. "And pro-football players make a lot of money. That's how I'll do it. That's what God wants me to do with my life."
"We'll see how that develops," Cindy Heupel recalls saying.
Three years ago, Josh's "mission" came up again in a conversation with his mother. Just before the University of Oklahoma recruited Josh from a community college in Utah, Josh gave her an update, saying, "I don't know exactly what I'm going to do, but I know what my mission in life is. It's to help at-risk kids and to help people who are disadvantaged and homeless."
Those words weren't empty.
Amid the hard work and excitement of this year's run for the national championship, Josh Heupel could have put off his plans to help the poor and needy. But in November, he began collecting food at games to provide Thanksgiving dinners for poor people in his community.
"Prior to the game with Texas Tech, we were able to help over 250 families with Thanksgiving. After that we helped 14 elementary school students with Christmas gifts," said Mike Whitson, who, as an official with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, collaborated with Heupel in bringing food to the poor people of Norman, Okla.
After the food drive, Josh might have been excused again for putting his good works on hold. The season wasn't yet over, his team was gaining momentum and the attention of the national media began to focus more intensely on Josh, whose accomplishments on the field were multiplying by the game.
But in the middle of one of the more surprising team turnarounds in college football memory, Heupel and Whitson decided to make their work with the local poor a permanent venture. They would use Josh's now-famous jersey number, 14, to launch a charitable organization that would last long after Josh left for the pros.
"Josh's [fame] gives him a huge platform to do stuff like this," Whitson said.
"A lot of people go out for a day and do a service project," he said. "Josh is the type who will want to make sure that that continues that's what gives him that rare quality."
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Heupel admits that while his reputation for focus and determination may be apt, he can't take all the credit.
"I think the Lord has blessed me tremendously throughout my life," Josh, 23, told the Register. "I'm thankful, so I want to give back to people who aren't as fortunate as I have been. It's something that I enjoy and will continue throughout my life."
Right now, Josh is focused on his next step: the NFL. His performance at the February's Combine a weeklong invitation-only event at which top-rated college players demonstrate their abilities for pro scouts went "very well." Now, it's a just waiting game.
"I don't think any of the players has a true sense of where they'll be. It's unpredictable," Heupel said.
But given his focus, friends and relatives don't expect him to sit around and wait for the call.
Indeed, Heupel said the demands of prayer, family, training and fame can be rather difficult, but that he's trying not to let his "blessing become a burden."
"The hardest thing people have to learn," Heupel said, "is to manage their time. For myself learning to mix time between faith, the classroom, spending time preparing to do football and helping others, the key to all that is taking your faith into every aspect of life."
In May 1997, while playing for community college in Utah, Heupel tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees, an injury that puts most players out of commission for six months. Heupel recovered in a matter of weeks, but the experience changed his priorities.
"God wasn't number one in my life," Heupel said of the period just prior to and immediately following his injury.
"Things weren't going along the way I planned. My first year in college I allowed other things to become number one. I had to give God complete control over my life."
Soon after recovering, Heupel was recruited by Oklahoma and his whirlwind rise to national prominence began.
FAMILY IS KEY
One of the greatest blessings for Heupel, he says, is his family. He credits a close relationship with his parents, sister and relatives for his growth as a Christian, a leader and a giver.
"My parents were both leaders in their fields," Heupel said of mom Cindy and Dad Ken, a college football coach at Northern State University in Aberdeen.
"They are great human beings who genuinely care about the well-being of others," Josh said. "I saw the commitment they made to each other, but also to other people. They instilled those values in me."
Cindy Heupel said her formula is to form a strong Catholic family that respects others whatever their religion or background. "We firmly believe that our priorities in life are faith, family and our careers," she said.
"We always made a point of spending time together and doing family things together," she added. "We were very fortunate because both of our parents made and effort to attend our children's baptisms and confirmations. We celebrated not only the fact that we were a family, but that we were a Christian family."
BRUSH WITH DEATH BROUGHT FAMILY TO LIFE
It was a brush with death a severe stroke when she was 33 that Cindy Heupel believes strengthened her family most. It taught them, she said, that "through faith and prayer you can get through everything."
After the stroke, Cindy had to learn again to walk and to see. Throughout this difficult time, she prayed only, she said, that God would give her more time with her children. "He granted me that prayer, and I haven't taken that for granted."
Looked at through the eyes of faith, Cindy says her illness and recovery have given her an insight into the life that awaits her famous son, Oklahoma Sooners football star Josh Heupel.
"I know that people say his performance [on the field] is tremendous, but if all you see in Josh is football, you've missed the most important things, and that's who Josh is as a person.
"I believe that God has a plan for Josh. He's a very strong Christian young man and sometimes, as a mom, I just pray that he'll have the courage and the strength. He has really given his life to God and is trying to live up to what God's plan is for him."
As for Josh, he thinks he's ready for what lies ahead, on the field and off.
"In today's society high-profile athletes are automatically thrust into the role of a role model. Some choose to embrace that and some don't. I think it's important to embrace it," Josh said.
"As human beings we are all going to fall short and none of us is strong enough to do the right thing all the time, but with that relationship [with God] it definitely gives me the strength to get through each day."
Brian McGuire. "Football Hero: Winning is Just Step One in His Mission." National Catholic Register. (April 1-7, 2001).
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Brian McGuire is a Register Correspondent.
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