Passions for football and ministry come together

Eddie Williams doesn’t worry about juggling two different roles — professional football player and youth minister — because he sees them as part of a larger calling.

Eddie Williams doesn’t worry about juggling two different roles — professional football player and youth minister — because he sees them as part of a larger calling.

Williams, who is on the Cleveland Browns roster and in 2011 played briefly for the Seattle Seahawks, started at Mountain Vineyard Christian Fellowship nearly three months ago.

He sees himself not as a football player or youth pastor but as a Christian.

“It really is a weird dynamic because there aren’t many guys who do that because their primary focus is football,” Williams said in a phone interview May 2. “Because I’m a follower of Christ that’s my primary identity, but I also play football. With the long offseason I’m able to pursue what I’m passionate about.”

Preaching God’s word, he said, is a calling he cannot ignore simply because he is in the NFL. So, he found a way to do both as part of his larger identity as a Christian.

Williams grew up in California. It wasn’t an easy childhood. His father was absent. His mother died when he was 13 after she battled cancer. Eventually, he found sports which led to a football career at the University of Idaho. That is where he met his wife, Sarah, who played volleyball for the Vandals.

“It wasn’t until I got to college that I felt the call to go into ministry,” Williams said. “I always thought that football was what I wanted to do and it still is what I want to do, but, it’s turned into more of a platform for my faith.”

Williams’ father-in-law, Roy Conwell, is the senior pastor at Mountain Vineyard, which is just outside of the city of Covington.

Conwell described Williams in an email interview as a good fit for the youth leadership team.

“I am not sure if he fits in a ‘comfortable’ sense because Eddie challenges us at almost every level, not only of our young adult ministry but our whole church,” Conwell wrote. “He reminds me of the apostle Paul who was not afraid to challenge the status quo of a church, another apostle or the Jewish leaders of his day, or the Greco-Roman culture where he planted churches.”

Challenging the status quo was one of the first things Williams did when he began working at Mountain Vineyard, which Conwell was supportive of, Williams said.

“He’s been on board with moving the group, changing the group,” Williams said of Conwell. “He’s given me the freedom to mold it into what it is.”

Instead of a youth group, it became a young adult group open to college students as well as high schoolers, with a significant shift in focus.

“Traditionally in the area and across the board young adults, youth group style of gathering are pretty vanilla,” Williams said. “They don’t go very deep as far as the Bible and they don’t go deep into the culture. It’s really just a place for people to hang out and enjoy dessert and play a few games. I wanted to take this idea of a youth and young adult group and make it contextual for what’s happening in our culture. The youth, the high school age kids, they’re more adult than in the past … than in previous generations.”

As a result, this generation requires and deserves a different approach, Williams said.

In his mid-20s, not so far removed from high school and college life, Williams knows what young people deal with in today’s world.

“The idea is to talk to them like they’re adults,” Williams said. “We’re not beating around the bush. Let’s deal with actual problems. Let’s make this a formal setting where you can get your questions answered.”

Not to say the weekly meetings of what’s now called Reach Ministries aren’t fun, Williams said, but the Wednesday evening sessions get beyond the surface level hang out element many youth groups are known for and tackles issues. There’s an anonymous question and answer period at the end. Williams explained the young people who attend can send questions in anonymously via text that he answers and offers strategies on how to talk through those things with their parents or friends.

“They’re hearing about Jesus Christ and they’re able to have their say in it, as well,” Williams said. “We also encourage the kids to bring people of different faiths … or atheists … and let’s have an open forum for discussion.”

This challenge to the status quo of tradition church youth groups seems to work.

When he began, Williams said, there were eight to 10, sometimes 12, kids each week, and it was the same faces. In 10 weeks that number has grown to more than 60.

“We’re not only seeing 60 plus kids, we’re seeing different kids,” Williams said. “We’re encouraged by the fact we’re seeing this kind of growth.”

It’s not just about growing at Mountain Vineyard, but about reaching kids across the region and trying to help them.

While his speaking style, which is straight-forward yet funny, and his life story have a certain draw, Williams said, he knows what brings young people back every Wednesday goes well beyond what he brings.

“I’m happy to play that role. Yes, I’m a football player, yes I’m a public speaker,” Williams said. “What keeps them here is the content and hearing about Jesus Christ.”

Conwell wrote that perspective allows Williams to push students to think differently.

“As an athlete he is attracting more young athletes to take a serious look at the life Jesus Christ is calling them toward,” Conwell wrote. “He presents the gospel as a life-long discipline based in forgiveness at the cross of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit to choose to live often in opposition to the current culture opinion of right and wrong.”

While there will be times in the fall Williams will be gone, he is confident in the foundation which has been laid as well as the other talented and passionate youth leaders in the church. There will be time at the end of the school year and in late August during which Reach Ministries takes a break to give students time to spend with their families and the youth leaders an opportunity to recharge.

During the fall when Williams is playing football there will be a variety of speakers scheduled to offer their perspectives.

Williams may have two completely different careers at the moment, but he knows he can manage them both.

“The two kind of mesh together,” Williams said. “Ultimately they fall together as me being a follower of Christ. Instead of bifurcating it … I see myself as a Christian. If I see this as a mission for Jesus, it helps me see things more clearly.”