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Faith and Football: Thirty Years Later

Posted by Tunch Ilkin on

This summer, I had the chance to sit down with Tanner Morehead, one of our Summer Leaders here at The Bible Chapel, and talk about faith, football, and how God has taken me on a journey from the Steelers to The Bible Chapel over the last thirty-seven years. What a journey!

TM: What were your passions and priorities when you started out playing football?

TI: My biggest passion was football, but my other passion was having a good time. I fell for the lies of false manhood: that men partied, did drugs, drank, and chased women. I was like that back then.

Then, when I came out to the Steelers, football was my god. I just wanted to play football, make money, and I was still doing drugs. I thought all that stuff would bring me fulfillment, but instead I felt empty.

TM: Then how did you come to know Christ?

When I came to the Steelers, there were a bunch of men who loved the Lord, loved each other, and loved me. They started sharing the good news of the Gospel with me.

On a flight home from Oakland, following my first start in the NFL, Mike Webster once asked me the question everyone has to answer: “If you died today, where would you spend eternity?” I said, “Gee Webby, I don’t know. If God grades on a curve, I figure I’m ok.” Having been a Muslim, we had a scales mentality. If your good outweighs your bad, you’re bound for heaven. Well, that’s when I learned the message of the cross: that all men have sinned and fall short of God’s standard, and the penalty of that sin is death. Separation from God. Hell. Not just physical death, but spiritual death. The good news is that God gave us eternal life in his Son, Jesus.

Craig Wolfley was my roommate, he was a believer, and he was also sharing with me. The night I gave my life to Christ, we were driving home from a football banquet. At the end of the night he was driving me home, and he knew I was weakening. “Tunch,” he said, “Would you like to pray to receive Christ?” I said, “No, I don’t think so, Wolf. I think that would be too weird. I need a little more time.” Then he said, “Well, don’t wait too long. I’d hate for you to die before you have that opportunity.”

At the time, I had been reading The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey: an intriguing book about end-times prophecy. At the end of his book, Lindsey gives you an opportunity to pray the sinner’s prayer and accept Christ. That night in February of 1982, I was sitting in my room and I said, “Alright Lord, if you’re real, here it is.” I don’t know if I was expecting something to happen, maybe a lightning bolt, but I remember thinking to myself, “I hope it took.” That started my journey. It was a little slow: I was still doing some drugs, and it was hard to completely stop what I was doing. I was kind of a secret service Christian when I first gave my life to Christ. I wasn’t really living for him, but I remember hearing the words: “If you are ashamed of me before man, I will be ashamed of you in heaven before the Father.” I realized I was ashamed of God. Galatians 6:7 says, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”(ESV) I realized I was mocking God by still doing drugs and alcohol. I wanted the fire insurance. I wanted the savior, but I didn’t want the Lord.

In Revelation 3:16, God gives a warning to the church in Laodicea: “So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (ESV) The funny thing is, those springs that John is using as an illustration are in Turkey where I was born. Laodicea is in southwestern Turkey, and we actually went to some of those pools. You pay your twenty-five bucks and you can swim among the columns, ruins, and statues. In that part of Turkey there are hot springs and mineral baths that are soothing, and good for healing. On the other hand, there are the cool springs, which are refreshing and good to drink. Then, they have these lukewarm sulfur springs that are good for nothing. I remember the first time I dove in the water, I got a mouthful of that sulfur and I spit it out. It didn’t taste good!

So that’s when I really got serious. Probably around 1984 I started getting really serious about walking with Jesus. My life changed.

TM: When that happened, how did you start to see your priorities change?

TI: I started trying to play football for the Lord instead of myself. I realized that playing in the NFL was a gift given to me by the Lord, and I needed to play for him. I went from just wanting to excel at the game, to wanting to use the platform that God had given me as a professional athlete to share the good news of the Gospel. It was really freeing because when you play for yourself, your circumstances dictate how you feel about yourself. When you start playing for the Lord, you know that all you’ve got to do is give your best.

God is more concerned with your heart, and the effort that you give, than whether you play well or not.

It was a constant tug of war though. I don’t want you to think that I was this all-in Christian without issues, but I really tried. I was putting my focus on the Lord. I realized I’m not here because I got myself here; I’m here because the Lord put me here.

TM: Back in your days as a football player, what did it look like when you really started to take Christ seriously? How did you start to pour into your fellow teammates?

TI: First of all, I started being more vocal. When I first got saved and heard I had to start telling people about Christ, I was like, “You mean I have to tell people? Oh no, I couldn’t do that. It’d be too weird.” But as you grow in faith, you get excited because you want people to know.

If a guy needed prayer or the comfort of the Word, I went from the guy who would sit back to a guy who was more vocal and caring, praying for fellow teammates.

The bottom line is that the Lord gave me more openness and boldness. He helped me to become more others-centered and caring. He helped me realize that it’s not for myself that I am doing this.

TM: When did your involvement with The Bible Chapel start?

TI: I started coming to The Bible Chapel in 1987. My wife, Sharon, and I were out walking with our son, Tanner, who was two years old at the time. We passed by The Bible Chapel and Sharon said, “Hey, that’s where the Wolfleys, the Websters, and the Petersons go.” They were all friends of ours, so we decided to check it out. The first time we came, we knew it was our new church! In '93 or '94, Ron Moore was preaching on using your gifts. Sharon said to me, “So, what are you going to do?” She had been involved in children’s ministry and the nursery. I had been in the nursery a couple of times, but I don’t know if that’s my giftedness. At the time though, we had lost our youth pastor, so they needed a replacement. Ron and Jim Chamberlain, one of our elders, asked if I would consider taking over the senior high youth ministry as a volunteer ‘til they got a youth pastor. I said, “Sure!” We lived in Deerfield Manor, so it was easy for parents to drop their kids off at our house on Wednesday nights and travel to The Bible Chapel for Bible study. We did youth ministry for six years, from 1994 to 2000.

I’m really thankful that I can serve. It’s such a privilege that God can use us in spite of us. Thinking about my past, and what a knucklehead I still am at times, it is a tremendous blessing that God can use me, and use us all for his glory.

TM: When did your involvement with the men’s ministry start?

TI: I’ve always been a big locking arms guy, and I’ve always had men in my life. When I was a player, I was mentored by guys like John Kolb, Mike Webster, Donnie Shell, and John Stallworth. I had these guys pouring into me. Then, I had guys like Wolf; he was an encourager, an iron-sharpener, and a buddy. We spent a lot of time together and we were in prayer.

Then, when I got into youth ministry, there was Dave Good, one of the founders of The Bible Chapel. I asked him if he would mentor me. So, for around ten years I would go to Dave’s accounting office every Wednesday morning and spend a lot of time studying the Word. I believe that my love for the Word was influenced by him. His enthusiasm and passion for the Word … I caught that. It was taught and caught at the same time.

I also used to go to a Bible study at John Kolb’s house in Wexford. Once I said to him, “I love coming to your Bible study, but man, it’s an hour out here. I wish you still lived in the South Hills.” He said, “Well Tunch, why don’t you start one in the South Hills?” I said, “Oh no, I could never do that.” To which he replied, “I’m going to start praying right now that you start one in the South Hills!” I replied, “Aw man, I wish you wouldn't have done that!” Well, that’s when I started the Bible study.

Between that Bible study and my involvement with the men in the program at Light of Life mission, I had been involved with men’s ministry at an informal level for quite some time. In 2004, however, I started wanting to do a little more around here. I asked if they were looking for somebody to do a Wednesday night men’s study at The Bible Chapel, and made myself available for that. They responded by asking me to take over the men’s ministry.

My passion is to challenge and encourage men. Broadcasting has also given me a platform to share Christ with people, and there is this synergy of ministry through men’s ministry, my days as a football player, and my days now as a broadcaster. It’s really cool the way the Lord has given me this way to share the message of the cross, but also to encourage and challenge men to live the lives that God has called us to live.

I always tell people I know two things: I know Jesus, and I know football. I’m not a very complex individual. God has allowed me to utilize my two passions, obviously Jesus being number one, to bring glory to the kingdom. If I were writing a story, I couldn’t have picked it like that.

TM: It’s cool to see that from your early days as a football player to now, your passions have shifted from being all about having a good time and being a good football player, to being most excited about seeing men’s lives be changed by the Gospel.

TI: It’s remarkable! God is in the transforming business. The book of Romans tells us to “offer our bodies as living sacrifices,” and then it tells you how. You do it “in view of God’s mercy.” Then, we are told, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” In other words, think differently. I was heading one way, Jesus got ahold of me, and I was heading the other way. It’s not because of me, it is because of his work on the cross.

Comments

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Donna M Aug 23, 2017 7:14am

Good story. Thanks for sharing.

Ron P Aug 23, 2017 5:19pm

Tunch thank you for sharing a lot of your personal life with us. Great story.

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