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July 6, 2009Bryan Cisler
LAWRENCE, Kan. - It's Monday night at the 9th Street Baptist Church Outreach Center and Gary Green opens his Bible. He leans back in his chair and watches as people begin to filter inside the small building for a Bible study that he is about to lead.
At least 20 people show up on this night, some of them are athletes and former teammates of Green. Kansas football players Darrell Stuckey and Chris Harris make their way around the room, introducing themselves and joking around with anybody within eyesight.
It is a welcoming atmosphere.
Not everybody here is an athlete, though. Green says the Bible study's main purpose is to help young adults find hope through fellowship.
"I think people come out changed," Green said. "When I leave, I feel different than when I came in.
"It is refreshing and renewing to fix your problems and have them dealt with and seeing other people go through the same things."
As everybody gets seated, Green begins the Bible study by reading from 1 John 1:5.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out.
Around the table, people begin to give their thoughts on how that verse relates to them. Finally, it's Green's turn to talk again.
So what does Green know about light and darkness? Green begins to speak from his heart. This is one subject he knows plenty about.
Green's journey to Kansas started on Dec. 5, 2003. Sitting across from Green in his living room in San Antonio was Kansas coach Mark Mangino. Green made his decision: He was going to play for Kansas, and the Jayhawks coaches couldn't have been more excited.
In his two previous seasons at Madison High School in San Antonio, Green had rushed for more than 3,500 yards and 35 touchdowns, becoming one of the cities top running backs.
The 2004 Kansas recruiting class would go on to become one of the most successful groups in school history - its members including first-team All-Americans Aqib Talib and Anthony Collins - but at the time Green was arguably the most highly touted player.
"I fell in love with Kansas," Green told Jayhawk Slant in 2003. "I just don't want to go to Kansas and be another player. I want to contribute and help them keep building their program."
By the time camp started in August 2004, Green was beginning to live up to his billing. With the starting running back banged up, Green was getting reps on the field with the second team.
The plan was for Green to play as a true freshman, and he even impressed coaches so much after one early season scrimmage that Ed Warinner, who was the offensive line coach at the time, called Green's dad after practice raving about the freshman's abilities.
Then one day during practice, Green suffered a high ankle sprain and quickly saw his chances of playing early fade away.
He would have to miss a week of practice, and as a freshman still learning the system, that time on the field was invaluable. So the coaches made a decision: Green was going to redshirt.
"It was frustrating," Green said. "If I was going to redshirt, I wanted it to be because I wasn't getting the job done, not because of injury."
During that fall, while Green quietly worked out of the public eye on the scout team, he decided to start his own Bible study along with teammates Marcus Herford, James McClinton and Dexton Fields. Every now and then Wayne Simien would stop by to mentor and encourage them. But between praying and reading the scripture, the players were just like any other group of freshmen. They told inside jokes. They brainstormed ways on how to get more girls to attend. They talked about the future of Kansas football.
In those days, they would have no idea how big their little Bible study was going to get. Green said those nights spent together at the Jayhawk Towers helped them forge friendships that would last well beyond their days at Kansas.
"Those guys are going to be some of my best friends for the rest of my life," Green said.
By the time fall of 2005 rolled around, Green was itching to play. Running back Jon Randle had been kicked off the team the previous spring and Jon Cornish was still unproven. Playing time was up for grabs. Still, another setback was lurking ahead.
As August practices got going, Green began to feel a little discomfort in his foot. The X-rays didn't show anything, so he practiced on. Little did Green know that he was playing with a stress fracture in his foot.
When the season started, Green was relegated to special teams. During kickoffs, he would race down the field with pain shooting up and down his leg. He would then retreat to the sidelines, getting himself mentally ready to do it all again.
"I wanted to show the coaches that I was somebody that could be depended on," Green said.
Green would play that way the entire year. During the week, even the simplest tasks such as walking to class became a monumental feat. You could easily spot him among the hordes of students on campus simply by the way he hobbled around Jayhawk Boulevard.
"I was so used to having so much pain when I walked that I always limped," Green said.
When the season was over, Green had an MRI exam done and finally learned the severity of his injury. His fracture had gotten so bad that normal blood flow wasn't getting to parts of his foot. The doctors told him that it was an unusual injury and surgery needed to be done. Green was expected to be back on the field working out by the end of the spring. The reality: Green wouldn't be cleared to play until January 2007.
Back at the Bible study, Green speaks with conviction in his voice.
"Nothing is worse than mental pain, because you can't control it," Green says.
When it came to football, 2006 would be a trying year for Green. Although off the field, it may have been the most important year of his life.
During practice, he would spend all of his time on the exercise bike. Every now and then another player would get hurt and join him, but after a few weeks would go by, they would be back on the field, while Green continued to pedal away. It was also the first time he really began to look at life after football.
"Now I love football and that is what I did, but football wasn't who I was," Green said. "It is not what defines me. I know when something wasn't going right on the field, God would never turn his back on me."
At this point, his Bible study that had started with four people was gaining steam. On some days during the school year more than 50 people would attend. They met at the Hawk's Nest at the Jayhawk Towers and it would get so crowded that people would be sitting on phone books when they would run out of chairs. The Bible study eventually became the Kansas chapter of FCA- Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
One Saturday night that spring, while Green was alone in his room, he decided to pray about his future. He could feel it inside his soul that he was being called to the ministry, but he needed something - or someone - to push him in the right direction.
"I needed God to prove it to me, so basically I said, 'Lord, if you are calling me to preach, then I need you tomorrow to have somebody in church to come up to me and say something to me about pastoring'" Green said.
Sure enough, the next morning, Green turned around to a lady greeting him at church.
"How are you doing this morning Pastor Green?"
Green's eyes began to tear up. He knew what he had to do.
"I had never been so sure of something in my entire life," Green said.
As much joy as Green felt about finding his true calling, Saturday's in the fall of 2006 couldn't have been more painful.
It was a difficult year for Kansas; the Jayhawks would finish 6-6, squandering away leads in the fourth quarter game after game. Green viewed most of the action from the student section. Sometimes his desire to play became too much that he couldn't bear sitting in the stands any longer.
So while his teammates battled on, several miles away Green would be sitting alone in his apartment wondering how this all happened.
"Every day can't be sunshine, some days it is going to rain," Green said. "That was kind of my year of rain."
As strong as Green's faith was, he couldn't wrap his mind around why God was putting him through all these injuries and setbacks. What did he do to deserve this? After he would get done praying and venting his frustrations, he would feel peace.
"I knew there was purpose behind it that was bigger than what I could see," Green said. "I could have easily gave up hope but that would have discredited be with those guys on the team."
The Bible study is coming to a close, but everybody in the room continues to listen intently to Green's words. He is talking about decisions now. How the mind is the battlefield between right and wrong.
"You always have choices," Green says. "You can either take the right path or the left. Only you can make that decision."
Green returned from injury during the middle of winter workouts in January 2007 with a new outlook on the game and a new position. He was a cornerback now, and found himself buried in the depth chart. That's the world of college football: If you can't play, then somebody is going to take your spot.
"If I didn't have faith I probably would have transferred and to me that would be like taking the easy way out," Green said. "Even if I would have played more football somewhere else, I would have let that situation beat me. I am not one to tuck tail and run from a situation."
During the 2007 season, Green played mostly on special teams and in mop-up duty at the end of games. His personal highlight of the season came in the final minutes of a blowout game against Baylor, when Green caught a tipped ball for his first career interception. Green turned 22 that day, and looked at his interception as a birthday present from the man upstairs.
"With the way that ball got deflected, I feel like that happened on purpose," Green said.
At the end of that season while Green and the rest of his teammates stood atop the podium on that rainy night in Miami as Orange Bowl champions, he wasn't thinking about his spot on the depth chart.
Green looked around and saw his teammates, and he couldn't help but smile and think how far they had all come together.
"I guarantee that my team was the closest-knit team in the country," Green said. "I will say that without hesitation."
What Green won't say, but others will, is that Green was a key player behind the scenes in making that happen. Often times Green would stay after practice and be a mentor to other players going through problems.
"A lot of guys looked up to Gary even though he didn't play a lot," wide receiver Dexton Fields said. "They would ask him for spiritual advice. They would ask him to pray for them. He had a real positive influence on the younger players."
Green would finish up his career at Kansas in 2008, playing sparingly at wide receiver. After the season, he graduated with a degree in Applied Behavior Science.
Before leaving though, Green handed over the reigns of the Kansas chapter of FCA to Stuckey and Harris. The organization has come a long way since its inception almost five years ago.
"The FCA was my baby," Green said. "Anything you start you want to see it go on after you leave."
This August, Green will be ordained as a minister. He hopes to one day to be the pastor of his own church, but anything is possible.
"I could say something but I don't want to limit what God can do," Green said.
The Bible study is over now and several people linger around to talk with Green or to just simply shake his hand.
Delmar White, the pastor at 9th Street Baptist Church, gave Green the assignment to help lead the church's young adult ministry two years ago, and Green's work with this Bible study has already surpassed White's expectations.
"He is serious about what he is doing, it is not a game," White said of Green. "Sometimes people get into ministry for not the right reasons, but that is not the case with Gary. Gary really has a passion for people and to see people do better. Also, the biggest thing is Gary is living out what he is preaching. "
Green plans on attending as many Kansas games as he can next season to support his former teammates. He says Mangino might even let him lead the team chapel.
Still in the last five years, no matter what trials and tribulations the running back from San Antonio has had to go through, Green can say he came out a better man.
"I have no regrets," Green said of his time at Kansas. "There will always be a part of me that looked back at my career and want it to be more than what it was. But I probably gained more from what I went through."