Jeff Saturday sat stunned at end of 1998 NFL Draft.
He had finished an all-star career as center at the University of North Carolina, and numerous NFL teams had told him they intended to pick him. Yet the draft was over, 241 players were taken and he wasn’t one of them.
“So I called my mother and said, ‘Can you believe what just happened?’ ” Saturday recalled. “And she said, ‘Yeah I can. God gave you a gift, baby, and you didn’t use it for what he wanted, so he took it away from you.”
Saturday’s reaction: “Thanks, Mom. How about if I call my worst enemy to kick me when I’m down?”
Saturday re-told the story upon receiving the 12th annual Call to Courage Award Saturday at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo. The award, created by former Buffalo Bills quarterback Frank Reich, annually honors an NFL player who demonstrates character, leadership and a commitment to Jesus Christ.
Fifteen years after his draft-day disappointment, Saturday is an NFL great. He made six Pro Bowls and earned two first-team All-Pro awards. He spent 12 years as the center for Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts, and he retired just last month after playing his final season in Green Bay.
Saturday, he told a crowd of about 700 his faith was a big reason for his football success. He described his mother as a “strong Christian.”
“When I say strong, I don’t mean went to church,” he said. “I mean 4 a.m. in the Bible every morning, praying.”
When he was snubbed in the draft, his mother was willing to embrace it as God’s plan. Perhaps she also recognized her son lacked faith. Saturday described himself as self-absorbed throughout college.
It wasn’t until he got a shot with the Colts in 1999 that he recognized something was missing in his life, he said. Two Colts veterans, Tony McCoy and Mark Thomas, took Saturday under their wing and encouraged him to become more serious about Christianity.
Saturday described some of the small initial steps he took to embrace his faith, offering them as examples of things the many young people in the audience could do.
No. 1: Be willing to be set apart.
“I knew I was going to be different in the locker room now,” Saturday said. “I knew I wasn’t going to be the coolest guy in the locker room because I’m not hanging out like I used to. I knew people were going to look at me and go, ‘Wow, what happened to him?’ ”
Saturday said he stopped cursing on the field.
“Sounds remarkable, right? What a hero this guy is, right?” Saturday joked. “Don’t drop any more F-bombs on the field, if you can. That’s where I started. … I did not have a beautiful mouth. I was not afraid to let people have it verbally. So that was a big deal for me. I slowly but surely began to pull back on my language on the field.”
Saturday also set boundaries for himself.
“A football team is a family,” he said. “We hung out after games. But I had to set boundaries on what my limits were. When I knew it was going to get really crazy, I had to step out a little early. So it was an easy boundary. I didn’t stop hanging out. I didn’t stop being with the guys who I loved. I didn’t break relationships with people. They just knew at 2 o’clock, they were going to go to some establishments, I was going home.”
Another small expression of his faith was to stop gawking at or talking about cheerleaders.
“In the NFL when you go to away games, they love to bring the cheerleaders to do their stretching routine right where you warm up,” he said.
Saturday recalls teammate Waverly Jackson eventually asking why he never paid attention to the cheerleaders.
“I gave him the answer,” Saturday said. “But I remember sitting there thinking, how easy is this that I can share my faith in Christ about something so simple. I never had to be the guy who beat the Bible in the locker room. I just tried to live my life differently and left opportunity for people to ask me questions. And it was amazing how quick I gained credibility in the locker room for being a guy who was different and being a guy who people could depend on and ask advice from.”
Reich coached in Indianapolis for four years during Saturday’s career.
“Jeff is the kind of guy who is a man among men,” Reich said. “He’s the kind of guy who you put a bunch of leaders in the room and he’s going to emerge as the leader of the leaders.”
Winner of the high school Call to Courage Award was Frewsburg High School senior Jacob Caldwell, a three-year starter at center and captain on the football team. He’s a youth leader at Trinity United Methodist Church, went on a mission to Jamaica and carries a 99.9 average. He plans to attend the University at Buffalo in the fall.