Leap of Faith

Stung by a sexual-assault complaint, Bears draftee Curtis Enis turned to the Lord, took a wife, fired his agent - and found himself in the middle of a holy mess.

Sports Illustrated/August 24, 1998
By Michael Silver and Don Yaeger

On the Fourth of July, at the end of an evening he would later call the greatest of his life, Curtis Enis stood in front of 40 friends and family members at the Palm restaurant in Dallas's West End and gave one of the most unsettling wedding toasts in history. Over the next 10 minutes, the 22-year-old bridegroom, whose running skills had compelled the Chicago Bears to select him with the fifth pick in the NFL's April draft, assailed the dinner guests with a harangue that rivaled any fireworks display for explosiveness, leaving his parents and several other guests in tears.

Enis, a powerful 250-pound back with a penchant for hitting holes quickly, got right to the point: He and his pregnant bride of a few hours, Tiffanie, had recently undergone a dramatic religious awakening that had saved them from a life of eternal damnation, and anyone in his inner circle who didn't follow their example would be condemned to such a fate. Enis went around the room admonishing various wedding guests for living in sin and imploring them to repent. Then he turned his attention to his two brothers, 31-yearold Kilven and 24-year-old Victor, and his 20-year-old sister, Alicia, along with their four children-all of whom were born out of wedlock. "I love all of you," Enis told his siblings, "but things are going on in your lives that are unacceptable in the eyes of the Lord. We have these four beautiful babies here who were born out of wedlock. In the word of the Bible, which is the Truth, that's an abomination to the Lord. Tiffanie and I have decided we're not going to make that mistake, and we challenge all of you to make the same stand."

The guests were stunned. Enis, after all, was, by his own admission, a womanizer and an abuser of alcohol who at the time was under investigation for allegedly sexually assaulting a Dallas-area woman. The former Penn State star had not previously informed his family of his newfound devotion to Christian fundamentalism, and his relationship with Tiffanie, a former stripper he had met 15 months earlier, had been rocky. "It was the most inappropriate moment I've ever experienced," one guest says of Enis's tongue-lashing. "Here was a guy marrying a three -months -pregnant stripper telling a roomful of family that they were going to hell." Says another guest, Thomas Hocker, who worked with Enis's agents at the time, "Several people were overwhelmed and had to leave the room, including Curt's father. His entire family had just been called out spiritually, and he was shaken. I know his parents, and they may not be perfect, but they sacrificed a lot to get Curtis to where he is."

Enis, who earlier had privately dressed down his brothers for drinking at the reception, views the event much differently. He says his speech changed the lives of his family members and inspired them to become more devout. (Victor Enis says the speech was a "wake-up call" and that he and Curtis now frequently read Bible scriptures to each other over the telephone.) Says Curtis, "If I tell you what you're doing is wrong, the first thing you're going to do is rebuke me and say, 'How do you know? You're doing it too' But my family accepted it, because they knew what they were doing in their lives was wrong. People were crying because it was touching them. When things have been sugarcoated your entire life and the truth finally hits you, it's piercing to the heart."

As Enis delivered his piercing words, at least two of his listeners nodded their approval: his best man, Greg Huntington, and the pastor, Greg Ball. Enis had met Huntington, a Bears lineman and former Penn State player, at a minicamp just five weeks earlier. The following week Huntington had taken Enis to a Bible-study session conducted by Ball, a charismatic Christian who is not an ordained minister but who performed the wedding in his capacity as a justice of the peace. A few days after the ceremony Enis fired his agent, Vann McElroy, and replaced him with Greg Feste, a born-again Christian who is one of Ball's best friends and who serves as a financial adviser to a number of NFL players. On Monday, Enis and the Bears tentatively agreed to a three-year, $5.6 million contract, ending several weeks of acrimonious and sometimes bizarre negotiations. However, the controversy continues as Enis's association with Feste and Ball has spawned renewed NFL and media scrutiny of the relationship between football, religion and money.

In Enis's eyes he is a saved soul who has surrounded himself with caring advisers who share his convictions. He views Ball, the head of Champions for Christ (CFC), an Austin-based ministry, as the man who brought him salvation, and Feste as a shrewd counselor who is looking out for his financial and spiritual well-being However, there is skepticism in some NFL circles surrounding both men, and the league has responded to requests by at least two teams asking for an inquiry into CFC, an organization that, by the estimate of one former disciple, may be receiving donations from up to 10% of the league's players. Though Feste and Ball deny that there is any formal relationship between Feste's company, Malachi Financial Services, and CFC, the belief has taken hold around the league that Ball is guiding players to Malachi, which, according to some players and rival agents, strongly urges clients to donate portions of their income to Ball's organization. One prominent player says he fired Feste as his financial adviser because Feste raised objections to the player's involvement with, and financial support of, a church not affiliated with CFC. Feste denies the charge.

In a wide-ranging, 31/2-hour interview last Thursday at Malachi's headquarters near Houston, Feste and Curtis and Tiffanie Enis gave their side of the story. Curtis, who began the discussion with a prayer, cried while explaining Ball's impact on him and Tiffanie. "My life had been a great big lie," he said, "and he basically saved it."

Enis did lie last December after reports surfaced that the suit he had worn to a college football awards ceremony in Florida had been purchased for him by an aspiring agent, Jeff Nalley, in violation of NCAA rules. Enis, who told SI that in fact he received clothing and other gifts from Nalley, initially denied the charge to Penn State coach Joe Paterno-on the advice, he said, of Nalley, who has since pleaded guilty to a charge of unlawful activity by an agent and declined to comment. Enis soon owned up to the transgression and was declared ineligible for Penn State's Citrus Bowl game against Florida, which the Nittany Lions lost 21-6. That incident cemented his decision to leave school following his junior season and enter the draft.

Nalley remained close to Enis and helped steer him to McElroy, a former Los Angeles Raiders safety whose Dallas-based firm, Casterline, Vines & McElroy Team Sports, is among the most respected in the business. McElroy and his associates were concerned about Enis's sometimes rash behavior. "He was extremely impulsive," one member of the firm says. "One day before the draft he walked into a store in New York and dropped $16,000 on jewelry for his mother and Tiffanie." Enis admits to running up more than $500,000 of debt between January and July.

On May 29 Enis drove his new Lincoln Town Car to a suburban Dallas car wash and met a woman who admired the vehicle. According to Irving police sources, Enis followed the woman to her nearby apartment. The woman told police that Enis forced his way in and raped her. Last week Enis denied to an SI reporter that he had any contact with her beyond their meeting at the car wash; however, in a sworn affidavit he gave on June 22, Enis said that the woman had performed oral sex on him, an act he described as "completely consensual." Asked by the SI reporter on Monday why he had lied about his involvement with the woman, Enis replied, "That was the first time I ever met you." On Monday a Dallas County grand jury declined to indict Enis.

Many of those close to Enis were not surprised to hear of his alleged involvement with a woman other than his fiancee. Though he shared an apartment with Tiffanie-the two had broken up the previous year but reunited shortly before the draft-Enis says that he engaged in "adultery" with numerous women. He also says that until his recent religious awakening he "had a serious drinking problem."

Friends and associates of Enis say that when he was first informed of the sexual assault allegation, he was unnerved. He told one friend that if convicted, he would "blow my head off" rather than go to jail. Another person who met with Enis after the incident says the running back was "in a trance."

Enis says when he arrived in Chicago on May 31 for the minicamp, he sat in his hotel room, drank a couple of beers and wondered, What is the purpose of my life? The following evening, at exactly 10:49 p.m., he remembered he had packed an Athlete's Bible, a collection of scripture and testimony that he had recently been given, and he began reading it. A week later the sermon by Ball, who had come to Chicago at the invitation of another CFC member, Bears tackle Jimmy Herndon, moved Enis to share the message with Tiffanie. The couple spent the next two weekends at Ball's home in Austin. Curtis's embrace of CFC- whose prayer meetings are characterized, according to yet another Bear who belongs to the organization, defensive end Mark Thomas, by "praise and worship, standing up, clapping, lifting hands to God, speaking in tongues"-was startling to those who knew him. Later that month, during a panel discussion at the NFL's rookie symposium in Denver, Enis declined to participate in a safe-sex exercise in which players placed a condom on a banana, saying he would never again be unfaithful to Tiffanie.

Curtis and Tiffanie had planned to marry in 1999, but at Ball's urging they moved up the wedding. Before meeting Ball, Curtis and Tiffanie had discussed a prenuptial agreement, and some Team Sports employees urged him to finalize it before the wedding. "that was insulting," Curtis says. "They were telling me our marriage wasn't going to work. That was disrespectful not only to me but to my wife and child"

Asked about his decision to change agents, Enis says, "I had been led by so many distrustful men. I needed believers around me."

Enis's statement was especially hurtful to McElroy, who is an archdeacon. "These guys are making me look like a heathen,' he says. "I'm not a perfect guy by any means, but I think I've affected a lot of lives in a positive way."

Several days before firing McElroy, Enis called Feste and set up a get-acquainted meeting also attended by Tiffanie. Enis says Feste was recommended not by Ball but by Herndon, who employs Malachi as a financial adviser. But Herndon is represented in his contract negotiations by McElroy and says, "I don't know why Curtis fired those guys. They are doing a great job for me."

Curtis and Tiffanie were so impressed with Feste that they hired him on the spot. Feste, 37, has quite a story to tell. He worked as a stockbroker but says that despite earning good money, he became so despondent over marital and personal problems that on April 22,1989, he put a gun in his mouth and contemplated suicide. He went bankrupt the next year and began attending church, but he says it wasn't until 1991,when he had lunch with Ball, a longtime acquaintance, that he turned his life around.

One thing that won over the Enises was Feste's disclosure of his previous troubles, including his one-day suspension in 1492 for having made what the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) determined were unsuitable investments for a client several years earlier; the client suffered major losses in the 1987 stock market crash and filed a complaint. Feste says "every broker in town" received complaints after the crash and that he just happened to get caught, calling his one-day suspension "a joke." According to the NASD, of the more than 550,000 securities dealers that it regulates, only about 200 are suspended each year.

Feste, who runs an unlikely side business, Malachi Mattress, concedes that he has paid more than $254,000 in settlements of five complaints by investors who reported losing more than $370,000 with him. Says one NASD official, "If you came to me and asked if you should do business with this guy, I would tell you no." One of Feste's former bosses at the Houston offices of the investment firm Oppenheimer & Co., where he worked before forming Malachi, says of Feste's current clients, "I would hope they would look more carefully. It is hard for me to understand that you have guys with millions of dollars, and they'd hand that money to a young guy who has no firm of any quality behind him. He has nothing, really, other than his faith"

Feste recruits some of his clients by leading Bible-study classes for NFL players in various cities. His message, which he calls "Wealth: By the Book," cites numerous biblical passages as instruction from God that everyone should tithe. "Feste doesn't actually say to give money to Champions for Christ, but after a while you feel obliged," says the prominent player who fired Feste early in 1997, after having given nearly 5% of his salary to CFC for nearly a year and a half "He preaches that if you don't give your tithe, you're robbing God. Then he says, 'You should give to where you're being fed,' and he refers to Greg Ball as his pastor" Says Feste, "I have never told anybody where to tithe. My affiliation with [Ball] is no more than with any other ministry."

Numerous players who belong to CFC, including Jacksonville Jaguars stars Mark Brunell and Tony Boselli (each of whom gives 10% of his salary to CFC) and Bears Huntington and Thomas, insist they have never been asked by any CFC official to donate money to the ministry. But CFC, which Ball founded in 1985, has drawn its share of suspicion among NFL and team officials, especially given the guilty pleas entered last January by San Diego-based money manager John Gillette Jr. on grand-theft and forgery charges. Currently serving a 10-year prison term, Gillette, who had no connection to CFC, scammed $11 million from more than two dozen athletes with a pitch that touted his religious beliefs.

Ball says he has not been contacted by NFL security but has no objection to the scrutinization. "We're excited that people are this interested in what we're doing,' he says. "We've got nothing to hide. To call us a cult shows a complete lack of understanding. The agent business is one of the great cults in our country."

Feste's only experience in negotiating an NFL contract came earlier this off-season when, representing Jaguars linebacker Bryan Schwartz, he rejected a proposed long-term deal and accepted a tender offer of $39%000 for one season. "Negotiating a contract is not rocket science," Feste says. "If you know the [collective bargaining agreement] and can negotiate, guess what? You can be a good agent."

However, Feste's familiarity with the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has been called into question. In representing Enis, his initial proposal to the Bears was for a seven-year contract that, with incentives, could have earned the player $45 million. The offer was scoffed at in the agent community because, with the CBA set to expire following the 2003 season, signing bonuses can be prorated only for a six-year period. Last Friday, Feste attempted to sell Bears vice president Ted Phillips on a threeyear, $10 million deal that would include a promise that the team wouldn't make Enis a tender offer after his third season-thus allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent. Feste told Phillips the proposal was "nonnegotiable"; Phillips viewed it as nonsensical, informing Feste such a contract was impossible under the CBA, which stipulates that players cannot become unrestricted free agents until after their fourth season. (The view of the NFL Players Association is that such a deal would be allowable, but an NFL Management Council official says a contract that contained such a provision would be challenged.)

By Monday, Feste, who during the negotiations claimed that the Bears were "having a hard time understanding the economics of the league,' had compromised on a deal that, with a $3.6 million signing bonus, would pay Enis well under market value. However, the contract contained a provision ensuring that if the Bears extend Enis a tender offer after his third season, it will be for at least $2 million, making it likely that the team will either grant Enis a lucrative extension or allow him to become an unrestricted free agent at that time.

After all the threats made during the negotiations, including Enis's insistence that he would sit out the season and reenter the draft next year, he and the Bears need to mend fences and begin working toward improving Chicago's 4-12 record of a year ago. Enis may also have some fence mending to do with Ball: When the CFC director learned on Monday that Enis had lied to him in claiming not to have had sexual relations with the woman he met at the car wash, Ball was shaken. "If you're not straightforward, you're not anything, he said. "This is an absolute affront to the Lord."

With Feste and Ball planning to expand their respective influences in locker rooms around the league, the controversy surrounding the two men and their involvement in the NFL is hardly dead-nor is the rhetoric that inevitably accompanies any dispute involving religion. Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, a CFC board member who employs Feste as a financial adviser, bristles at those who are questioning the organization's involvement in the Enis saga and with the league in general. "I pray for the men who started this fire," Green says, "because it is a dangerous thing to fight God."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.