Jacksonville Jaguars Champions for Christ church connections

The Times-Union/February 27, 2002
By Mary Maraghy

What started in 1996 as a Bible study in the living room of Mark Brunell has become a church with a pastor and 1,000 members who plan to build a sanctuary.

At first, the Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback was joined by other players and their wives. Then friends and acquaintances joined.

Today, members of Southpoint Community Church meet in a Southpoint office park and hope to build a sanctuary within two to three years on 150 acres along Salisbury Road near Interstate 95. The church purchased the land for $2 million.

There are no plans to build yet as the church is still trying to raise funds, said the Rev. Russ Austin.

Describing themselves as a charismatic Christian congregation, the members include Brunell, Todd Fordham and former Jaguars Tony Boselli, Joel Smeenge, Will Moore, Rich Tylski and Paul Frase, as well as Jerry Palmieri, the Jaguars' strength and conditioning coach.

Though Boselli has signed with the Houston Texans, he plans to remain a member of the church, Austin said.

Former Jaguar players Will Moore (left) and Joel Smeenge (right, on front row) take notes at a sermon by another former Jaguar, Bryan Schwartz.

Some in the faith community refer to the "Jaguar church," but Austin dislikes the term -- although he admits some people visit for that reason. When the church opened, bulletins asked guests not to seek out players for autographs. That hasn't been a problem, Austin said.

"They come to see how the players worship. Where do they sit? Do they raise their hands? But after 10 minutes, that's gone," Austin said. "They meet God here. They find hope for a broken marriage and hope for a troubled child. It's not all about the Jaguars."

Still, it's an unusual experience for some.

Twelve-year-old church member David Daniel said it's cool going to church with Jaguars. "I never went to church with celebrities before," he said.

Ernie Vadersen, a golf club designer from Ponte Vedra Beach, said Boselli invited him to the church. After one service, Vadersen said his family was hooked.

"I looked at my wife and we said, 'This is home,'" Vadersen said.

Hitting home

Southpoint Community Church meets at 7950 Belfort Parkway, Suite 900, in Jacksonville. Services are at 8:30 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday and at 7 p.m. Wednesday. For more information, call the church at (904) 281-1188.

The Rev. Greg Ball of Austin, Texas, had been flying to Jacksonville once or twice a month to lead the Bible study at Brunell's home. Brunell and others later lobbied him to help them start a church.

Ball travels the country leading Bible studies and ministering to athletes as part of Champions for Christ, an Austin-based ministry aimed at training college and professional athletes to be moral leaders on their teams and in their families and communities.

Because Ball wasn't a fixture in Jacksonville, some folks attending the Bible study began looking to the players for guidance.

"People were coming to me for marital advice," said former Jaguars linebacker Bryan Schwartz. "Here I was just trying to stop cursing ... We needed a pastor."

Ball got them a pastor through his parent ministry, Morningstar International, which provides funds, pastors and staff support for new churches.

Other players credit Brunell as being the pillar of the church who interested them in Christianity.

"You could see the joy in his life. He had a great marriage, the way he raises his family," said 33-year-old Smeenge, who is retired from the NFL and runs a landscape business with Fordham. "It's how you'd want to form your life and family. That's what got my attention. He didn't just talk the talk."

Brunell plays down his part in starting the church.

"It's like being a quarterback," he said. "You get all the credit, but you don't do all the work."

Of the 350 churches Morningstar International has helped establish, three others started with athletes. There's a church in Tallahassee begun with Florida State University football players; one in Murfreesboro, Tenn., with football players from Middle Tennessee State University; and one with players from the Arizona Cardinals.

Many professional athletes, Ball said, are hungry for the gospel. They need help with the responsibilities that are heaped on them, including high salaries and pressures to perform.

Most athletes have a short shelf life and are soon forgotten, Ball said. Many divorce soon after they stop playing, he said.

"When the money and lights and everything is gone, there is nothing to hold them up," Ball said. "They need the Lord."

Members of Southpoint Community Church say the church has changed lives. One example is Schwartz, a Jaguar-turned-preacher who left the NFL to pursue full-time ministry. He's now an associate pastor at a Morningstar church in Austin.

Schwartz said it began in 1996 when he and his wife, Diane, had an argument. She locked herself in the bathroom and refused to come out unless he agreed to attend Brunell's Bible study with her that evening.

He did, and both Schwartzes gave their lives to Christ.

"I sit back and marvel at what has happened here," Bryan Schwartz said. "It all started with a rag tag group of guys ... None us were saved. None of us knew anything about Jesus."

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