Warrior to Minister

Florida Times Union/September 28, 2003
By Gene Frenette

Austin, Texas -- There are boxes strewn at various points in the house that are still unpacked. Pictures that have yet to be hung up.

Angi Boselli finds herself adjusting to another move as life sends the family -- including her husband, Tony, now an ex-NFL player, and their four children -- scurrying toward a new frontier.

"This is fun and exciting, but it's also really hard," Angi said. "We're living out of boxes right now. And at some point next year, we'll be doing it again."

That's because the Bosellis have temporarily taken up residence in an upscale, three-bedroom house owned by Angi's sister, Ami, and her husband, Curtis Brown, an eight-year player with the NHL's Buffalo Sabres. They needed a place to live in Austin until Tony and Angi could start building on a 1 1/2-acre lot that they purchased last year in the same neighborhood. They commute 180 miles when necessary from their 10,000-square foot home in Houston, which is for sale.

Uprooting has become an all too familiar theme of late in the Boselli household. In February, 2002, Tony's career with the Jaguars ended after five Pro Bowl seasons when the Houston Texans selected him in the NFL expansion draft. But after one shoulder surgery in Jacksonville and two subsequent operations in Houston, he never played a down for the Texans and retired in July.

Now the 31-year-old Boselli, on the same day that the Jaguars are playing the Texans at Reliant Stadium in Houston, is starting over again. He began work last week with the Champions For Christ international ministry, whose headquarters is in Austin.

Instead of trying to block Jaguars Pro Bowl defensive end Hugh Douglas today on the field, Boselli will be in Shreveport, La., along with CFC founder Greg Ball, talking to a congregation of athletes and adult males about the importance of God in their lives.

Boselli, who is in the process of becoming an ordained minister, will be traveling far more in his new profession than in his old one. He recently spent a week in the Philippines as a representative of the Morning Star Church, which has nearly 400 churches worldwide and works in conjunction with Champions, its outreach program that ministers to athletes. Boselli will also be spreading the gospel message during upcoming trips to France and Austria. He estimates the job will require him to travel 8-10 days a month.

"I believe God has called me," said Tony. "I've probably known for five years that this is what I'm supposed to do with my life when football was done. It's not as physically demanding, but it's a lot more hours."

For a 6-foot-7, 321-pound lineman, this is a massive transition. Even those who have done it successfully like ex-Jaguars linebacker Bryan Schwartz -- an associate pastor at the Morning Star Church in Austin -- say that going from the NFL trenches to a pulpit can be a scary ride.

"When you stop playing [football], it's a difficult adjustment on multiple fronts," Schwartz said. "In the NFL, you're propped up on a pedestal whether you like it or not. The identity issue is the toughest thing to face. When you get out of football, it's like, 'Wow! Who am I?'

"I remember my first year [2000] being out, I was still in Jacksonville and my best friends were still playing. It can feel almost like a demotion when, in reality, it's a promotion. I'm just glad I knew the Lord before I got out of football. I can see it much clearer now than I did my first year in the ministry. Every ex- player goes through it no matter how much they've prepared for the next step. If God hadn't been leading the way, I would have been devastated."

Boselli admits that football is still in his blood. He continues to pray that his left arm, which he still can't lift parallel to the ground without feeling pain in that shoulder, can be healed and allow him to give the NFL one more shot. But if not, he and his family are ready to move on.

"If I'm not able to play again, I'm extremely happy with what I'm doing because this is what I would have done anyway," said Boselli. "It just happened sooner than I thought."

Faith Taking Root

Growing up in Colorado, Boselli attended a Catholic church, but struggled to grasp its true meaning for his life. He felt himself going through the motions on Sunday. His attendance dropped significantly while in college at Southern Cal, showing up when he needed a "quick fix."

It wasn't until after his first full season with the Jaguars in 1995 that Boselli found himself intrigued to learn more about God and faith. Several teammates, notably quarterback Mark Brunell, who was more of an acquaintance at the time than a best friend, had encouraged him and Angi to come to their Bible study meetings.

Boselli had already gone twice with other couples on the team, but it wasn't until he heard Greg Ball speak on May 16, 1996 at Brunell's house that he became convinced that his life was missing something. Angi, also raised Catholic, found herself looking for the right spiritual place without being certain of how to navigate.

"I was never right with God, never knew God," Tony said. "Did I know Jesus existed? Yes, I believed that, but it had no impact or effect on my life at all."

That night, Ball's message struck a chord with Boselli like nothing he had heard before. It started him on a path that has led one of the best linemen in NFL history to an unfathomable place, at least from the Tony Boselli that his wife knew nearly a decade ago.

"If you asked me nine years ago, 'Did I see Tony being in the ministry?' Not a chance in the world," Angi said. "But am I surprised now that we're here? Not in the least bit."

Neither is Brunell, whose friendship with Boselli began through their wives and has evolved into a bond that clearly extends beyond their time on the football field. Brunell, who also plans a career in ministry when he retires, has watched Boselli take the same zeal with which he played left tackle and apply it to his personal transformation.

"As a young believer, Tony just continued to grow and grow because he wanted to," Brunell said. "He's not the type of guy to make a decision like that, to make that kind of change lightly. He went for it, just like he does on the football field. He wanted all that God had for him and he pursued that with a passion.

"Tony didn't just read the Bible a little bit every day. He was reading chapters upon chapters."

Boselli credits Ball's presentation with changing everything about his life -- relationships, marriage, spirituality -- for the better.

"I had never been challenged like that before, asking who is God in your life and what kind of relationship do you have with Him?" Boselli said. "My understanding of it growing up was that's just what we did as Americans. Everyone went to church. But if you read the Bible, listen to the words, you learn that God wants more. He's looking for a relationship with each of us.

"You got to walk that out in a practical way, instead of saying one thing with your mouth and living another lifestyle. That night, I decided Jesus was Lord and I'm going to live for Him."

Seven years later, Boselli's commitment has grown to the point where he not only lives for God, but intends to make a living spreading the gospel's message around the world to athletes and anyone willing to listen.

"I will be an ordained minister in the near future, but right now, I'm probably not going to pastor a church," said Boselli, who has taken classes with Morning Star's Victory Leadership Institute. "There's tons of things that encompass what the church and its ministry does. I just feel like I have a gift to train other athletes to do not only what I do, but for them to be leaders in their respective fields.

"This is what I feel I'm supposed to do with my life."

Shouldering the Burden

A football career that seemed destined to end with his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame began going awry for Boselli shortly after the Texans drafted him 19 months ago. He noticed that the left shoulder that had been operated on by the Jaguars' team physician, Carlos Tandron, in November, 2001 wasn't getting better.

The projected 4-6 months recovery process had gone by and there was little progress. Two more operations by the Texans' doctors in May of 2002 couldn't fix the problem, so Boselli sat out the entire season.

He kept hoping for a comeback that never materialized, so he called it quits on July 17, saying that he would have been better off had the initial surgery by Tandron never been performed.

While Boselli has grown weary of discussing the medical aspects behind his retirement from football, there are clearly some unresolved issues in his mind that still gnaw at him.

"I never thought twice about [having the surgery] because I considered it routine at the time," Boselli said. "It's disappointing. I have questions about what happened and why. But I'm not going to sit around all day stewing in bitterness like, 'Oh, poor me. It's unfair.' I'm going to live life. I still believe for a miracle in my shoulder and if it happens in a year or two, then I'll probably try to play football again."

When No. 71 lined up at left tackle, he was considered the greatest force in Jaguars' history. Boselli anchored an offensive line that helped the Jaguars to four consecutive playoff appearances, including the AFC Championship Game in 1996 and '99. He allowed only 15 1/2 sacks in six-plus seasons in Jacksonville. Along the way, he dominated the likes of the Buffalo Bills' Bruce Smith in the '96 playoffs, then got up out of the sick bed to lead a historic upset of the Denver Broncos the following week.

Boselli earned a reputation as the Jaguars' on-field policeman, tossing defenders aside like rag dolls with his nasty attitude and brute strength.

However, after he became a Texan when salary-cap issues forced the Jaguars to put him on the expansion list, it was obvious that Boselli was no longer the same player. Angi noticed it in the little things -- the way he tended to lift his children with mostly his right arm, how he gingerly put his left arm back in the car when ordering food at a drive-through window.

"I watched the lack of progression [in rehabilitation] for a long time," Angi said. "Anyone who followed his career knows Tony isn't typical. He goes the distance with everything. With practice or rehab, he's the first one there and last one to leave.

"I hoped, and hoped, and hoped. But watching him when he had to use that shoulder, it was very clear that it wasn't working properly. It was just heartbreaking to see him work so hard toward a goal and have that goal unaccomplished."

Boselli knew while vacationing this summer in California that it became pointless to keep fighting the messages that his body was sending. Even after plenty of rest, the shoulder couldn't tolerate any kind of vigorous workout.

Though part of him enjoys the anonymity of not being recognized everywhere he goes in Austin, it's obvious that football isn't totally out of his system.

"Oh, I'd love to be able to play still," Boselli said. "Especially now because I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I should have. I don't know if anyone really can until it's suddenly taken away, or ends by ways that you think are premature."

A Higher Calling

Angi says the only thing she knew for certain when she began dating her husband at Southern Cal was that he was "the most driven, most ambitious person" that she had ever met. She is counting on those same qualities, and their faith in God, to get them through this major change in their lives.

"All I know is that the divorce rate in the NFL is somewhere around 80 percent when a player's career is over," Angi said.

Tony interjects: "Maybe not that high, but it's higher than normal [50 percent]."

"And I will say that for players who don't have God in their lives," Angi added, "I don't know how they make the transition. I mean that. Just the grace, the peace, the purpose that Tony has had through this makes it so much easier."

Schwartz, who saw his own NFL career sabotaged by two knee injuries and finally ended by hamstring problems, can attest to the fact that adjusting to life outside of pro football isn't easy. Like Boselli, he was drafted by the Jaguars in 1995, and is married with four children. He is certain that his friend and ex-teammate will experience some turmoil no matter how much satisfaction he gets from the ministry.

"For Tony, it's going to take time to adjust," Schwartz said. "There's got to be a natural letdown, especially for the player that he was. Leaving the NFL affects your finances, your lifestyle, your marriage, everything. Let's get real. You're taking a lot of zeros out of that paycheck. It's no longer about you. It's now about other people and the ministry incurs a stricter judgment. With that calling comes responsibility.

"Being able to minister to others, and seeing it after three years, it just blows football away. But that first year is a tough one. Internally, it was a wrestling match. I have no doubt that Tony will do a great job because he hasn't failed at anything. It helps that Champions For Christ allowed us to minister while we were playing. But doing it full-time is still an adjustment from the football world."

The NFL life, with its money, perks and fame, can be an intoxicant for those around it. Angi Boselli, who was a football cheerleader at USC, understands that as well as anyone. Still, she believes that her faith will allow her to properly let go, to make the necessary sacrifices that Tony's new profession will undoubtedly pose on their family.

"I absolutely loved football," Angi said. "I enjoyed every second of this ride. I'm so thankful. I felt like our family did a good job of smelling the roses along the way. Now that that chapter has closed and we have a new one, there's not much to regret. Tony was generous in allowing family and friends to partake [in his NFL experience].

"It's not like we all of the sudden have this new peace. I loved that chapter of our lives, and I think God has given us the peace to enjoy this different chapter."

Beyond faith, Boselli's friends and family believe something else will make him an All-Pro in ministry: his dynamic speaking ability. Known as a forceful leader on the football field, Boselli carries that trait over to his new line of work.

"I don't think it has anything to do with him being a pro football player," Brunell said. "The fact is, Tony is very gifted. He can articulate very well. He can stand in front of people and deliver a message that's very powerful. That personality you see on the football field, he carries that with him wherever he goes."

Boselli estimates that 95 percent of his work time will be devoted to the ministry, with the remainder dabbling in business interests that will supplement the family's income. He has several investments, including with Brunell in the What-A-Burger franchise coming to Jacksonville; in an Arena League football team coming to Austin; and in a software marketing firm run by ex-Jaguars teammates Jeff Novak and Will Furrer just outside of Austin. He has sold his interest in Mattress Firm in Jacksonville.

"I've been blessed beyond measure with the money I made in the NFL and being able to invest it wisely most of the time," Boselli said.

Now it's time for Boselli to invest in something that he believes is much bigger -- doing God's work and having a more far-reaching impact than simply blocking people on Sunday. His boss and his mentor thinks the best of Tony Boselli is yet to come.

"Tony has got a great head on his shoulders," Ball said. "He's a fierce competitor in anything he does. In his heart, he loves the younger generation and the opportunity to touch their lives. You do think about what could have been [in football], and that his career ended so quickly, but I've already seen a great positive come out of what many perceive to be a negative.

"I just think what Tony will become in the future will eclipse anything he's ever done in football."

It has long been a Boselli trademark to take his game to the next level. He sees ministry work in much the same way.

"All of us are ultimately called to spread the gospel," he said. "Our No. 1 principle should be to honor God with what we do with our lives. For me, it's now a full-time job."

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