May 23, 2011
By Chanelle Price, UTSports.com
"The number one thing I want student-athletes to take away from FCA is that it is imperative to have an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ," says Roger Woods, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) campus director and Chaplain at The University of Tennessee. "I have seen a lot of changes in student-athletes that attend FCA. Some changes have been radical and immediate, and others have been over a duration of time."
As the spiritual leader of UT athletics, Woods has made a profound impact on many of the student-athletes' lives. Junior football player Herman Lathers truly appreciates having Woods, or "Chap" as he calls him, in his life. "My relationship with `Chap' is him being a father figure for me," says Lathers. "My father wasn't around much when I was younger, or when I got older. I kind of find myself always looking towards a man of God to be my father figure. `Chap' has not only made me a better person, but I have also grown spiritually."
Currently in his early 40s, Woods still laughs when recalling the religious household he was raised in. "I grew up on drugs," says Woods. "My parents drug me to church. They drug me to Sunday school. Anything that involved church, they drug me to." In the end, the drugging paid off. Woods remembers officially becoming a Christian at age 13 around the same time his parents separated. "If any time I need you, I need you right now," Woods recalls saying to the Lord.
Born and raised in Lithonia, Ga., a city 15 miles east of Atlanta, Woods says his family was close-knit growing up. He has a younger sister, 37-year-old Tameika Woods, who he remains tight with, and a half-brother, 45-year-old Robers Clark, who he has good relationship with despite meeting him while he was in high school. Woods attended Lithonia High School where he played baseball, basketball, and football. He excelled the most in baseball, and it remains his favorite sport.
In fact, a life-altering event occurred during one of Woods' high school baseball games. "I was a very good baseball player, one of the top players in the state of Georgia," says Woods. "In the last game of my senior year, I threw my shoulder and ended my career. Major League scouts were there, but it was over." After such a traumatic experience, one would expect Woods to show heartache when recalling this memory. Yet, he remained optimistic. Woods did not have to rely on an athletic scholarship to get into college. He says his parents taught him the importance of education, and he earned a partial academic scholarship to Albany State College, currently known as Albany State University, in Albany, Ga.
Though he was "saved," Woods realized he was not fully devoted to Christ when he reached college. As a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, he lived the typical college lifestyle. It was not until circumstances kept going wrong, "roadblocks" as Woods describes it, that he decided he was living his life in an unacceptable fashion. Around the time Woods graduated from Clayton College, a school he transferred to in the middle of his junior year to be closer to his sick mother, he was truly dedicated to the Lord. "I was about 22, 23 years old and was like, `Okay God, I'm going after you all the way,'" says Woods.
After college, Woods returned to his high school where he taught special education for six years and also served as an assistant basketball coach. He was next in line to become head coach of Lithonia High School's basketball program. However, Woods had other plans. "On December 14, 1998, I quit teaching and coaching in the middle of the year because I felt the urgency, the tug, the pull that God had on my heart to go into ministry right then and there," says Woods. "Single guy in Atlanta, nice job, benefits, and I literally just walked away from it all."
At age 28, Woods returned to the church he grew up in, St. Paul Church, and went into full-time ministry. He became the youth pastor, helping the youth ministry grow from eight children to over 300 in just three years. Woods also began a morning bible study at Lithonia High School. The theme of the bible study, who he partnered with his long time mentor Danny Buggs, was "Each One Reach One," and within one month, it grew from 12 members to around 125. "The school became a National School of Excellence, and the principle attributes a major portion of that to the things God was doing behind the scenes in ministry," says Woods.
All of the greatness occurring in Woods' life, including his church's tremendous growth from 162 members to approximately 1,000, was interrupted by the sudden death of his friend and pastor, 56-year-old Columbus Hartwell. Woods remembers the tragic event like it was yesterday. It was Super Bowl Sunday in 2000. He had just talked to his pastor at 10 p.m. the night before to prepare the next day's church service. Woods received a call notifying him of his pastor's heart attack at 2 a.m. "I sat there," says Woods. "I couldn't even move. I was paralyzed almost for two hours because it was just so shocking. Still to this day, it's hard to believe." Woods filled in along with other ministers until a new pastor was hired, but he knew he had to make a change. Woods turned to the Bible for guidance.
Genesis 12:1 states the following: "The LORD said to Abraham: `Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father's house to a land that I will show you.'" This verse carried Woods to the next phase of his life. He decided it was time to leave Georgia. It was a difficult decision because he resided there his entire life, and his family had a lot of history in the state. In fact, Woods' grandmother was the first African American to sit on the Lithonia city council, his aunt was the first African American mayor of Lithonia, and his uncle was Lithonia's first African American police chief. Though it was hard to leave his family, Woods knew God would never lead him in the wrong direction.
Chattanooga became Woods' new hometown. He was familiar with the location because of tours he did with the youth ministry. Woods immediately sought a church and landed with Mount Canaan Baptist Church because he felt a connection with the pastor. "I served as a non-paid, volunteer consultant, and I still serve in that capacity," says Woods. "The present pastor is the son of the previous pastor, and he reminds me so much of my pastor that passed away. That's why I give all of my services to him for no charge. The Lord has blessed me so much that I have to give back." Woods also joined the staff of FCA for inner-city ministries, and served as one of the athletic directors at Silverdale Baptist Academy. After a year and a half with FCA, he accepted a position as the chaplain at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga.
Woods believes fate is what eventually brought him to Knoxville and the University of Tennessee. In February 2009, Woods attended the annual FCA retreat held for Tennessee athletes. Coincidentally, UT's chaplain had recently left and went to Duke, so many UT football players approached Woods at the retreat about filling the position. Woods turned down an offer a month earlier for the same job. Yet, with all of the athletes telling him he would make a great chaplain at UT, Woods experienced a change of heart. "God really used them," says Woods. "That was an instrumental weekend." He wasted no time in fulfilling God's plan for him. Following that weekend, Woods talked with his wife, Tia Woods, and on May 11, 2009, he accepted the position as chaplain of UT.
With his new position, Woods serves as chaplain for UT football and men's and women's basketball. He does chapels for the teams, attending every football game and every basketball home game. His role as FCA campus director allows him to interact with athletes from every sport. Woods has helped numerous student-athletes live lives centered on God, a goal he strives to achieve each and every day. According to Woods' co-worker Rachel Stankus, his love for the Lord is clear. "It was very easy to see his passion for Christ," says Stankus. "Roger is an encourager and is very likeable. You just enjoy being around him."
Woods' passion to serve God is evident in the fact that he is only home with his wife and kids on Wednesdays and Sundays to avoid commuting from Chattanooga to Knoxville every day. Yet, he and his wife know this is his calling for the time being, and he describes his family as very understanding. Besides, with the following mindset, Woods can handle anything: "Encourage, enrich, and empower through scripture, study, and sports. That's my daily motto. I save myself a lot of drama living that way."