Oct. 14, 2009
BY JOSH PATE
The talk is still lingering about last weekend's 45-19 victory against Georgia. More specifically, it goes beyond that, as players and coaches have both pointed to a Friday night tell-all meeting that left both sides transparent and brought them close together.
Roger Woods goes so far as to say the future of Tennessee's football team hinges on that transformational Friday.
"Last Friday night was a defining moment for UT football across the board in every aspect," said Woods, the Vols' team chaplain. "When I had my interview with Coach [Lane] Kiffin before I came on board, he said he wanted to create a holistic program. That's what we saw last Friday. The outcome of that is what we saw last Saturday."
Woods' role as team chaplain is to be a shoulder for the team, a rock of encouragement and a spiritual leader. He depends on the Word, and yet his delivery is that which can relate to 18-22-year-olds and get them motivated about operating as a single unit, operating with a clear mind and soul, and operating not for themselves, but for God.
First Down: A special Friday ...
Each Friday, Woods holds chapel at the team hotel and provides a short message with key points as the players and coaches prepare for that weekend's game. The message varies, but the overall theme Woods instills in his pregame talk is unity.
That carried over more than Woods expected this past weekend.
"One thing that happened last Friday night was a parent called me last week and said, `We've all been praying separately, can we come together and pray together?' " said Woods, who is not compensated by the University of Tennessee and is responsible for raising his own funds for ministry and outreach. "So we got together last Friday night at the team hotel at 10 o'clock and had 50 parents and friends of family praying for our team last weekend. Now parents are literally buying in from that standpoint."
Parental acceptance and involvement, Woods said, is impressive. But it only falls in line with what he's seen regarding the UT players. That begins with respect.
"My philosophy is that I respect others and, in turn, I would like them to respect me," Woods said. "In this day, it's like you have to earn that respect with kids this age. I've earned their respect, and they've earned mine. In my walk and testimony, I'm very open and transparent. I'm not perfect and have never been perfect, but my experiences in life have helped me get to where I am today. There are pitfalls in life, but a good man, a strong man, a Godly man doesn't stay down when those pitfalls happen. He gets right back up and tries to do his best again. The guys have been really open to that. It comes back to the respect thing."
Second Down: Circle of unity ...
Once the Vol Walk is completed and players have dropped off their bags inside the locker room, Woods heads onto the field with the majority of the team and coaching staff. Players walk slowly from the end zone to midfield, looking to the empty stands, breathing in the air and taking in the moment. It's nearly eerie as an almost empty stadium stares down on the players, typically clad in black warm-ups.
Some players look into the seats, trying to picture what the crowd will be like. Some kid and chat with teammates. Some look to the giant scoreboard to enjoy the pregame scroll. No matter what they do, they all end up in a large circle around the Power T at midfield.
The man in the middle is Woods.
"In that big circle, it's the majority of our team and the majority of our coaching staff and we just pray," Woods said. "I reinforce real quickly the points we talked about in chapel on Friday night. And then we just pray for safety and well-being and togetherness on our team. We pray that we follow the lead of our coaches and come together as one."
The words said inside the circle are not secret, but at that moment in time, the only individuals on the football field are Volunteers.
"That big circle represents unity that we have for one another," Woods said. "We're not going to let anything or anybody come between that unity. That's what that prayer is all about. It's a prayer of unity."
Third Down: Getting the message across ...
Woods, who is originally from Atlanta and spent the past six years living in Chattanooga, first met some of this year's players at an annual retreat with college students. There, he met Nick Reveiz, Chris Walker, Anthony Anderson and a few others. After the retreat, the players were quite frank with Woods; they told him they wanted him to be their new team chaplain.
As the dominoes fell, Woods was soon talking with athletic director Mike Hamilton, a handful of Fellowship of Christian Athletes staff members and UT head coach Lane Kiffin. It was after that meeting, Wood said, that he felt God leading him to Knoxville.
"There's an old saying about don't do as I do, but do as I say. My philosophy is do as I do, and do as I say," Woods said. "I'm trying to teach them that we don't just talk it, but we have to walk what we do. I try my best to model that in every aspect of my life, and I think some of the guys are getting that. None of us are perfect. But I strive my best as they follow me and as I follow Christ because that was modeled for me."
The aspects of sport and religion often bleed into each other through visual aspects such as pregame and postgame prayers as well as the non-visual like the links between physical fitness and spirituality.
Woods believes it all goes hand-in-hand.
"The one thing I teach is to not play for us," he said. "There's an old saying that's on T-shirts, `There's no I in team.' The religious part of that would be that when we play, we're not playing for us, we're playing for the honor and glory of God so that when we make good plays or go out and do whatever, we're not trying to point the attention to us. So it's similar to the saying `There's no I in team.' We truly give honor and glory to God."
Fourth Down: Walking the walk ...
Woods holds a discipleship group with the players each week, and he's joined forces with Athletes in Action to provide ministry opportunities to student-athletes on campus. The result has been a group of student-athletes, called Team United, meeting to study the Bible.
The group meets every Thursday night in the football team room. The results have even surprised Woods.
"We've had five meetings to date and we're averaging anywhere from 150 to 160 student-athletes on those Thursday nights," he said.
Woods spent two and a half years as a chaplain at UT-Chattanooga, and he said the program there was highly successful. However, he warned that it was only successful after a slow start. When Woods took over the Bible studies and discipleship meetings, about 10-20 showed up. That eventually grew to 80-100 over a span of about two years.
But at Tennessee, it's spread at a fiery rate.
"I haven't seen it catch on as fast as it has here," Woods said. "Here, of course you have more athletes, but the receptiveness and how quick the guys and young ladies who are student-athletes have caught on, I have not seen that."
FOR MORE ON ROGER WOODS
To help raise money for his ministry, Woods recorded an original version of the song "It's Time," a hip-hop-style version of the football team's 2009 slogan. Click here to purchase the song, and check out Woods' blog.