Mere Christians

Sam Acho (Sports Analyst at ESPN)

Episode Summary

“What work DOESN’T matter to God?”

Episode Notes

Why vulnerability is the key to freedom in your work, the power of Christ-like joy in the workplace, and why every mere Christian’s work matters to God.

Links Mentioned:

Episode Transcription

[00:00:05] JR: Hey, everybody. Welcome to the Mere Christians Podcast. I’m Jordan Raynor. How does the gospel influence the work of mere Christians? Those of us who aren’t pastors, we’re not religious professionals, but who work as fast-food workers, or statisticians, or pipe fitters. That's the question we explore every week. Today, I'm posing it to my new friend, Sam Acho.


He's a nine-year NFL veteran linebacker, currently working as an ESPN analyst, and a bestselling author. Sam and I recently sat down to talk about why vulnerability is the key to freedom in your work. We talked about the power of Christ-like joy in the workplace, and why every mere Christian’s work matters deeply to God. I think you guys are really going to enjoy this conversation with Sam Acho.




[00:01:01] JR: Sam Acho, welcome to the Mere Christians Podcast.


[00:01:04] SA: It's good to be out with you, Jordan.


[00:01:06] JR: Hey, so I got to ask, because I'm in Tampa Bay. You spent a year down here, right?


[00:01:12] SA: I did. I did. It was interesting because of how warm it was on Christmas. Now, mind you, my first couple years in the NFL, I played in Arizona. So, it was like 90 degrees on Christmas Eve. I think on Christmas night, evening, it was 100 degrees. I was like, “Wow, this is hot.” That's when the next four years in Chicago and Christmases were negative three degrees. It felt like negative 100. And then, my last year was in Tampa. And I was like, “I remember, though I forgot, how warm it can be in the wintertime.” So, yes, I did spend time in Tampa and I really enjoyed it.


[00:01:46] JR: Man, I've lived here pretty much all my life. I've spent every Christmas of my life here in Tampa. I can remember a cold Christmas in 36 years. One of them. One of them. So, welcome to Tampa, Florida. Hey, man, I'm really curious what your testimony is. When did you come to follow Jesus? How did that happen, Sam?


[00:02:04] SA: My parents – my story starts with my parents. My parents were born and raised in Nigeria. My dad came to America because he was a pastor, a preacher.


[00:02:15] JR: Interesting.


[00:02:15] SA: He was the guy – I say the guy, which is not like it's common, but he was a guy who was like standing on top of buses, preaching the gospel.


[00:02:23] JR: That's awesome.


[00:02:23] SA: That was his thing. And funnily enough, I don't know exactly when he came to the Lord, all I know is that he came from a family, seven siblings, one passed away, so eight siblings. He found out that his dad had died out of nowhere and he came back. He said, “You know, I'm going to go to the war. I'm going to find a way and support our family, et cetera, et cetera.” And something happened. I don't know if it was before the war, after the war in Nigeria. There’d be often a war. Something happened and he met Jesus.


He came back to his family. He's the oldest son. He's supposed to be the provider and the protector. Now, that your dad is gone, it's your responsibility. And he came back to his family, his mom included and siblings, and said, “Hey, guys, I'm going to follow Jesus. I'm going to go be a pastor. I know pastors don't get paid but I need to go do this.” They looked at him like, “Dude, you're crazy.” He's like, “I mean, I got to do it.” He said, “God will make it work.”


So, they're looking at him, he's still like, “I don't care. I'm going to do it.” And some missionaries from America came to Nigeria to go and preach the gospel to people in Nigeria. While they're going to these different villages and cities and states, they see this man playing his guitar and telling people about Jesus preaching the gospel on top of a bus, that was my dad. They said, “Okay, we don't need to talk to you. You need to come talk to us. Can you come to America and preach to us?”


That's how my parents came to America, but that provided some context into who I am. My dad is a pastor. He's also a marriage counselor. He has his doctorate in psychology. My mom loves Jesus. So, I grew up around the word of God, around other believers. I grew up, every Saturday morning as a family, we would sing worship songs together, read the Bible, pray every day as a family, morning, and we would pray.


So, I grew up in church in so many ways. It wasn't until probably 12 or so years old, where I decided, “Man, I want to go be baptized.” Part of that was, I saw my older sisters get baptized. I thought it was cool. So I’m like, “I want to do this.” That's kind of what I really said, “Okay, I believe and I want to follow and all these things.” But it wasn't really until college when I could make decisions on my own that I said, “You know what, I'm going to take this Jesus thing for real.”


I went to University of Texas. I got there on a football scholarship. And there's a whole story behind that and we can get into it if you'd like. But I ran into a teammate. His name is Trevor Walker. He was a walk-on quarterback and he was reading his bible, outside of the elevator of the largest dorm on campus. Mind you, Texas is 50,000 students, 35,000 undergrads. I don't know how many thousand people rent at Jester Hall. And I'm thinking, “Dude, there's like girls everywhere.” I went to an all-boys private school. There's like girls – you're a football player, the quarterback, and you're reading your Bible at all – it was nighttime. It was like at night when people were going to parties, and I wanted that. I wanted that –


[00:05:15] JR: Why? Why did you want that?


[00:05:17] SA: Because I knew there was something more than just, “Oh, wow, you're famous. Oh, wow, you play for the football team. Oh, wow, you’re smart or you’re this.” And all these cliques and these – I knew there was more, and I wanted Jesus. I knew Him, but I wanted to know Him in such a way where I wasn't ashamed or wasn't hiding. Maybe it's a subconscious thing, but I wanted to be bold enough about Him to be reading about Him at an elevator where thousands of people are coming in and out and saying, “Man, I want to know more about this God that you serve.” That's why I wanted to know more. I wanted to be bold. I wanted to be unafraid, unashamed, and uninhibited, as opposed to, “Oh, wow, you're cool. Oh, you're nice. Oh, you're this athlete.” There was something more.


[00:05:57] JR: Thank God for Trevor Walker.


[00:05:59] SA: Yes. We call them T-twang. He’s Texas from 903, 903 area code. He had not a real southern accent. But from ET, Piney Woods. We called him T-twang. He had that southern twang, too.


[00:06:14] JR: T-twang.


[00:06:15] SA: Yes. Thank God for Trevor Walker.


[00:06:15] JR: Thank God for Trevor Walker. Hey, I asked you before we recorded, why you think your work matters to God in kind of this template survey we send out to guests. I loved the simplicity of your answer. You probably don't remember it. Your answer was like, “Everything God's children do matters to God.” Right? I love that so much. I'm assuming that truth has given you a lot of freedom to choose vocations that just make you come fully alive. Like you're fully alive guy, Sam. You get that immediately upon talking to you, knowing that nearly any job can glorify God. Am I reading that, right? Do you feel a lot of freedom to just choose various vocational lanes because you know your Father cares for you?


[00:06:58] SA: Yes. I mean, what doesn't matter to God? Everything. Everything matters to God. How we sleep. If we sleep, what else – if I don't get a good night's sleep, guys, I'm like, “Oh, whatever.” It's like, “Man, I want my child to sleep.” Well, I have kids, right? My kids, everything they do matters to me. My parents. What I did mattered to them, whether I was playing football, whether it was academic, how I was as a sibling. All that stuff mattered to my parents because I matter to my parents. I have children. Everything they do matters.


I'm not saying, I got to go sleep at this time. Wake up this time. But no, you matter. So, if you care about something, and that matters to you, it matters to me too. And so, you think vocationally, okay, I ended up playing football. Well, football matters to God. No, it's not like, okay, if I pray this long that my team is going to win. No, but like, dude, you can glorify me in how you play. You can glorify me in how you think. You glorify me in how you interact with people.


So, one of my teammates, I played nine years in the NFL, and I was like, I'm going to go be the star and the guy and I played nine years. Long time, I was not a Pro Bowler though. I was close one year, and I wasn't whatever record setter. It was also close to a couple of years. But anyways –


[00:08:05] JR: For the record. Close a couple of years.


[00:08:07] SA: For the record, I was a competitor. The coolest part about my time in the NFL is that people came to know the Lord through me and my testimony during and after my time. I was at this conference, it was called professional athletes outreach, it increased confidence for pro athletes, and oftentimes they're married to their spouses. And a teammate of mine who was not a follower of Jesus, didn't want to hear anything I had to say, not only did he come to this conference this year, but years before when we were teammates, I'd go against him in practice every single day. I would try to live out my testimony and tell him about Jesus. And he's like, “You know I don't want to hear it. I don’t want to hear it.”


Well, he was engaged and my wife knew his fiancée. His fiancée told my wife, “Hey, tell Sam to keep on talking to him, not only about Jesus but about attending this conference.” So, I was like, “All right.” I've tried, he said no. Well, the long and short of it was, a few weeks or months later, this guy who gave me the stone-cold, “No, I'm not going to this Christian thing,” not only does he say he's coming, but he brings his fiancée and a ton of other teammates come. He gets baptized. Now, he has three kids. Now, he’s coming consistently. He's on a different team now. But the greatest part about that was that, in my nine years in the NFL, it didn't matter if I won games or lost games, or made Pro Bowls or set records or almost records, none of that mattered.


What mattered was that I mattered. To my teammates, I mattered. And then, because I mattered, because I cared about them, now Jesus mattered to them, and now they're coming to know the Lord. So, our vocation matters. We may not understand it in the grand scheme, the grand context of things, but God cares about what we care about. Oftentimes, he put those desires in there.


[00:09:46] JR: Yes, no doubt. So, I'm curious what do you think was it that God used in you to bring people like this guy to faith? What did they see that was different about Sam because of your relationship with Christ?


[00:10:01] SA: I think, I was honest, and the word I started to say was authentic. Authenticity isn't having it all together. It seems obvious, but it's not. The most authentic situations oftentimes come with confession. “Hey, I messed that up. Hey, I’m sorry. Hey, you've seen me in my highs and lows.” So, this guy played offensive line. I played defensive and outside linebacker. We would go against each other every single day in practice, sometimes fights would ensue. There were probably words that probably weren't the best words coming out of both of our mouths or even sentiments. But this guy saw me and he knew me. Even outside of that, he still saw me leading Bible Studies with guys.


He still saw me spending time, not even spending time. He just saw me. There was no hiding. And I think he saw that consistency and authenticity and honesty, and realized, “Oh, wow, I don't have to be perfect. Sam's not perfect. But Sam loves Jesus and Jesus loves Sam. And Jesus loves me too.” So, it was this deal of you see me, and you know me, and also, you've seen me grow. You've seen me fall and fail and you still care for me. We can argue and fight on the field. But you're still going to invite me to come and join this Bible study. You invite me to this thing. You’re still going to show up at Chapel the night before the game.


It's not just like, if you're winning, and it's like, “I want a good luck charm.” No, “Oh, this Jesus thing is real. This Jesus – man, this person is real. This guy's faith is real.” So, I think what he saw was an authenticity, and honesty, and a consistency, and not a consistency in like, “Oh, you're always the same every day.” But man, you consistently apologize. You're consistently joyful, even when we're one in 10 as a team or 10 in one. I think that's what he saw.


[00:11:44] JR: Yes, that's good. I want to come back to authenticity in a minute. But first, I want to turn our focus to your role at ESPN. Tell us about this. What do you do an ESPN these days?


[00:11:54] SA: Oh, that's awesome. Yes, I love it. I am a college football, NFL, and now XFL analyst for ESPN. Actually, let me stratify those. So, I'm a college football analyst. Every Saturday during games, if you turn on ESPN or ESPN 2, I'll be one of the guys talking about halftime or postgame evaluating what we just saw. That's what I do for college. For NFL, I'm more, I'm an analyst as well, but it's usually on shows like Get Up or First Take or Sports Center, where we're just a daily show, talking about what's going on in games or post-games, et cetera.


Then I started with the XFL, I'm actually a color commentator for the XFL. So, I'm actually the guy who's in the booth, who's talking you through the game while the game is going on. And so, at ESPN, I do college football, I do NFL and I do XFL and I've loved all of them.


[00:12:42] JR: But now you get to go the game, so you don't have to play. You just get to talk about what other people are doing wrong as they're playing.


[00:12:48] SA: You say get to, Jordan.


[00:12:50] JR: What a gig.


[00:12:51] SA: It’s not fun. I want to be out there.


[00:12:53] JR: Now listen, it's funny, as you're talking, I'm like, “This is kind of what I do is chairman of the board of the tech startup I used to run.” Board roles are the best. You show up, talk about what's wrong in the business, and then you don't have to fix anything. You don't have to actually go out there and do the work.


[00:13:08] SA: It's hard though, man. Because I was on the field before – we did the game a couple of days ago. I'm in the booth, first game I was in the booth studying notes, getting storylines, et cetera. Didn't go down the field. Week two, I was like, “I need to be down with the players. That's where I belong.” So, I went down, heard some awesome stories, and all the things. Well, this last game, I said, “I'm going to go down there as well.” And I was down there and I was talking to one player who I've been watching, who's like, he was the highest graded cornerback in all the XFL so far this season, according to Pro Football Focus. This group that keeps stats.

I talked to him and just I heard the way he talked about the game. This guy used to play for the Green Bay Packers. It's like man, “I learned from Aaron Rodgers. I learned from guys like Sam Shields. These guys are going to be like Hall of Famers.” And he’s like, “The little things that I do, it helps change my game and I communicate that with my guys, like the guys who follow me.” I'm like, “Man, I miss that.” No, I don't want to be out there. I'm kidding. But I’m like, there's this deal of like being in the trenches being in the mud, like getting down and dirty, as opposed to just being on the ancillary talking about it.


[00:14:08] JR: Yes, you miss that fight. I love that. Well, tell me, what do you love about the role, specifically the Jesus part? When you think about this, how do you approach the role as an analyst differently because of your faith, if at all?


[00:14:22] SA: I am me.


[00:14:24] JR: Authenticity.


[00:14:25] SA: Yes. I'm just trying to be me and people have said, I don't know if I'm hoping or praying, I think both, that I was hoping or praying that this would happen. But I'm known for my smile or my joy. I wanted that to emanate through the screen. I wanted that to show through the screen. And all of a sudden, I’m hearing people say, “Man, when I watch you” – I was at McDonald's a couple of months ago, or maybe a year ago. I don't go there often, right? We've seen too many documentaries about it. My kids wanted to go so we went.


[00:14:54] JR: Hey, no shame in this game. All right? I love me some McDonald's from time and time.


[00:14:57] SA: Yes. Out there, we’re picking up some food and it was on the west side of Chicago. Just downtown, downtown Chicago. And this Black Uber Eats driver or 27-year-old dude from like the south side, just Uber Eats or whatever these driving companies, DoorDash, looks at me. He's like, “Are you Acho?” I’m like, “Yes, man, nice to meet you.” He's like, “Bro, I don't want to sound weird or anything. But when I watch you on TV, it brings me joy. It makes me smile. I'm not like that kind of guy, I'm just saying, man.”


It just hit me because I realized, “Oh, wow, I don't have to do anything different. I don't have to be preachy or I don't have to – I can just be who God made me to be and that will emanate through my vocation, through my work.” That's been the best part about bringing Jesus into my job. Yes, sometimes what's on the screen. But more often, it's what's behind the scenes. We don't see like, I get access to people who have millions of followers and millions of dollars, all these things, but sometimes they're lonely. I got a chance to be –


[00:16:03] JR: A lot of times, I bet.


[00:16:05] SA: Exactly. So, that's what I enjoy the most.


[00:16:08] JR: Listen, here's what I love about this. Whether or not you had a chance in the moment with the Uber driver to explicitly point him to Jesus. What you're doing on-screen matters, because it's planting a desire in people's hearts for that otherworldly joy. That is secure, regardless of circumstances. And that, man, you're just playing a desire to which Christ is the only answer, right?


[00:16:34] SA: Yes. I've been in situations and with people who everyone admires. “You're my favorite player. Look at the car you drive.” These are my teammates. The checks are millions of dollars. And the cars multiple are like one of a kind. Even on TV, right? My coworkers are like, “Man, like, can you believe this guy, that guy?” I've been in situations like that as well. I’m realizing, “Does this satisfy?” For me, it doesn't, and I see for you, it doesn't. So, there's got to be something more. And now learning, I have that thing, right? Like one of my mentors. His name is Brett Rodgers. He leads Young Life internationally. We just got a new kind of role. But long story short, one of his phrases, he always says, “Man, I'm the richest man in the world.”


What do you mean by that? Mind you, he doesn’t get paid a lot of money. Sometimes it’s fundraised, but he's like, “Man, look at these relationships. Look at my marriage, my family. I'm the richest man in the world.” I think about that for myself. I feel like I'm the richest man. My wife and I, we met in Nigeria and we're going on 10 years of marriage. We have four kids. I get a chance to do what I love. I’m writing books, sharing with people about Jesus through my work. That's another thing. The cool thing, the cool side note about having a job or doing good at your job is that many people listen to you.

[00:17:56] JR: Yes. Mastery is the most winsome thing in the world. Right? You're so good, they can't ignore you. Yes, you get a platform.


[00:18:04] SA: Exactly. So, that platform allows me to write. Now, my books, if you don’t hear about me and I talk about Jesus, you'll read about Jesus in my book.


[00:18:10] JR: Yes. I love this. Hey, you've hit on authenticity. Is this what your first book is all about? This book is called, Let the World See You: How to Be Real in a World Full of Fakes. What's the core idea of this book? Is it all about authenticity and vulnerability? What is this?


[00:18:23] SA: It is. You hit it right on the head. The book is about what it means to be seen, known, and loved, not only by Jesus, but also by those around you. We talked about hiding and being vulnerable and all these things. I used to hide you. I used to hide behind my smile. Hide behind this, “Oh, yes, everything's good. I got all the answers.” And I didn't. I didn't have all the answers. Things were not good. My first book, it really is this idea of man, when I'm me, and when I'm vulnerable, when I'm real, not only does it free me up, but it frees up those around me.


Also, Jesus loves me. God loves me. He loves every bit of me, every part of me, even in my failures, my faults, and my insecurities. He wants to bring me back. He wants me to worship him, and he doesn't want me to hide and pretend. He wants me to – he already knows me fully and intimately. But he wants me to open up myself to him so I can realize, “Oh, wow, like there's a warmth and a love that I get when I really allow God to see all of me and not try to hide it.”


Think about the garden, right? Right after Adam and Eve, they eat from the tree. They go and what do they do? They hide. God knew where they were. But he still says, “Where are you? Where are you?” And we do that. We hide. God knows what we've done and he’s still saying, “Man, where are you? Where are you?” I feel like he wants a relationship with us, intimacy, and that's why our work matters. Okay, well hey, God, I'm going to see you on Sunday, but Monday to Friday I'm doing ESPN and Saturdays too. It’s like, no, God wants to be in all of it because he is all of it.


[00:20:03] JR: Yes. What happened to you, really? So, you said you didn't used to be vulnerable. You used to hide behind your smile. What happened that led to a passion for this message? Is there a story there?


[00:20:12] SA: Yes, a couple of things happened. When I was young, I went to a church called Oakland Bible Fellowship. Huge church, Pastor Tony Evans. My dad was a pastor at the church, a predominately Black church on the south side of Dallas. Well, I went to a predominately white school in Dallas as well. So, predominantly Black church, white school, and I grew up in a Nigerian household. So, I was like, “Who am I? What's going on?” I'll go to Nigeria for Christmas, and New Year's, all these things.


Well, I remember one time in our youth service, teenagers or little kids can be mean, and getting made fun of, for the clothes I was wearing, by some teenagers at the church. And they were laughing, “You’re wearing this, wearing that. Can you even dress yourself?” Mind you, I wore uniforms and bicycles. I don't even know how to drive. I’m trying to figure things out. One of them turns around and looks and says, “Oh, you can't talk about him. That's Dr. Acho’s son. His dad's a pastor here.”


I remember this feeling of shame. “Oh, man, now I've done it.” I got up. They were laughing. You kind of turned back around. I excused myself and go to the bathroom and I just sat there. Sat there in the restroom stall for I don't know, 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes. Just sat there until I felt like it was close to time for that thing to be off. I thought that'd be just a one-time thing. But it turned out it wasn't. It turned out to be almost like a weekly. Every week, I walk in, there was a Wednesday night service, and soon as I thought, “Oh, no. They might laugh or make fun of me.” I'm just going to excuse myself real quick. Five, 10, 20, 30, until we broke them into our – because I was with all the high schoolers and stuff.


So, it was a thing of hiding. And fast forward to National Football League. No, I'm not hiding in bathroom stalls. But I still hid behind this persona of, “Oh, you're a Christian? Oh, you got all the answers. Oh, Sam, you're this or you're that.” And I didn't really let people see me. It wasn't until a lot of things happened. I mean, I found The Body Keeps the Score. You cannot hide forever. I remember sharing with a friend of mine, I just signed this multiyear contract, big contract NFL. I made it. I did all the things that like people say, “Oh, you did it.” I was sad. I felt alone, and I felt like nothing.


Personally, I was struggling and I wasn't being kind to my wife, to my kids. There was no joy anymore. I remember talking to one of my friends. And I mean, there were even other insecurities, right? Interpersonal stuff. And I was like, “Hey, man, it's okay. Training Camp starts back up in a week. I'll be back with my teammate.” Because we have our offseason. And the offseason was hard. “It will be fine. We'll be back with the teammates, with the guys. It’s going to be great. My marriage, we’ll figure it out.” But not my marriage, like my issues in marriage, we’ll figure it out. My issues with my kids, and my angry alphas. And he says, “Dude, if that's how you feel right now,” we've been in the offseason for two months, three months. He said, “I'm afraid of what happens when football is taken away from you when you retire. I'm really concerned.”


And as I'm sharing some of my struggles, and my like, real deep-down stuff, I'm weeping in front of this guy, crying at a steakhouse – at Gibson Steakhouse in Chicago by the airport. I’m weeping. It wasn’t like the little tears. It was like, weeping. It's straight up. This guy, we did like business together. This guy is helping me with my brand. He sees and I’m weeping and crying and I'm confessing. He looks at me and he says, “Oh, by the way, Sam, it's really nice to see you.”


I'm thinking like, “Dude, I just confessed like my deepest, darkest sins.” I'm sitting here, weeping loudly, at a restaurant, snot bubbles and all, and you're saying it's nice to see me? He says, “Yes.” He says, “You never know. Maybe God is writing a book in your life, and you may only be on chapter two.” He also recommended that I go to counseling, right? This dude and his wife, who just got diagnosed with cancer. Young guy, a 47-year-old. He was just going to see – he was talking to a therapist about life and stuff. He's like, “Maybe you talk to somebody.”


So, I did. The very next week, the day we reported to training camp. I report that afternoon. That morning, I'm going to a counselor's office, a therapist’s office. My dad's a therapist. He's a marriage counselor. I know that it's a balancing thing. I go in there, I'm going to just check the box and get in, get out, go to practice. Halfway through, he kind of stops, pauses, and he says, “Sam, I have a question for you. What do you do when you get angry?” And I look at him I'm like, “Well, that's easy. I just try not to get angry.” He says, “I understand that. But what do you do when you get angry?”


I look at him again, I said, "Just try not to get angry.” He says, “Well Sam, everyone gets angry. So, what do you do when you get angry?” And looking, seeing there's nowhere really to go, to escape, to hide, I began to weep again. Once again, snot bubbles and all, ugly crap. He said, “Sam, I'm going to put my hand on your chest. I need you to breathe. Sam, I'm going to put my hand on your stomach, belly breathing, I need you to breathe.” He leans in and says, “It's really nice to see you, Sam.”


[00:25:31] JR: Wow.


[00:25:32] SA: “Oh, by the way, get used to hearing that.” I'm thinking, am I being punked right now? Is this like the show?


[00:25:40] JR: Exactly. And then you punched your counselor in the face. That’s what I do when I’m angry. That’s wild.


[00:25:48] SA: Yes. So, you talking about the moment, that was really the moment he said, “Man, write. I don't know if you write at all but I recommend you start writing. I don't know what you do with music but I recommend you start listening to music.” And that conversation, that period of time, was seven days, from the first opening up of Pandora's tear box to the other. That's what it began.


[00:26:06] JR: So, I'm sure it's a long journey of figuring out how do I do this, practicing vulnerability and authenticity. What's been the net of that for you? What's different about your life and your work, especially your work, as you've learned to be more vulnerable with those around you?


[00:26:23] SA: The next is freedom. I love your vocabulary. The gross, what is the gross? You take it out and it's like the net, what's left over? And the result, the net is freedom. Freedom to fail, freedom to talk freely about my emotions with God, and with others. Man, I feel anxious right now. God, what are you going to do with that? Man, I'm afraid. God, what do you want me to do? I read – there's a devotional I love called Jesus Calling by Sarah Young and, the day before today, the deal was talking about your problems, make friends with your problems. You can even give them nicknames and give them to God.


I started doing that. I'm like, okay, when I'm sad. Okay, Sally. Sally is here. Hey, Sally, meet God. What do you want to do with Sally? Or Frank when I'm afraid. This is like yesterday, I came up with these names. This fear is here again. All right, Frank. Frank, meet God. God, meet Frank. This thing of like, “Hey, it's okay to be human.” God understands that we're made of dust, but he doesn't want us to hide. He wants us to bring everything in and with trusted friends and people and counselors, therapists or whatever.


So, the net has been this freedom to apologize at times, freedom to say like, “Hey, coach”, in football. Or “Hey, boss, this thing is going on and I'm wondering, can we do it this way? Or that way?” Or, “Hey, I've got this family thing, my son was just born.” As opposed to like, “Well, no, I got to show up.” Would you consider it? Maybe it's a no, but this freedom of saying, “Hey, I care about X? Is there any space to do Y?” If not, I understand but I suppose like, okay, I'm going to finagle my way and I'm going to act like I'm sick, so I can go to my son’s – no, that's been the net. Is the freedom to feel and be me.


[00:28:11] JR: Yes. I got to imagine that this idea, though, of being vulnerable, being authentic about what's going on. I think this idea is connected to this book that you released today, the day we're recording this podcast on March 7th, called Change Starts with You: Following Your Fire to Heal a Broken World. That's the subtitle, right? Because if we can't be vulnerable about what's going on in our lives, if we can't isolate those things, and name those things, we're largely operating out of a sense of fear rather than freedom, right? Fear that if I do this at work, I can't take that big of a risk because others will find out why about me. Or I'll have to reveal why X about me, whatever. But once you can be vulnerable those things, now I'm free to fully engage with the work I believe God's called me do. Is there connection? Am I making up this connection? Or am I onto something here?


[00:28:58] SA: No, you're onto something, Jordan. Change Starts with You, and so Let the World See You was a prequel or part one, right? Change Starts with You is the sequel. It's part two, let the world see you. Let God see you. Let God remind you of who you are. And all of a sudden, once you remember who you are in the Lord, in Christ, sometimes friends will help remind you too, good friends. Now, it's time to start moving and adjusting and adapting and expanding. You know what I mean?


[00:29:27] JR: Yes, totally. I totally get it. So, all right, today's your book birthday, for this Change Starts with You book. What's the 30-second overview of this book? What's this book about?


[00:29:37] SA: This book is really about what it means to take pain and turn it into purpose. We love to run from pain and I feel like God wants to use our pain to change the world. I say the world, but really, sometimes that change starts with a conversation or an act of compassion. I think that's what God wants us to do: follow your fire to heal a broken world. A lot of us, we let our fire fires die out, that God-given passion or desire that God gave us, and something that someone did or said, maybe something that we did or said, it caused that fire to dwindle and to dissipate, just to be gone. I feel like God wants that fire to reignite that fire. Once that fire reignites, there's so many people on the other side of the hopes and desires that God put in our hearts and minds and souls.


[00:30:21] JR: I love this. So, talk to our listener who's working at Twitter, or in a cubicle at ESPN, or maybe, I don’t know, maybe somebody who's landscaping a customer's yard while they listen to this episode. How do they heal a broken world through their work? What in the world does that look like?


[00:30:38] SA: It's actually being serious about what's going on inside your own heart. I can understand heart is deceptive and desperately wicked. But there are some things that make us angry, or things that bring us joy, or things that we just can't get off of our minds, good and bad. I think it starts with saying, “Okay, what are those things?” I get it. I got my work, doing my job, getting that done. But when I get home, there's this other thing. Maybe it's how I am as a father. God, what's going on with me as a father? As a mom? Or as a sibling? God, I don't have this deal with my parents. I don't know how to communicate with them.


So, it's like, okay, what is that? Digging deeper, getting curious, being open. Maybe it's things not only inside of us, but around us. Man, I'm in this neighborhood, and I've read a little bit about redlining or a little bit about people not going to that side of town. But God, these people – or even the homeless. But you say everyone's made in the image of you, something's missing. So, I think it starts with this curiosity of saying, “Okay, God, opened up my eyes to who I am, what you want me to do in this world.” And I think that's where it starts.


[00:31:44] JR: Have you gone through this process within your role at ESPN? If you looked at ESPN back, “What’s kind of really stirring in my heart within this massive institution?”


[00:31:55] SA: Yes. Actually, took a part out of the book, just because I was like, “Ah.” I added it, my publisher was like, “Hey, maybe it’s not the best to say about.”


[00:32:03] JR: I have those. Hey, but now you can share here. The bonus chapter, here only.


[00:32:09] SA: Exactly. You’re the first to hear it. But this idea of, man, when you get to a place like ESPN, is very much like those who are in front of the camera, and those who are behind the camera. Those who – this is my show and my thing, versus, “Hey, you're here to serve me.” Something about that didn't sit right with me. It never has. At ESPN or anywhere. Forget ESPN. Any company you go to. “I'm the CEO.” Hold on, the janitor is made in the image of God, too.


So, I noticed that early on. I said, okay, this sucks. Do I just sit here and say, “Well, this is what it is and I’m in front of the camera, you guys serve me. Or do I try to do something about it? I love people. So, I love learning about them all things. I said, what if I just – Thanksgiving, because that's college football season. Everyone's like, “I'm going to be home with my family.” So, what if I decided to go spend Thanksgiving with the people who can't go home to their families at ESPN? And not only that, what if I – because my first book, Let the World See You had just come out. What if I not only give them copies of my book, but also shout them out on TV.


This wasn't my idea. I just wanted to do something. So, I reached out to some producers, some people who have been there for 30 years and said, “Hey, is there anything that can be done for some of the people here?” They said, “We could do this. Ten years ago, if we did that” – so, I said, “What if we did that?” I thought it was a small thing. But everything is the people at the network because they said, “Man, that's never happened before.” I told my parents I worked here, but they never see me, and they saw my name on the screen or my picture. A little thing. I use that as an example.


[00:33:38] JR: I think that's a phenomenal example, brother. It's being aware of your vocational power, and being willing to sacrifice it to elevate those who have less vocational power than you, right?


[00:33:53] SA: It is. It is. And someone's listening, saying, “Well, I'm not on TV. I'm the guy who's behind the camera. I’m the guy who don't have that vocational power.” But man, you have access to people who will never listen to me. You're in the same break rooms, you're having the same conversations. You're hearing their pains or failures, who they're dating, who they just broke up with, what they're smoking or drinking or whatever. It’s like, “Hey, man, can I get to know you?” “You want to get to know me?” “Hey, let's grab a bite. Let me listen to you. Let me share some of my story with you and love you well.” That's the access that I may never get.


That's what we forget. We think we have to be a superstar or an NFL football player. No. You don’t. Just be exactly who God made you to be. For you, it might just be listening. I love to listen to people. That might be your thing. I’m empathetic, so I'm just going to go and listen to someone. I'm going to ask them how they're doing and really sit down and care. I’m going to invite them to coffee or to lunch or brunch or dinner or bring them into my house or go to theirs. For some, it's speaking life into people. You don't have to be – to have a million followers to tell someone you love them or tell someone the good that you see in them, the God you see in them. It doesn't take much but it does take moving and doing and going and breathing and being.


[00:35:09] JR: It's really good. What I love about this, I'm so excited to read your new book Change Starts with You. I think there's these threads of modern Christianity that drive me nuts, if I'm frank, that are largely driven by like an endless supply of End Times propaganda, right? Like we spend so much time worrying about when Jesus is going to come back and we're it's going to be blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, that we're not fully engaged with the work, I believe, that Christ has called us to do, right? Namely to join him in renewing all things. You and I were praying about this right before we started recording. Not just to watch the world go to hell in a handbasket and just pray for Jesus to come back ASAP. But to partner with King Jesus in putting things right in the world right now, in our communities, in our workplaces.


What's gotten you fired up about this? What in your theological background of what in Scripture you've seen, they're like, “No, we are called to engage. We are called to change things to make this world look more like the eternal kingdom of God.”


[00:36:13] SA: The best moments of my life. Day one, one of the best moments of my life in my memory was my wedding day. That's number one. My wife – and I was actually was – I guess you could say 1A and 1B. We did a Nigerian wedding and an American wedding. Seeing my wife on that wedding day, that was the best day of my life.


The second best day was my first child was born. Becoming a father. It's like, “Oh, my God. This is amazing. I've always dreamt about this.” Number three, was doing the work of the Kingdom on the south side and west sides of Chicago. Taking something broken. We essentially purchased this liquor store and turned it into a Food Mart after discovering this thing called a food desert. Two grocery stores, 17 liquor stores in a half-mile radius, the middle of COVID and George Floyd everyone's – people here rioting and looting.


So, let's get close. Let’s get curious. We realized, “Oh, my gosh, they don't have food. They go to McDonald's.” I ask them, “Where to get your food from?” They said, “We go to McDonald's, or the gas station.” I was like, “What? Where do you get something healthy?” “Sam, healthy? If we want something organic, we have to commute 45 minutes to the next city.” And God did this really cool thing where me and some athletes and some people in the community and some young – we call them young entrepreneurs. Black kids from the west side of Chicago. A nonprofit leader said, “What if we did something? What if we actually raised some money, bought a liquor store, and turned it into a Food Mart.” All the kid's idea. The young entrepreneurs, 14 and 15-year-olds, 13, 14, and 15-year-olds. And seeing that Food Mart be opened, i's called Austin Harvest because it’s in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. That was day number three. It felt like heaven on earth.


So, the secret, what gets me going and fired up, is the fact that we can join God in bringing heaven on Earth. You don't have to wait for “thy kingdom come.” Thy will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Not later. But now. God, how can I seek your face? Seek your will? Seek justice? How can I join you in this work of making all things new?


[00:38:12] JR: Yes. And He's going to finish that work one day. But He left us with the job of implementing His kingdom in the present. Scratching off those glimpses of the eternal kingdom of God that are hiding between the thin veil of heaven and Earth, right? A 100%, that Food Mart is a glimpse of the eternal Kingdom of God because we know that there's no scarcity of food in the Kingdom of God and you're scratching off a glimpse of that. I'm reminded of some of my favorite stories from the life of Mr. Rogers. Did you watch Mr. Rogers growing up at all?


[00:38:42] SA: I did. And I watched his movie. I watched – there were two movies. That’s one I will never forget.


[00:38:48] JR: They showed this in the documentary. He had just gone off the air. I think it was like 10 days before 9/11. And 9/11 happens, PBS calls Rogers back like, “Hey, you got to get back on the air. You got to do a PSA.” It's one of my favorite videos of all time. He gets there and he's talking to really the parents of the kids used to talk to, and he gets done talking about 9/11. He says, “No matter what our particular job, especially in our world today, we are called to be tikkun olam, this Hebrew term, which means repairers of creation.” That's what we're called to, right? To partner with Jesus, and restore, and renew, and repair what's broken in this world. Man, Sam, I can't think of a better example than what you just shared.


Hey, bro, three questions we wrap up every podcast with. Number one, which books other than your own, do you find yourself recommending or gifting most frequently?


[00:39:48] SA: Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. I mean, I recommended that two days ago. It's a devotional. Every day, five-day devotional. And I just recommended that somebody on Instagram, two, three, maybe four days a go now. That's the one. If there's one I'd recommend, it's that.


[00:39:48] JR: All right. Hey, who do you want to hear on this podcast talking about how the Christian faith shapes the work they do in the world?


[00:40:10] SA: Good question. I want to hear – I don't know how true this is. But I heard somebody say they know and apparently, he's a follower of Jesus or learning. Arnold Schwarzenegger.


[00:40:20] JR: Really?


[00:40:21] SA: I don't know how true this is. I was doing a podcast with somebody like, “Yes, I know him. Apparently, he’s a believer,” or something. Maybe this is new, whatever. But it'd be fun to hear him. Even the accent, it would be great too. I don't know the backstory.


[00:40:33] JR: If that’s true, our producers are investigating this, as I say this. This is happening.


[00:40:39] SA: I may be totally off. But even so, he'd be a great interview.


[00:40:41] JR: I love it. All right. Hey, what's one thing for our conversation you want to reiterate to our listeners before we sign off, Sam?


[00:40:47] SA: That God sees you and he knows you. And he gave Adam good work to do in the garden. God could have cultivated a garden by himself. But he said, “Hey, Adam, I want you to work this garden. I want you to tend to it, and I want you to name the animals. I want you to tend to them. Hey, Adam, I don't want you to be alone. I want to give you a helper. I'm going to make her out of your own flesh and bone. I’m going to use one of your ribs to make her. I don't want you to be alone. I could have made you alone. No, I'm going to give you Eve. Now, I want you to work together as a team, as one, for this reason.” Husbands, leave your mother and father, cling to your wife. Wives join your husband.


So, it's like this deal: God could do this all by himself if He wanted to. He doesn't. He wants to use you. He wants to join you. He wants you to join him on this journey of justice, freedom, joy, and making every single thing brand new. That's for you. It's not for the elite. It's not for the superstar, the movie star, or the millionaire. It's for you.


[00:41:56] JR: And not even just for the religious professional, right? It's for ESPN analysts. And that Uber driver who called you out at McDonald's. Amen?


[00:42:07] SA: Amen.


[00:42:07] JR: Sam, I want to commend you, brother, for the exceptional work you do every day, for the glory of God and the good of others. Thank you for – you just exude the joy of God on air. I've seen it on the field. Man, thank you for reminding us of the call to change the world to make it more like the eternal kingdom of God.


Guys, Sam has two books that we talked about today that I would highly recommend you check out. Let the World See You and Change Starts with You. Sam, thanks for hanging out with us today.


[00:42:38] SA: Thank you. I got to have this. This is a huge day because my book launches today. There could have been so many things to do or not do, and I was really glad to spend this day with you, Jordan, and also with everybody listening. I'm just glad that I get a chance to do this with you. So yes, you can get the book at or Amazon or Target, anywhere you get books. But I don't know. This is different. My first book, I was, book tour, everywhere I could be. Today, I felt like I was like, “Nope, I want you here in this hotel room in New York talking with Jordan, everyone else listening.” So, thank you.


[00:43:10] JR: I love it, dude. Hey, I know how special book birthdays are. So, really appreciate you spending it with us.


[00:43:17] SA: Thank you.




[00:43:18] JR: So, I've had a chance to skim both of these books of Sam's since recording the show and they both look terrific. I will definitely be finishing both of them. I highly recommend them to you guys. Thank you so much for tuning into this week's episode, I'll see you next week.