It was the end of a rough day at work, and Phil Dawson was considering a possible career change. “If I really worked hard at professional golf,” he asked his wife, “do you think I could pick it up?”
Shannon quickly answered, “No, honey. Stick to kicking.”
As the wife of a professional football player, she shares her husband’s loneliness on those Sunday nights after a tough loss. He could have tied the game when the Cleveland Browns met Pittsburgh on November 11, only to have his fifty-two-yard kick fall short.
“The Pittsburgh kick—I saw [the effects] for the whole week. I didn’t know how many backflips and rah-rah cheers it was going to take from me to get him up,” Shannon told a news reporter. “He takes it so personal. He felt he let the city down, the coaches, the players, Mr. Lerner down. Phil is not going to pass blame. If it’s his fault, he takes it.”
But one week later, Dawson had another shot: a game-tying, fifty-one-yard field goal at the end of regulation against the Baltimore Ravens.
First the kick was ruled short, and the Browns headed to the locker room thinking they had lost. Then the referees declared that the ball had actually gone through the goalposts, hit a stanchion, and bounced back out. Instant bedlam surrounded the slow-motion hero.
“To come up short last week, to have to hear how my leg isn’t what it used to be, to hear I can’t handle the pressure and all that, to have an opportunity to answer all that with one kick, . . . it was kind of sweet, and even sweeter to share it with all my teammates,” Phil said in the news conference after the game.
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Phil talked with us prior to a community event hosted by his church, Grace Baptist Church of Westlake, Ohio. Phil’s wife had previously discovered the church’s Awana program and had started bringing their children when Phil was away at training camp. Then the whole family began attending on Sundays and joined the church.
“My father is a pastor, and this church has his same style of preaching—straight from the Word of God,” says Shannon, who sang professionally before getting married and now sings on the church worship team.
Pastor Greg Whiting, who has been pastor of Grace Baptist Church since 2005, appreciates the Dawsons’ sense of ministry. “I think a lot of athletes look for bigger churches. Phil and Shannon were looking for a place to minister and serve.”
Phil Dawson says that several of the Cleveland Browns players are committed Christians and have settled into church homes. “Most of the guys who are regular attenders at a church look for places where they can call home—where the church sees us for what we are and treats us like anyone else.”
So the Sunday morning service is no autograph session. Shannon says, “They allow us to be Phil and Shannon Dawson, and not ‘Phil the Football Player.’ ”
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There has always been an uneasy tension in the NFL over the mix of God and football. Phil says the unstated policy sometimes seems to be, “If you want to believe in God, that’s fine. Just don’t bring it into the locker room.” But he also sees this changing a bit, saying, “Maybe that’s starting to soften.”
Phil and Shannon host a weekly Bible study at their home for other Browns players, who often bring their wives or girlfriends. “We were both believers before getting married,” says Phil, “and we are both pretty private people. We have to encourage each other to reach out.” Phil says the players appreciate meeting in their home’s quiet, private setting; but as a result, their testimonies of Christian faith often go unreported in the media.
To the casual enthusiast, it seems like the NFL rarely goes a week without players being arrested, or some torrid detail of their private lives being exposed. Phil thinks there’s more to the situation than meets the eye. “In this environment, the people who get married stay married. And then there are lots of guys who never settle down and are closer to the stereotype of a professional athlete.” For Phil, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. “Every day other players are watching,” he says. “How do you treat your wife? Are you faithful to her? How are your kids turning out?”
Phil is willing to live out this challenge. “I’m thankful for that rough locker room. I’m grateful for the anti-God environment, because it caused me to grow in my faith.”
Phil starts into his personal testimony: “For a long time, football was a god for me. Although I was raised in church and I knew it shouldn’t be that way, it was. You know all of the church songs and the hand motions that go with them; you go to summer camp; you go to church Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Wednesday night. This was me up until I was nine years old—when I realized Jesus died for me, and I recognized He died for my sins.”
After high school, Phil earned a scholarship at the University of Texas—but was disappointed to be redshirted his freshman year. This led to spiritual struggles as well. “The problem was that I continued to be that little kid in church, doing all the same things. So when I went to college, I don’t know how personal my relationship with Christ was.”
Phil attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes retreat as a freshman and decided that he could no longer live off the faith of his parents—he credits the Longhorns’ team chaplain for helping turn his life around.
Because of his experiences in college, Phil sympathizes with young Christians who struggle with the idea of a public testimony. And maybe part of this empathy comes from many years in the role of a placekicker. The official media guide generously lists Phil at five feet eleven and 205 pounds, and he’s well used to being the smallest guy on the field—“that little guy in the corner that no one understands or respects.” (A boy asked him, “What do you do in your off-time with your friends?” and Phil just laughed. “I’m just the kicker—I don’t have any friends.”)
Describing a moment of uncharacteristic boldness during his junior year of college, Phil says, “My coach told me I was selected to the Playboy Magazine preseason All-American Team, but I had just made a decision to make a difference for Christ on my team. I wanted to make the Playboy team, I wanted it with all my heart—but I told them no. As soon as my teammates found out, about twenty-five of them came banging on my door and asked, ‘Phil, why did you just do that?’ and I had a chance to tell them about God in my life.”
Even now Phil questions his priorities. “I have to be honest. Football should be number three on my priority list, after God and my family. But football has been such a part of my life! Having the right priorities is a struggle for all of us.”
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Phil believes his professional football career has a problem that is common with most other jobs: Many players feel a real lack of contentment.
“The NFL was the first time I was told I’m not good enough—the first time they told me they were looking for someone else—the first time a coach told me I just wasn’t cutting it. In the NFL, the rookies always think they’ve arrived, but slowly they figure out that another player is only a phone call away. We watch all of these great players in the college games. And guess what? They’re coming to take our jobs!”
Phil traces how this unstated fear develops into a general feeling of unrest. “It’s a struggle to find contentment when I’m thinking I’m never good enough. I had seven good seasons until last year—an off year—and I really struggled with being content. It’s been a working lesson in being content and trusting God. It makes you appreciate the security we have in Christ, because in the NFL there is no security. They can drop you at any time.”
Darrell Goemaat is director of photography at Regular Baptist Press. Kevin Mungons is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin.