Editorial Consultant, Writing Coach, Freelance Writer
by Gregg Tipton with Walt Walker
Chapter 1 — The Two-Minute Miracle
There have been several signature moments in my life. They are like pivot points on which everything has turned in a new direction. For all you non-sports fans, pardon me for all upcoming details about football, but it’s unavoidable. The game and my pursuit of it (particularly one two-minute moment) pretty much defined what was right and wrong in my life at about the 20-year mark. It also explains a lot about my approach to Ten Days Mission Experiences.
Like so many little boys, I dreamed of being the star quarterback on the football team. Countless times, I had imagined throwing the winning touchdown or diving over the goal line with only seconds left on the clock to win the big game. In my mind, the crowd always went wild. I played and replayed that drama—making the pass, or scrambling and finally diving over the goal line for the winning touchdown, then waving to the cheering crowd as I was mobbed by teammates and fans.
Though I didn’t need extras to prop up my very vivid imagination, I did grow up in Thousand Oaks, California. That was the site each year of the Dallas Cowboys’ preseason training camp. Of course, I never missed a Cowboy practice. I hung around enough that I even got to throw the football with some future NFL Hall of Famers—legends like wide receiver, Bob Hayes, and quarterback, Roger Staubach. What an experience for a little kid! To me, Roger Staubach was the greatest player who had ever lived, and that was who I wanted to be like.
Imagination and reality are two different things, and it’s not easy to turn the former into the latter. I arrived as a high school freshman, ready to begin playing some serious football. My dream, however, didn’t include competing with another freshman quarterback who was physically an early bloomer. He had a mustache since the eighth grade, and the team’s facial hair rule was the only thing that kept him from sporting a full beard. I was as late a bloomer as he was early. It was a stretch for the team program to list me at 140 pounds.
Few have ever worked as hard as I did on their dreams. Yet through my first three years in high school, I never got off the bench, never got into the game except to kick. I was the place kicker, but only on extra points when it was like shooting at a target “point-blank.” By then you’re so close, it’s pretty difficult to miss. A longer field goal with the game on the line was not in our game plan. I was able to play a few scrub minutes at the end of a few games—when nothing was on the line and nothing really mattered.
It would’ve been easy to quit. Many athletes, with far more promising opportunities than I, did turn in their pads. But I had this dogged determination (some would say crazy determination) and would not let up. I kept practicing and kept preparing myself. The summer after my junior year, my best friend, Brian Coushay, and I made a pact. I, the back-up quarterback, and he, the star receiver, would practice every single day. Without fail, “Coush” and I were out there playing pass and catch; sometimes for hours, sometimes for a few minutes, but always pretending we were making the critical play to win a championship.
All that work finally paid off. As a senior I beat out the “bearded one” for the starting position and turned it into the first conference championship our team had won since the era of leather helmets. I set the school passing record and was selected as the second-team all-conference quarterback. Preparation paid off.
You might think at that point I would be on my way to stardom, with college coaches calling me day and night and recruiters camped outside my house. But I was still a beanpole, 6’2” and barely a “buck 55” (155 pounds). No one was interested; even the local junior college passed on me. It was another opportunity to quit, but I kept at it.
After making dozens of phone calls and proposals, finally someone was willing to at least give me a chance. I made the 90-minute drive to Santa Barbara Junior College and joined seven other quarterbacks competing for one of three positions on the team. All those guys were good players, but no one practiced and prepared more than I did. I began as the third string quarterback, emerged as the starter by the end of the week, kept that position for two years, and became a Junior College All-American. That was what finally opened the door to Division I football and a scholarship at the University of Hawaii.
Getting off the bench and into the game did not dull my enthusiasm. I was just as driven to prepare. As the team leader, I accepted the responsibility of making sure as a team we were all ready for game day. September 6, 1986 was the day that obsession with preparation really paid off.
The University of Hawaii was a member of the WAC (Western Athletic Conference), not exactly known as the powerhouse of NCAA football conferences. But in 1986 we had an opportunity for a home game against Big Ten power, the University of Wisconsin Badgers. At that time, it was the biggest game and best opportunity ever for the University of Hawaii football program. Aloha Stadium was packed with a sell-out crowd. The whole island had been crazy all week with excitement. We practiced and prepared like we were about to play the Super Bowl.
I had anticipated playing the best game of my life, but when the actual game began, nothing I did went right. In the first quarter, I threw an interception that was returned by a Wisconsin cornerback for a touchdown. Later in the game, I threw a touchdown pass that was called back. We kept battling, our defense was playing great, and we were at least staying in the game.
In the fourth quarter, I threw another interception. Our defense responded with another big play, and we remained down by only 11 points (17-6). When we got the ball back, I threw my third interception. More than anything else, my mistakes were killing our chances to win.
Three interceptions is a horrible day for any quarterback, but what made it even worse was that all three passes were picked off by the same guy. My habit of throwing the ball to Wisconsin cornerback, Nate Odom, turned him into the NCAA Defensive Player of the Week. A year later he was the second round pick of the Buffalo Bills and had a long, successful NFL career.
I had played organized team sports my whole life. I was always hard on myself, but I never really felt much criticism from others. If you spend your life sitting on the bench, but still practicing and preparing for the game like you were a starter, people leave you alone. Emerging as the star quarterback also pretty much gave me a free pass with people around me. Everyone looked up to Gregg Tipton, everyone wanted to be his friend, and certainly no one criticized.
That third interception seemed to have put an end to all of that. The coaches were screaming. The “boos” began to rain down from the packed stadium. They weren’t booing the coach, the defense, or the offensive line. The 40,000 plus crowd was booing the quarterback. What was worse, I could hear my teammates cussing me under their breath. When I came off the field and went back to the bench, no one said a word, no one was patting me on the back, and no one wanted to be within 20 feet of me. That is a lonely feeling.
I will never forget that moment. I went off to the side by myself and began to pray one of those desperate prayers: “God, if you get me out of this, if you’ll help me, I’ll serve you.”
I said, “Amen,” our defense got the ball back, and I headed back out onto the field. We started marching down the field, but three unsuccessful plays put us in a critical situation. It was fourth down and 12 yards to go for a first down. Turning the ball over to the Badgers at that point, and the game would have been out of reach. “Backs against the wall,” as they always say.
The Wisconsin defense came with an all-out blitz. Protection broke down; I scrambled to the left to avoid the sack, then drilled a pass right between two defenders to our tight end, Ron Hall.
Touchdown! The crowd exploded. 17-13. Four minutes to go and down by four points. A field goal wouldn’t help. We had to have a touchdown to secure the biggest win in the University of Hawaii’s history.
Coach Tomey decided against trying to get the ball back with an on side kick. He opted to kick it deep to Wisconsin, use our time outs, and trust our defense to get the ball back. The Wisconsin Badger offense had been ineffective most of the night. Besides the interception returned for a touchdown that I gave up, they had scored only one other touchdown and a field goal.
Our defense held again, they punted, and we got the ball back with two minutes on the clock and 80 yards away from the winning touchdown.
Like every college and pro football team, at some point in each practice, we worked on the two-minute drill. If it was fourth down and a mile to go, we had plays drawn up for that. Whatever the down, whatever the distance, whatever the time, whatever the opponent’s defensive scheme—we had three or four plays designed for that situation, and we practiced them every day, over and over and over.
Making a play in practice and doing it under pressure are two different things. All athletes and sports fans know that some players tend to hide at “crunch time.” They also know that there are players who want the ball in their hands when the game is on the line. That is why we practiced the two-minute drill constantly. Practice and preparation enable people to perform when it really counts.
We went into our two-minute drill from our own 18-yard line. We moved the ball down the field about 20 yards on several completed passes. But only 50 seconds remained, and we needed a big play. On the next play, I threw a deep pass over the middle to David Dyas. A quarterback should never attempt to throw the post (a receiver running deep toward the goal post) against three-deep coverage. But David ran a great route, and I was able to thread the needle with a perfect pass. It was first down inside the Wisconsin 20-yard line.
The next play was an incomplete pass. On second down I hit Dyas again on a corner route at the two-yard line, Nate Odom defending (the one who had intercepted three of my passes). First down and goal to go on the two.
The clock stopped briefly to move the chains then restarted with 39 seconds left. By the time the referees placed the ball ready for the next play, the clock was under 30 seconds. From the two-yard line I handed the ball to tailback, Walter Briggs, who dove over the middle—no gain. I called time out with 19 seconds left. With one time out remaining we had one, maybe two, chances at the end zone.
On second down we lined up in the same formation. A large contingent of Wisconsin fans had made the trip to Hawaii. It seemed like about 10,000 of them were sitting right in front of us in the end zone seats screaming at the top of their lungs trying to prevent our players from hearing me call the snap count. An offside penalty at this point would be disastrous. I took the snap, faked to Briggs over the middle, and rolled out to the right on a pass-run option. On this play, Pass 32Y, the wide receiver was supposed to run a little comeback route, but this time he was forced out of bounds and became ineligible. The fullback ran a pass pattern into the flat, but he fell down. The tight end was in the back of the end zone, but he had two guys covering him. So, there is nothing to do but run for it with an All-Big Ten Conference Wisconsin linebacker coming right at me.
I was still a beanpole, just a little bigger one by then. I was up to 6’4” but still only 190 pounds dripping wet. Somehow, I cut up the field, lunged from the three-yard line, and landed with the ball just over the goal line.
In that game I had thrown three interceptions, but I also had 36 completions in 46 attempts for 372 yards, surpassing my own single game record for passing yards, set the previous year against the University of Kansas. That day against Wisconsin, I set several school records on the way to breaking many of the UH all-time passing records. I led the team 80 yards in nine plays and scored the winning touchdown in the biggest win in school history. The crowd stormed the field, and I was mobbed by my teammates and fans…just as I had dreamed over and over as a little kid. The front page of the Honolulu newspaper had a large photo of me pointing to the sky with one finger and a large headline: “TIPTON BELIEVED TO THE END!”
THE IRONY OF THE SITUATION was quite incredible. Actually, irony is too kind. Hypocrisywould be a more appropriate word to describe it all.
When I arrived at the University of Hawaii, I was introduced to a group called Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). It’s a great organization that attempts to share the gospel with high school and college athletes. It seems that whatever I’ve gotten myself into—football, FCA, Ten Days Mission Experiences—I haven’t been satisfied unless I turned it into some kind of extreme version of the original idea. I got involved with FCA, started going to weekly meetings, and even started going to church with some FCA friends. By the third year at UH, I became FCA student president. On game day, the quarterback hand towel hanging on my belt contained the Scripture reference in big letters, “JOHN 3:16.” Judging by my involvement and the signage, I was probably one of the most visible Christians on campus.
I was also the king of all hypocrites and one of the more prolific sinners—prolific at cheating, partying, and immorality.And I was particularly good at lying about it all. It might seem strange to you that I could be so non-compromising when it came to football and yet such a complete hypocrite when it came to my faith. But I wasn’t completely self-deceived. It seemed just as strange to me. I knew how ridiculous it was to so publicly declare one thing and to so boldly live another. But like most people, I could keep those thoughts suppressed enough to get on with life as I was living it. It helped that I was constantly surrounded with people telling me what a great person I was. But even with all that, I would periodically get so convicted about the lie I was living that I would beg God for forgiveness and promise to serve Him from then on. The deal I tried to make with God on the sidelines at the Wisconsin game was just one more of those promises. After that desperate prayer and miraculous victory, my life didn’t change at all.
I was able to continue living such a lie in part because no one had the conviction or the courage to ever challenge me. The reason, for some, might have been that they were doing a lot of the same things. I don’t think anyone was challenging them either, certainly not me, the FCA student president. I’m sure there were people who knew how I was living, who were appalled or at least uncomfortable with it, and who probably had a few things to say about it. But I was one of the big men on campus. It seemed that people were so happy to have me as a part of the club that no one wanted to confront me. That is, not until Rice Broocks showed up.
Rice, at that time a campus evangelist, was in Honolulu for several weeks and was invited to speak at our FCA meeting. Though football at the University of Hawaii was over, I was preparing for the NFL draft and that kept me feeling pretty puffed up and full of myself. The FCA meeting was in room 246 upstairs in the athletic department building, and after making my big entrance, I found my seat at the center of the third row and waited for another inspirational talk—not exactly what Rice had prepared.
He preached about the cross and what it would cost to be Christ’s disciple. “If anyone wishes to come after Me,” Rice quoted from Luke 9:23, “he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” To press the point even further, he went to another passage in Luke, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple” (14:27). Of course, I’d heard those verses before, but that night I heard it proclaimed without apology, without qualification, without exception—particularly without exception for the star quarterback, the FCA student president, the Christian athlete, the prolific hypocrite. Rice was funny, relevant, articulate, but absolutely fearless. My reputation as an athlete and a Christian leader certainly did nothing at all to impress or intimidate him. Rice aimed his sermon at the third row center, as if he knew every aspect of my hypocrisy. My claim to be a Christian was so thin, he could probably see right through it.
I sat there trying to look cool, but there was a burning in my chest as if my heart was on fire. God, who I had tried to keep at a distance by pushing down those thoughts about how I was living, was confronting me head on, and all the exits were closed. None of my old excuses were going to work in this situation. I felt completely exposed, with nowhere to run or hide.
I had seen a lot of invitations to accept Christ or to repent of sin. I had even responded to a lot of them but had never seemed to have the power to live for Christ. So I was the habitual backslider. It was only a matter of time, sometimes a short time, before I would be coming forward to rededicate my life yet again. Often the preacher would say, “With every head bowed and no one looking around…” However, this was not a typical get-right-with-God message and not a typical invitation.
“With every head up, with every one looking around,” Rice said. “If you cannot stand for Christ in this room with this crowd, you will never stand for Him in public. If you want to follow Jesus…”
I didn’t even give him a chance to finish. I jumped to my feet.
“I want what you’ve got,” I simply said. I wasn’t exactly sure what he had, but I knew that was what I needed—not only to receive God’s grace and forgiveness, but also the boldness and power to live for Christ.
My girlfriend, who I was practically living with at the time, became a Christian that night. But there was no doubt or hesitation in my mind about what it meant to follow Christ. I just looked at her that night and said, “It’s over. I want to serve God.”
All our FCA friends were saying, “What are you doing? She got saved too. Why don’t you just walk together?” But I knew deep down inside that if I wanted to live for Christ, I had to make a clean break. So, it was over, no hesitation, no second thoughts, no looking back.
After the meeting was over, I talked with Rice and kept saying to him, “I want what you’ve got!” Finally, he asked me if I had been filled with the Holy Spirit. The first thing that came to mind were all the religious arguments from Christians who said I didn’t need any kind of second experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. But I was talking to someone who was filled with passion, power, and boldness—everything I didn’t have but needed so badly.
I was trained to say, “I don’t need that.”
What came out of my mouth was, “No, I haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit, but I want everything I can get.”
Rice laid his hands on me and began to pray for me to be filled with the Spirit and against all kinds of spiritual strongholds in my life. It’s hard to describe the experience. It was like being purged and steam-cleaned of every microscopic blemish with the presence and power of God. I had been to church off and on all my life, but I had never encountered anything like that. My life, my career, my priorities, my desires, my future—everything changed that night.
Rice said, “If you’re serious, come and see me tomorrow night.”
I was there again, but this time I brought a dozen of my friends and teammates. We weren’t 30 minutes into the next meeting before Rice invited me to come forward and tell everyone about what had happened to me. The old Gregg Tipton might have been reluctant to do that with his teammates looking on. It was one thing to attend team chapel services or even to be identified as a member of a Christian club. But to take a stand in such a way that would indicate some kind of personal experience and personal dedication to Jesus Christ—that crossed way over the line between what was cool and what wasn’t.
When some people talk about being filled with the Holy Spirit, they quickly move to the discussion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit—healing, prophecy, miracles, and speaking in other tongues. Rice had prayed for me to be filled with the Spirit less than 24 hours earlier, so I was no expert in theology regarding the Holy Spirit. No miracles or healings, but tongues had come upon me as described in the book of Acts, “like a mighty rushing wind.” But that wasn’t all. In the first days of the church, the evidence of being filled with the Holy Spirit was boldness. “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (Acts 4:32). I got that too—and in a measure that shocked me almost as much as it did my teammates. When Rice asked me to come forward and share with everyone what had happened to me, I hurried forward, raised my hand, and began speaking in tongues.
“No, no, no,” Rice interrupted. “Tell them in English what God has done in your life.”
At that moment I did not care about my reputation. It clearly had become one of the things I was being asked to lay down in order to follow Christ.
I had been wandering around spiritually, trying to figure out how to be a Christian with the least possible effort, commitment, or faith. The month following my encounter with the Holy Spirit is where and how my spiritual journey began in earnest. I was off the bench and in the game. Rice and his family were in Hawaii another three to four weeks, and I literally followed him around everywhere he went. Those were my first practical steps in Christian discipleship: I just followed Rice as he was following Christ.
I had been dedicated, passionate, and non-compromising when it came to football, so why would I not take the same approach with Jesus Christ who gave Himself for my sins? So I jumped in completely. I quit drinking, partying, lying, and cussing. Actually, it took me about a week to quit cussing. When a word would slip out, there would be such a conviction in my heart. This time it was different. When I would slip, I did not just feel sorry for or disappointed with myself. Instead, there was a deep feeling that I had disappointed the Holy Spirit who was living inside of me. That was something totally new.
I had finished playing up football, and I was in my last semester taking only a couple of classes. So I used the time on my hands to begin sharing the gospel with my teammates, friends, and anyone I knew or anyone who knew me. At the University of Hawaii, that meant most of the people on campus. All I knew how to do was to simply tell my story, a two-minute message about what Christ had done in my life. Over time I learned more things to talk about, but what always seemed to work best was my two-minute miracle story.
While it was at one time cool to have Gregg Tipton as the student president of your campus organization, in the minds of the good folks at FCA, I had become way too crazy. So, I resigned as president and immediately started a campus ministry. It was an exciting situation. I was raw, I didn’t know much, I had an audience, and I was the leader. One way or another, something was bound to happen.
Of course, my teammates, those who knew me best, were convinced I had lost my mind. It would’ve been easier for some of them to believe that I had been kidnapped and brainwashed by aliens or that I was possessed by a poltergeist than it was to believe that I’d had a personal encounter with Christ. But not all. Several of my teammates became Christians, including my best friend and team center—a big Samoan named Joe Onosai. Joe had given his life to Christ on the same night. Joe was probably considered to be (as they would say) “High on Jesus,” while they probably thought I had overdosed.
As you can imagine, not everyone was as excited as I was about my newfound relationship with Christ. I lost a lot of friends. I was not the cool guy to hang around with anymore. It was a lot like the sidelines of the Wisconsin game. No one wanted to associate with or get too close to me. That is, unless there was a crisis.
I was still around the athletic department preparing for the NFL draft. When people came face-to-face with big problems, they often wound up hanging around my locker.
“Gregg, my girlfriend’s pregnant, can you pray for me?”
“Gregg, I got caught cheating on a test, and I could lose my scholarship. Can you pray for me?”
In the many years since, I’ve heard people talk about spiritual leaders discerning the call of God on a young person’s life, kind of like Samuel recognizing that David was God’s anointed. Though that’s true, it was the other way around for me. It was the unbelievers who helped me figure out what God wanted me to do. God had changed me to help others. Anytime there was a crisis, people sought me out. I don’t think they started coming to me because they suddenly began to see me as some wise sage. I think they began coming because they knew where I stood, and they believed that what I had was real. Simple as that.
MY SENIOR YEAR AT the University of Hawaii, I broke almost every school record in passing. I figured I was on my way to the NFL. However, the draft came and went, and my phone did not ring. I was not drafted and had to go the free agent route, trying to get on with a team. That year the NFL Players Association called for a strike, which threatened to eliminate the 1987 NFL season. The owners countered by hiring replacement players. And so the St. Louis Cardinals signed me as the third-string quarterback and second-string holder for field goals and extra points. In three games as a Cardinal, I never got off the bench, but I shared my story and preached the gospel with just about every guy on the team. One day Head Coach Gene Stallings was passing through the locker room and walked up to me. I was sitting in front of my locker reading the Bible.
“Son, that’s a good book you’re reading there,” Coach Stallings said, “but you had better be studying that playbook so you’ll know what to do when you get the chance.” The strike ended, and I was cut. I had dozens of job offers, but I turned them all down. I knew that all I wanted to do was preach the gospel. I went back to the University of Hawaii, raised my full support in a few short months, and began working at being a campus minister with a determination even greater than I had for football.