The linebacker preacher

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In 1990, Derwin Gray earned the title for WAC defensive player of the week as a BYU cougar in his performance against the University of New Mexico. Gray had three interceptions, which tied a BYU school record. One of those interceptions was a 17-yard touchdown return.

After a successful career at BYU and in the NFL, Gray suits up for a different stage today. Now Gray competes on a different stage, as a pastor in South Carolina for one of the fastest growing churches in the country.  

The congregation cheers as he charges to the pulpit with quick strong strides and a smile 10 yards wide. Down. Set. He begins. His voice rumbles through the chapel, and his giant hands gesture with each phrase. He pitches the sermon to a receptive crowd. 

Derwin Gray, a former BYU football player, is now a successful pastor in South Carolina. (Photo courtesy Derwin Gray)

 

They call him the Evangelism Linebacker — and for good reason. His sturdy shoulders anchor his eager stance. His strong build sustains the sharpness of his voice, yet his hard edge is softened through his encouraging eyes and a gracious expression.

Pastor Derwin Gray is a star NFL safety turned scripture-reading saint. Although finished with his career on the football field, this next quarter of his life is still focused on the end zone. By trading his playbook for the Bible, his football spikes for the spirit, Gray’s current tackle is building one of the fastest growing churches in the nation.

“If someone would have told me when I was 18 years old, ‘You would be a pastor,’ says Gray, “I would have looked at them first and said, ‘What is a pastor?’ and then when they would have explained it to me, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy!’”

A more fitting label for Gray at that time was “Stuttering Stanley,” as he grew up as a compulsive stutterer.

Rolling into his sixth year of the NFL, playing with the Carolina Panthers, Gray began having visions of ending his football career and instead speaking in front of Christian congregations. It was as puzzling to Gray as it was frightening.

“Why would a stutterer talk to people about Jesus?”

In 1998, Gray injured his knee, placing him on the Injured Reserve for the rest of the season. He spent this time reading the Bible and sharing his discoveries. Before long, he was asked to speak at churches and business luncheons.

“I was just sharing my story,” Gray says. “The more I did that, the more the doors opened up and the more I saw how God was using my life.”

And his life story is as exhilarating as the ups and downs of a football game.

Prior to his contract with the Panthers, Gray was at the height of his professional career. In 1995, his third year with the Indianapolis Colts, this sledgehammer in the secondary was a team captain, a husband of three years, a soon-to-be father, and a moneymaking machine. Gray was living the life he’d always dreamed of.

“But despite everything that I accomplished,” says Gray, “I couldn’t forgive myself for things I had done wrong. I couldn’t forgive other people who had done me wrong.”

Gray’s life off the field did not have the protection that he found with shoulder pads and a helmet. As a child growing up on the West Side ghetto of San Antonio, Texas, he was exposed to everything except religion. He remembers going to church only twice as a youth: once when he was 10 and once as a junior in high school.

“If someone would have asked me, ‘Are you a Christian,’ I would have said, ‘Well yeah, I’m not a Buddhist or a Muslim.’ I had no idea what being a Christian meant.”

At BYU, on football scholarship, came a title he could better identify with. His teammates called him “Dewey” and he wore the name well. In 1991 against Penn State, Gray had 19 tackles, an interception and a pass deflection. It was a feat as big as the Lone Star State from which he hailed. Gray received another title: ABC-Chevrolet Player of the Game.

With his future quickly filling with NFL opportunities, it seemed life as an athlete was all he’d ever know. This realization came as a harder hit than any he’d experienced in the stadium.

“I lived with a great deal of fear because football was my identify,” Gray said. “I would introduce myself, ‘I’m Dewey Gray — football player.’ What happens when I can’t play football anymore? I would be a nobody.”

Now he’s lucky to go unnoticed. His football career defines a small portion of his accomplishments; in fact, football takes second place to his work as a minister. Gray says he followed a prompting to start a church. Gray is founding and lead pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, S.C., a congregation beginning with 178 people and now including thousands. His influence spans across the Internet through his blog, “Just Marinating,” and through Youtube video sermons.

Gray once believed playing with the Indianapolis Colts was his moment of the American dream. Now, he tells his congregation how he signed an even greater contract, “the contract of a lifetime,” that brought a spiritual transformation.

“I can’t explain it other than a supernatural something happened to me and I realized that the living God of the universe loved me.”