Derwin Gray: Leading Toward Diversity—Part 1

“Here’s the thing that still blows me away: I knew that I was loved, and that love wasn’t based upon how I performed.”

Football was your salvation. Tell me about some of your coaches.

Our coaches at Judson High School were Christians. Football there was a sanctuary for me. I never knew order, structure and discipline to that degree. They brought to me a vision for life and the discipline to execute it. Coach D.W. Rutledge and defensive back coach Mike Sullivan were the father figures I needed. They taught me to see possibility. When I got to Judson, I was a slow, small defensive back and by the time I left I was a NCAA Division 1 prospect. I was also the first man in my family to graduate high school.

How did they lead you?

I love to talk about Coach Sullivan. I was a sophomore and he would make me stay and run after practices. He was on me constantly. I thought he didn’t like me. The reality is that he loved me. Like all leaders he saw in me what I didn’t see in myself. His job was to create an environment and willpower so that I could become that person.

Can you tell me a specific story of how he did that?

I had to take the ACT and the SAT to qualify to get my scholarship. So, Coach Sullivan, several times a week, would take me up to his office and get this thing called a floppy disc and put it into a computer. It was a program to help me take the ACT. Even right now as a 45-year-old man, I can see it like it was yesterday. That same coach who would yell at me was the same man who made sure that I passed the test.

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Tell me about your high school team.

Judson was near a military base so we had rich white kids from California; we had country kids; we had Latino, Asian and black, but we also had socioeconomic diversity. The coaches inspired us with a unified vision. Our distinctions were not obliterated but celebrated. Through my coaches at Judson, I would later see as the lead pastor of Transformation Church implications of the gospel: reconciled vertically with God and horizontally through the beautiful diversity of humanity. We all become one in Christ, all children of Abraham through the work of Christ. My coaches taught me about the power of unity through diversity.

You would later go on to play in the NFL. Did football become the salvation you had hoped for?

The NFL was everything I hoped it would be and nothing I thought it would be. You have to be strong—physically and mentally—to play just one NFL game. It tests your capacity to compete, strategize and will yourself to optimal capacity. It was brutal business.

Tell me about the “naked preacher.”

[Laughing] Steve Grant, a linebacker out of West Virginia. In my rookie year I noticed there was this guy walking around the locker room with a towel around his waist talking about Jesus. I thought, “This is strange, Dude. You are half-naked with a Bible.” I noticed he had the guys’ respect and they would often seek him out for counsel. One day, I’m sitting at my locker and he taps me on the shoulder and says, “Rookie Derwin Gray, do you know Jesus?” He broke down the gospel for me and that began a five-year relationship. He actually baptized me on an away-game trip against the Oakland Raiders.

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You said the NFL was a brutal business. How long did you last?

My fourth year in the NFL I just started getting hurt and the reality began to hit me that the NFL stands for: “Not For Long.” I was having conversations with the naked preacher and I had gotten to the point in my life when I asked, “Who would I be if I didn’t play in the NFL anymore?” I remember walking back from lunchtime during preseason. The picture I see is my heart spread apart like the Grand Canyon and there’s nothing I can do about it. I got back to the dorm and I called my wife. I told her I wanted to be committed to her and to Jesus. I don’t know what born again felt like, but I had a feeling I’d never had before. There was an assurance of the Spirit telling me I could call the Father Abba through the work of Christ. Here’s the thing that still blows me away: I knew that I was loved, and that love wasn’t based upon how I performed.

In Part 2 of the interview, Gray talks about the end of his NFL career, the beginning of his ministry career and his vision for a multiethnic, multigenerational church.