E54 - Steve Stenstrom, the NFL quarterback
E54 - Steve Stenstrom, the NFL quarterback

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Steve Stenstrom is a former NFL quarterback who played six seasons with the Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos. Steve was a standout quarterback at Stanford University before being drafted to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1995.

We caught up with Steve ahead of Superbowl LVII to talk about his journey to Jesus, his NFL Draft experience, grieving the loss of his brother, playing in the NFL and how his identity was key in managing the pressure there.

0:00 Intro
00:22 What does it mean for you to have your sport and faith connected?
02:05 How did you become a Christian?5:30 Being drafted to the NFL during difficult season for Steve's family
10:40 Playing in the NFL and the challenge of living as a Christian in professional sport
15:06 Steve's first NFL game and facing serious injury
21:09 Dealing with retirement
24:35 Supporting today's NFL players


Greg Morgan: Steve, great to see you. Thanks for being with us today. Look, Steve, right the beginning, we always ask the same question at the start of our podcasts. So for you in your sporting career, would it mean for you to have your your sport and your faith connected?

Steve Stenstrom: Thanks, Greg. Great question. Yeah. You know, look, I think as life goes on, don't we get an opportunity to look back and we are a little bit more introspective and we gain some understanding as we reflect backwards upon it. I think certainly, and I'll share what I mean by that in a moment. But at the time there was no question that meeting Christ and beginning to follow Him, I altered the way in which I approached everything in life and in.

Mentors were very important and helpful in that process. But it certainly brought a new dynamic, a new component to bear upon my sport. And so that absolutely manifested itself in ways in which I behaved, in the ways in which I interacted with teammates. But ultimately, I would always articulate it as a matter of motivation that it ultimately ramped up my motivation from anything else that had ever driven me before.

So the idea that I had an opportunity to honor God with my sport and in my sport and with the way I approached that sport and brought that to bear upon both practice and games in the locker room, in the stadium, whatever you want to say, it, it was very significant and noticeable.

Greg Morgan: I must ask first and we're going to dive into that a little bit more, but let's go back. Okay. Let's go back to when you became a follower of Jesus. So you're a quarterback at Stanford. Tell us your story. Tell us how you became a follower of Jesus.

Steve Stenstrom: Great. I grew up thankful. By God's grace, I grew up in a family where church was regular in our family. Really grateful for that. Would have told you, Yes, I believe in God and I would have self-identified as a Christian. At that time growing up. And so as I was predisposed to saying yes to invitations when when when asked, what I didn't know is that I hadn't yet transacted with God in the way that I needed to transact.

And so when I got to Stanford in the fall of 1990, guys on the football team began to invite me to come to the team Bible study. And I said yes, because that was just what I thought, you know, they identified with it. So as I got there, that's when I heard people talking differently about faith, differently about Jesus, differently about Scripture.

And I was always an inquisitive mind. I remain that way to the day, to today. And I went up to the person leading the Bible study, and I asked if we could sit down and talk. And I needed to hear more because I didn't understand things I was hearing. And it was at that point sitting at a little table outside of a student union at Stanford University that a gentleman there shared with me the four spiritual laws and shared with me.

What does it mean to that? God has a perfect plan for your life and you realize my senses separated me from them and Jesus came as a remedy. And if I would just respond by in faith and repentance, I can begin to walk with him. And so that day in the fall, October of 1990, I don't know the exact date.

I wish I did. I said yes and began taking my first steps in the direction of Jesus.

Greg Morgan: Oh, wow. That's such an encouraging story to hear. And as you took those steps, how do they begin to impact your football?

Steve Stenstrom: Well, you know, it impacted, you know, the ways in which I began to organize my week and my time. So I would spend more time with others who were on the same journey and the same trajectory. It actually took some of those in. Those are mostly guys that were on the team with me.

You know, in college, it's 100 people plus on an American football team and be different than in the NFL when you have 53 on a roster. But nevertheless, there's still a lot of people. So most of my friendships were on the team and it just took our friendships a lot deeper. And then it also just began to shape the things that I considered to be important and significant in life.

So football became and it's always had been a dream and a pursuit of mine. And it was it didn't happen overnight by any stretch. I mean, I was still very driven, very focused identity, very much wrapped up in my sport. But now I had a competing reality within my life that was a grace based identity versus that performance based one.

And I didn't realize that they had begun to war against each other, but they were.

Greg Morgan: Oh, that's fascinating, isn't it? And as you transition out of that hundred person squads and move towards a professional career in football, take us through that journey. So so NFL draft. Explain to us a little bit what that's like to go through that both had big picture of how it works and your involvement in that, but also personally, what went on for you during that time of the NFL draft?

Steve Stenstrom: Great. You know, it's an interesting process because obviously not everyone who enters college thinks that they're going to go and eventually be a prospect. And I'll be honest, I didn't go to college thinking I was going to be a prospect. I had a dream, but I also was was realistic enough and had chosen Stanford University with the hopes that I'd get a great education that would take me into a career path at some point.

But as the Lord's plan would have it, I ended up getting a chance to start for four years under great coaches. I had Dennis Green, who was also an NFL head coach, and then Bill Walsh, who's really one of the greatest Hall of Fame caliber coaches that we've ever known in American football. So that led to a growing realization that the next level was going to be open potentially for me.

And so you begin to build toward it probably two years before it actually happens. And you start to realize you watch what happens to the guys in front of you a year ahead of you, and you start to work on different parts of your game that you realize are going to be important for the next level. And and so I did that.

But then eventually, you finish your collegiate days and the NFL hosts the annual combine, which if you're if anyone's tracking right now as we're building up at the super Bowl, they just finished playing all the All-Star games for college athletes here. So the college season is officially done. As of this past weekend. And then the NFL combine will come up shortly within I think it'll be within a few weeks after the Super Bowl is over and that will be a big significant marker as we go forward.

But I did that. I went to the combine and you're immersed in that experience where every team is evaluating you, every team is trying to decide if you fit with their with what they're looking for. And thankfully, I went through that process and the Kansas City Chiefs chose to pick me up in the fourth round of the 1995 NFL draft, which was a very it was incredible moment.

And it was obviously I think I've shared with you before, Greg, it was it's mixed emotions for me because some other things were going on in life at the same time.

Greg Morgan: So help us, if you will, the trials going on. The pressure of that is huge because you're sitting there watching and waiting and wondering, I guess, whether you're going to be picked at all. But also for you personally, there's a there's another journey going on right At the same time, if you're willing. Yeah. Take us through that. What that was like.

Steve Stenstrom: Yeah. Thank you. As it's it's one of the most defining moments of my life. I actually told people I never actually saw myself get drafted. I was. I was actually next to my brother's bedside. He was a freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and he contracted spinal meningitis and was in that time I got from Southern California with my wife, Laurie.

We flew cross-country to be at his bedside. He was in a coma at that time. And so we spent the NFL draft weekend with Jeff Brain, hoping, begging God to heal him, working guard to make it not end in his death. But ultimately, we had to make a decision as a family to take him off life support. And so that was a couple of days after I was drafted.

I was we we'd watched the TV and a little ticker across the bottom. So I saw my name go across the bottom, but never actually saw the moment happen. And and it was obviously incredibly difficult, heart wrenching. The juxtaposition of those two things happened at the same time really rattled my whole world and began to shake the very foundations of everything in my life.

But I'm in the end, I'm I'm grateful. One that Jeff was a Christ follower himself, and that was a tremendous gift and comfort. But it also became the backdrop for everything that would be my NFL career going forward from that day, I was thrilled to have the chance to pursue that dream, but I would hold it in with an open hand and and thank God for every day that I would get because Jeff's life and his death and eternal questions and matters were always at the backdrop.

Greg Morgan: Wow. Thank you for sharing that with us. So it must have been just an overwhelming period of your life, as you say, shaped you. You go forward as an athlete. Let's let's fast forward a bit. If if you're okay, let's do that. So to 19 beyond 1995 in the draft to to playing in the NFL. So to start even playing in the NFL and we spoke about this this before but there's a difference isn't it between college football which is a high level of football and then the NFL.

Tell us a little bit about the difference there and what it was like for you being in that environment.

Steve Stenstrom: It's it's thrilling and exciting. And yet it is just it takes the level of intensity to a whole nother level. To your point, the the caliber of play is a lead across the board in the ultimate sense of the word. And anyone who's participated in elite athletics or pro athletics anywhere in the world can appreciate what is it like to play a sport and to be around others who are playing the sport at the highest possible level?

It just it's a thrill and you really appreciate and I appreciate this. What other gifts and talents to people that do it in arts and music and other areas. But but it was fascinating. It was it brought a lot of pressure to bear. Obviously, it it illuminated the performance based nature of pro and elite sports at the highest level.

And it was incredibly challenging as a as a Christ follower, to remember where your identity is in the midst of all that. But when I loved it, I thrived on it. I loved working hard. I love being challenged. I enjoyed the six year journey that I was allowed to enjoy. I wanted it to go longer. I always wish there were more years, and yet it was a fascinating timeframe.

But don't feel like you're transitioning in life at 30 years old into something new is is kind of funny and interesting.

Greg Morgan: Yeah, is it feels a little bit life is over but you're only 30 years old as this is a strange thing, isn't it? Let's let's let's dig into that in a moment, but let's let's stay on on your playing career. So you've gone from this this team at Stanford, where there's Christian friends around you through a very traumatic draft into the NFL, a high level performance based environment as a believer to make your faith journey.

And amongst that, how how did you stay in Christ in that time?

Steve Stenstrom: Yeah, great question. I think I look back and one of the things that I'm grateful for early in my walk with Christ as that was embedded in my my perspective in all my paradigms was the importance of others and the importance of community and the importance of teammates and coaches, spiritually speaking from a faith vantage point. So when I was at Stanford, I met with four men every week for an hour, and they just coached me and mentored me and I met with different Bible studies and made church regular.

So I think not getting isolated was a very significant part of my early learnings as a Christ follower, which then carried over into the NFL. So even though there were fewer people there to connect with, it was a priority to seek them out and find them. And they were they're there. And I think that's what we can. There's rare occasions and there are occasions where you are by yourself, but not very often.

And I think there are there are believers out there who will seek them out and find them. So we did my wife and I was grateful to have her. We had we were newly married and so we found other couples. There was a chaplain on the team that I spent time with every week and that chaplain, gratefully, I was grateful.

He introduced us to the Ministry of Pro Athletes Outreach that very first year in the NFL. And so we went to a the league wide conference with 100 other believers that very first year. So you realize you weren't alone. And that in and of itself, even if you're not geographically in the same place, that the comfort of knowing there's others running the same race in a sense is really encouraging us.

Greg Morgan: What a privilege that is, isn't it? It is a necessity. It is to stand firm throughout a very challenging time and yes, to get into that and take it into actual gameplay. So your first regular season start up, help us help us understand what happened during that game and navigate both from from the sports perspective but also from your your faith journey and how you stayed in Christ in that moment.

Steve Stenstrom: Yeah, well, it's fascinating. I you know, a couple couple stories in the midst of it. My my very first game action came against the Green Bay Packers. And when you're playing for the Chicago Bears, that's a big game every every year. And and so my very first action came in the fourth quarter of a game and I was it was right it was it meant that the next week I was likely going to be the starting quarterback for the Bears and because we weren't doing very well and the game wasn't going well, so I was going to get some time and then it was likely my shot and I my very first play, I dropped back to pass. I threw the ball to my receiver and my offensive lineman who was protecting what's often called the blind side. The backside the quarterback can't see when he's dropping back. He was blocking his guy and he stepped backwards and his foot stepped on my heel with such force that it actually broke my that my heel bone in that moment. And I thought it was a bad sprain and we actually played the rest of the drive. So I kind of, you know, a little bit if you're watching this a little bit like what Patrick Mahomes did in the game, he got injured. Incredible what he did in the game. He came back and just played. But in the game he was injured. You kind of you have an adrenaline going that you keep going despite the significance of the injury. Well, I did that, found out after the game that I had broken my foot and was out the rest of that season. So I had to wait for calendar cycle before I got to come back the following year, during which I did finally get a chance to make my first start and played half the season for the Bears as a starting quarterback. But that that first play, I'll never forget it. I can still see it happening. The ball friend named Curtis Conway got the ball and he ran with it and I went down as soon as I got stepped on.

Greg Morgan: Oh and your, your career be leading up to this moment humanly speaking of looking like, oh this is my shot. This is it. That's when that happens. I mean, that's devastating. How did you mentally and spiritually grapple with that and the days after that event?

Steve Stenstrom: I think, Greg, I think it was one of the hardest things I've ever gone through as an athlete. As an athlete, not not compared to what I just described as my brother. But as far as the grind and what it takes to be elite, what it takes to want to be the best that you can be, you know, when you have been dreaming of and working toward that moment when you actually get real game action at the highest level and your dreams are just right there in front of you, and then that and I I'll never forget I walked in, I had crutches.

The way it works in the NFL, you get relief from the sun when the game happens Monday, you review the game Tuesdays an off day, and then you come back Wednesday ready to work for four, four days to get ready for the next game. And I, I was on crutches for Sunday and Monday and on Tuesday I walked in that office and I handed the crutches back to the trainer and I said, I'm ready to go and I knew I wasn't, but I was saying I was. And the trainer sat me down, called the head coach up. He came down and sat with me and said, Steve, here's the result of your x ray. You're done for the year. And and I'll tell you what, by by the next week, I didn't even feel like I was part of the team anymore.

I mean, literally, when you aren't able to do what you do and contribute toward the outcome that everybody's working toward, they have to keep going. It's not this. It's part of the system and it's not anybody's ill intent. They're not trying to make you feel bad, but you just don't feel like you belong. And that's where the performance based side of life and the performance based approach to athletics is really a treacherous approach and road.because when you can't do what if your identity is based on your doing what happens when you stop doing that thing? But if your identity is based upon your being in Christ and it's a grace based approach, well now your identity doesn't change just because you're doing changes.

Greg Morgan: Wow. How did you how did you live with people around you that supported you? You couldn't have done that on your own during that period. It had been too traumatic to see. With that clarity, how did you navigate that through that time?

Steve Stenstrom: Yeah, and I don't think I had that clarity at that time. So I think I'm I'm able to look in retrospect to know how I actually grew during that time. I think I actually, you know, I'm not one to run from challenges. I'm not 1 to 1 to face them and let them be what they are. But I think amidst the grieving process of not playing and life changing, I had wonderful people, my wife, our chaplain, great family, lots of friends who rallied around and where they were encouraging.

And again, I'm a big proponent on community, a big proponent of not getting isolated. Don't fall into the trap of sitting there binge watching TV or grabbing some book and being by yourself. You got to be with other people, especially in the hard times.

Greg Morgan: And let's let's journey through your career. So six years playing that in the NFL and then 30 you come a 30 year career comes to an end. I mean, that's so young and yet you're transitioning is over. What was that like and how did you deal with that transition out of the NFL?

Steve Stenstrom: You know, I look back on it. I actually it's a really important decision, I think, for anyone, an athletic pursuit to know you're done. Now, ironically, I think the Lord was shifting my heart beginning to change the course of life at the same time as the game was starting to tell me I was done. You know, there were others coming along. Every year the draft keeps happening, so there's a whole new pool of talent coming through to the average career in the NFL is 3.2 years. And so it just is a short process over time. But, you know, I held on and was debating signing again and 2001 to try to play a seventh year with the Denver Broncos wanted to sign me. And I remember sitting in church with my wife and the pastor was teaching from the Book of Ecclesiastes. I actually read the same passage this morning in my devotional time, which is great now that we're talking about it. But I know that the time and season for everything, right, when Solomon's talking about it in chapter three and I think he went, he said something that really hit both Lori and I, which is he said there, you know, in life there's waiting seasons and there's launching seasons. And the worst thing you can do in a waiting season is try to launch. And the worst you can do in a launching season is try to wait. And so we were just conflicted over whether we were in a waiting season or a launching season. And so I ended up signing back with the Broncos to try to play. I went to many camp and in April of that year and I knew the moment I walked in that locker room that I didn't belong there anymore and it was not the season of life that I was in anymore. And so in time we've come to like adopt a couple of phrases in our house. One, he always writes the best scripts and and then the other one is I can trust the next chapter because I know the author and that's sort of where we moved into at that point was had confidence that it was it was time to move on and it was time to do something different. And athletics was never the culmination of life. It was never the destination for which we were working. It was just to stop along the journey. And so the journey took was had more stops in front of it and more chapters that were already written that we were supposed to live. And we're in the middle of them now to this day.

Greg Morgan: Wow, that's so helpful because it's such a momentous point in the life of an athlete when you come to realize that that is over and yes, to navigate with that perspective and to see through the book of Ecclesiastes is clearly that there seasons in life and that's okay and that is okay is is really helpful for us to chew on this.

Steve Stenstrom: It is indeed.

Greg Morgan: Steve as we come to a close now, we were calling this in Super Bowl week. That's a chaotic week in the lives of those two teams you work for. Panos, you spoke about already professional athletes outreach. Just take us on the journey really of of what you guys are do in supporting players and what it's like for the players in this week as they approach the Super Bowl.

Steve Stenstrom: Thanks for the chance to share that. As I mentioned, I rookie year in Chicago, my wife and I met this ministry POW pro athletes outreach. It was started in 1971, so it was long before us and it's still going to this day and it's a privilege to now work for and serve the ministry and be part of a great team.

Historically, we've hosted annual conferences that gather together the league wide believers and those who are exploring faith. And so we've been doing that for all those years. We call them the increase conference now, and that's based on John 330, which is when John the Baptist, who was quite popular in his day, had the perspective when asked by his followers, how did he feel when everybody started going to Jesus?

And third chapter of the Book of John and John the Baptist had a great response. He said, Look, I, I know my place. I'm paraphrasing now. I know my place. A wedding is is a great thing. And when the groom shows up, he walks down the aisle to the to the or the when the bride shows up, she walks down the aisle to the groom, not to the best man.

And I just know I'm one of the girls here. And I get to celebrate when people go to the groom. And so my joy is made complete. He must increase, but I must decrease, which is John 330 So we host the increased conference, which is that we hope the pro community would so come to know Jesus in such a way and walk with Him and and serve him that they would to echo those words that ultimately the reason I do what I do, the reason I live for what I live for, is that he must increase, but I must decrease.

And so the seven words are ultimately the center point of our ministry. This week is obviously the culmination of a season. The interesting thing, if you take a minute and think about it, you probably can't name the last five winners of Super Bowls. If you're a fan of American football, this this will move on to a new season next year and the new pursuit.

But it is an amazing time in sport here in the US and it is one where they get an extra week off to get their bodies fresh and healthy, get prepared. And so last week they were getting ready. This week everything will descend upon Phenix, Arizona, and all of the league will be there. All the players from all teams will show up there for appearances and autograph sessions and parties and all sorts of opportunities because the moment is coming when we're going to crown a champion and that champion is going to be either the Chiefs or the Eagles this year.

And it's going to be quite a battle between the two. And we have we have pros on both teams. So we're neutral in terms of our bias, but we're praying that God will be glorified through the actions of those who are on the field. And then a couple of weeks after, it's over, we host our annual conference.

So we'll be with you guys and couples from all 32 teams, chaplains from across the NFL, friends and partners around the world like you, which I'm excited about. And we'll be doing that here at the end of February, which ultimately for us is a great way to celebrate whatever God did during the last season. And there've been some amazing moments this whole season in the NFL.

Hopefully people have watched them and seen them. We're playing more games internationally now too, which is great and fun, and there have been some major headline stories that have come out of the season, but that's the type of stuff that we'll bring to our conference. But with Jesus at the center, the like I said, he must increase, but I must decreases.

The is the theme and the motto and the cry that we want everybody to to recognize.

Greg Morgan: That's so health is that in the in the culture that we live in, where the focus is so on the now and the glory of the now. So remind athletes that he must increase and we must decrease how they take that. Do they they latch onto that story the way it was. It take time in terms of discipline for athletes to see the perspective of their lives and their careers Clearly?

Steve Stenstrom: I'd say it's some of both, Greg. I would say some of the community of faith is very strong across the NFL today, and there are some incredible men and women who are following Jesus and know him at a really deep level. And that is the the way they live their lives. They really want to deflect the glory. I mean, because it would they go with any elite athlete in any culture.

The worship and adoration from the outside is really strong. And so at the at the heart of an athlete who is pushing back against that with a grace based identity is this recognition. I'm not the one that should be worshiped. There is one that should be worshiped. And his name is Jesus and he's over there. So there's a lot of our community who know that.

And then a lot of people we get a chance to introduce them to Christ for the first time and expose them to a life of faith and encourage them in that journey. And it's fun to watch as the light bulb goes off and as the Holy Spirit begins to work and new people go, Huh, That sounds intriguing to me, and then begin to ask great questions.

And so that's what we pray happens whenever ever we get together. But then throughout the year, we spend time with these men and women, too. It's not just a conference. We work with them 365 days a year, and we work in partnership with their chaplains. And and it's a great it's a great motto and reminder far more than a motto.

It's really not a fair word to use, but it's a great truth for that they cling to and we're hopeful for more and more.

Greg Morgan: That's perfect. Thanks, Steve. We are so appreciative of your time that you've taken to be with us today. Thank you so much.

Steve Stenstrom: Loved it. Thanks, Craig. Thanks for all you guys do.

Greg Morgan: Thank you.

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