By Dr. Barry Thornton
Sometimes divine appointments occur in our daily lives when we’re least expecting them. Sometimes they happen 30,000 feet in the air.
Twenty-five years ago I encountered such a lofty appointment. I had just taken off from Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, having concluded a mission trip in the mountains of Arizona, when a gentleman turned in his seat and asked where I had acquired the carved sculpture I had on my lap. After sharing, we talked further and discovered our common faith in Christ. Later we exchanged business cards and have maintained contact with one another over the years, forming a friendship that has helped each of us to be encouraged in our Christian lives.
Tom Herter grew up in Alexandria, Virginia, and played football for the University of Tennessee as a standout defensive back. As a free safety, his talents did not go unnoticed, breaking into the National Football League in the early ’80s, playing for three years and having the privilege of being on a Super Bowl Championship team. Over the years Tom has faced daunting circumstances, but through his faith in Christ it has not led to defeat.
BARRY THORNTON: Tom, it has been a real pleasure to get to know you over the years and to call you my friend and fellow believer in Christ. Tell us about your journey and how you have overcome various challenges to your faith in Christ.
TOM HERTER: I was baptized into Christ in 1978. The problem was, though, that I had head knowledge but not a heart knowledge framing my faith. I had an anger problem and found an outlet for my anger on the football field. It wasn’t long until I discovered that anger is only one letter short of danger. I soon discovered that the game of life is not just won between the ears but has to be weighed out with our heart’s intentions too. I had read in Isaiah about flying like eagles, but I hadn’t figured out what that really meant until a few life-defining events occurred.
In the early 1980s, I played for the Washington Redskins for three years and played in a Super Bowl. But suddenly one fateful Sunday afternoon, I found myself sprawled out on the field, having broken my leg in a career-ending injury. It was the only time I received a standing ovation in my entire career as they carted me off the field! I remember laying on the field and coming to the realization that everything I had done was about to leave me. I began to talk to God like I had never talked to him before. Much more intimate and relational.
BARRY: What happened when you finally recovered from your injury?
TOM: I began to face a challenge to my faith that forced me to dig deep into the Word of God and my heart for answers. I coached for Washington and for the New England Patriots for a period of time and trusted God in his leading. I have told several people, “If you have trouble coping, try hoping in God,” and I did.
It soon occurred to me that only those that can see the invisible can do the impossible. Impossible is a hopeful word because it is a direct invitation to let God in. Looking back, I know that my successes were a direct result of focusing upon a God who transcends the impossible. The world says, “Show me and I’ll believe.” Christ says, “Believe me and I’ll show you!” Faith and fear can’t live together. I learned to never put a question mark in your life where God puts a period. Faith has to be proactive, not reactive.
BARRY: You went on to face other challenges that continued to test your faith as an entrepreneur and enthusiast for the game of football. Could you share further with us?
TOM: Sure. After I retired from the NFL, I bought an arena football team in Daytona Beach, Florida. One of my first hires was a team chaplain who was commissioned to help players understand that to know Christ is not a religion but a relationship.
A young man by the name of Javon Cameron was on the team. Tragically, he ran head-on into a Georgia player, fell to the ground, and died before they could ever even get him out of the stadium. I remember how devastating it was for his family, our team, and our coaches. I also remember vowing to myself that I will do anything possible to help individuals in the future who experience trauma, concussions, or brain injuries—a contemporary issue facing the present-day NFL.
The NFL later defunded their stake in the arena league, and I was faced with having to sell my interests in the franchise. I placed my future in the context of my own football injury, Javon’s tragic death, and my faith in a God who is never destined to fail. I knew that faith expects from God that which is beyond all expectations.
BARRY: What were you led to do at this point?
TOM: While serving as the Vice President of the NFL Players Association, I learned that John Mackie was to be the first recipient of the “88 Plan” an NFL program that helps former players who had to go into care centers as a result of head injuries. Players would receive $88,000 a year. It became clear to me that we had to do more. As a result, I have been involved in the process of ultimately constructing care centers for players experiencing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
It has been a long, tedious process, and yet by faith I have been able to witness to several individuals along the way about Jesus Christ and how he can transform us, even in the direst of circumstances. We have broken ground on the first Memory Care Center in Melbourne, Florida, and hope to ultimately build the same in every NFL city. I have picked up support from the NBA and the United States Marines too.
Christ is the centerpiece of all I do, make no mistake. I have learned, like Moses, that it’s the I Am that determines the I can! All that being said, though, I hope everyone understands that sometimes God conceals his purposes so that we will live on his promises. Retrospectively, I have learned this lesson.
CONTINUING ON: Tom continues to work on a monumental undertaking that is Christ-focused and others-oriented. He continues to allow his past challenges to be a springboard for helping others, transforming disappointment and tragedy into victory. In Tom’s own words, “Time heals grief, and love prevents scar tissue. Where God reigns, love reigns. I’m just a servant who understands that servants are always dressed in work clothes.”
Tom’s Board of Directors consists of notable former NFL standout players such as Isaiah Robertson, a seven time pro-bowler; Ed “too tall” Jones; Earl Christie, who played with Joe Namath; and Derrick Frost, who also played for the Redskins. Tom is careful to remind you, anytime you talk to him, that Christ is the center of his efforts and, “The roots of happiness grow best in the soil of service.” Tom truly has taken daunting circumstances and transformed them by faith. “When I look to the cross, I understand that God turned a negative into a plus sign.”
Looking back, it would be easy to shrink into the world of regret and diminishing faith. Tom Herter has shown that dynamic faith is always transforming faith as we allow God to be an expression of his love in our lives. Victory is sometimes not a final score on a scoreboard but a never-ending quest to overcome the challenges we face on a day to day basis.
When addressing the Florida Concussion Foundation on one occasion, Tom was asked, “Why do you do what you do?” His answer was remarkable: “I do what I do because I’m anointed, I’m approved, I’m equipped, I’m set apart, I’ve been chosen, and I’m destined to live in victory!”
Daunted, but not defeated. Victorious in faith.
Learn more about Tom Herter’s work with Memory Centers online (allsportsmemorycare.com).
Dr. Barry Thornton, the Vice President for Advancement with Louisville Bible College, lives in Mt Washington, Kentucky.