Why I Gave Up Professional Football

(At one time John Mitchell captained Cardiff Corinthians, a leading amateur football team, and played professionally for Newport County and Barry Town.)

The existence of many and varied sporting activities is not peculiar to our age. According to ancient writers men have engaged in many forms of sport from the earliest periods of human history. Boxing and wrestling, for instance, were practised over 5000 years ago by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia and the Egyptians. A little nearer home, the “Tailtean Games” (the Irish equivalent of the Olympic Games) have been traced back to before 1800 B.C. The New Testament itself contains numerous allusions to athletic pursuits, with a view to illustrating the need of vigour and devotion in the Christian’s spiritual life, 1 Cor. 9. 24; 2 Tim. 2. 5; 4. 7; Heb. 12. 1, 2.

For those of us who have been seriously involved in sport, such pastimes have a great appeal. In my case I was very much taken up with association football, playing at both amateur and professional levels.

I was saved and baptized when I was about 19 years of age. At that time I was playing soccer on a semi-professional basis, and soon discovered that my outlook and ambitions as a Christian were very different from those of my football associates. I sought with God’s help to bear a testimony for the Lord as I played week by week. I remember clearly the manager of one professional team insisting that I read the Scriptures publicly to all my team-mates when we stayed at a particular hotel I I can still recall many conversations on spiritual matters which I had with one and another, although I do not know of anyone who was led to the Lord as a result of my witness.

I continued to play association football for some four years after my conversion. It was towards the end of this period that, in the providence of God, I first met a brother, not too many years my senior, who was to prove a real help to me. He opened up the Scriptures to me in a most impressive way and as a result of my association with him I soon came to see the need of some form of systematic Bible study and of serving the Lord in a more definite way than I had previously.

It was not long before I was faced with a very real conflict of interests. At the time I was still happy to play on a part-time professional basis. The crisis came at the commencement of one particular football season when I was called on to train and practise on two evenings a week, one of which coincided with the evening on which Bible teaching was given in the local church. I had been greatly encouraged to attend this meeting, and I had therefore to make a decision. For some time I tried to work out a compromise arrangement, but it soon became clear that I would be unable to continue satisfactorily with both interests. I am glad to say that wise counsel prevailed. I well remember being impressed by the truth of 1 Timothy 4. 15 on me, “Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them that thy profiting may appear to all”. It was a matter of my deciding which was the more important to me coming to know the Lord better through His Word or pursuing a football career (and earning a little more money!). I was confronted with a choice which would, one way or the other, have far-reaching consequences for my spiritual life. I reached my decision; association football would have to go!

Since that time I have often marvelled at the words of Paul, “One thing I do”, Phil. 3. 13. For the apostle, a life lived for Christ was an all absorbing interest. Certainly that had not been the case with me up to the time of my decision. From that time on, the Scriptures and the service of the Lord have gradually become more and more important to me. With the continued encouragement of the brother mentioned earlier, I began to study God’s Word carefully, and have found this to be an ever increasing delight. My present attempts at football are now limited to the annual church outing.

Do I ever regret my decision? In all honesty I can say no. Apart from any consequential spiritual development, my general education has undoubtedly been furthered by the regular and consecutive study of Scripture. At the same time I have proved that the Lord is no man’s debtor—even in material things. The financial benefit I lost through relinquishing professional soccer He has more than fully made up to me. More especially I praise the Lord for His grace and goodness in revealing the wealth of His Word to me, and for giving me opportunities of sharing something of this great treasure with other believers. “Bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things”, 1 Tim. 4. 8. One is reminded that, whereas it was no great problem for God to save His people from Egypt, it proved no easy matter to see them established in their own land. The same, alas, is often true of us today. It seems that we have little real ambition to earn for ourselves the commendation given to Caleb, that he “wholly” followed the Lord, Deut. 1. 36.

It is not for me to legislate for others we stand or fall to our “own master”, Rom. 14. 4. It may be, however, that some young readers facing a decision similar to that which I faced 20 years ago, would value a word of counsel and advice. I would earnestly encourage such to consider seriously the importance of having their priorities right. Put the Lord first; give Him your best! “Meditate upon these things; give thyself wholly to them”.

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