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Knocked down, but not out

By Eric Tiansay

If you ask Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback for his autograph, he will likely include Jeremiah 29:11 — his life verse from the Bible: “ ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’ ” (NIV).

The Scripture proved to be a reality check for Brunell’s 2003 NFL season, when he was replaced as the Jaguars’ starting quarterback after almost nine years.

“It’s really become real,” Brunell, 33, said. “It’s one thing to say that this is your life verse; to trust in God is another story. That verse is a promise from God. It’s an opportunity to believe or not believe. For Stacy [his wife] and me, we choose to believe that God has a plan for us. It brings a lot of peace.”

However, Brunell’s season was far from peaceful, as he was involved in a quarterback controversy. As the starter, the team got off to a 0-3 start, with Brunell sustaining an elbow injury against the Indianapolis Colts during the Jaguars’ third game.

The injury allowed heralded rookie quarterback Byron Leftwich to start against the Houston Texans the following week. The Jaguars lost.

But after Leftwich led the Jaguars to their first win of the season over the San Diego Chargers in week five, first-year Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio named the first-round draft pick from Marshall University the starter over Brunell because Leftwich gave the team “the best chance to win.”

So was Brunell disappointed?

“Absolutely,” Brunell told sports writers at the time of his demotion. But Brunell insisted he would not complain, would not ask to be traded, and would not ask for his release before the end of the season.

“I’m not going to go out of here like that,” he said. “I’m not the starter, but I’m not going to cry, take my ball, and go home.

“I’m not bitter. I’m not mad at the organization,” he added. “I’m not out to make problems around here. I refuse to do that. It’s unfortunate. There are a lot worse things in life. You have to keep things in perspective and do your job. I know if I’m called upon, I’ll be ready to roll.”

Brunell’s nonegotistical response was a breath of fresh air compared to prima donna reactions by superstar athletes faced with a similar predicament.

“Brunell, a strong Christian, is obviously disappointed by [his demotion], but he is demonstrating grace under duress — a trait more athletes need to learn to display,” observed Sports Spectrum, a Christian sports magazine.

Russ Austin, pastor of Southpoint Community Church in Jacksonville, a charismatic congregation birthed from a Bible study in Brunell’s living room in 1996, said Brunell is “the quintessential gentleman.”

“He’s handled it [the quarterback controversy] in a very classy and professional manner,” says Austin, 48. “It’s a direct result of the fact that everything he does he wants to be a positive testimony and show Christ in his life.”

Brunell said he realized the quarterback controversy attracted a lot of attention.

“It’s an opportunity to be a good witness because people are looking at me and many know that I’m a Christian,” Brunell told Today’s Pentecostal Evangel in October, a few days after he had surgery for his elbow injury.

“If I have a positive attitude, work hard and don’t look ugly in the media, I realize that God is going to use this situation to advance the Kingdom,” he added. “It’s an opportunity to be Christlike in my attitude.”

Acquired from the Green Bay Packers in a 1995 trade, Brunell had been the present and future of the Jaguars. He became a star during a successful 1996 season, using a swashbuckling style that took advantage of his strong left arm as much as his nimble legs. He threw for 4,367 yards that season — a team record that still stands — and led the Jaguars to one of the biggest playoff upsets in NFL history, 30-27 over the Denver Broncos.

Brunell twice led Jacksonville within one game of the Super Bowl — coming up just short in 1996 and 1999. Before he was demoted, Brunell was 63-51 as a starter for the Jaguars, but just 19-30 since 2000, and 0-3 this past season.

“It’s a test to see how you’re going to respond through adversity,” says Brunell, who became a dedicated Christian in college through a sports ministry at the University of Washington.

“We find out how much we really trust God during those times,” he adds. “I take it one day at a time. I keep seeking God. I don’t let my faith waver. I know God has a plan and these things happen for a reason. I don’t know what they are, but someday I’ll find out.”

Losing his starting position will likely mean that Brunell will be playing for another team next year. He is not worried about his future.

“We were just praying that God’s will would be done,” says Brunell, who has three sons and a daughter. “This was an indication of what our near future holds.… It’s difficult, although it’s no different than getting a job transfer.”

Austin believes the team and city that gets Brunell will be grateful.

“Some community is not only going to get a great athlete, but they’re going to get a person of high character,” he says. “It’s just really what you would want from your star athlete.”

Brunell knows his playing days will end. When they do he is ready to embrace the next chapter in his life.

“I’d like to go into the ministry. At what capacity at this point, I don’t know,” he says. He has been involved with Champions for Christ, a parachurch group that seeks to transform athletes not just into role models, but also into ministers.

Brunell admits he hoped to finish his career in Jacksonville, but “apparently God has a different plan.

“The Bible says, ‘In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps,’ ” Brunell says, quoting Proverbs 16:9. “It’s the Lord who ultimately determines my steps. I realize God has a plan. I’ll just go forward with that.”

Eric Tiansay is editor of Charisma News Service.

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