In 2007, T. J. Lawrence was lining up to kick off in places like Autzen Stadium in Oregon and Bryant-Denny Stadium in Alabama, as the starting kicker for the University of Houston Cougars. He was playing on television and in person in front of crowds as large as 92,000-strong against Nick Saban's mighty Crimson Tide. College football is nothing if not a weekly celebration of the strong, the fast, and the gifted, and Lawrence enjoyed every moment.
"I was an average college kid," he explains, "with all of the good and bad that entails. I was not where I needed to be, spiritually."
By December 2008 he was laid off from his first job in the insurance industry and had no income and (ironically) no insurance. By January 2009 he was flat on his back in an intensive care unit, unable to even raise a fork to his mouth to feed himself.
"Even though I was a kicker I was an athlete," he explained the first time we talked. "I was 6'1" and 210 pounds . . . and I would fly down the field and hammer people." I find it funny and somewhat charming that he would feel the need to explain himself to me in this way. I was just enough of an athlete at one point to recognize how hard it is to excel on any level, much less near the top of college football. I was also enough of an athlete to know how athletes are esteemed and celebrated, and how hard the fall from "athlete" to "regular" can feel. In regular life there's no free gear, no free healthcare in the training room, and no first-class travel every weekend.
Lawrence felt sick with a routine cold in January 2009, but it was a cold that seemed to linger with the attendant cough and nausea. When Lawrence began vomiting—hard enough to rupture a blood vessel in his eye ("I looked evil")—he decided to break down and visit a doctor, who prescribed an antibiotic and cough medicine. The next day, he felt tingling in his fingers and toes.
"I lost 12 pounds in 5 days," he recalls. "I would get exhausted just pushing a cart at the grocery story, and would have to lean on it and rest."
When he awoke one morning with the entire left side of his face numbed, he was rushed to the emergency room. "They did an X-Ray, MRI, and blood work and ruled out a brain tumor," he says.
Soon Lawrence and his mother were back in Tyler, near Houston, where he played his college football. A neurologist there provided the diagnosis they'd been waiting for.
"I'm admitting you to the ICU this morning," he said. "You're about to go downhill real fast."
"I could tell that my mom was about to lose it, so I told the neurologist that I was tingling, but okay," Lawrence recalls. "I got an MRI and a spinal tap, and I felt like a walking lab experiment. In fact, the ICU nurses told me I was the only patient they can ever remember walking into intensive care."
Lawrence was diagnosed with Gullain-Barre Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system. Without insurance, he was stuck in the ICU to the tune of $10,000 to $12,000 per day. "I couldn't raise a fork and my wife had to bathe me," he says. "I couldn't swallow or breathe."
Answers to Prayer
Still, he was aware of God's presence, though his body was failing and his financial situation was precarious. Elders from his mother's church came and prayed over him. Soon, he and his mother would see tangible answers to prayer.
"When I got out of the hospital I was back with my mother in the town where I grew up and played high school football," he says. "A lot of people knew what we were going through. We didn't know what we were going to do about bills, and about the future in general. We had kind of given up hope."
A local physical therapist gave Lawrence free therapy, so that he could begin the months-long rehabilitative grind that would allow him to walk and function normally again. And one day soon after, when he opened a hospital bill expecting to see a six-figure balance, he instead saw $0.00.
"I called the hospital and asked if it was a typo," he says. "They told me no, that somebody had anonymously paid the account balance in full. I was shocked. It was nothing less than a miracle."
This idea of an insurmountable debt being cancelled is, of course, a picture of the free grace we sinners enjoy in Christ. It's the reason stories like Les Miserables are so powerful. The idea of a financial debt—with all the pressure that entails—being cancelled is so tangible that Christ used it often in Scripture to illustrate the grace we receive in him.
At first, Lawrence was unsure as to how to tell his story, unsure what good God would bring from all of it. "I realized that I just need to tell the people the story in a straightforward way," he says. "It's strictly to bring glory to God."
Today Lawrence and his family are involved with The Parks Church, a new congregation in McKinney, Texas, that has grown from 50 people in 2011 to more than 500. He leads a sports-themed vacation Bible school, and his wife leads musical worship and mentors at a local juvenile detention center. The couple will take their first mission trip together, to Vietnam, later this year.
From the heights of major college football, to the depths of complete physical dependence, and from wandering from the church to a life now full of service to the local church, God has brought T. J. Lawrence and his family a long way. And he has never left them nor forsaken them in it.
"Our life revolves around people in that church."
Ted Kluck is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books. Visit him online at www.tedkluck.com.