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Against the Odds7 min read

NFL Player Inspires Students with Talk of Faith, Persistence

Ben VanSumeren is different.

Well, I mean, duh. He’s a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. Of course he’s different. According to my very thorough research by typing “odds of making it into the NFL” into Google, under 2% of college players go on to play professional football.

What I’m saying is, he’s different. To be honest, I don’t know if italicizing the word even gets the point across. So I’ll try here.

When I found out Ben was coming to lead a student assembly at Peace Lutheran School, I had my usual questions: Who is invited, do we want media there, how big of a deal do we want to make this, etc. Pastor Hauser said he would ask Ben’s preference, and we’d go from there.

Ben’s preference? Whatever Peace wanted. Whatever is helpful. He was just here for the kids.

And he meant it.

Look, the most I know about NFL players in the off-season is that Travis Kelce (Kansas City Chiefs) and Taylor Swift (his global popstar girlfriend) have recently been frolicking in the sunshine on a romantic getaway to the Bahamas.

Yet this kid shows up on a 35-degree dreary day in Michigan to inspire kids? What gives?

Why?

“I like being home. I like being with my family,” the 23-year-old told me as we waited in Pastor Hauser’s office before the K-8 assembly in the gym on Wednesday. “I spend a lot of time training and in Philadelphia away from them, so whenever I get the opportunity, I like to come home.”

“It’s important to talk to the kids because I’m a big advocate for Lutheran schools, and I did K-8 in a Lutheran school (Zion in Bay City). This is really a time in their life when they can decide who they want to be. And I can say that confidently because that’s what I did when I was their age (at age 6, to be precise).”

It’s also a time in their life they’ll tuck away this memory of meeting someone “like them” who made it big. They’ll never forget it.

I still remember the speaker at my eighth-grade banquet in Livermore, KY. He was an on-air personality for our local country music radio station. He also did the daily Farm Report.

Listen, my entire home county still has one stoplight and one high school. We don’t have many local “celebrities.” But I digress.

The point is, I still vividly remember the man and the message of that visit, all these years later. Peace students will remember Ben’s visit for the rest of their lives, too.

A pro athlete telling your children that they can do anything they are gifted for with hard work and eyes fixed on Jesus. That’s priceless.

“As the brother of an Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning actor (Paul Walter Hauser), I know firsthand how inspiring it is to have someone from where you grew up, go on to achieve things that only a miniscule percentage of the population achieves,” Pastor Hauser said. “Having Ben visit our school means the world to our student body. These kids are growing up going to the same kind of parochial school Ben attended when he was a kid in Bay City. To have that same guy come home and share his story with kids from his community is incredibly meaningful.”

“My hope is that his presence and his telling of his story might inspire our students to work hard and know that, with God’s help, anything is possible!”

Hard Work

Make no mistake. There’s been hard work.

“I just trust my process,” Ben told me when asked how a Lutheran school kid ends up in the NFL.

Because let’s be honest here. We’re not exactly known for football.

“I didn’t really know how the whole recruiting or anything like that worked, but I just stayed the course, and I ended up in the position where I am today,” he said.

Ben played a slew of sports growing up. After elementary school at Zion, he attended Garber High School in Essexville, where he would eventually home in on football as “his sport.”

On Wednesday, he expanded upon four main areas or points he wanted Peace students to remember for success in life:

  1. Intentional focus.
  2. How you do one thing is how you do everything.
  3. God is watching.
  4. The standard is the standard.

Ben held up his daily prayer journal, which he told students he started six years ago. It’s even more important than his daily nutrition and fitness goals, he said.

He talked about how he ended up playing college football for both the University of Michigan and Michigan State University (who does that?), “eligibility,” “transfer portals,” and other things I didn’t really understand. If you’re into stats and such, you can find those online.

Against the Odds

But here’s what I did understand: Each step of the way, he was given very little odds of making it to the next level. Zero percent for one thing. One percent for another. By the time he made it to the NFL, he was told he had a 10% chance.

After the zeros and ones, Ben quite liked those odds. And he was quick to credit Lutheran schools for much of his success, all the way into the NFL.

“I went from being counted out to being counted on,” he told students.

Peace physical education teacher Jeremy Haggitt taught Ben at Zion. They’ve remained close over the years, so Haggitt asked him if he would be willing to talk to Peace kids.

“I knew he would have a great message about how hard work, dedication, and trust in God will help you achieve your goals in anything you want to do in life,” Haggitt said. “I hope that hearing Ben’s message will give the students the confidence to follow their dreams and achieve their goals.”

Paying tuition for our kids to go to Lutheran school can be difficult. Teaching them to hold fast to a God whom many in the world mock is a never-ending battle.

Telling them that, even at a small school, they are making steps toward greatness—maybe even the NFL someday—seems downright impossible.

Yet this kid shows up on a 35-degree dreary day in Michigan and does just that.

My hope—my prayer—is that they believed him.

“The values and the things that I picked up in Lutheran schools—the things that I learned at your age—were the things that I held onto. Who I was in high school, who I was in college and who I am today.”

Fun Facts

After his presentation Wednesday during the student assembly, Ben allowed students to ask many questions. Here are some fun facts from the Q&A you may not know:

“Do you ever play Fortnite?” Yes, a lot. But he never plays “ranked.” Whatever that means.

“What is your favorite food?” Steak.

“How long will you play football?” As long as his body will allow.

Detroit Lions Defensive End Aidan Hutchinson was his roommate for three years at U-M.

“Have you met Taylor Swift?” No. But Jason Kelce (Travis’ brother) was Ben’s favorite Eagles teammate.

He studied political science, but his dream is to be an actor.

His favorite Bible verse is Matthew 23:12, his confirmation verse: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

 

To watch the ABC12 news report, click here.

Local Summer Football Camp

Ben and some of his Philadelphia Eagles teammates will be putting on a one-day youth football camp on June 20 at Garber High School in Essexville. The NFL-sponsored event is free for boys and girls and divided into elementary (ages 8-13) and high school (ages 14-18) for instruction. For more information, click here.

Photos courtesy of Misty Gower, Peace Saginaw

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About the Author

Misty Gower is Communications and Marketing Director for Peace Lutheran Church and School in Saginaw

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