One sentence from the person he looked up to most, and Scott Willingham knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Ryan McReynolds, the leader of the Campus Crusade for Christ student group at New Mexico State told Willingham he was “a disgrace to Christianity.” At that moment, everything in Willingham’s world changed. He realized there was a better path for him than the one he was traveling.
Willingham, 27, remembers the words vividly. He remembers how much it hurt, but also how true it was. Willingham took McReynolds’ words to heart and devoted his life to Christ soon after.
Willingham is the Missouri football team chaplain and on the staff at MU’s chapter of Campus Crusade. He also leads the group Athletes in Action, where he teaches athletes the word of God and leads Tuesday night Bible study.
Growing up in Weatherford, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth, Willingham was an avid churchgoer. His family encouraged him to go, so he went nearly every Sunday. Christianity wasn’t the only religion in his life. When you’re from Texas, football becomes a sort of faith. Willingham had the football faith in him, too, playing in high school before he earned a track scholarship at New Mexico State.
Despite a background rooted in faith, Willingham wasn’t committed to the faith of his family and those around him. Instead, he gave into the many temptations facing a high school football player who so desperately wanted to fit in with the popular crowd. He drank, partied and lived to please what he calls his “sin nature.”
Pornography, mostly on television, was one of his vices. He finished his high school years with no satisfaction, no direction and a lack of faith.
He went to New Mexico State, where he ran track. He arrived a few days earlier than the rest of the students. He had no family, no friends and little desire to make new ones. For the first time in his life, he had nobody to guide him. He spent his days reading college football preview magazines and eating fast food.
Willingham said it was one of the most difficult times in his life.
“I was so lonely,” Willingham said. “I didn’t know anybody; I was just sitting there.”
Then, out of nowhere, Randy DeBoer knocked at his door. When Willingham answered the door, DeBoer handed him a flier for Campus Crusade. Willingham, looking for a friend, agreed to try the group.
A few days later, McReynolds approached Willingham in an effort to get to know him. McReynolds asked Willingham general questions about himself. Willingham said he talked for about an hour before McReynolds said the words that altered his life.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Scott, you’re a disgrace to the cross of Christ, you’re the worst kind of person out there because you call yourself a Christian, but you don’t live like one,”’ Willingham said. “That was exactly when it all clicked. I looked right back at him and said, ‘You’re right, I am.”
Willingham was ready to devote his life to God. With McReynolds’ guidance, Willingham became more involved with Campus Crusade and Athletes in Action. By the time he graduated in 1998, he felt called to the ministry.
Willingham got another blessing a few months before he graduated. He met a woman, Stephanie Crabb, who became his wife July 25, 1998.
After coaching football at Gadsden High in Anthony, N.M., Willingham worked as a recruiter for a technical school. It didn’t take him long to realize he wanted to enter the ministry and be more involved with Campus Crusade.
When Willingham arrived in Columbia, Charles Anderson, the director of Campus Crusade invited him to a meeting with MU coach Gary Pinkel. Pinkel said he needed a chaplain. Willingham set up another meeting with Pinkel a month later and they discussed the job. Before he knew it, Willingham was the team chaplain.
The Willinghams came to Missouri in April 2001. Willingham’s functions as the team chaplain have expanded. He leads team chapel every Friday night, along with a Monday bible study for a small group of players. He also speaks occasionally at Campus Crusade on Thursday nights. He leads the team in the Lord’s Prayer before Saturday games and goes to practice every Wednesday.
This season is Willingham’s third traveling with the team. He continues to deal with his old temptations, but with far more success than his high school days. When he is on the road with the team, he removes all temptation by taking the cables out of the television and taking them to the front desk.
Running back Tyrone Roberson is a regular at each of the Willingham-led groups. Roberson said it is a relief to have a strong force such as Willingham, especially on the road, when he needs spiritual guidance.
“A lot of guys have things they go through and he is right there for us when we need him,” Roberson said. “He gives us the word and keeps us focused on the right things.”
On Sundays, Scott and Stephanie Willingham attend the Crossing Church. The couple has also made a recent addition to their house. Tucker Davis Willingham is 10 months old. Willingham’s love of football is evident in his son’s nickname, T.D.
Willingham speaks from experience when he tells college students and athletes of the pitfalls they face every day. He is the first to talk about his past transgressions, but each time he does, he does it with purpose.
“I always tell the guys about it,” Willingham said. “I tell them I faced temptations like they do. What I have learned from it is that Christianity is such a big deal that you have to work at it.
“The most important thing I tell them is that you can’t just sit back and let it happen.”