It’s Saturday in late September. The Statesboro heat hits the turf to where the humidity rising can be seen from the stands.
Lining the sidelines of Paulson Stadium are foam pads and water coolers that are waiting to be tackled and drank. Fans have begun filing into the stands, toting freshly popped popcorn and cold Coca-Cola.
Inside the locker room, the Georgia Southern football players are going through final walkthroughs before facing an Arkansas State team.
Before the Eagles leave to start their march to the tunnel, GS team chaplain Matt Wise puts his hand over the team to pray. Nearly three hours later after Wesley Kennedy III completes the momentus comeback against the Red Wolves, Wise takes a moment with the players to pray again and give thanks.
The walk-off win that happened moments before sent the players into jubilation, but Wise and the coaching staff take the time to calm down and focus before embarking into Saturday night.
Wise helped brew the culture of respecting faith on the football field and keeping a strong willed character off the football field.
The Eagles’ 38-35 victory against undefeated Appalachian State in 2007 was the final football game Wise played. The junior defensive end had started the first seven games of the year and was one of the better players on a 7-4 GS team.
Wise’s career-ending injury sent him to be a student-coach for the 2008 season before graduating with a degree in exercise science.
“I really had a desire that when I was finished playing, I wanted to be strength coach and a high school football coach,” Wise said. “There were a lot of coaches, when I was in high school, that had an impact on me. It’s a very formidable, impressionable age for guys.”
But after the injury, Wise noticed a void in the GS program that he felt called to fill. As a student-coach in 2008, Wise saw the need for ministry and faith within his teammates.
So Wise began leading a bible study within the football team.
“A total athlete is made up of mind, body, spirit and character,” Wise said. “Sometimes you come to college and focus on the physical development of your specific sport through strength and conditioning. You focus on the mental part through academics. The part that usually goes unnoticed is the character, spiritual development. Through the years, even when I was in college, anything spiritual was not forced.”
More than 10 years since Wise graduated, the Hazlehurst-bred alumnus still calls Statesboro home, volunteering as the football team’s chaplain and serving as the director of Athletes In Action.
AIA is an organization that has been around since 1966 and focuses on spreading the gospel to other countries, using sports as a communication tool. Through AIA, Wise has led many international trips to places like Costa Rica to talk about his faith and relate to those in other countries with athletics.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, if you can drop a ball, you can cross any kind of socio-economic barrier,” Wise said. “You’ve got somebody like Tim Tebow, who classifies themself as a Christian athlete, who leverages their platform for good.”
As a former athlete himself, Wise is able to empathize with not just football players, but GS student-athletes as a whole.
The emphasis on spreading the gospel is there, but the relationship between Wise and the different athletes extends beyond just religion.
“I never force faith on anyone, but it's a resource and I want to help you grow in your character,” Wise said. “Most people don’t care about an athlete’s character until they fail. You look at Johnny Manziel, Tiger Woods. These athletes are put on pedestals and then what happens when an athlete has a moral failure?”
Wise acts as a mentor for the players in leadership and stresses the importance of walking the walk as a human being, acting as more than just an athlete. Many guys look for ways to relinquish their emotions through drugs or alcohol, but Wise tries to be a role model and show that there are other outlets.
“If we can come in, have a mentorship, start setting some life goals, putting themselves in a better position to succeed, you’re going to see them understand to not make those bad decisions,” Wise said.
For Wise, the privilege to work with these athletes stems from a calling to give back what he didn’t have growing up. Like several players, Wise comes from a single family.
“I didn’t have a father figure growing up. My mom had me when she was 16 years old. I grew up very poor, working all kinds of jobs,” Wise said. “A lot of our guys come from broken homes. Now, I get to have a family and I get the chance to show how you’re supposed to love your wife. Here’s how you're supposed to support your children. Here’s how you have a family dinner together.”
The athletes hold small group bible studies, help watch Wise’s children and have maintained a companionship with Wise, even after they leave GS.
“I get to have a small part in the rest of their lives,” Wise said. “That's probably the most rewarding part. Seeing them live out their lives, see them become fathers has been special.”
Having Chad Lunsford take over as head coach, the change in culture has been noted relentlessly. It’s contagious and can be seen on the field from the players and coaching staff.
Wise credits the on-field success to Lunsford’s character and leadership.
“I think your faith plays the most important part in who you are,” Wise said. “Everybody believes in something. Everybody holds to something. But I think when you have that platform like Coach Lunsford has and uses it to leverage it for good. He doesn't force guys to believe in his faith, but you can tell by the decisions he makes and the way he carries himself, his identity is not wrapped up into his job.”
Wise carries himself in the same way — letting faith guide his decisions and not letting his title drive him. With this mindset, the former starting defensive end is able to continue serving in his various character-driven roles.
“Coming out of college, I had two passions: Sports and the Lord,” Wise said. “Combining those two together, being able to come in on a volunteer basis and work with athletes has been amazing.”
McClain Baxley, The George-Anne Daily Managing Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org