Leading athletes by faith


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Jim Goodrich is seated, waiting patiently on a stiff black couch inside the Hawkeye Football Complex.

Fitted with soft-rimmed glasses and what appears to be his signature, worn running shoes, the director of Athletes in Action is worried.

“I forgot to remind him we were meeting today,” Goodrich said apologetically, sending off a last-minute text message. “I am not sure if he’ll show up.”

He does. They usually always do.

Goodrich’s outright commitment makes letting him down nearly agonizing.

“He’ll always show up,” said senior basketball guard Devan Bawinkel. “He comes every time once a week. He’s a huge Hawkeye fan. I just think he really wants us to do well.”

Goodrich, 57, heads the local effort of Athletes In Action, a national Christian ministry on a mission to use sports as a platform to build spiritual movements. His job varies — one day he’ll shoot around inside Carver with the basketball players after a quick prayer and then meet with a wrestler for lunch at the Old Capitol mall to read the Word.

Four Hawkeye teams have started their own Bible studies with the help of Goodrich — wrestling, baseball, and both men’s and women’s basketball teams.

Monday evenings are dedicated to a group meeting. Inside Hillcrest, student-athletes from a range of sports push the traditional bland dorm couches and chairs into a makeshift circle to hear Goodrich talk and read scripture.

This time was Ephesians 4:29, which emphasizes avoiding “unwholesome talk.”

Goodrich shares his personal history — the time when his college basketball teammate helped him spiritually — with the 35 Hawkeyes, from cross-country runners to wrestlers.

After a 10-minute testimony, the man chuckled coyly.

“To make a long story longer,” he joked, after realizing the struggle to condense a life story into a quick tale.

Goodrich has been a valued part of Iowa athletics for the past 25 years, and many of the 200 staff members and 650 student-athletes can’t help but smile when they see the balding man stroll by.

“Jim is definitely a mentor-type of person,” said basketball forward Jarryd Cole. “He listens. He’s great for advice. He is very reliable. He’ll always be there.”

As a former North Dakota basketball player, Goodrich witnessed the profound influence faith can have on attitude and performance. Decades later, his life’s vocation remains deeply rooted in guiding athletes to recognize what Goodrich himself learned as an emerging young adult.

“Christ had changed my life so much, I felt like I wanted to [go into ministry],” Goodrich said. “My senior year, I had gotten involved in some discipleship groups and really caught the picture to stay on the college campus and reaching students for Christ.”

His first job out of graduation, Goodrich continues to raise finances to support his endeavors in Iowa City, as he is not compensated by the UI. Former players have even pledged money and prayer to help Goodrich.

Five years ago, in the stands at a basketball game, a former baseball player grabbed him as he walked by.

“Jim, thanks for introducing me to Christ,” the player said.

The words were like a bullet to the chest — a staunch reminder that one’s actions and words don’t often come back void.

For many student-athletes, Athletes in Action has filled a spiritual gap.

“It’s meant a lot in sense of dealing with the pressures of being a collegiate athlete,” outfielder Patrick Harshman said. “Especially here at a place like Iowa, to know that you aren’t going through those struggles alone and there are other people you can talk to.”

Wrestler Ruffin Tchakounte from Ashburn,Va., echoed Harshman’s sentiment.

“The past year, I really started feeling I wasn’t alone and having something like Athletes in Action, it gives you a sense of having other believers with you,” he said. “Other people who share the same faith, share the same experiences that you do and believe in the same thing and not be afraid to express who you are or what you believe in.”

Back in the lobby of the Hawkeye Football Complex on this gloomy Thursday, the clock just reached 2:30 p.m. Goodrich’s time has been dutifully occupied.

He’s already met with a wrestler, a baseball player and just finished talking with junior Julian Vandervelde and sophomore Mike Daniels from the football team. The duo, taped up and clad in workout sweats, are prepping to lead the “Athletes Session” the Friday night before Iowa’s regular-season finale against Minnesota.

“Jim has mentored a lot of us. We all love the guy,” Vandervelde said with a joyful grin. “For us, he is just like one of the guys. We give him a lot of crap about being old. ‘Ah, Jim you can’t shoot the rock anymore. I’ll take you in basketball,’ and stuff.

“I think that is what makes him such a great mentor. He can really connect with us, not just on a spiritual level but a personal level, it seems like that with all the athletes he comes in contact with.”

His day is far from over — his phone reminds him he has more meetings, unanswered e-mails, and a slew of voicemails.

But Goodrich’s next 15 minutes are dedicated to freshman football player Scott Covert — someone who didn’t want to miss out on hearing what Goodrich had to say and didn’t need a text message to notify him of their talk that afternoon. They flip to Matthew 6 — Jesus’ teaching on not worrying.

Ironically, it might even serve Goodrich, given he was concerned whether the young defensive lineman would show.

After a quarter century of working with student-athletes, the father of three always finds a reason to share the teachings of Christ with those who come to him.

“I remember the power of how God wants to change your life,” Goodrich said. “As I look at some of these athletes who don’t look that interested, I remember how I must have looked back then. It motivates me to keep sharing my faith.”

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