Spotlight: Finding faith on the football field

BY SETH ROBERTS | MARCH 28, 2011 7:20 AM

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Leadership is natural for Jeff Simak.

He enjoys being in front of people. He’s cheerfully extroverted, and people appear to be drawn to him like iron to a magnet.

He took his talents to the sports world, too: He captained his high-school basketball team and coached in a youth flag-football league in his free time.

The University of Iowa junior is a few years removed from his coaching days, but he has found and embraced a new leadership role. The Crystal Lake, Ill., native joined campus-ministry group 24:7 when he arrived in Iowa City, and he is now in charge of a Bible study for a handful of freshmen.

“It’s huge [for freshmen] to have somewhere comfortable where they feel they fit in,” Simak said. “It’s a great opportunity to … be able to come along with them, know what they’re struggling with and where they’re hurting — and figure out ways I can walk alongside them and encourage them.”

For him, it’s about giving back. He was turned on to Christianity late in his tenure at Prairie Ridge High when he was asked to coach in a flag-football league organized by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

After talking with team parents and hearing the religious messages delivered to the third- through sixth-grade kids, he decided he had found his calling.

“[God] wasn’t guaranteeing stuff was going to get easier, but He did say it’s biblical that stuff is going to happen for a reason,” the burly 20-year-old said. “There’s a purpose behind [everything]. I had never heard that before.”

Simak wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household, but found refuge in the church nonetheless. In a span of about two years, his parents divorced, his father lost his job, and he moved with his mother from Wheaton, Ill., to Crystal Lake. He didn’t hesitate to discuss that tumultuous stretch of his life, but he admitted it left him with an empty feeling hecouldn’t fill on his own.

Once he made the changes to his lifestyle, though, his friends say they saw him take a 180-degree turn. Bryan McGinn, who has known Simak since the two were in eighth grade, said he admires his roommate’s dedication to his faith.

“As soon as he made the choice that this is what he wanted to live for in life … he was full-out, 100 percent going for it,” McGinn said. “He’s going to live his life fully for what he believes in.”

Simak joined 24:7 when he enrolled at Iowa, and college pastor Scott Gaskill said the secondary-education major’s leadership talents were immediately apparent.

“He was a young Christian and still just kind of learning the ropes, but he was still a passionate guy,” Gaskill said. “He’s definitely a guy people rally around.”

Indeed they do. Simak chatted with perhaps a dozen people over the course of 24:7’s weekly meeting on March 3. Gaskill, who has been Simak’s mentor for the past two years, said that’s pretty much par for the course but that his pupil has continued to grow every week.

“One of the things the Bible says is, love God and love others,” he said. “His love for others has grown a ton.”

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