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Big Ten football rivals share a spiritual goal

Shawn Lazarus does not miss the irony of his surname.

"I sure was dead, and now I'm alive," said Mr. Lazarus, who played football for the University of Michigan and the NFL's Detroit Lions.

He is speaking in spiritual terms, of course - his favorite topic of discussion these days.

On Nov. 10, Mr. Lazarus and Joel Penton, former player for the Ohio State University Buckeyes, will discuss football and faith at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Toledo.

The two former Big Ten stars are using the enormous public interest in the upcoming showdown between the Buckeyes and Wolverines on Nov. 17 as an opportunity to spread the Gospel message to sports fans around the state.

Both Mr. Lazarus and Mr. Penton played defensive tackle, a position that requires extraordinary size and strength as they squared off against offensive lineman in football's trenches.

Mr. Lazarus, 28, said in an interview this week that he was so intent on succeeding in football and partying in his free time that he never gave much thought to religion or spirituality until he suffered a career-ending knee injury in 2003.

Mr. Penton, on the other hand, has been a devout Christian since his freshman year at Van Wert High School and is convinced that God opened the door for him to play football and be a lay minister at Ohio State.

"I always had a passion to play football, and then I developed a passion for serving God and telling others about what God has done in my life," Mr. Penton, 24, said in an interview this week.

Growing up, he said, he was clumsy and not very athletic, and figured his best career option would be to go into the ministry.

But his skills on the football field kept improving to the point where, during his junior year of high school, OSU head coach Jim Tressel offered him a full scholarship to play for the Buckeyes.

"God began opening doors for me to use football to minister more effectively, and that turned out to be the case at Ohio State," Mr. Penton said.

He said that athletics "transcends all the typical barriers in society - races, economic issues, religion, and all the other barriers."

Mr. Penton said Coach Tressel was a "tremendous" coach in more ways than putting together a winning football program.

"He was a great influence. He is a great coach in every sense of the word, not just as a football coach but as a coach to motivate guys and to lead guys, to teach guys, and to teach these boys how to become men."

He called Coach Tressel "an incredibly intelligent guy" who "remembers everything you ever tell him. He's very caring, very genuine, and he's a man of faith and everybody knows it."

Since his graduation in 2006, Mr. Penton has been working as community director for the central Ohio Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He said he has given more than 130 talks this fall, mostly in middle schools and high schools, but also in churches.

During his five years at OSU, the Buckeyes beat the Wolverines four times.

"That is definitely the most exciting part of my career at Ohio State, going 4 and 1 against Michigan," Mr. Penton said. "It is the biggest game of the year. Bowl games don't even compare."

Mr. Lazarus had a similar assessment of their historic rivalry.

"When you're playing, and you're playing the Michigan-Ohio State game, if you're on the field and you're not feeling like this is the biggest game that you've ever played, then something's wrong," he said.

He said he was consumed with football while playing at Michigan and then with the Lions in the National Football League, until suffering a severe knee injury in May, 2003.

Mr. Lazarus, a native of Canal Fulton, Ohio, said he started going to church in December, 2003, and the combination of church and the Bible turned his life around.

"I took that same mentality I had on the football field and started applying it for the Lord, and it's really been awesome," he said.

He now works as a juvenile corrections officer, saying that troubled youths need a positive role model and a "godly example."

"You can't preach to the kids, but they see the way I live my life and they see me reading my Bible," Mr. Lazarus said.

Whenever he has the chance, he shares his testimony with audiences, like the upcoming talk in Toledo.

He said he learned the hard way that despite his money, fame, and success in football, he never found happiness until he accepted Jesus Christ as his savior.

"What good is it for a man to gain the entire world and lose his soul?" Mr. Lazarus said, quoting Luke 9: 25. "That's so true. That's my life in that little verse."

"The Greatest Rivalry: Breakfast with Champions," with Shawn Lazarus and Joel Penton, will be at Emmanuel Baptist Church, 4207 West Laskey Rd., from 9 to 11:30 a.m. Nov. 10. Breakfast tickets are $8, available from the church, Family Christian and Lifeway Christian stores, and the Buckeye-Wolverine Shop. Auditorium-only tickets are $3 in advance, $4 at the door.

- David Yonke

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