Forty-one years ago, Steve Starnes played football alongside Al Cowlings and O.J. Simpson as the Buffalo Bills fifth-round draft pick out of the University of Tampa.
He also played for the Green Bay Packers and the (former) Boston Patriots.
He was big and burly. Then he injured his neck and his professional football career, the dream of many little boys and grown men, was cut short. Five years ago a stroke nearly took his life.
I met Steve about two and a half years ago. Only 60 then, he lived at a nursing facility near my house. I didn’t know who he was except as the man who “walked” in his wheelchair up and down the nearby trail. With great determination he’d push himself backwards in his wheelchair using his feet multiple times a day.
One day I stopped to talk to him, this handsome man with a Johnny Unitas burr haircut, and he told me about his stroke and his unrelenting goal of learning to walk again.
He exercised all the time, he said. He dreamed of getting better and going fishing or coaching high school football.
When I met him, he didn’t say anything about being a football player. Somebody at the nursing facility told me and I had to ask him about it.
He had been big and strong all of his life. He had also been an alcoholic. He had been angry. He said he wasn’t sure if the anger was due to the alcoholism or from other things in his life that had happened.
It was his anger that caused him to leave the nursing facility near my house and go to another one.
I lost contact with him until the other day when he called me out of the blue. He was in another facility not too far from where I work.
He invited me to a Bible study. He said he’s been learning about the Holy Spirit and that someone had given him a Bible and he reads it all the time. His life has changed, he said. The anger’s gone.
So, on Wednesday I went to see him and sat next to him at the Bible study. He’s as handsome as ever.
He told me that his nephew had died and at the funeral when they sang “Amazing Grace” something like a flash of white lightning went through him and he knew it was God changing him. That’s what amazing grace does — it changes you.
“I’m born again,” he said.
His favorite song, which he recited to me, is “Lord, You Have Come to the Seashore.” He grew up around St. Petersburg, at the gulf shore. That song reminds him that he “doesn’t need fortune, he doesn’t need fame.” He only needs the Lord.
He loves Psalm 23 — the Lord is Steve’s shepherd, he doesn’t want for anything anymore. The Lord makes Steve lie down in green pastures, leads him beside still waters and restores his soul.
Steve’s body isn’t nearly as strong as it once was, but his soul and his spirit are thriving, his mind too. God is restoring the years that alcohol and anger robbed him of. He is redeeming the hurts Steve suffered and also caused.
Now he’s working on a dream he has, to reconnect with his high school girlfriend, a redhead named Sheenaugh. He hasn’t seen her since 1966, but he dreamed the other night that they would reunite.
“Through divine intervention, I feel that Sheenaugh is the woman for me,” he said. “Through Christ, all things are possible.”
At one time Steve Starnes was strong as a bull. He still loves football, he said. He predicts the Packers and the Ravens will play in the Super Bowl this season.
A second stroke two years ago set him back and the other day he blacked out, fell and cut his head. It’s a good day when he can walk with a cane instead of a walker.
Still, in many ways he’s stronger today than he ever was. He’s at peace. He still exercises like crazy, but even in his physical weakness, through Christ Steve’s spirit is as strong as the strongest linebacker on the gridiron today.
Nancy Kennedy is the author of “Move Over, Victoria — I Know the Real Secret,” “Girl on a Swing,” and her latest book, “Lipstick Grace.” She can be reached at (352) 564-2927, Monday through Thursday, or via email at email@example.com.