Sports Spectrum Magazine Summer 2021

Bengals chaplain LaMorris Crawford overcomes incredible odds to impact lives for Christ

LaMorris Crawford knows pain. He knows struggle. He knows what it’s like to live a life far from God, and that’s what makes his current walk with God all the more powerful.

Crawford, now in his sixth season as a team chaplain for the Cincinnati Bengals, spends his days preparing for Bible studies and chapel services, and acting as a spiritual guide for Bengals players. God has used Crawford to change the lives of countless young men. He has baptized a handful of players, including quarterback Andy Dalton, whom he still disciples.

Crawford’s wife of 10 years, Megan, partners in her husband’s ministry by leading a Bible study for the players’ wives and girlfriends. Together, Megan and LaMorris are the spiritual power couple for the entire Bengals team, in addition to raising four kids of their own. Crawford has a passion for communicating God’s Word, a passion God wrought from a life of hopelessness and despair.

Crawford was born into intense poverty on the South Side of Chicago to a 16-year-old mother, who at 17 was shot and killed. He never knew who his dad was. Young LaMorris and eight of his cousins were raised by his grandmother after she lost two more daughters and a son in various violent and unexpected ways. Crawford’s grandmother did not emphasize school, but he went if only to get a nice hot meal and attend gym class. He was an angry troublemaker and often found himself suspended, but at the root of it all was deep-seated confusion.

“My grandmother was a strong woman,” Crawford said recently on the Sports Spectrum Podcast. “She did the best she could with what she had, but I grew up with a huge identity crisis. For many years of my life, I grew up with a question mark on top of my head of who am I and why am I here.”

Crawford had no father figure or role model in his life, so he gravitated to the gang-bangers and drug dealers. Maybe he would find his identity there. Crawford was in a gang by 11 and selling cocaine by 14. The angry, troublemaking child had become a confused young man seeking significance. Crawford turned to illegal substances in an effort to solve his problems. “But,” he said, “once you come off the high, once you come off the drinking, nothing changed.”

Crawford’s quest for meaning led him to basketball at an early age, and he fell in love with the game. Crawford turned to basketball throughout some of the most difficult moments of his childhood. He became good enough at the sport that he not only made the high school team as a freshman but was a four-year starter at one of the biggest schools in Chicago. Crawford played basketball for the love of the game, sure, but he also played it to escape the reality of the difficult world in which he found himself. He valued his time on the team and in the limelight as one of the most popular kids in school, but no matter what he did, something was still missing.

“I was doing things to attempt to fill a void in my heart,” Crawford said of his high school years, “but nothing filled this void, and I didn’t understand it.”

LISTEN: LaMorris Crawford shares his journey on the Sports Spectrum Podcast

 

Crawford’s basketball abilities drew the attention of a few universities, but a low SAT score shut the door on any hope of escaping his troubled life. Instead, Crawford headed off to play for a community college.

It was at this point, at the age of 19, that Crawford had an encounter that would change the trajectory of his life. He was told about Jesus.

One day, Crawford’s cousin sat him down, talked to him about life and shared the Gospel with him. Crawford’s cousin was a gang leader in high school before Christ came into his life.

“I’d lived with him since we were 9 years old,” Crawford said. “I knew his life inside and out, we slept in the same bed, and when we were in high school, I literally saw his life change.”

Crawford was intrigued by the sudden change in his cousin but had no room in his life for God during his high school years. It wasn’t until Crawford heard his cousin present the joys of the Gospel at 19 years old that Crawford understood who he was and what Jesus had done for him. All of his life had been a fruitless search for identity in the things of this world, but in Christ, Crawford found a home for his restless soul. God began to mold Crawford’s heart, and eventually, his life.

Crawford completed two years of community college — the first in his family to go to college and get a degree — then transferred to Olivet Nazarene University to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. His life had completely reversed course. He was a new creation, bought by the blood of Christ.

Eventually, Crawford felt God’s calling toward ministry. God opened the door to a role as an NFL chaplain, where his message and personality would especially resonate. He realized that God would use his childhood struggles to impact others in his life, including the hundreds of NFL players he’s met. For 19 years, God had been equipping Crawford for effective ministry with a personal story that illustrates the power of God’s saving grace.

“God is going to bring you across people in which your story can influence them,” Crawford said. “He uses people to touch people.”

His message is motivational yet realistic. He helps the athletes to see that football is a season of life. It’s important, but it’s not everything. One day, athletic ability won’t save you, he tells them. Your character will be what matters.

“The waves are going to come. They’re going to beat,” he said. “The rain is going to come. The storm is going to come, so when they come, what have you built on?”

The biggest problem NFL players face, Crawford said, is the problem of self. Many players are placed on a pedestal from a young age and told that life is all about them and their athletic prowess. Yet the Biblical view of the self is far different. We are to humble ourselves, understand our helplessness without Jesus and become like servants, Crawford tells the players.

“My goal as a chaplain is to get them to a place where they can build that foundation on Christ,” Crawford said, “because that’s the only thing that will last in the end.”

Sometimes, when he’s not preparing for chapel service or having discipleship meetings with players like Andy Dalton or being the father he never had to his four rambunctious kids, he thinks about his life. 

“I look back on my story, and I can see God’s hand on my life, even during my heathen days,” Crawford said.

The world tried to snatch Crawford’s hope from the moment he was born into poverty. Yet God used that destitute upbringing to mold Crawford into what he is now: a man of God with a story to tell.

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