This story appears in the Winter 2018 issue of Sports Spectrum Magazine. For more in-depth feature stories like this, subscribe to our quarterly magazine.
THE LITTLE-KNOWN YET INCREDIBLE STORY OF A ZEALOUS COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYER/REPORTER FOLLOWING GOD, SEEKING HIS PURPOSE AND FEELING ABANDONED — ONLY TO FIND OUT YEARS LATER THAT THE MASTER PLANNER WAS AUTHORING A SALVATION STORY GREATER THAN ANYONE COULD EVER IMAGINE
As a skinny journalism student at the University of Southern California in 2006, Ben Malcolmson yearned for one last great story to be published in the Daily Trojan, the campus newspaper. He’d already covered the football team during some of the finest days the program had ever seen — national championship games, Heisman Trophy ceremonies, undefeated seasons. Nearing graduation, he sought a glorious send-off piece.
Malcolmson’s greatest idea ever hit him as he leafed through a copy of that very newspaper one day. His gaze stopped on an ad for walk-on tryouts.
“No one’s ever written an article about this,” he said to himself. “This is pretty cool that the No. 1 team in the country just does an open casting call. This is pretty unique, this is pretty special.”
He didn’t simply want to write about it, he wanted to try out and write about it. He hadn’t played football since fifth grade, he weighed only 165 pounds, he had never run a 40-yard dash — all of which would make the story even better. So he approached head coach Pete Carroll.
“Well, it won’t be very interesting,” Carroll said, “but sure, go for it.”
Malcolmson promptly got his butt kicked on the field.
“I go home that night, I’m writing my article, and it was literally going to be the best article I ever had,” he said recently on the Sports Spectrum Podcast. “This was unbelievable. I got to go through tryouts for the best football team in the country, and at that time had become just a perennial contender, just an unbelievable program.”
Two days later, he received a call saying he’d made the team.
“My first thought was, ‘This has got to be a prank.’ Like, there’s no way I made the football team, because it never even crossed my mind that that was a possibility. My only intention of being out there on that tryout was to write an article,” he said.
If it wasn’t one of his friends crafting a hoax, it had to be Carroll. The jolly coach was renowned for cracking jokes and pulling pranks.
“So I’m trudging my way over to the football building,” Malcolmson recalls, “with a little bit of excitement and a little bit of curiosity, but mostly just gearing up for him to pull the rug out from under me. Because he did tell me, ‘It’s not going to be very interesting.’ So I figured he’s probably setting me up for a nice little prank here.”
“What do you think?” a smiling Carroll asked Malcolmson.
“Well, the prank’s over, just tell me now,” Malcolmson said.
With utter seriousness, Carroll responded, “No, you can run fast, you can catch the ball. We want you on the team.”
Despite not having played football in 10 years, Malcolmson was handed the playbook for a team that had spent all but one week of the previous season at No. 1. The plays were “like 19 words long” and brought to mind “a Madden (video game) playbook.” He didn’t know how to put on pads or a helmet. He dreaded getting hit. But once he did take a hit — and survive — he thought, “OK, I can do this.”
However, Malcolmson was not young and zealous only when it came to writing. An active member of a Christian fraternity on campus, he was also on fire for Christ. College is when he began a life-changing relationship with God, and being surrounded by frat brothers who were “sold out for Jesus” gave Malcolmson ample examples to follow.
Surely this crazy, sudden adventure onto the USC football team was a divine calling.
“Almost the moment I found out I was on the team, I had this deep sense that I was there for a purpose, that God had me on that team for a reason and a calling, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was,” Malcolmson said. “So I was pressed into that, almost from Day 1, just trying to figure out and just pray, ‘God, what am I here for? What is my reason for being on the team?’”
“Almost the moment I found out I was on the team, I had this deep sense that I was there for a purpose, that God had me on that team for a reason and a calling, and I couldn’t wait to see what it was.” — Ben Malcolmson
Stars like Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush left for the NFL after the ‘05 season, but the ‘06 USC squad was filled with future NFL talent: John David Booty started at quarterback, Chauncey Washington led the team in rushing, while Steve Smith and Dwayne Jarrett both caught more than 70 passes and 1,000 yards that season. Linebackers Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga led the stout defense.
USC looked like a strong national title contender for much of the year, but dropped its season finale to crosstown rival UCLA, and was sent to the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl against Michigan. The Trojans won 32-18 and finished the season ranked No. 4 in the country.
Malcolmson’s biggest contribution was entertainment. Some friends started a “Get Ben In” campaign, and it actually worked. In the last home game of the season, as No. 3 USC hosted No. 6 Notre Dame, Ben got in — for a quarterback kneel as the Trojans led by 20.
But off the field, all season long, Malcolmson sought his purpose for finding himself in that locker room. Why did God have him in that position? Early on in the season, he thought it was to start a Bible study for the team. So he dove into his Bible, searching for the perfect passage to preach on, wrote out an entire study, included some discussion questions, and printed 100 flyers to give all his teammates. He entertained visions of this study becoming a longstanding Trojan tradition.
“No one showed up,” Malcolmson said.
A few weeks later, he was struck with the idea of starting a prayer group.
“So I told all my teammates about this prayer group and we were going to pray together the day before every game, and this was going to be a pretty cool way to share the light with my teammates,” Malcolmson said. “And the time comes for our first prayer group, and again no one showed up. It’s just me sitting in the room.”
Defeated, discouraged and doubting his purpose, Malcolmson came across Matthew 5.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven.” — Matthew 5:16
“It hit me that lights just shine where they’re at, that they don’t need to go create events or go do things, but really they just need to be a light, first and foremost,” Malcolmson said. “That really hit me, and it just put me in this new place of, ‘OK, I just need to be a light among my teammates. I need to just be a good friend, just love people well.’”
After a couple weeks, Malcolmson still saw zero fruit. The season was nearing its end. He had already made his celebrated appearance in a game. The team was selected for the Rose Bowl. Christmas was right around the corner.
Malcolmson was struck with another passage, this time in Isaiah 55.
“So is My Word that goes out from My mouth: It will not return to Me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” — Isaiah 55:11
“And so I got the idea, ‘I’m going to get a Bible for every guy on the team, and I’m going to place it in their locker, and it’s not going to come back empty. God is faithful to His promise, and let’s see what happens here,’” Malcolmson recalled.
His grandfather had recently started volunteering with Gideons International, an evangelical Christian association that widely gives out Bibles for free. So “Poppy” shipped 100 Bibles to Los Angeles, and late on Christmas Eve — after inserting into each one a note on red paper that read, “The greatest present you will ever receive, Jesus Christ” — Malcolmson snuck the Bibles into the football team’s locker room. He placed one on the seat of each locker. He told no one of his mission.
Malcolmson spent Christmas Day hopeful and expectant, eagerly awaiting December 26, when the team would reconvene.
“I couldn’t wait to see what God had here, because this was the fulfillment of my purpose. He had brought me through all the challenges, all the heartbreak and defeat and discouragement, but I had finally found my purpose, and this was it,” Malcolmson said. “And so, I couldn’t wait to get there to the locker room that morning. I was fully expecting just like the craziest things; I was a zealous 21-year-old college student hell bent on finding my purpose. I was fully expecting the hallelujah chorus to be sung in the locker room, gold light emanating from the doors; I was so excited.
“And I walk in to the locker room that morning with these great hopes and great expectations, and I see just shredded Bibles all over the floor. The carpet was completely covered with shredded pages of the Bible. It was such a huge gut punch, because I had poured my heart and soul into finding my purpose, and I had missed it all along.
“So I kind of just threw in the towel and said, ‘I guess I missed my purpose. I missed why God had me on this team.’ I tried to do all these things, but every single thing had failed miserably.”
“I was a zealous 21-year-old college student hell bent on finding my purpose. I was fully expecting the hallelujah chorus to be sung in the locker room, gold light emanating from the doors … and I see just shredded Bibles all over the floor.” — Ben Malcolmson
Taylor Odegard, one of the USC punters that 2006 season, remembers that day after Christmas vividly.
“Literally Bibles everywhere,” he recalled late one recent evening. “Paper airplanes made out of the pages, covers torn off, little red things crumpled up and thrown around, the garbage can full basically all the way up to the brim, like overflowing, guys tossing Bibles. … It broke my heart.”
Odegard figured a team chaplain provided the Bibles. He opened his, read the note and “kind of giggled.” Raised in a Christian household in Mercer Island, Wash., just outside of Seattle, Odegard knew the Bible well and even helped teach it to middle school students while he was a Young Life leader in high school.
“But definitely in college I had a little bit of a drift,” he says. “It wasn’t being anti-Christianity, it’s just when you don’t put yourself in the right environment, don’t surround yourself with people of faith, it’s so easy to just kind of forget.”
He struggled finding a church and fellowship while attending USC, and instead was drawn toward a partying life as a fraternity member and football player. And that’s how many of his teammates knew him. But though he wasn’t actively living out his faith at the time, he understood the significance of the words — especially the red-letter ones — that floated by him on those paper airplanes.
So he held on to his Bible, tossing it in the back of his locker as he hurried out to practice. Thinking he was the last guy in the locker room, he opened the door to head outside. But before he made it all the way out, he heard someone call out.
“Does anyone know how to read this thing?”
“I recognized the voice right away,” Odegard says. “I was like, ‘Oh that’s Mario.’”
Initially, Odegard thought Mario Danelo, the record-setting USC kicker, was kidding.
“What do you mean?” Odegard asked. “You’ve never seen a Bible before, man?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know, what are you supposed to do?” Danelo asked.
Torn between being late to practice and having to do bear crawls on the treadmill as punishment, or going back to talk with Danelo, Odegard felt something inside him say, “You should sit down with him.” So he closed the door and instinctively said a little breath prayer to himself. “God, give me words.”
For the next 45 minutes, messages and lessons and sermons Odegard heard growing up came to the front of his mind. He answered Danelo’s questions, such as, “How do you read it? Is it like a book? Do you just read it from front to back?” Odegard explained the Old Testament and the New Testament. Genesis talks about the beginning, Revelation talks about the end.
“Well, where do I start?” Danelo asked.
“I’d say start with the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,” Odegard said. “Because ultimately, you read those books and they’re going to tell you how to be a better man. Those are Jesus’ boys, before and after He was dead. And there’s a lot of stories in there about faith and love and family and respect.”
Odegard kind of surprised himself with the Bible knowledge he poured out. “It was all in me, it’s just unless you get it evoked out of you, sometimes you’re not offering it up. So this was a situation where it kind of flooded out of me.”
“How do you know all this stuff?” Danelo asked.
“It’s years and years of going to church and reading with my dad and thirsting to read,” Odegard said.
Looking back, he doubts he would have sat down with Danelo had anyone else been in the locker room. He probably would have been too embarrassed to talk about God. But in that quiet moment as they sat alone, Odegard began to rediscover his own passion for Jesus. And before he left for practice — late by nearly an hour, but no coach had noticed — he prayed with his friend.
“Lord, open up Mario’s heart to understand Your Word, and to understand the glory that is a relationship with You.”
Hours later, as Odegard passed Danelo’s locker on his way to the showers, he caught a glimpse of the kicker sitting in his towel reading his Bible. The next day, same thing. As that week passed with the team prepping for the Rose Bowl, Odegard often saw Danelo turning pages of that Bible. And Danelo would come to Odegard with more questions.
“It was an interesting thirst that he had,” Odegard recalled. “It wasn’t something that he was conveying to anybody else. … He just kind of kept it to himself. Which I did too.”
The 2006 USC football season culminated with the Rose Bowl victory over Michigan. Though it wasn’t the national championship they set out to win, the Trojans celebrated yet another successful season. The next day, Malcolmson and Odegard were among the many players to fly home.
Four days later, on Jan. 6, 2007, they received separate but similar phone calls from teammates. “Mario died. He was found dead at the bottom of a cliff near his home in San Pedro.”
Malcolmson had already returned to California and was on a fraternity retreat. He sobbed like never before. Doubts about whether he’d missed his purpose again resurfaced.
Odegard was at his family’s home in Mercer Island. He started hyperventilating. He made arrangements to fly back to L.A. the next day, but that night, he sat in his car processing the news with his father, Gary. Taylor told him how he had a chance to witness to Danelo and tell him about God and Jesus, but did he do enough?
“Did I say the right things? Was I supposed to do more? All those things start to creep into your brain because someone’s eternal life is on the line right here,” Odegard says. “And it may not have been mine to save, but if I had the opportunity, could I have done more? All of this self-doubt started creeping into my mind and it just broke me. It was in my soul; it broke my soul.”
“Well Tay,” Gary said, “you know how you were a holder for Mario in all those spring games and getting ready for the season? Think about this: Many years from now when you pass and go to Heaven, you’re going to have Mario walk up to you and go, ‘Man, that was the greatest hold you ever gave me, Odegard.’
“You made a hold for him, it’s up to him whether he kicks it through. But you gave him the opportunity and that’s all you can ask for.”
“Dad, I don’t know if I said the right words,” Taylor said.
“It’s not you speaking, Tay. That’s not your job. Be the vessel,” Gary said.
Four days later, the 100 or so members of the USC football team joined thousands of others at Mary Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Pedro, Calif. As the pallbearers carried the casket down the aisle, Danelo’s No. 19 jersey rode on top along with an elegant display of red and gold roses. There was also a book — a black book with a red piece of paper sticking out.
Odegard spotted it and immediately broke into tears. For Malcolmson, it was the first sign he’d seen of anyone actually keeping his anonymous gift.
“I was just so struck by that because to me, it felt like God’s personal, intimate touch, just for me to comfort me in that time,” Malcolmson said. “It was like God had seen me and had given me this little nudge of comfort and it was so profound for me.”
Said Odegard, “Knowing I was kind of the last opportunity for Mario to speak to someone about his faith before he passed away is kind of a big burden that I wore as a yoke for a while in my life. And to this day I still wonder, but I have faith that God is good and merciful. And even in his last days there, if Mario was enlightened or open to the Word and faith and committing his life to Christ, then that’s all it takes. That was the hope.”
“I don’t know why I have to tell you this story, but do you remember the last week we were on the team together, there were Bibles in all of our lockers?” — Taylor Odegard
Danelo’s death sparked immediate life change in Odegard. He dropped out of his fraternity, opted not to play football his senior year, doubled up on school credits in order to graduate as soon as possible, and moved apartments to become “kind of a recluse.” He also started to attend church regularly, or watch online if he couldn’t make it, and he began reaching out to his dad for insight on which books of the Bible he should read.
“I grew up. I became a man in 24 hours basically. I kind of put the childish things away,” Odegard says.
A class project he began that year actually became the start of the real estate software company he owns today. NavigatorCRE is based in Seattle and “growing like a weed.” Now married, Odegard also rejoined Young Life and is active today with the Christian organization that focuses on adolescents.
“The life changes that I saw through that time period, I think are instrumental to the man I’ve become now,” he says.
Malcolmson, meanwhile, remained at USC and developed a unique relationship with Coach Carroll. Following his season on the team, Malcolmson became the football program’s director of online media, which at the time meant launching a website with exclusive behind-the-scenes content for one of the nation’s premier football programs — a brainchild of Carroll’s. Soon they ventured into the new world of Facebook and Twitter, and Malcolmson essentially became Carroll’s right-hand man.
When Carroll took the Seattle Seahawks job in 2010, he asked his protégé to join him. Malcolmson had planned to stay in Southern California forever, but working with Carroll and in the NFL became an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
Struggling to find friends outside of the organization in Seattle, Malcolmson eventually learned of a Christian organization called Young Life, which was looking for leaders in the area. He agreed to attend a meeting at the house of an area director.
That house was located in Mercer Island and belonged to Marshall Jamieson. His wife, Emily, happened to be Taylor Odegard’s older sister. Shortly after Malcolmson arrived for the meeting, Odegard did too.
“I saw Ben in the backyard and I’m like, ‘What is Ben Malcolmson doing here?’ I had no idea he knew any of these people,” Odegard said.
Malcolmson was just as stunned. He recalled Odegard being a partier in college. What was he doing at a Christian function?
The former teammates began to catch up on the past four years, and then Odegard said, “I don’t know why I have to tell you this story, but I have to.” He began, “Do you remember the last week we were on the team together, there were Bibles in all of our lockers?”
“My heart dropped,” Malcolmson said, “because I hadn’t thought about these Bibles really since Mario’s funeral, and had just kind of forgotten about that specific moment in time. I just played dumb in the moment. I was like, ‘Yeah, I kind of remember those, I don’t know.’”
Odegard proceeded to tell him everything: how he was raised in a Christian household, he drifted in college, he was heartbroken to see the shredded Bibles, and the entire locker room discussion with Danelo.
“I literally saw him tearing up in the moment,” Odegard said, “and I was trying to figure out, ‘OK, are you cool? What’s up?’”
“Taylor’s telling me this story, I’m on the verge of tears,” Malcolmson said. “He’s like, ‘Isn’t that the craziest story?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s even crazier because I was the one who put the Bibles in the lockers, and I thought I had totally failed.’”
“It took my breath away, candidly,” Odegard said. “I didn’t know how to respond. I was like, ‘What do you mean it was you?’”
So Malcolmson proceeded to tell him everything: how he felt there was a deeper purpose to him being on the team, the failed Bible study, the failed prayer group, the Bibles from his grandfather, the devastation of seeing them shredded across the room, and the peace he felt from seeing that one Bible atop Danelo’s casket.
“This picture starts to get painted and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Odegard says. “And I go, ‘Hey man, I don’t know what the bigger picture is here, but all I know is that you putting those Bibles in the lockers, I know it was devastating, but man, if we saved one, we could save 100.”
As Odegard’s story sank in, an “immeasurable peace enveloped me,” Malcolmson wrote in his book, “Walk On,” published earlier this year, “as God spoke softly into my soul, ‘Mario is with Me.’”
“Only our God can do something like that,” Malcolmson says today. “Only our God can line up all those events, all those incredible, impossible events, so that he could save one person before he passes away, and then turn someone else’s life around …
“Nothing’s wasted with God. God is always at work. He has an incredible calling for each one of us, and it’s real. And that is our God.”
“God spoke softly into my soul, ‘Mario is with Me.’” — Ben Malcolmson
The special assistant to Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, Ben Malcolmson published his book, “Walk On: From pee wee dropout to the NFL sidelines,” in July 2018.
This story appears in the Winter 2018 issue of Sports Spectrum Magazine. For more in-depth feature stories like this, subscribe to our quarterly magazine.
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