Summer 2024

ESPN football analyst Kirk Herbstreit tells church audience, 'That answer is Jesus'

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit is known around the country as one of the foremost experts on all things college football. His knowledge is encyclopedic, his analysis is perceptive, and his delivery is engaging. Since 1996, he’s made a living with his voice as a staple of ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

Yet as he revealed on a special Super Bowl Sunday conversation at Fresh Life Church (Kalispell, Montana) with pastor Levi Lusko, the last thing he wanted to do as a child was use his voice.

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“I was always really, really quiet,” Herbstreit said, remembering back to his childhood in Southern Ohio. His parents divorced when he was 8 years old, and he often moved from town to town and, perhaps more importantly, from school to school. He estimates he attended nine or 10 before graduation.

Perennially the “new kid,” Herbstreit found it easier to close himself off from others rather than seek community. Sports, however, were different.

“Gym and recess,” he said, “were places where I came out of my shell.”

His father, Jim, had played and coached football at Ohio State under the great Woody Hayes, and Kirk wanted nothing more than to be just like him. He fell in love with college football and with Ohio State. On the football field was where he felt free to truly be himself.

Herbstreit went to church as a child, but his frequent moves and painful shyness kept him from fully immersing himself in Sunday School or in the life of any given church. He didn’t have what he would describe as a “church home.” Still, God was at work in his heart, drawing Herbstreit to Himself.

“I think one thing I just feel very blessed to have is [this]: I feel like everybody has kind of a hole inside them — in your soul — and for me, God just built me in a way where I’m wired that I’m connected to that,” he said while sharing his testimony with Lusko. “There’s an awareness since I was little.

“… There’s something more to life than materialistic things. I’ve always been in tune with a voice inside me — a Holy Spirit inside me. So I think through my trials and tribulations, that’s always been there for me.”

Herbstreit was good enough to go on and play quarterback for the Buckeyes from 1989-92, being named a co-captain and starting his senior season. Soon afterward, Herbstreit parlayed his on-field success into a gig with ESPN and “College GameDay.” He was doing what he loved and seemingly in control of his life. God, meanwhile, had taken a back seat.

That all changed for Herbstreit when he and his wife, Alison (a former Ohio State cheerleader), began having kids. The first two are twins, Tye and Jake. Then came Zak. The last was Chase, who is still in high school at St. Xavier in Cincinnati. Four sons in all, and all have been involved in football.

Tye and Jake were born prematurely at 28 weeks. They were so small, Herbstreit remembers he could slide his wedding ring from their feet to their hips. Suddenly, he didn’t feel quite so in control anymore. It was in the midst of Herbstreit’s acute sense of helplessness that Chris Spielman, a former Ohio State teammate and NFL linebacker, invited him to a Bible study. For the first time in his life, he went.

Herbstreit remembers being struck by the vulnerability and passion of the others and the power of God at work. That hard outer shell had been cracked; he shared about the difficulties of fatherhood with premature babies. The group laid their hands on him and prayed for him. Herbstreit came back the following week, and the week after, and the week after that.

“It just had a big impact on the adult in me toward my walk with the Spirit inside,” he said.

Herbstreit now finds himself “constantly praying.” Maybe it’s about his now-25-year marriage to Alison, or how to deal kindly with overzealous college football fans on social media. Recently, it’s often been a petition for healing for Zak, a walk-on at Ohio State who was diagnosed with the heart condition cardiomyopathy in June. Regardless of the topic, Herbstreit finds incredible peace in communing with God through prayer.

He is a regular participant in a Thursday prayer group with Lusko and others, and he seeks to live by his favorite Bible verse, Romans 8:31, which reads in part, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” The once-shy kid is now emboldened by the freedom of life in Christ.

Herbstreit didn’t want to use his voice as a child. But, as God would have it, that same voice has taken Herbstreit to college football stadiums around the country, and that same voice has provided the background for many of college football’s most memorable moments.

It’s also that same voice that closed out his conversation with Lusko with a powerful prayer to the God who’s saved his soul.

“I’m just thankful for being in a position in my life to have an opportunity to share my story and the things that I’ve been through — the good and the bad. I’m just so thankful that You’ve been along this ride with me,” Herbstreit prayed in part. “There are times I feel I don’t deserve Your grace, I don’t deserve Your love. But I know because of people like Levi and JW and others that are in my life, I know that I can persevere through it.

“I know there are people right now, not only in the prisons but all over this country and all over the world, that are struggling with their own demons and with their own pain that they deal with. I’d just love to pray for those people, and let them know that there are answers. And that answer is Jesus.”

Below is the video of Herbstreit’s 49-minute discussion with pastor Levi Lusko:

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