Most people build up professional sports to be the pinnacle of all career goals. It’s the top thing most young people dream about doing. Who doesn’t want to play sports professionally? But when I was first offered a position in Major League Soccer in January of 2013, I turned it down.
I had just finished my collegiate soccer career at UCLA, having won the title of Pac-12 Player of the Year in 2012 as a senior. Meanwhile, since my freshman year when my older brother Scott had graduated, Scott had been feeling called by God to start a church. He and I would talk about that at least monthly — the distinctives of the church, what it would look like, what the doctrinal statement would be, how our church would glorify God and make disciples. From day one of talking about this, I had always said, “Scott, you tell me when and where and I’ll be there.” After four years of conversations, Scott called me up and said the church was finally going to start the coming February.
The draft was also coming up and February marked the start of the 2013 MLS season. I was getting calls from different MLS teams asking me which city and organization I thought would be a good fit for me. They were trying to see if they wanted to draft me. I told every team that called, “Don’t draft me. I’m not going to play. I’m starting a church with my brother back in Sacramento. Do not draft me.”
I assumed this message was getting across the league as they all talked with each other. Surely they all would know what was going on with Ryan Hollingshead. But at the same time, I also didn’t feel like it was my place to call the teams that had not yet reached out to me.
January comes and my wife, Taylor, and I left for Haiti to help out at an orphanage Taylor had worked at one year earlier. We were without internet or phone access during the MLS combine and draft. We came home to find hundreds of missed calls and phone messages waiting for me, telling me that FC Dallas had drafted me in the second round. We were shocked! I thought everyone had heard not to draft me. They said they wanted to take a chance on having me come back to play once the church plant was underway.
For six months, Scott and I spread the vision of the church — why we wanted to kickstart this community within the Sacramento area. We called everyone we knew to build a core group for the launch. Once we had about 50 people, we were able to look into renting a building and officially starting our first Sunday service in October of that same year. Ten months after four of us met in Sacramento with a plan in mind, we were seeing it come to action.
On the first day, we launched with about 125 people and it’s been steadily growing ever since, now averaging about 600 people. Some of my closest friends from back home have become followers of Jesus because of this church — Harvest Bible Chapel. It’s awesome! The Lord is faithful to build His Church, even in the moments when it may have seemed like it wasn’t going to happen.
Throughout these 10 months, Dallas had been calling me monthly to check in and ask me, “How’s the family? How’s the church? Are you ready to come play?” So every month I would respond, “The family’s great, the church is slowly growing, I’m still not ready to play. Not even close.” By saying this, I thought they would pull the contract away. I thought soccer was not going to be put back on the table. And I was OK with never playing soccer again if that’s what the Lord had, but I was also trusting that if it was the Lord’s will, He would make a way.
After the second week of the launch, my brother sat me down and said, “Here’s the deal, we have the funds to bring a second pastor on staff to help me out and basically take over all the jobs you are doing right now. If you want, this is your chance. I think you should still play soccer.” Two days after my brother and I had this conversation, Dallas called. They told me they’d love to have me come out in January to start the new season with them, but this was the last offer. They weren’t going to wait another year.
My wife and I looked at each other and said, “Let’s do it. Let’s go to Dallas to play soccer!” We were excited to fulfill this dream and see what the Lord had for us next.
While I thought taking that year off would end my professional soccer career, it actually ended up being a great part of my journey to play professionally. I used to think that in order for people to know I was a Christ-follower, I would need to be talking about Jesus and the Gospel all the time. And while I do want to be a man who is consistently giving glory to God, I realized my life and testimony itself can be an overflow for Him.
So many people told me I was making a huge mistake by leaving soccer. Everyone dreams of this opportunity! But going against their advice, I turned down the contract with Dallas so I could help my brother plant a church. I didn’t know what the Lord would do in the long run — would the opportunity to play soccer professionally come up again or would I be hanging up my cleats for good? Because of the decision I made that day, people were able to see that not only do I say Jesus is most important in my life, I actually lived that out. I had what many consider the greatest thing — an opportunity for fame, success, money and fulfilled dreams — and turned it down for what I believe is much greater: the mission of Jesus.
I’m able to use my story to share the Gospel with many people today when I’m asked to speak at churches, schools and other arenas. With real examples, I’m able to show others that Jesus means everything to me; I would give up all things for Him. Even if it means turning down a career in professional sports, I would choose Christ. I already did that.
— Ryan Hollingshead, midfielder/defender for FC Dallas