Nikki Washington, Tobin Heath, Ali Hawkins, and Casey Nogueira have something very special in common. All four are three-time NCAA national champions. They’ve all been extremely successful as members of the U.S. National Women’s Soccer Teams. They’ve all led Bible studies with teammates. But the most important part of their story is that one by one, each was transformed by the Gospel while at the University of North Carolina.
In 1996 I came to UNC to play football and get a degree in physical education. Although it was not a part of my plan, I became a serious follower of Jesus in my freshman year. By the time I graduated in 2000, I decided that I wanted to become a campus minister. My dad was a football coach and my wife, Tiffany, was a sports science major. Athletics was part of our DNA so focusing on ministry to athletes was natural. This year will be our eleventh year in campus ministry.
Around 2005 I began to feel a concern for the women’s soccer team at UNC. It’s one of the super-elite programs in the country with twenty-one NCAA national championships to their credit. Over the years, over a dozen members of the UNC Women’s Soccer team have been chosen as NCAA Player of the Year, including World Cup team stars Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, and Cindy Parlow. But to my knowledge there had never been any significant inroads for the Gospel among those teams. I didn’t know anyone deeply connected with the team and knew even less about the sport. In my family growing up, football was the only sport that really mattered. All I knew to do was to pray for players I’d never met, participating in a sport I knew nothing about.
As a confirmation that prayer should be our first resort (not our last), Callie Pottinger began coming to our on-campus Bible study. Callie, already a Christian, was a member of UNC’s women’s track team. Before long, her suitemates from Avery dormitory began attending with her — key members of the UNC women’s soccer team. Tobin Heath, Nikki Washington, and Ali Hawkins were all freshmen midfielders who also played on various USA National Teams. After about six weeks, there were eight or nine girls from Avery dorm attending the Bible study.
My wife and I had just had our first child at the end of July 2006, so Tiffany was not on campus in August. Thinking things were going so well with the female students, I asked Tiffany to get involved again. She has a way of cutting through all forms of superficiality and engaging people on a very personal level. It quickly became obvious to her that very few of the soccer players actually believed in Jesus.
Ali Hawkins was an agnostic who was coming to the Bible study to prove to herself and others that religion was just a crutch. But after hearing of the evidence for the resurrection one night, she walked out of a Bible study and said,
“I just feel like I have to believe in Jesus.”
Ali did become a believer and a passionate follower of Jesus Christ.
Another UNC and USA National Team members, Nikki Washington, had no previous Christian or church background, spending most of her weekends on traveling soccer teams. Primarily because of the influence of Tobin Heath, Nikki also became a Christian.
Heath began sharing the Gospel with Casey Nogueira. Casey came from a very diverse religious background. Her mother was a lapsed Catholic who searched through various kinds of spiritual disciplines to find peace — new age, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Her father, a professional soccer player as well, took the family to new age conferences, meditated, and channeled spirits, looking for ways to increase his performance as a world-class athlete.
On one of the numerous summer team trips, Tobin gave teammate Casey a book to read on the plane: Dinner with a Perfect Stranger by David Gregory (Waterbrook Press, 2005). It’s a fictional conversation between a man and his dinner guest, Jesus of Nazareth. Mid-flight Casey sent a note back to Tobin:
Something crazy just happened.” After the flight she clarified, “I think I just believed in Jesus.”
In the following years, God revealed Himself to many people from Avery dormitory. About twenty students from that dorm attended the Bible study, including eight from the soccer team. Outside of Avery an additional twenty to thirty athletes were coming. In that first year, one of the senior leaders on the women’s soccer team sent an email to all the team members, apologizing to them for her hypocrisy and committed her life to Christ.
The UNC Women’s Soccer teams were NCAA National Champions in 2006, 2007, and 2009. While Tobin, Casey, and Nikki lead primarily by example, Ali Hawkins was the vocal leader. She was team captain for three years and elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Coach Dorrance said she is one of the greatest leaders he has coached in his thirty-two years at UNC.
Today Nikki Washington, Tobin Heath, and Casey Nogueira all play for various professional soccer teams.
Ali Hawkins left competitive soccer after graduation in 2010 and is now an investment-banking analyst at Goldman Sachs where she views herself as a marketplace missionary in New York City. Ali commented:
“Being immersed in the New York financial world, I have come to realize what an impact those discipleship groups in Avery dorm had on me. It is so amazing to see what a difference Christ has made in my life and how much I grew in those few short years, We have yet to begin a Bible study at work, but I have had so many opportunities to talk with people about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Callie Pottinger, the UNC track athlete who got things going in Avery dorm, is currently in the Every Nation School of Ministry in Durham, NC. Her plans are to go back to UNC as a full-time campus minister.
I’m still at the University of North Carolina, still sharing the Gospel, and still discipling college students. Several members of the current UNC Women’s Soccer team are coming to our Bible study, and we are praying for the Holy Spirit to touch the hearts of the entire team.
Charles Kiefer is an Every Nation campus minister at the University of North Carolina.