Finding Purpose on the Bench - Word&Way

Finding Purpose on the Bench

carrying helmet
carrying helmet

Photo by Ben Hershey on Unsplash

J.T. Granato laughed when he felt like crying.

Highly recruited out of Kinkaid School in Houston, Texas, Granato, a three-star quarterback who passed for 9,000 yards and 81 touchdowns, committed to go to Rice University. Rice’s recruiting process included a letter to Granato’s cat, White Sox, trying to get her to convince him to stay close so he could feed her and change the litter box.

“Paw me if you have questions,” the letter concluded.

Granato had been the starting quarterback throughout high school, won the Southwest Preparatory Conference as a junior, and was named the conference’s Player of the Year as a senior. He was on the Houston Chronicle’s Top 100 and ranked by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football as the No. 10 quarterback in the magazine’s post-season edition.

Believing that he would be the Owls’ starting quarterback, he chose Rice. Soon he realized that is “not what the Lord had in mind for me,” he said. Granato was third string. Two weeks before his sophomore season in 2017, he was told that he would not be playing when Rice opened its season.

After talking with his parents, John and Wendy, he decided to transfer. The clock was ticking for him to land at another school or another year would be wasted. He was already a redshirt.

“I was down,” he said.

But then offensive coordinator from Missouri State University, Mack Brown (now a New York Jets defensive assistant coach) called. They had a three-hour conversation. Brown had seen a film of Granato while at Rice. MSU head coach Dave Steckel, a good friend of Rice coach David Bailiff, heard “glowing recommendations” about Granato. Steckel needed quarterback help. Leaving everything he knew, Granato was on a plane to Springfield, Missouri.

“In a couple of days my whole life completely changed,” said Granato. “It was crazy how limited I was in time with the season about to begin, how I decided to leave on a moment’s notice.”

Now a senior, Granato has played in 12 games in college, four games as a redshirt freshman at Rice in 2016, six for the Bears in 2017, and two games in 2018. Last season he completed 5 of 8 passes for 69 yards and a touchdown with a team-high efficiency rating of 151.2. In 2017 he threw for 127 yards and a touchdown. This season he has not played.

“I don’t know the answer. I have worked hard. For whatever reason I have not gotten the opportunity to compete,” said Granato.

His contributions to the team have come through leadership and character, not laterals and cadence.

“He is very passionate whether that be about football, school or his faith. He wants to be the best at whatever he is doing. He is a good friend and someone to talk to,” said MSU linebacker Brock Hughes of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. “He goes out of his way to make people feel involved and important, and encourages others to strengthen their faith without being too pushy. He is easygoing, a hard worker, friendly, confident, and outgoing.”

Granato’s leadership, enthusiasm, energy, love for teammates, example have “pushed everyone to be their best,” said MSU quarterback Peyton Huslig, who respects most his perseverance. “He continues to work and prepare the same as if he was a starter. He pushes me to be a better quarterback and person. He has always pushed me on the field, but he more recently pushed me to dive into my faith.”

Tragedy & Faith

Granato’s faith has grown since being at MSU. In 2017 he became convicted to start reading the Bible.

“I was just down. I had come to Missouri State, not starting, not playing. It was not going according to the plan I had for myself,” he said.

Not owning a Bible, he began reading the book of Matthew from a huge King James Version that he saw on a table at his parents’ home. He didn’t know where to start. He saw red letters for the first time in Matthew and did not realize at first that Jesus was speaking. As he read the four Gospels he began to fall more in love with who Jesus was.

It would take a tragedy for him to make Jesus the Lord of his life.

A former Rice teammate and close friend, Blaine Padgett, died in his sleep from the toxic effects of carfentanil, an analog of the synthetic opioid analgesic fentanyl. Carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer, has 100 times stronger effects than fentanyl and 1,000 times stronger than heroin. The drug causes the brain to suppress breathing. Padgett, 21, thought he was taking a pain killer. A star defensive end, Padgett had pain from shoulder surgery. Padgett died in March 2018, right before he and Granato were going to take a spring break trip together. A former Rice player was charged with delivery of a controlled substance resulting in death.

Soon after Padgett’s death, Blake Brewer, the former director of student mobilization at MSU, shared the gospel with Granato and processed what it meant to be a disciple growing in faith.

“That is how I came to faith,” said Granato.

Michael Chase, a former high school teammate who studied at Kanakuk Institute in Branson, Missouri — which Chase called a “crash course in seminary” — also began to disciple Granato.

“It was so awesome watching the Lord answer prayers and change J.T.’s life. God starting building J.T. up and his life today looks so different than even last year,” said Chase, who had not seen Granato in a couple of years, before they randomly met when they were both taking a flight from Springfield to Houston.

At the airport, Chase and Granato began talking about faith. Granato wanted to know more about God but didn’t know how to or where to start. Chase took his Bible and showed him verses in Romans. He encouraged him to spend time in the Bible, pray, and seek a Christian community.

“I encouraged him that life with Jesus is the best life and it’s worth giving up everything for him,” said Chase.

Granato saw Chase’s love for him, selflessness, and Christ living in him.

“I read scripture consistently but not until someone poured their life into me and truly cared about me, that nobody has ever shown — that is when it changed for me,” said Granato.

Wanting to give of himself to others, Granato leads team Bible studies and encourages them to attend church events at his church, Hill City in Springfield. Quarterbacks pray together daily. Granato attends Friday night chapel services led by team chaplains who are ministers of Hill City. He is also a leader in Student Mobilization, an evangelistic ministry focused on sororities and fraternities.

When Granato began to pursue a relationship with God he began to find peace and direction.

“I will never be the same,” he said. “I realized I had idols in my life, success being one of them. Ultimately it didn’t satisfy me. I realized it will never be enough. I have always been achievement-minded. Idols didn’t satisfy me.”

“Through the death of a really good friend I saw that life is short and through a relationship with Jesus you gain more than you ever could. A lot of people think they lose their life and lose their fun (when becoming a Christian). It’s more of a gain than anything,” he added. “Football challenged me to be purged of my ego, not playing, not having control. I have been prideful.”

Coach Steckel describes Granato as a servant leader who does whatever is asked of him.

“He is humble and hard-working. I am extremely impressed with his attitude. He sets a great example for all the younger players coming into the program. He is a faith, family, and football guy. Any time or place the good Lord’s message is shared, it is a benefit,” said Steckel, who also attends Hill City Church.

New Vision

While Granato admits it is easy to be discouraged and uncertain whether he is on the right path, the Bible is also teaching him to be still in the Lord and know through faith it is Chris who has control over his life.

“I am learning to let go and let God lead me. It’s the truth,” he said. “You know Christians by their love for one another. This is the greatest evangelistic tool that we have, love for one another. That is what brought me to Christ. The fact I am completely a changed man, my desires are different. Anyone who has known me for a long time would tell you that.”

That is the biggest way people would know he is a Christian, he said. While starting at quarterback was once his greatest desire, now it is ministry to teammates, planting seeds “so that they could come to Christ.”

“We are called to be followers. Jesus speaks in Matthew 5 [that] we are blessed when persecution arises. Through trials and sufferings our faith is tested. That is essential for any Christian’s life. Football has been an avenue for which this has been real for me, not starting a single game in my career,” Granato reflected. “That has been a hardship in my life. Since I was five, going to the NFL is something that I desired greatly. I continue to be faithful and not lose faith.”

“I have learned from not playing and enduring will help me later in my life more so than playing would have. You have to be emotionally stable to continue to be faithful, to continue to endure. That shows your character and that is more important than your goals,” he added.

Despite not being on the field, his leadership qualities have developed and he has seen the respect he has earned. He challenges those who do play to get better.

“Right now, it’s always being loving and caring about individual guys as opposed to myself,” he said. “I’m with the football team so often, I love the guys to death regardless of whether they are following Christ or not. I am going to pursue a relationship with them.”

And others see that in him.

“Sometimes when guys turn towards the Lord, they lose a lot of friends, but J.T. has shown his friends a ton of love. He is great friends with the guys on the team,” said Chase, his former high school teammate. “J.T. walks the talk on the team. He isn’t afraid to have hard conversations with guys — to be vulnerable, to ask great questions, to listen, and to really be there for them.”

“J.T. clearly has a love for the game. Everyone knows that, but his love for the Lord is seven more and he lives his life with a gospel-centered mindset,” Chase added.

Granato has thought about being a missionary. He plans to go on a mission trip to India in Summer 2020.

“My goal is to grow spiritually, to be obedient to his call,” he said. “I don’t know what that is. There is a fine line being prudent and being obedient to his call. You put so much effort into your career, I am not going to do anything foolish. I would rather follow whatever his call is.”

Written by

Bill Sorrell is pastor of First Baptist Church in Whiteville. TN. He writes the “Keeping The Faith” column for Lindy's Sports magazine and writes for various Baptist publications.