Ask most people to imagine a football player and they will probably envision an adrenaline-pumped, hulking giant of a man, with huge biceps. An athletic powerhouse on the field, but no conversationalist.
They may be surprised not all fit that mould, and an example of that is Swayze Waters.
Tucked away in an industrial park in a dreary area of Toronto, is the indoor practice football field for the Toronto Argonauts known as “the bubble.” Here I arranged to meet a football player who has been described by some commentators as, “the best in the business”. It was a miserable drive, down a dismal highway through torrential rain, the tail end of Hurricane Patricia. Still, what came next was truly enlightening.
Swayze Waters, says perseverance played a huge part in how he came to be one of the Canadian Football League’s (CFL) most respected players, and win the most outstanding Special Teams Player of the Year Award for the 2014 season.
His family has its roots in Yazoo, Miss. where the Waters name has a rich tradition of sport. His dad played college baseball, and two of his great uncles played for major league teams – one even roomed with Mickey Mantle of the New York Yankees. Although his other grandfather is a football “Hall of Famer” for the Mississippi Southerners, Waters admitted, “Baseball was my first love.” Yet, it was the lure of a full scholarship, and the chance to play in front of 110,000 fans at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, that swayed him into kicking the pigskin.
Waters says he learned the value and rewards of perseverance through stories his father told him growing up in Jackson, Mississippi. Joel Waters, was severely burned as a child in a gasoline explosion while helping his father work on his car. He spent most of his childhood and teenage summers in hospital undergoing plastic surgery.
“You can’t overstate the value of influential people in your life, whether good or bad,” said Waters as he related how his dad’s experience helped him through the ups and downs of being a professional athlete.
Like his dad, the field goal kicker knows how it feels to be knocked down. He is now playing for his seventh team since graduating college only 10 years ago. Being a professional footballer is not as glamourous as people think. “They call it getting released… getting released is just a nice way of saying you’re fired,” said Waters.
Nevertheless, his faith has been pivotal for him all his life. He was brought up in the Bible Belt, and parents Joel and Susan took him to church every Sunday. Comparing the differences of now living in Toronto, Waters said there are pros and cons. Down in the southern USA, Christianity is so prevalent that people lose the excitement of the message. In Canada, he finds that those who are believers, really are true followers of Christ. “I’ve loved my time up here, both football, and spiritually,” the kicker reflected, sipping from his coffee mug. Waters admitted he was not always so passionate in sharing his faith.
That changed dramatically on a volunteer trip to Honduras. Waters described a spiritual “encounter,” a moment where he “got it.” Since then his faith has grown. “When you experience, it’s one thing,” he said, “When you encounter, it’s another. Transformation’s the result.”
Today, Waters writes about the challenges of faith and football on his blog, swayzewaters.com. He attends a regular Bible study class after team practice, and works through challenging spiritual questions with several of his teammates. “It’s been awesome to see how God’s worked on this team. I think he’s changing lives,” he said.
For now, Waters lives from game to game. “Football is one of those things you learn not to plan more than a year in advance,” he said. Unfortunately for Waters, the Argonauts did not advance to the CFL semi-final this season. He hopes to play again next season, and live by his mantra, “Through challenge, there’s always opportunity.”
This article was originally written Nov. 29, 2015. It won the best feature award for Durham College first-year journalism students at the awards ceremony in April 2016.