2014 Pulitzer Prize Winner
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Gazette Premium Content Broncos offensive tackle left lifestyle to follow God

FRANK SCHWAB

Matt Lepsis was having a blast - doing drugs, partying and even playing in NFL games while he was high.

The Denver Broncos offensive lineman had established himself as one of the league's more underrated left tackles and was rolling in money, having signed a four-year, $25 million contract before the 2006 season.

The last thing on his mind was God.

Every day when he woke, the first thing he did was get high. He enjoyed the effect drugs had on him. He was no longer painfully shy around his wife or at the parties they attended.

"For the first six games of the year, I was high," Lepsis said of the 2007 season.

By his choice, that season would be his last in the NFL.

Lepsis left it all - the game, the drugs, the money - to follow God.

"I was getting deeper and deeper into things I shouldn't have," Lepsis said. "I started to feel this presence. I felt the presence of God, which I never felt before."

Now, instead of helping push the Broncos toward the playoffs, he's pushing himself through Dallas Theological Seminary.

Lepsis' spiritual journey is amazing and mystifying. He realizes some of it sounds far-fetched. He admits he can't explain everything.
But he promises it all happened.


Road to addiction

Lepsis had dabbled in recreational drugs since he was a tight end at the University of Colorado, but it never became a habit. Painkillers taken after a season-ending knee injury in 2006 led to daily use of recreational drugs.

"The first thing I did when I woke up in the morning was get high, and I would try to stay that way all day long," said Lepsis, who won't say what drugs he used.

The NFL's annual substance-abuse test didn't uncover Lepsis' hidden addiction. He said he practiced about 10-15 times last year while under the influence before trying it in a game.

"I look back on it, and it was really foolish of me," Lepsis said. "There were definitely times when I wasn't even really there. I was physically there, but I was in another place mentally."

Lepsis understands that he was being self-destructive, but he didn't feel that way at the time.

For most of his life, he hated his introverted personality. But the influence of drugs changed him. He joined the party crowd and was much more comfortable around people, including his wife.

But Shana Lepsis - despite enjoying the new lifestyle - wasn't so sure about the changes.

"He was turning into a person I wasn't really able to recognize," said Shana, who has been married to Matt for 8½ years. "Definitely not the person I married."

Even though his wife grew skeptical, Lepsis never hit rock bottom. But somehow he found religion anyway.

"Usually this person was in the gutter or had no other place to go," Lepsis said. "For me, it was the total opposite. I was having a ball. I was playing in the NFL, making a lot of money and I found this thing that helped me. I was on top of the world."


Warning signs

Some odd signs began to get Lepsis' attention. The first came when his phone rang as he was playing with his kids. When he answered, a song was playing. Lepsis, a fan of the Dave Matthews Band, heard the lyric "The difficulty is coming" from the group's song titled "#41."

Days later, he heard music coming from headphones in his locker. Again he heard: "The difficulty is coming." But he didn't remember leaving on any music.

Another phone call with the lyric followed that week.

"I'm like, ‘I'm really getting scared,'" Lepsis said.

Lepsis was terrified of flying so his initial interpretation of the message was he would die in a plane crash, maybe on his next flight for a game at Indianapolis.

"I'm thinking, how am I going to break this to (Broncos coach Mike) Shanahan that I can't fly to Indy?" Lepsis said with a laugh.

At a birthday party before that trip, his mind started to wander. He told the birthday girl about his fear of dying in a plane crash. She replied that he shouldn't worry because God was in control.

"I was like, ‘What? God?'" Lepsis said. "It got the wheels turning a bit."

He started to wonder about his drug habit and his "crazy thoughts." He started to think about his priorities, including whether the money he always had coveted was that important.


‘Peace and purpose'

On the flight to Indianapolis, Lepsis approached Jason Elam, the team's kicker and a devout Catholic who had studied world religions at Liberty Theological Seminary before that season.

Elam listened to his teammate and suggested that he come to a chapel service the next day. The guest speaker's message was about fear.

"He was at a place where I felt like God was trying to get a hold of him and talk to him," said Elam, who now kicks for Atlanta.

Shortly after the trip to Indianapolis, Lepsis told Elam his story and asked if he could pursue religion while continuing to do drugs.

"He was trying to rationalize what he was doing," Elam said. "Either you believe what you say, or you don't. And if you believe, you have to believe all of it."

At Elam's urging, Lepsis decided to ask God for help. He went in a closet at his home and closed the door.

"It was the first time in my life I had said a meaningful prayer," Lepsis said. "I said, ‘This thing is out of my control. ... I can't stop. It's too powerful.'"

He woke the next morning and, for the first time in many months, didn't get high. But he had a "horrible, miserable day" at practice and that evening told his wife that he "must have been a fool to think God would help me."

She asked him to try again. With the closet door closed, Lepsis prayed once more.

He didn't get high the next day either. He told a couple of his teammates what he thought might be happening. Lepsis is practically apologetic that he can't adequately describe what happened to him, but he felt God answered his prayers.

"This overwhelming sense of peace and purpose came over me," Lepsis said. "It was like at that moment God was telling me, ‘This is what you're going to do for the rest of your life.'"


Change in focus

In the middle of his 11th season with the Broncos, Lepsis' thoughts quickly shifted to religion and God. He quit drugs. His wife said she can't believe how they went from one lifestyle to another almost overnight.

Teammates also noticed a difference.

"I don't think anybody was worried, but guys knew he went through this big change," guard Ben Hamilton said. "A lot of people noticed. I think he left a good example once he did this change."

One drawback to Lepsis' religious awakening was the timing - half of the season remained.

"From that moment on, I was completely consumed by how I was burned out with football," he said. "It was the toughest season, by far, I've played in. I had nothing left to give football."

Although he never had read books regularly, Lepsis began to go through three a week.

One book - "How Good is Good Enough?" - given to him by Elam focused his thoughts. He said he realized he had sinned and needed Jesus Christ as his savior.

But Lepsis was having a tough time convincing his parents and some friends what was happening. So he prayed - asking God to help others understand what he was going through - for 20 minutes while taking a shower at the team hotel before a game in late October. When he opened the shower curtain, "Jesus" was written on the foggy mirror.

Lepsis said he knows that a previous guest wrote it on the mirror. Or maybe it was a maid. He understands there's a rational explanation for it. But to him, it was another sign.

"What are the odds the week after I've prayed to be saved, this is on my mirror?" Lepsis said.

No looking back

One day after the 2007 season, Lepsis knew he was finished after 150 games. He went to Shanahan and told him he was retiring.

He felt a relief he couldn't believe as he drove from team headquarters. With music blaring, he began pumping his fists. Then he heard his phone chime.

Before each season, Lepsis would write on his calendar or type in his phone an exclamation to mark the day after the last game.

The chime alerted him to the postseason message that he had forgotten: "Freedom has arrived!"

"I laughed and just said, ‘That's how God works,'" Lepsis said.

Lepsis doesn't know what he wants to do with the rest of his life. He might become a pastor or chaplain. Right now he is enjoying learning about religion with his wife, pregnant with their third child, by his side.

Lepsis has told his story in five or six churches and about 15 times to smaller groups. He remains shy around people but feels at ease when telling his story.

"They say ‘Here's a guy who was in the NFL and seemed to have it all, and he's telling us he wasn't fulfilled,'" Lepsis said.

Lepsis said that he misses hanging out with teammates, but that he misses nothing else about the NFL. The game and his destructive lifestyle are far behind him.

"I'm glad I didn't stay on that path," Lepsis said. "I have a purpose now."

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Contact the writer: 476-4891 or frank.schwab@gazette.com

 



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