Prodigal 2.0

My mom has always said, “Timmy, you’ve got a hard head.”

She’s right. I have a hard head. That proved to work both for me physically (I have never had a concussion, and I was never knocked unconscious in all my years playing football) and against me spiritually.

I grew up in Lumberton, North Carolina, and I grew up in the church. My parents, who are both living and have been married for 55 years, did not worship in the same church – or even in the same denomination – but, when my four brothers and I were youngsters, it was clear to us that church was not optional. Nettie Pearl (my mom) wasn’t having it. She was determined that her boys would know about the Lord. That was a non-negotiable in our home.

By the time I was ten years old, I needed an outlet for some fairly intense pent-up emotions. I had seen and experienced some things no child should see: alcoholism, physical abuse, bootlegging, yelling as a primary method of communication and fear-based discipline. All of this was happening in my home, in my neighborhood and in my community. Also when I was ten years old, two people I trusted spoke something over me that, without either of their knowledge, set my life on a destructive trajectory.

They called me “stupid.”

It was a lie, but I didn’t know it was a lie. I believed the lie, and from then on – for many years – I switched off critical thinking. Hearing the word “stupid” spoke over me was a defining moment in which I made a decision: Don’t expect too much of me from the neck up.

I didn’t learn this until several decades after the fact but, as a consequence of the things I experienced as a child, I was dominated by fear. For me, fear showed up as a defense mechanism. I was the kid who always made other people smile. I was the jokester in school. The clown. I figured out very early where peoples’ funny bone was, and I zeroed in on it. It took attention off my inadequacies. It distracted me from the unpredictable actions of adults I was supposed to be able to trust, and the subsequent pain I experienced when they exhibited behavior that scared me.

Now, I don’t want to paint the picture that my childhood was horrible. It wasn’t. These truths are what they are, and I cannot count the times my being transparent about these truths – and unpacking them – has helped someone (especially men) who have believed similar lies about themselves, and spent way too long playing the blame and shame game. Like most people, I come from a flawed, yet loving, family. People don’t know what they don’t know, and there’s freedom in confession.

With all of that said, chaos and fear became my ‘normal.’

In addition to counter-punching the pain with humor, I also learned to counter-punch it with my God-given gift to play virtually any sport at a very high level. Back then, anyone with athletic talent didn’t limit themselves to playing one sport. We didn’t have football players, basketball players and baseball players. We had athletes. I personally believe (know) the fact that I competitively played multiple sports is why I had very few injuries. But that’s another post.

Tim Worley running for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Sports were the ultimate escape from the fear, and outlet for the pain, I was experiencing. I had a daily opportunity to take my frustrations out on the football field, the basketball court, the baseball diamond and the track.

And, I was being rewarded.

The Pittsburgh Pirates farm league scout came to see me workout when I was a sophomore in high school. My high school track 4×100 team set the Junior Olympic world record for the fastest 4×100 relay. We were the first high school track athletes to break the :40-second relay time (with a 39.98). I was All-Conference in high school basketball as a Power Forward. In football, I set multiple school and state records, and I was the number three-ranked running back recruit in the country. Every prominent D-1 school in the country wanted me to sign with them. It was an embarrassment of physical talent riches, really. I had every reason to believe my future would be white-hot bright.

But, I had a secret. I didn’t trust myself from the neck up.

My freshman year at the University of Georgia was stellar. And shocking. I had never seen 85,000 people in my life. And these particular 85,000 were screaming my name every Saturday. I started reading my own press clippings. I was lured by the flattery of female fans. Despite a few invitations, being involved in FCA and keeping my focus on God was the last thing on my mind. My life went from living the dream to chasing a fantasy. And, I seemingly kept catching it. It happened quickly. I didn’t even notice the hamster wheel of deception I was on.

When ligaments in my knee were torn in the fourth game of my sophomore season at UGA, I quite literally didn’t know what I was going to do. I had put all of my proverbial eggs in the ‘football player’ basket. Being #38 on the field was my identity. Not being able to be #38 meant I was, in an instant, nobody special. I had knee surgery, and immediately sank into a depression. My attitude was, I’m not here to go to school. I’m here to play ball. If I can’t play ball, I’m not going to class. So, I didn’t. And I flunked out. Academically ineligible.

Don’t expect too much of me from the neck up.

With a cast up to my hip, and as the host of a pity party every hell-damned demon wanted to attend, I made a life-altering choice: I snorted cocaine for the first time. Of course, I didn’t think it was a big deal. I believed another lie: It’s just for fun every once in a while.

And, at first, that was true. At UGA’s urging, I went to a JUCO, rehabbed my knee and got my GPA back up. By the time I got back to Athens, Georgia, I hadn’t suited up in a ‘Dawgs uniform in almost two years. I was a redshirt junior with a chip on my shoulder, a fire in my belly and a laser focus on my goal to prove I wasn’t just a one-season wonder. I didn’t want to come back. I wanted to dominate.

By God’s grace (although I didn’t acknowledge Him at the time), I did exactly that. It was as if God gave me those two years back, and consolidated them into one season that yielded Heisman talk, SEC Offensive Player of the Year and NFL shoo-in status. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected me as the seventh overall pick in what is still arguably considered the best top 10 draft class in the history of the NFL. Four of the six players selected before me are now in the NFL Hall of Fame. I was on top of the world, with everything I laid my eyes on at my fingertips. No one said “No” to me. And, if someone did, they weren’t around for very long. From the outside looking in, I had it all together. Money. Fame. Women. Royalty status (before I’d even played one down of NFL football) in the best pro football city in the country.

But, I had a secret. I didn’t trust myself from the neck up.

Tim Worley playing for the Chicago Bears.

And, I had another secret. I’d started a habit.

My cocaine use had gone from It’s just for fun every once in a while to Where can I party tonight? I had gone from being laser-focused on proving myself on the field to being laser-focused on my nightlife. By my third year in the league, I had gotten two DUIs, failed several drug tests and had been suspended for an entire year. I forfeited over one million dollars in salary during that suspension. The Steelers front office was incredibly patient (and kind). They were on my side. But, I couldn’t see it. Complaining and fault-finding are the evil twins of addiction. Addiction also made me paranoid. I resisted everyone and sabotaged every opportunity to get my life back on track because, in the beginning of my drug use, I was telling it what to do. But, as it always happens, the tables had turned, and the drugs were telling me what to do. And what was my attitude about it? I don’t have a problem. I just got caught. Out of sheer obligation and a desire to get back on the field, I followed the NFL’s and the Steelers’ rules and went to rehab. But, my heart wasn’t in it. I just wanted to check it off the get-back-on-the-field To-Do List.

The rest of my NFL career was a series of inevitable fallout from living a reckless lifestyle. At my request, the Steelers traded me to the Chicago Bears, but I was in no condition to play football anymore. I went through the motions for another two years and hung up my cleats for good in 1996.

Then all hell really broke loose.

My secrets and Don’t expect too much of me from the neck up had caught up with me. I wandered around and squandered time and money until both ran out. I ended up back at my mom and dad’s house – in Lumberton – on a Greyhound bus.

Broke and broken.

I got back in the church with my tail tucked between my legs, and a foot still in the world. But, I had people – including my mom – praying for me. It wasn’t until April 13, 2008 – when, in a suicidal, cocaine and alcohol haze, I got arrested and tasered by a Smyrna, Georgia police officer (Google it…). I spent 23 days in jail and, through the help of a UGA teammate and another man of God, I got the healing and spiritual rerouting I needed. Since that day, my life has radically changed. It hasn’t been a picnic, but God is faithful, and He’s seen me through every valley that comes with pulling up the deep roots of fear, insecurity, rejection and believing a lot of lies about myself. He healed me.

God is not just great; He’s good. Despite my every attempt to ruin my good name and derail His plans for me, I’m now a certified speaker, leadership development consultant and, most recently, an ordained minister. As I did with sports, I get to travel the country doing what I love to do. The difference is, this time, God is getting all the glory. God also brought back to me the woman who actually foresaw, and begged me to avoid, all of the destruction I insisted on going through…the woman whose heart I broke in 1991. The one who got away. We’ll be married eight years next month.

God kept me, even when I didn’t want to be kept. He preserved my good name, even when I was dragging it through the mud. He led me to learn something new, even when I was convinced my brain was incapable of learning. He put me back on the Potter’s wheel and made me brand new.

Because I finally let Him.

About The Author

Tim Worley is a former University of Georgia All-American running back, and was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers as the seventh overall pick in the first round of the 1989 NFL Draft. He played six seasons in the NFL with the Steelers and the Chicago Bears. He is now co-founder and CEO of Worley Global Enterprises – a communications consulting firm.

Through Worley Global Enterprises, Tim travels the country as a John C. Maxwell certified speaker, Leadership Development Consultant and certified Human Behavior Consultant (DISC Personality Assessment) to corporate executives, business leadership, organizational leadership, professional athletes, amateur athletes, non-profits and ministries.

Tim has developed two Life Skills/ Character Development Consulting programs – one for NCAA student-athletes and one for NFL athletes. The programs focus on life skills development and character-building based on the many challenges he faced in his amateur and professional football career, including substance abuse, suspension and financial ruin. His NFL Life Skills Consulting Program and life skills blog series for NFL rookies has generated national media attention, and was featured in an article. Tim’s life skills consulting work with NCAA and NFL athletes, as well as his unique perspective after suffering the well-documented premature end of his NFL career due to lack of character and poor financial choices, are the foundation from which he administers his unique brand of leadership and character development coaching.

He has a gregarious personality, and an uncompromisingly passionate stance on the importance of developing amateur and professional athletes’ character alongside the development of their talent. He is also “divinely assigned” to men’s ministry and mentoring, and is a member of the National Coalition of Ministry to Men.

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