As the morning of NFL Draft Day dawned, former Auburn safety Zac Etheridge was on his knees in prayer. And although the Alabama native talked to God about his future in professional football, his prayer life goes much deeper.
Yes, he prayed while lying flat on his stomach following a life-threatening injury in October 2009, and during the months of recovery that followed. But for Etheridge, praying is as natural —and constant—as breathing.
“While growing up,” Etheridge recalls, “we used to pray all the time. We would pray every day before we would go to school. My mom was a strong Christian.”
As a kid, he admits, he would go to church without always understanding the meaning of Scripture or sermons. “But I always knew who Christ was and He was part of my life.”
When Etheridge got to college, he took the relationship to the next level and accepted Christ as his Lord and Savior during sophomore year. He remembers the moment: “I was sitting in my room and everything kind of got hot and I was sweating. Something was just telling me to ‘accept Christ, accept Christ’ and I picked up the phone and called Brother Chette. I went to his office and we prayed together, and he led me on the way.
“Brother Chette” is Chette Williams–the Auburn University team chaplain—and a man that Etheridge would grow to lean on to navigate life and its trials, especially the one that hit on Oct. 31, 2009.
Early in Auburn’s 33-20 victory over Ole Miss at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Etheridge was hurt after the top of his helmet collided with teammate Antonio Coleman’s shoulder as the two tried to tackle Ole Miss running back Rodney Scott.
Etheridge laid on the field for several minutes and was briefly paralyzed with only slight sensation in his toes.
“When I was lying on the ground, I didn’t have any feeling,” Etheridge recalls. “There was nothing going through my mind, except for me praying that everything was going to be OK.”
He was immobilized on a stretcher and carted off the field, but still managed to give the Auburn crowd a thumbs-up before leaving the stadium. Etheridge tore ligaments in his neck and cracked the fifth vertebrae, but was released from the hospital after only three days.
His injuries might have been worse if not for the quick thinking of Scott, who didn’t move while he was pinned under Etheridge. Scott’s quiet act of awareness in that pile of players at Jordan-Hare Stadium has become one of college football’s feel-good stories.
Check out their story in this video:
Etheridge, who started 33 games before his injury, missed the Tigers’ last four games in 2009 and wore a neck brace for nearly four months. Doctors weren’t sure if Etheridge would ever be able to play football again.
“When the injury first happened,” says Etheridge, “it went through my mind that I might not play again, but when the doctor came and told me that I had a chance of playing without doing surgery, I took that and just let everything heal on its own.”
Prayer played a big role in his recovery. “Being in that situation,” says Etheridge, “you can easily lose your faith and question God, like, ‘Why it had to be you,’ but I just kept my faith and kept believing that everything would be alright. I believed that God had a plan for me and my life, and I never lost faith in Him; I trusted Him.”
Etheridge credits the power of prayer, yes, but also people: “God used a lot of people that came to me through Him and just kept me motivated, like Chette. He does an outstanding job keeping all the guys together and praying. You can talk to Chette about anything. It seems like he knows exactly where you are coming from and he can take you to the right spot in the Bible to help you overcome anything.”
Overcome is what Etheridge did. He returned to become Auburn’s second-leading tackler and a vital part of the defense. He graduated in December 2009 with a degree in public administration, and then on Jan, 10, 2011, he played his last college game – for the National Championship.
He remembers the day: “When I first came back, I just felt the love of all the guys. Everybody had their mind and eyes focused on one goal and that was winning the National Championship. I think the coaches did a great job getting us focused on that and we just went to work every day. It felt good to end my college career with a championship.”
Another highlight of his college career was sharing his testimony at the March 2010 East Alabama/West Georgia Will Graham Celebration on the Auburn campus. “It was pretty neat just to get up there in front of that large crowd,” says Etheridge. “I was pretty nervous but then when I thought about it—that I could help someone else who might be going through something—I realized for me to get on stage and to talk, I could help somebody else with their faith.”
Now Etheridge is a little more accustomed to the spotlight. Since the accident, inquiring people continue to ask how he got through it. “I tell them it wasn’t on my own. It was all God’s help that kept me motivated,” he says.
He also gets to share with other football players and athletes. “When we’re out there working, it is easy to get tired and discouraged. My injury was unique and a miracle, so I can share with them: ‘You don’t want to be in that situation where you don’t know if you will ever walk or play again. Just keep working hard because you never know if it will be your last play.’”
Etheridge continues to work–and pray. No matter the outcome of the draft, Etheridge prays that he will “never lose focus and keep on worshiping the Lord, and giving Him the praise in everything that I do. And I hope that I have a successful career.”
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