Napoleon Kaufman finds faith after football
Former University of Washington football star Napoleon Kaufman walked away from NFL riches to begin preaching 10 years ago. Just as he did on the field, Pastor Kaufman has never looked back.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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"Rejoice. I've been hearing that word all week. The Lord has been speaking that word to my spirit."
Pastor Napoleon Kaufman, April 10, 2011, sermon
DUBLIN, Calif. — It's Sunday and Napoleon Kaufman has the crowd on its feet. Again.
Except he is onstage now, not at a stadium. He is a preacher, not a player, and now that his Sunday sermon is over, a band that includes a guitar and full drum kit has turned the service into a revival. Kaufman is hopping up and down onstage, his arms spread wide. His head is tilted back, his eyes closed and the microphone that was fitted to his left ear has wiggled loose and dangles down his back. He is a man lost in this moment in front of 650 people attending the service.
On this spring morning — 10 years to the day after he announced his retirement from the NFL — Kaufman stands at the front of his nondenominational church, The Well Christian Community. It sits tucked away in an East Bay area strip mall two blocks off the freeway. The church had a congregation of 15 when Kaufman started in 2003 and has grown to 1,500.
"This is what I do," Kaufman says afterward. "When I gave my life to God, I really, really meant it."
He doesn't look much different these days. He is 37, married, and a father of four. His head is still shaved, and while he has added a few pounds to his 5-foot-9 frame, he looks plenty fast.
He is a pastor now, one who has preached from Peru to the Philippines, finding a fulfillment he never did on the football field. That's not to say he was unhappy. He loved football — still does, in fact. He rushed for more yards than anyone in University of Washington history during his four years as a Husky, and he played six seasons in the NFL before deciding to walk away still in his prime, his Oakland Raiders team one year away from the Super Bowl.
For 10 years, football was Kaufman's path to success. He had grown up with so little in Southern California and yet achieved so much. He came to Washington and won a national championship as a freshman, was a Heisman candidate as a senior and became a first-round NFL draft pick. He was Horatio Alger in a helmet, and then — as he neared the peak of a career he had dreamed about for so long — he decided he was destined for something else.
"Napoleon was one who very much dictated how long his career was going to last in the NFL," said Jim Lambright, his college coach at Washington. "He could only play for so long in his mind before he would move on to being a pastor."
Kaufman didn't just walk away. No, that would never be the style for one of the fastest Huskies ever. He ran headlong into his new pursuit without a second thought or ounce of regret.
"We have to be sensitive about our speech because our speech can help us or it can hurt us. Can I have an 'Amen.' I want the fruit of my speech to bless me, to be a blessing in my life."
Napoleon Kaufman, Jan. 16, 2011, sermon
The moment is significant only in retrospect.
It was August 1996, Kaufman's second year in the NFL, and the Oakland Raiders were at training camp. A teammate muted his stereo in the locker room, and then later questioned Kaufman's cursing on the practice field.
"Napoleon," the man said, "you don't even look like the type of guy to be out here cussing and acting crazy. Don't you know God can use your life?"
That player was Jerone Davison, a two-year backup who is not much more than a footnote in NFL history. He played fullback, his primary job to open holes for a runner like Kaufman. On this day, though, Davison opened Kaufman's eyes.
"It was like it hit me like a ton of bricks," Kaufman said, "and all I could hear was, 'Don't you know God can use your life?' "
Kaufman had just turned 23 and was at the top of one of the most competitive professions in the country, making millions. Yet in the midst of this All-American dream, Kaufman felt an emptiness.
Kaufman is from Lompoc, Calif., a town with an Air Force base and a federal penitentiary. Grandma was the matriarch of his household, and Napoleon didn't have much interaction with the father he was named after.
Dick Barrett, his football coach at Lompoc High School, taught him in a remedial English class as a freshman. Barrett began grooming Kaufman, both in the classroom and in the backfield. Kaufman developed into a recruit courted by USC, Arizona and Nebraska. Barrett bought Kaufman the suit he wore to an awards dinner after his senior year.
Washington was the fourth and final of Kaufman's official recruiting visits. He decided then and there Seattle was where he would go. He enrolled at the UW in 1991.
"When I got to college — got away from home — I got exposed to a different life," Kaufman said. "Partying, drinking."
It was normal college stuff. Nothing unique to the University of Washington. He was simply a star athlete at a large college with a powerhouse of a football program.
"I always had this sense that things were going right, but I wasn't right," he said. "There's something that needs to change in my life. In me, you know?"
Kaufman grew up Christian, but he wouldn't describe himself as saved. Not until he was running into his second NFL season and that teammate got him thinking about his faith.
"That was it," Kaufman said. "From that day forward, my life has changed dramatically, and I went in a different direction."
The change started at home. He was living with Nicole, his girlfriend at the time. They were married in a civil service soon thereafter. They will celebrate their 15th anniversary this year.
"Instead of me just dating my wife for the next 15 years, I made a decision to put a ring on her finger," he said. "I made a decision to stop drinking and partying and hanging out."
Kaufman called his agent, Cameron Foster, and told him to clean out the house Kaufman owned in Leschi. Everything, Kaufman said, except the dining-room table, chairs and a few other pieces of furniture. Hundreds of rap CDs were donated to Goodwill. Clothes, too, though there was a bag Foster saved: The purple-and-gold UW traveling bag with Kaufman's No. 8 on the side and everything from shoulder pads to practice cleats inside.
"I just couldn't bring myself to get rid of that," Foster said.
"When you get a vision of what God has done for you, it doesn't matter what your personality is like. It doesn't matter where you've been or what you've been through and all this other mess. Can I have an 'Amen'? God does something in you, and it's just appropriate. It's the right thing to do, to be able to praise him."
Napoleon Kaufman, Oct. 18, 2009, sermon
Faith is everywhere in the NFL. In the Christian prayer circles at midfield after every NFL game, Bible studies among teammates during the week and the gratitude that players often will express to God.
That faith is an uncomfortable subject in the sports pages. Our country is composed of people of all different faiths, as well as those who are adamant about their lack of faith. There is also the risk of being witness to the hypocrisy of a supposedly devout athlete whose behavior doesn't measure up to his beliefs.
The result is that in this sport in which everything down to blocking assignments is placed under a microscope, the faith that so many players express as a primary motivation often gets ignored.
There is no avoiding faith with Kaufman. It became the rudder guiding his life in Oakland, where he became the team chaplain and baptized more than one teammate in the team whirlpool. And faith is the reason Kaufman walked away at the height of his NFL career and never looked back.
This says more about what he's doing now than what he did as a running back, because Kaufman loved football. He still does. He coaches his son's football team, drawing up plays. If he's honest, there are moments when he's watching a game that he'll find himself thinking about what he would have to do to shuck a tackle or juke a defender.
Being a preacher was his calling. He had trained himself for this, and he had studied for it. He spent two years preaching before he felt compelled to plant his own church, The Well Christian Community, which opened in 2003 in a suburban strip mall. It's still in the same spot, next to the Gourmet Gift Horse and Onyx Optics, but it's significantly bigger, expanding as other businesses vacated.
Churches don't just blossom in the middle of strip malls, and there's a reason Kaufman doesn't feel like he's retired. He's working. Hard. He has been since before that church opened, when it was remodeled and he asked his parishioners to write the names of people they were praying for on the walls before they were repainted.
"When I laid down my career — believe me, I was in the prime of my career — I didn't have this whole big business model," Kaufman said. "I just felt in my heart God was saying, 'I'm going to reward your obedience.' So for me, what I did was not a matter of reason, it was a matter of obedience."
And the church's growth is proof Kaufman's words found root in his congregation.
"It was pure, uncompromised gospel," said Ike Riser, a member of the congregation for three years now.
Riser knows a little something about that as the son of a minister. He first came to The Well with his wife, Renee, at the invitation of a niece and nephew. For more than a year, the Risers came to various services and ministries. A tryout, of sorts.
"I've been at so many different churches," Riser said. "I didn't want to buy the house based on looking at the living room, so to speak. I wanted to look at the kitchen, the basement and the closets. I wanted to see the entire church."
There is no single predominant ethnic group in the church, which is as diverse as the Bay Area itself.
The Risers became members in 2008, driving the 40 minutes one way from Union City a couple of times each week.
"That's sort of a testimony there, that we drive that distance," he said. "There's a lot of churches between here and there."
"Joy is not something that comes to you because of favorable circumstances."
Napoleon Kaufman, April 10, 2011, sermon
There is no chair onstage at The Well. This is not an accident. Kaufman doesn't sit down during a service, and he doesn't stand still even when a sermon is at 45 minutes and counting.
His sermons are drawn from the gospel but seasoned with Kaufman's personality and a little bit of humor. He uses the word "sophistimicated" to emphasize there's nothing too fancy. He wears a jacket but no tie. He refers to his wife as his "honey-bunny" when he's urging his congregation to be watchful of their spouse's spirit.
He is engaging and effective, and there are everyday lessons in his sermons that resonate with any audience. Some years Kaufman has delivered 300 sermons. Kaufman has traveled internationally to preach, appeared regularly on local television, and has written columns for a newspaper. His church contains its own TV-production studio.
The church has grown to 30,000 square feet and is bursting at the seams. Now, The Well Christian Community is planning a move to a bigger building in Dublin, a bedroom community in the East Bay.
"This has far outweighed my expectations," Kaufman said.
This transition game is hard for so many athletes. Brett Favre has flirted with retirement for the better part of a decade. The Giants' Tiki Barber retired four years ago and now is talking of a comeback.
But Kaufman? Never. And that wasn't for lack of opportunity. It wasn't just the Raiders who were interested.
"I've had teams call me two years later, after retirement, call me and say, 'You think?' " said Foster, the agent.
Foster always made the call to Kaufman and always got the same response.
"He'd just laugh and say, 'It's an honor.' But he's happy with what he's doing."
The leap of faith he made 10 years ago was almost literal, leaving behind a football career he once dreamed about. Now there's a sense of disbelief, not so much about what he left behind, but what he has found.
"I'm still in shock," he said. "I'm still in a position where I'm saying, 'Is this really happening?' I've got a beautiful wife. I've got beautiful kids. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't cuss. I'm faithful to my wife, to my kids. I have God in my heart. I've forgiven people. I love people. Is this real?"
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364.
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