INTERVIEW - May 12, 2015
Editor's Note: Brandon Sweeney is from Akron, Ohio. An accomplished youth league and high school running back (Akron Firestone HS), he played two years at Clarion University and later transferred to North Carolina A&T State University. During his senior year in college, as A&T's leading running back, he was injured in a scrimmage. The injury was to his kidney, leading to an operation to remove it and ultimately ending his football career in 2006. The depression that followed almost cost him his life.
Through God's intervention, Brandon's life was spared and he became the long climb back to discovering God's purpose for him. He went back to NC A&T to graduate in 2008 with a Bachelor's degree in Construction Management and is now finishing up his Masters in Sports and Exercise Psychology at Argosy University.
Sweeney wrote about the solution to his struggle in his book "Loving The Game When The Game Doesn't Love You Back." His book exposes hidden truths about the pressures faced by athletes on a journey to play professionally. The book presents a behind the scenes look at the importance of preparing athletes for life on and off the playing surface.
Sweeney is also the Founder and President of Purpose Beyond the Game, an organization geared towards challenging, empowering, and motivating athletes to become better in every area of their lives, to discover who they are, and to live a purposeful life beyond sports. Sweeney accomplishes his mission by speaking, mentoring, coaching, consulting, and creating material for athletes, parents and coaches. Brandon is married to Ashantae Sweeney, with whom they have one son - Judah. They currently reside in the Atlanta area.
JS -Describe the environment you grew up in?
Brandon - I came from a single-parent home. Things were tough financially. I had one brother and two sisters. There was a lot of freedom to do what we wanted because mom was working two jobs. We got into a lot of trouble and often times stressed my mom out. Dad wasn't around. Mom took care of us as best she could but growing up was a matter of survival - yet we made it despite our hardships. We grew up in the Spring Hill projects in Akron (where LeBron James grew up as well as my cousins, football stars Tony & Tyrell Sutton) and later moved to West Akron.
JS - How was your dad involved in your life?
Brandon - He wasn’t! He was living in Akron the whole time but was from Kentucky. It's kind of unclear how much he was aware of my existence until at least high school. I did decide to search for him my junior year in high school. I found out where he lived and we met briefly. I thought it would last but sadly it didn’t. I didn't get to know him til I was 23 years old when I got a call out of the blue. Since then we started building a relationship. I decided to move forward by forgiving him and choosing to get to know him as if nothing ever happened - which was only by the grace of God.
JS - When did you start formulating athletic/football goals?
Brandon - I found out about a local football league that my brother's friends were playing in (the Firestone Park Rams and the South Rangers....which I ended up playing for). We had to wait for a year and a half before mom allowed us to play. She thought I was too small to play and would eventually get hurt. I fell in love with the game right away. I saw a "way out" as I noticed older athletes became successful through football after growing up in the projects.
JS - Describe your most memorable youth experiences?
Brandon - Probably the first time we ever were out of Akron - when mom took us all to Cedar Point. Also, winning the championship with the South Rangers when I was both 8 and 9, and winning the championship at 11 for the West Griffins. I was the quarterback/running back - a key figure for those teams.
In high school, it was when you (John) used to take us to Corey Fuller's house (with the Cleveland Browns) for a Bible Study. It was the first time I met an NFL player. And then probably when I made first team all-city in football and track.
JS - How did you choose your college?
Brandon - I chose Clarion because D-1 schools couldn't offer me a scholarship due to my ACT score. My HS coach knew the coach at Clarion. I decided to take a visit with my mom and we liked what we saw. They offered a partial scholarship. After two years of playing running back and doing well, I realized that the coach wasn't faithful in keeping promises with how he planned to use us or help us after our careers were done. I didn't feel I could trust him. He, in turn, tried to discourage me by telling me how I wouldn't be good enough to play anywhere else.
JS - Why did you transfer to North Carolina A&T?
Brandon - I chose them over Western Kentucky. I wanted to go further south. One of the coaches at A&T had heard about me and made an effort to recruit me. I never visited it so I went pretty much by faith without even a scholarship in 2004. I later walked on, earned the starting running back position and a scholarship.
JS - Describe the highlights of your college playing experiences?
Brandon - While at A & T we were playing at Morgan State after I was coming off an ankle injury. I ended up rushing for over 200 yards, had 4 TD's and scored the game winning TD in overtime. Another game was my first one with A & T against NC Central. I was named the starter and had 150 yds and 3 TD's. Even though we lost, it gave A&T hope that they found their solution at running back (according to the papers).
JS - Describe your life changing moment?
Brandon - April 1, 2006, spring football, running the ball like normal and then I got tackled by 3 people. When I went to the sideline I had trouble breathing and my side started hurting. I thought it was my ribs but it turned out to be my kidney. I passed out and woke up in the hospital where they told me that my kidney ruptured.
JS -How did you adapt to it?
Brandon - Initially I tried to be hopeful that God was going to heal or restore my kidney so that I could play again. But after a week I was discouraged and depressed for about a year and a half. I almost took my life. I stayed at school that summer because I was still hopeful. But, in the process of trying to make ends meet without a job, I was barely surviving.
My first surgery was to drain some blood and partially repair the kidney. But the second surgery was going to require it's removal....which meant that I wouldn't be able to play again so I was trying to avoid it.
Finally, I felt led to go home and have the kidney removed in order to let God be glorified by going through the process I was trying to avoid and let him show what He planned on doing. So I'm back in Akron and while I was there I was told by a good friend to get on my face before God and pursue what He was trying to do with me.
I was still hopeful to play with even one kidney but most everyone was trying to help me move on. I went back to A&T and took advantage of a scholarship that they provided for me to finish school as a student/coach assistant. But it hurt too much being around the game. Depression overwhelmed me to the point I felt that life had no point and figured it wasn't worth fighting it anymore. So I picked up a knife and held it to my neck while I was alone in my apartment, and then I heard this voice, "The only reason why you are holding on to this game is because you don't believe I have something better for you." So I dropped the knife, I felt a peace come over me and I started searching for that something better.
JS - What kind of hopes had you put into football?
Brandon - EVERYTHING. I wanted to be wealthy, take my family out of the projects, and become successful in hopes that it would attract my father's attention. It was the ultimate hope to making my dreams a reality.
JS - Where did you get the idea for the book?
Brandon - In 2008 I was coaching a high school football team in N.C. While over at a mentors house we were talking about football and I mentioned how kids were in much the same position as me by putting all their hopes in football. I said, "I loved this game and the game didn't love me back". He heard that and told me that I should write a book about it. Later, when I went home that night I actually started on it.
JS - How did you become acquainted with TEAM JAM?
Brandon - I was a Junior in high school and Jerome Moss told me about guys that were going with John Saucier to go to one of the Browns football players house, Corey Fuller, to study the Bible. I remember meeting Matt Futch on the ride. It was an eye opening experience.
JS - What role has your experience with this ministry played in your life?
Brandon - A huge part. You (John) cared for us then and you saw us as people and not just athletes. You wanted us to know Christ. It was more than a social thing. Seeing an NFL player reading the Bible with us among other athletes, made it real. We could be serious about God without being soft or weak or desperate. It was important to see successful people pursuing God - especially athletes.
JS - How and when did you surrender your life to Christ as your Savior?
Brandon - There were a lot of attempts but it was totally when I was at Clarion University in May of 2004. I was in and out with my effort toward Christ. I was frustrated with football and cried out to God for forgiveness and mercy and asked him to walk with me. When back in Akron, I got in touch with the mother of a friend who was close to God. She spoke her faith into me and told me she believed that God had a calling on my life and that I was running from him, but eventually I was going to surrender to Him. ...which eventually took place when I dropped that knife in the fall of 2007.
JS - Whats the best spiritual advice you have for young people?
Brandon - Surrender to God !!!! Nobody that puts their trust in Him will ever be put to shame.
JS - What do you believe your calling in life is ....how are you fulfilling it?
Brandon - Pastoring ....but not like a traditional church pastor. Mine is as a husband and father in the home and 2nd amongst young men. By going to the teams and loving on them, coaching them, caring for them, speaking to them, I am trying to shepherd them. I'm trying to walk with them and help them discover what God has for them. My desire is to minister to the fatherless ...those from a broken home.
JS - How did you meet your wife. Tell me about your family. ?
Brandon - I met my wife in 2009 at a PDFY ministry that was run by our church. We had so much in common and we just enjoyed being around each other. It wasn’t until 2010 after I had a few failed relationships that I started rethinking what type of woman I needed in my life. After much prayer and asking myself questions, I started looking at my friend (now wife). I looked closer into who she was, paid attention to her, saw her love for God and her Godly qualities. I then realized that she was "it". She was more of a partner than the others that I dated. One Sunday, I had decided I was going to ask her out. I walked up to her after church and said “I think you are the most beautiful person I know in the world, I like you, and I want to take you out." We dated for 6 months, then I proposed and 6 months later we were married.
My son Judah was born in 2013 and was a premature baby. The year before he was born we were told that we would have a child but might have some problems. He was born two months early and had to stay in the hospital for a month and a half. Despite the circumstances, he was a healthy and strong baby. Today he is doing well as if nothing ever happened.
Being a father is one of the greatest jobs any man could have. I was excited about showing how I was going to be a great father. But when the time came I really felt the importance of the moment. I learned that I needed to seek out knowledge and wisdom on what being a father was all about. I saw how important my role was and how I needed to disciple my son and set up the next generations through my son. I'm changing the course of my family line. Nobody I knew growing up or in my family knew what a family was supposed to look like and now I have the chance to change my blood line and be a blessing to my next generations like God did for Abraham. I will be the foundation for future families in my bloodline.
JS - Thank you Brandon. Its hard to believe all the things that I've watched God help you overcome so early in your life. We really hope to do all we can to make sure your story and work in mentoring the "fatherless" is shared with as many people as possible.
Empowerment Speaker - Author
Faithful Husband to Ashantae
Father to son Judah
Mentor of Athletes and Fatherless young men
College FB Running Back - Clarion U., N.C. A&T
NC A&T - 2005-06, Running Back
Top Game: 200+ yds, 4 TD’s
Clarion University - 2003-04
Firestone HS - Played RB, Free Safety
Overall: Selected as MVP 13 times during 15 yrs of football career.