An Audience of One

 

I’ve always loved football.

I’ve played for as long as I can remember. As I grew and developed as a player I found myself being put into increasingly competitive environments. Although my skills improved, I felt my love for the game slowly dissolving. I realised that I was enjoying the accolades and respect that came with playing more than the game itself. Football became my source of validation, and my happiness was conditional to my performance on the pitch. It became an addiction, one that would briefly satisfy but leave me feeling empty and unfulfilled.

I convinced myself that all I needed was a change of scene, a fresh environment where I could find a new audience to entertain. I’d heard stories of young English players going over to the States on scholarships to play for university teams. Hearing of how the Americans exalted European players was enough to persuade me to make the transition. I signed with a team at a Christian university in New York, and although I knew about God and had a vague idea of what it meant to be a Christian, I wasn’t interested in taking it seriously. It didn’t line up with my plans for fame and stardom.

I arrived in New York and it was everything I’d imagined. Popularity, recognition, validation, you name it. I was being treated like a superstar and I loved it. I began conforming to this image that everyone had of me, and I rapidly became more and more arrogant, proud and self-obsessed. Just when I thought I was invincible, I was reminded during a routine training session that I really wasn’t. No one touched me, I didn’t perform any out of the ordinary manoeuvre, but completely out of the blue my foot just broke. From that moment on my whole world was turned upside down. Time off the pitch turned me into a nobody. I realised that my popularity came from my reputation as a footballer rather than who I was as a person. I learnt the hard way that what you put at the centre of your life orchestrates everything else. I had chosen to find my identity in something incredibly unstable and temporary.

Being away from the game meant that I found myself socialising with people that I would have otherwise never had the opportunity to spend time with. I noticed how joyful and genuine these people were, and I found them so refreshing to be around. As my curiosity grew I began to ask questions that led to some unbelievable conversations. I felt so accepted and loved by all of these wonderful people, and some of them didn’t even know that I played football. I was so happy that I was building meaningful relationships with people just by being myself. I felt unconditional love from people other than my parents for the first time in my entire life, and it was through them that I began to understand that I could live for something bigger than myself. Sure I’d been blessed with the gift of being able to play football at a high level, but instead of using it as an opportunity for self-worship, I found real purpose in being able to use my gift to connect with other people and share the same message that changed my life.

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Michael Lewis Cunningham is from Nottingham but is currently studying at Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York. He was scouted by Nike and now plays professional football in America.