Mormon church helps former NFL player sort out spiritual puzzle

Published: Thursday, Nov. 4 2010 6:30 a.m. MDT

AKRON, Ohio — Minutes after two Mormon missionaries walked out his door, Stacey Miles was on the phone with his attorney. His mind was swimming with skepticism.

"Have you ever heard of John Smith? I need you to run a background check on this John Smith," Miles said into the phone. "I need everything you can find by morning."

When the clean-cut LDS messengers returned the next day, Miles felt like an expert on John — check that — Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, having read more than 60 pages of information. He was intrigued with Joseph's account of the First Vision.

His religious investigation was just one piece of the puzzle.

For 22 of the next 25 days the former NFL lineman and sports agent learned about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, developed priceless friendships and eventually was baptized. The gospel was a major missing piece in the puzzle of his life. It gave him spiritual strength to tackle his physical problems.

"There was a hole in my life. Then things fell into place," Miles said. "The puzzle is still not complete, but I know what it is supposed to look like, and I can start to put it together. It is the best thing that ever happened to me."

Miles describes the circumstances that led to his conversion as "strange." A healthy man most of his life, physical ailments gradually took over his body. If not for the health problems, he probably wouldn't have found the LDS Church, Miles says.

Once upon a time Miles was a great athlete who played tennis, college football at Cal State Northridge and then in the National Football League for three years with the Seattle Seahawks. Injuries and operations kept him more on the bench than on the field. When his playing days were over, he made a living as a sports agent. One of his more prominent clients was former NBA star and close friend Larry Nance.

But injuries and illnesses began to take a toll. A tumor was found in his arm after he broke his arm playing tennis. Another tumor was located in his head and removed. The 350-pound man also had problems with his legs and couldn't find crutches to support his weight.

The thought of spending the remainder of his life in a wheelchair worried him. If he surrendered, he might not walk again. That's when, via the Internet, he found Ken Lester and his super crutches.

Lester, of Logan, Utah, owns a company that manufactures crutches designed to support individuals up to 400 pounds. His crutches are now used all over the country, especially by major college and NFL teams.

Not only did Miles get the crutches, he found a friend in Lester, a Mormon bishop at the time. With time, discussions about the crutches eventually became friendly conversations about life.

"We would talk for hours," Miles said. "We talked about religion. I never asked what his religion was, but he had a peacefulness in his voice that I was searching for. I thought this was someone who has his puzzle pieces in order. This was something I wanted and I knew I couldn't buy it."

Lester said he looked forward to the calls, especially when his business struggled. When he wasn't feeling great, he talked to Stacey.

"He was encouraging," Lester said. "When I needed a pick-me-up, I called him and it made a big difference."

Their friendship was solidified when the pair attended a Cleveland Indians baseball game. "We just sat and talked," Lester recalled.

"It was like I had known him my whole life," Miles said. "We looked up and suddenly the game was in the seventh inning."

With Miles single, living alone and dealing with multiple health problems, Lester offered to arrange for someone from the local Mormon congregation to drop by and check on him. Ever independent, Miles politely declined. His new friend did it anyway.

A local church member visited. Miles said he was just fine. When the gentleman left his contact information, Miles said thanks and dropped it in the trash after he left. The man continued to check on him anyway.

Then two missionaries knocked on his door. "OK guys, you have five minutes," Miles told them.

"But five minutes turned into two hours," he said.

Miles was so touched by the story of Joseph Smith's First Vision he asked the elders to repeat it three times. "They probably thought, 'This guy can't retain anything,'" he said.

The more Miles learned the more he felt the gospel was the missing void in his life. In his journal he wrote in huge letters, "I can't believe I have finally found it." Miles had imagined his conversion would be a dramatic event, like a clap of thunder or a spectacular parade down the street. "I didn't get my parade, but this was exactly what I was looking for," he said.

Against the wishes of his doctors and nurses, the 6-foot-7 man checked out of the hospital to be baptized. He endured some pain to do it, but later proclaimed that day — July 28, 2007 — to be one of the greatest of his life. The following day he was back in the hospital.

With time, Miles was ordained an elder, received his patriarchal blessing and attended the temple.

Earlier this year, Elder C. Scott Grow of the First Quorum of the Seventy came to Akron for a stake conference and asked Miles' stake president, Doug Talley, if there was someone who might benefit from a visit with a general authority. President Talley referred Miles. The two men spoke for an hour in Miles' home. Elder Grow was impressed with Miles' sweet, positive attitude.

"I saw a man on crutches," Elder Grow said. "I learned he is in constant pain, like his body is on fire day and night. What really impressed me was his huge smile and how he never complained. What began as a casual conversation with a member of the church became a life-changing experience for someone who was seeking the truth. Each of us needs to be sensitive to those opportunities."

The next day at stake conference, Elder Grow invited his new friend to sit on the front row. Then during the meeting the general authority asked the humble giant to stand and share his story. Initially Miles, who had played football in massive stadiums before numerous hordes of fans, wanted to strap on his old helmet and hide, but his knees held together and he shared his testimony.

The following week Miles was surprised to hear from Elder Grow again. The general authority asked if Miles would be the subject of a Mormon Message video. At first Miles objected, but Elder Grow was persistent.

"I didn't want to do it," Miles said. "I didn't think my story was that inspirational. He said to think about it and see how I feel. Then a producer called. I said, 'Are you under the impression I said yes to this?' He asked if I was really going to argue with revelation. So they came out for four days."

The reaction to the Internet video has been positive, Miles said. The attention makes him uncomfortable, but he hopes his story gives courage to someone somewhere. Elder Grow said the video was well done and captures the sweetness of the man.

"I felt the Spirit as I watched," Elder Grow said. "But the spirit and eternal optimism of the man is even greater than can possibly be portrayed in the video."

Despite Miles' health problems, his bishop, Paul Stark, says the gentle giant never misses a Sunday. After his baptism three years ago he was called to be the gospel essentials teacher and did a phenomenal job. He loved the calling so much he continues to prepare weekly lessons, even after he was called to be the ward employment specialist.

"He is a humble, kind and gentle person, anxious to share the gospel with everyone," Bishop Stark said. "He has a testimony of the gospel that is rock solid. He has prepared for this all his life."

Miles continues to fight cancer and doesn't sleep much these days because of the pain in his body. He also stays in close contact with his buddy Ken Lester. Each Sunday night at precisely 8 p.m., Miles and members of the Lester family from around the country dial into a conference call and hold a weekly family meeting. They have a song, a prayer and make goals for reading scriptures and performing service. They also have a friendly contest where everyone predicts the winners of college and NFL games. Whoever predicts the most games at the end of the season gets his or her name engraved on a trophy. These calls can last anywhere from 45 minutes to more than an hour and are a major highlight of Miles' week. He is honored to be included as a member of the family.

Although they come from different backgrounds, sizes, shapes and circumstances, Lester and Miles consider one another as family.

"You would never pick us from a crowd and say we are brothers, but we were meant to be brothers," Lester said. "He is struggling with his health, spending a lot of time in the hospital. We hurt to know he is suffering. We don't know how long he will live, but he has a magnificent, powerful spirit. Heavenly Father is looking out for him."

Like a true warrior, Miles bears his burdens with little complaint. Despite discouragement, Lester says Miles copes by serving others. He once sponsored an Akron walk-a-thon and participated in a community fair for children. One of Miles' favorite activities is visiting with sick children in the hospital. In his eyes, being a member of the church is like opening new Christmas presents every day.

"It's hard to see what I used to be and see what I am now," Miles said. "I gave a talk in church once about consecrating affliction for your gain. That is what Heavenly Father is doing for me.

"I try to never not have a smile, never get down. I will walk again someday without crutches. Heavenly Father has something in store for me."

e-mail: ttoone@desnews.com

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