Julie Jacobson, Associated Press File Photo
When the New York Times featured Nathan Whitaker last October for partnering with sports figures like Tony Dungy and Tim Tebow to write about how Christianity guides their lives, he posted his biggest disappointment about the article on Facebook.
“The photo doesn’t capture the cool jeans I was wearing.”
Despite the unglamorous photo, the article did a fair job of detailing Whitaker’s unconventional journey from lawyer to best-selling author and how he became part of a new phenomenon in the publishing world identified as “muscular Christianity.”
“Leave it to the New York Times to have a name for it,” Whitaker said in a telephone interview. “Things have a way of working out the way God has planned, but the lesson I want to teach my daughters is if God gives you a passion, then you follow it.”
Faith and sports
Religion was planted in Whitaker at a young age and he was raised to embrace Christian values. Whitaker grew up in a Methodist congregation and accepted Christ at age 12. He credits good examples, especially his father and a couple of influential athletes he knew at the University of Florida, for teaching him the true meaning of humility, character and integrity. Another source of inspiration was “In His Steps,” a book authored by Charles M. Sheldon in 1896. “In His Steps” encourages readers to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?”
“I’m not sure anyone has a stranglehold on truth,” Whitaker said. “Faith has helped me keep rooted to what is important. It’s helped me remember that ‘This too shall pass,’ good or bad. It’s helped me keep an eternal perspective.”
Whitaker’s religious beliefs motivated him as a high school baseball and football player. He kept a piece of tape on his bathroom mirror with the old Oakland Raider phrase, “Commitment to Excellence.”
“My thought was if I’m going to hold myself out there as a Christian I need to do the most I can; I need to work hard academically,” he said. “If (God) gave me these gifts, I would set about doing something, go as hard as I could.”
Whitaker’s competitive drive led him to play baseball at Duke University. He also walked on the Blue Devils’ football team. But life as a non-scholarship punter/kicker was challenging.
“I literally kicked off twice in four years,” he said.
At one point, he considered transferring to Princeton or Vanderbilt, but ultimately decided to stick it out. As a result, Whitaker gained valuable life lessons and is proud to say he was a member of Duke’s 1989 ACC championship team under coach Steve Spurrier.
“I learned to take risks,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid to try things that might have been beyond my abilities and talents. Walking on was entrepreneurial, like writing a book. It was all about stepping out in faith and seeing where it led.”
A leap of faith
His playing days over, Whitaker graduated from Duke in 1991 and went on to earn a law degree from Harvard in 1994. He clerked for a federal judge for two years and accepted a job with a law firm in Greensboro, N.C., but left the firm in 1998 to manage football operations and budgeting for the Jacksonville Jaguars. Two seasons later he moved to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he crunched NFL salary cap figures and assisted in player contract negotiations. While working in Tampa, he met head coach Tony Dungy.
Dungy was rumored to be on his way out after a disappointing 9-7 season in 2001, but he impressed Whitaker with his consistent, professional approach and Christian values.