On Higher Ground

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By Bill Horner

Broke and wounded, but better off by far


“It’s football time, in Tennessee!”  John Ward’s enthusiastic announcement sent shivers of excitement down our collective spines every fall as the University of Tennessee cranked up their football machine.  And over the years many a young athlete thrilled us with his unusual running, passing, blocking, or tackling skills.  One such man was quarterback Jimmy Streater.

Streater died an untimely death six years ago at age 46.  Financially he was broke.  Physically he was a broken man.  But in his heyday at UT from 1976-1979, he was a record-setting star quarterback.

Coach Bill Battle recruited this topnotch high school player from Sylva, North Carolina.   Ward would dub the young man the “Sylva Streak.”  He would become the centerpiece of a team that was rebuilding under new head coach Johnny Majors.

During his UT days Streater was the school’s all-time leader in passing yards and total offense, setting school records that were broken only by Peyton Manning years later.  In a game against Vanderbilt, he completed an 85-yard pass, and in 1979, he led his teammates to Tennessee’s first-ever victory over Notre Dame.  Coach Johnny Majors said, “He was one of the best athletes I coached in my entire career.”  He was personable, motivated, an all-around good guy.  And he married his college sweetheart.

But after his playing days at UT came to an end, his life took a decided turn for the worse.  Outwardly things still looked good.  He was drafted to play in the Canadian Football League, pulling down healthy contracts.  But with increased income came the ability to buy drugs.  The onset of diabetes—and medications to battle that disease—hastened his decline into drug abuse.  Soon Streater had lost his money, his wife, his career, and his health.

The downward spiral of tragedy continued as Jimmy’s brother Stevie, a star football player for the North Carolina Tar Heels, was paralyzed in a car accident.  Jimmy moved back home to live with his parents, where his physical condition worsened.  Then came the spider bite.  An encounter with a brown recluse resulted in an amputation of the arm and shoulder.  Jimmy eventually went to live in a Canton, North Carolina, nursing home.

But the Lord seems to delight in rescuing us just when the enemy thinks he has us firmly in hand.  Jimmy Streater heard the gospel of Jesus Christ and turned his life over to Him.  And he became a vocal witness for his Savior.

As a long-time UT football fan—I graduated about the time Streater arrived in Knoxville—I was intrigued by this man’s story when a newspaper in Nashville ran a half-page feature article on him about fifteen years ago.  I would love to meet him, I thought to myself. 

Traveling through western North Carolina a few weeks later, I was approaching the Canton exit on I-40.  On a lark I decided to look for him.  It didn’t take long to locate the nursing home in this small town.  At the desk I informed the receptionist that I would like to visit Jimmy Streater.  “He’s back in the dining hall,” another worker told her.  Everyone seemed to know Jimmy.  They sent for him.

A few minutes later, a pleasant-looking African-American, who appeared much too young for such an institution, rolled up in his wheelchair and graciously extended his hand.  I explained that I was a Tennessee preacher who was pleased to read about his faith and wanted to meet him.  A few minutes before, he explained, he had been talking to another resident about accepting Christ.  It was obvious that despite all he had lost, Jimmy Streater had new life in Christ.  He was a man at peace, looking forward not back.  We shared some conversation and a prayer, and I left.

“What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:7-8).  Maybe Jimmy had lost everything, but he had gained something far better.