“So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.” —Jesus Christ (Matthew 20:16).

Last in line is not always a bad place to be, a local youth minister, traveling evangelist and former pro football player says.

John Earle, a former NFL player who only took the field for 14 regular games, was hired as youth minister at First Baptist Church of Gainesville in September. On Saturday morning, he was preparing a special pre-prom dinner for 10 of the teens in his youth group, which he named “Tighten Up.”

Earle, a husband and father of five children, will gladly tell you hosting teenagers in his home in a small town in Gainesville is not at all a step down from his career in the NFL or his subsequent ministry as a motivational speaker to hundreds of schools across the country. On the contrary, he said in an interview Friday, his coming to Gainesville was important as it was a divine calling.

“I had a great gig,” Earle said. “I had a big house in Illinois, I just finished a pro football career, I worked about maybe 100 days a year and was home every weekend. And now I’m in youth ministry at age 40.”

From Pop Warner to the pros

Earle, who grew up and attended high school in Keyport, N.J., was not the youth group type. But he had a devout Christian family — a witness that stuck with him through a rocky period in college.

After excelling in Pop Warner leagues and in high school varsity ball, Earle played college football at Western Illinois University where he went all-conference, was an All-American candidate. He met his wife, Josie, in college.

But academia was not to kind to Earle at the time, and he was failing many of his classes.

“To me, life had no meaning,” he said. “I was raised in church, but I had no relationship with Christ ... I was looking for comfort and peace, and I thought I could find that comfort and peace through sports.”

But soon even athletics was not too kind to Earle, and that comfort was soon an excruciatingly painful experience, as Earle broke his left foot once and his right foot twice and was often unable to practice or play.

On March 21, 1991, Earle said he found meaning through surrendering his life to Jesus Christ — as he said his father had raised him to.

“When you’re young and stupid, you think you have all the answers and not your parents,” he said. “But it finally hit home in college.

He wrote on his ministry’s Web site: “In 14 months, I had broken my right foot twice and my left foot once. The only thing of importance at that time was football — and it was being taken away from me because of injuries. After thoughts of suicide, I called my dad. He simply said, ‘Son, Jesus loves you and He’ll never leave you nor forsake you.’ That night I asked Jesus to be my best friend, Lord and Savior and surrendered my life into his hands. To this day I find peace in that decision — a peace that only Jesus could have given me.”

Drafted into the NFL

A year later, and shortly after college, Earle was drafted to Cincinati Bengals — which he learned about through watching ESPN, a national cable sports network.

“I was a late, late draft pick, but I was excited to be picked,” Earle said.

He said the excitement of having his lifelong dream come true paled in comparison to his newfound Christian faith.

“I can tell kids what it’s like to have your dreams come true,” he said. “But being drafted to an NFL team does not compare to a faith in Jesus.”

Earle played for five years in the NFL, but only saw action in 14 games.

“I have no problem telling people I was just part of the team,” he said.

He explained that in practice camp he was expected by some of the more regular players to be just as tough as he would be on the field.

Earle went on to play with the Kansas City Chiefs — playing along side Joe Montana and “Boomer” Esiason — and later the St. Louis Rams and briefly for the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons. He later turned down a contract from the Washington Redskins.

After the NFL, Earle played in the Canadian Football League where he and his team won the Grey Cup — which is effectively the Super Bowl of Canadian football. He played for the Baltimore Stallions, an extension team of the Canadian Football League.

Earle said there’s no job security in professional football, and a serious injury can end a career almost instantly. His Christian faith, however, was something he knew he didn’t have to worry about losing.

“When you get drafted into God’s team, you stay in the book,” he said.

Coming to Texas

Earle said he and his wife had a spacious home in LaHarpe, Ill., a small town that offered a low cost of living and a modest $700/month mortgage.

His job, with SportWorld Ministries, that allowed him to come home every weekend and work about 100 days out of the year. With his twin brother, Guy Earle (who himself played for the Houston Oilers and the Washington Redskins), he preached at various churches and schools with Sports World Ministries.

Earle said he spoke at about 200 schools per year and was doing well.

“Life was sweet, he said.

Around that time his brother landed a job as a youth minister in Texas. Upon visiting his brother’s church, Earle felt led to Texas.

“I said to the Lord, ‘Are you going to call me out of this?’” he said in the interview.

La Harpe had just lost its high school when it consolidated with another small town, and the real estate market was at a virtual standstill.

“But we sold it 12 hours before it was going to be placed on the market,” Earle said enthusiastically.

In Texas, Earle worked briefly with Harvest Church (now GracePointe) in Denton, where he was formally ordained. The church was a start-up which met in the University of North Texas Murchison Performing Arts Center and now meets in an elementary school.

Upon accepting the youth minister job at First Baptist Church Gainesville, the Earles purchased a house on Briarcliff Road in southeast Gainesville, from First Baptist Church member and former Gainesville ISD Superintendent Charles Luke.

“When you pray on something, hold on tight and get ready for God’s answer,” he said.

Settling (but not settled down) in Gainesville

Earle keeps a busy schedule — up at 5:30 a.m. each morning to work out at a gym, counseling youth in the afternoons and evenings, getting ready for youth group events, studying the Bible and preparing for spoken messages at those events, and taking the kids on trips to various places. He still finds time for his own five children, and manages to attend an early morning Bible study once a week in Denton with his former church.

He and his brother still speak to schools and youth groups as part of Think Twice Ministries/

Just last week, Earle led his youth group on a treasure hunt through Gainesville, with a task of noting objects and places along the path that bring joy to them. The last point on the treasure map was denoted by a large “X” with a Bible opened to a verse about finding joy in God and not in material things:

His youth group, Tighten Up, has a new event called The Brick. Inspired by a similar program at Northwest Nazarene University in Oregon, Earle explained, the idea is to invite students to the Earle home for a time of fellowship, Bible study and partaking of a sweet, frozen caffeinated drink called “brick” that takes three days to prepare.

“I love our kids, and I enjoy having them around,” he said. “All I want to do is challenge the young people to walk in the faith.”

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Reporter Andy Hogue

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