NORMAN, Oklahoma, APR. 3, 2001 (ZENIT.org).- Star quarterback Josh Heupel hasn't let success keep him from pursuing a boyhood dream: to help at-risk youth and poor people.
His focus is admirable, given how much success he's had in sports.
The Catholic quarterback led his team, the Oklahoma Sooners, from a 19th-place ranking in the pre-season Associated Press poll to an undefeated season and this school year's college football national championship. Then, the Associated Press named him player of the year, as did the Sporting News. He was runner-up for the Heisman Trophy, and winner of the prestigious Walter Camp player of the year award.
He told the National Catholic Register ( NCRegister) he didn't know where he would end up, but more news is certain to follow later this month at the National Football League draft.
Yet, while most college football stars might be inclined to party under the limelight of so much success and to soak up the attention of the press, Heupel is sticking to the mission he envisioned years ago.
"He was in the second grade; I remember it well," recalled Josh's mother Cindy, a high school principal in Aberdeen, South Dakota. "I picked him up after school and he said 'Mom, I know what my mission in life is ... to help kids that get into trouble.'"
"You know I'm going to be a football player, Mom," Josh told her. "And pro-football players make a lot of money. That's how I'll do it. That's what God wants me to do with my life."
Three years ago, Josh's "mission" came up again in a conversation with his mother. Just before the University of Oklahoma recruited Josh from a community college in Utah, Josh gave her an update, saying, "I don't know exactly what I'm going to do, but I know what my mission in life is. It's to help at-risk kids and to help people who are disadvantaged and homeless."
Those words weren't empty. In November, he began collecting food at games to provide Thanksgiving dinners for poor people in his community.
"Prior to the game with Texas Tech, we were able to help over 250 families with Thanksgiving," said Mike Whitson, who, as an official with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, collaborated with Heupel in bringing food to the poor people of Norman, Oklahoma. "After that we helped 14 elementary school students with Christmas gifts."
After the food drive, Josh might have been excused again for putting his good works on hold. The season wasn't yet over, his team was gaining momentum and the attention of the national media began to focus more intensely on Josh, whose accomplishments on the field were multiplying by the game.
But in the middle of one of the more surprising team turnarounds in college football memory, Heupel and Whitson decided to make their work with the local poor a permanent venture. They would use Josh's now-famous jersey number, 14, to launch a charitable organization that would last long after Josh left for the professional sports teams.
"A lot of people go out for a day and do a service project," Whitson said. "Josh is the type who will want to make sure that that continues -- that's what gives him that rare quality."
Heupel admits that while his reputation for focus and determination may be apt, he can't take all the credit.
"I think the Lord has blessed me tremendously throughout my life," said Josh, 23. "I'm thankful, so I want to give back to people who aren't as fortunate as I have been. It's something that I enjoy and will continue throughout my life."
In May 1997, while playing for community college in Utah, Heupel tore the anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees, an injury that puts most players out of commission for six months. Heupel recovered in a matter of weeks, but the experience changed his priorities.
"God wasn't No. 1 in my life," Heupel said of the period just prior to and immediately following his injury. "Things weren't going along the way I planned. My first year in college I allowed other things to become No. 1. I had to give God complete control over my life." Soon after recovering, Heupel was recruited by Oklahoma and his rise to national prominence began.
One of the greatest blessings for Heupel, he says, is his family. He credits a close relationship with his parents, sister and relatives for his growth as a Christian, a leader and a giver.
"My parents were both leaders in their fields," Heupel said of mom Cindy and Dad Ken, a college football coach at Northern State University in Aberdeen.
"They are great human beings who genuinely care about the well-being of others," Josh said. "I saw the commitment they made to each other, but also to other people. They instilled those values in me."