April 20, 2019 9:58:30 PM
Church has always been in the life of Robert Woodard II.
It was, and is, an important staple in the Woodward household in Columbus.
He sang in the choir, Robert says, because his mom, Velma, wanted him to.
When he is standing at the free throw line for Mississippi State in a big Southeastern Conference men's basketball showdown at Kentucky, he is not just shooting for State. Or for Columbus. Or for himself.
He's shooting hoops for Christ.
While at Columbus High School, Woodard was an active member in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was a part of a group of student-athletes that met every week.
And that led directly to Friday night, when two days before Easter, Woodard was one of the two feature speakers at an inspiring event, the Mississippi State Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Banquet of Champions held at The Mill in Starkville.
MSU women's basketball head coach Vic Schaefer was the other speaker.
Woodard is just a freshman at State, the same school that his mother and father attended. He just completed his first basketball season at State, playing in 34 games and helping the Bulldogs achieve something they hadn't done in 10 years. They made it into the NCAA Tournament. This is a path that Woodard and the rest of the Bulldogs just may travel to do even bigger things next year and the year after.
But on Friday night, this was not a night about basketball. It was a night about a treasured way of life.
Woodard is among a large number of State athletes who meet regularly in worship and in fellowship. Schaefer proudly remembers the recent Sunday that began with members of the women's basketball team in church with an assistant coach. That same night, they defeated Clemson to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16.
"They wanted to be there. They asked to go," Schaefer said.
It is exactly the way Woodard was brought up and the way he is now. It is why he was chosen as the lone MSU athlete to give a testimonial speech Friday night. He remembers the strong upbringing he received at home from his parents. He remembers the inspirational message he received one day at school in the sixth grade: you are going to do great things.
He never knew he was going to be a basketball player on the SEC level. And now that he is, he embraces the responsibility.
"God gave me this talent for a reason," he said.
At MSU, FCA athletes from all sports on campus meet in huddles. Beyond that, athletes within a specific sport meet. There are prayers. There are conversations. And there are critical phone calls deep in the night after a tough game or maybe even after a good one.
Tyson Cunningham, a former State player from Columbus who serves as the men's basketball chaplain at State, certainly has received a few late night calls from Woodard. Cunningham, who is also a talented singer and has performed the national anthem on multiple occasions at State, attends home games and also goes on the road with the Bulldogs.
This is the type of thing you won't hear about at night on ESPN SportsCenter's daily highlights.
But it is such an important part of the process.
Especially today. Easter. But also every other day.
For Robert Woodard II, a freshman and terrific young man who is still finding his way through the bright lights and intimidating stages of SEC basketball, there is a sincere appreciation for the way Velma and Robert raised him. There is a powerful inspirational message there.
Oh, and there is also the name. Robert and Robert II. His dad played basketball for four years in the 1980s. You certainly don't need to remind Robert II of that.
"I want to do everything he's been doing," Robert Woodard II said, a smile breaking out on his face, "just a little bit better."
Robert II already knows how to work the crowd.
Paul Bowker is sports editor of the Commercial Dispatch. He can be reached at [email protected]
Paul Bowker is the former sports editor for The Dispatch.