February 25, 2011
Ray Drew will be a Georgia Bulldog. By this time next year, he'll be best known as a collegiate pass-rushing defensive end expected to have an NFL future.
None of that will change how fellow parishioners at Paradise Missionary Baptist church think of the top prospect. To them, Drew will still be a preacher first, football player second.
"I knew I wanted to preach," Drew told Sports Illustrated writer Andy Staples. "But I didn't know it was going to come that soon. ... I could have tried to run from it, but eventually it would have caught me."
Instead, Drew bit the bug at its onset, taking up the pulpit when he was still in seventh grade. The Thomas County Central (Ga.) High senior claims to idolize Reggie White, the late Hall of Fame lineman and preacher, and has no plans to stop preaching whenever he can work it into his football-dominated future.
In fact, preaching is something the top recruit has long had to work in with his hectic athletic schedule.
"Character-wise, you don't get a better young man," Thomas County Central coach Bill Shaver told AuburnSports.com. "He is already an ordained minister and is a 'yes sir', 'no sir' kind of guy. And he's always about doing what's right.
"One time he had to leave track practice early because he was preaching at a revival."
To answer such a spiritual call from God can come with a significant dose of pressure and responsibility for a teenager. Yet, rather than run from it, Drew seems to embrace the additional responsibility with a sense of humor and hopefulness.
The road to stardom hasn't been entirely smooth for Drew. There was controversy over his Facebook updates, where he was accused of misleading his thousands of fans about where he planned to play college football. At the end, that mattered little to those who will continue to cheer for him on the field, whether they be in Athens, Ga., or back in Thomas County.
And no matter where football takes him -- the U.S. Army All-American plans to play football as long as he can, and hopes to be a broadcaster when he eventually retires from the game -- Drew said he knows at the end of the day he'll return to his roots in the church.
"Standing up in front of the congregation," Drew told Staples, "you're responsible for someone's soul."
The pastor at his Paradise Missionary church said that the precocious teenager is made for that deeper charge.
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Eddie Edwards, the senior pastor at Paradise, believes Drew has a natural gift for preaching. "He's just a soul-stirrer," Edwards said. "It's captivating how he allows the spirit to use him."