Austin Hallman

In Matthew 16:25, Jesus makes a statement that would make the average athlete grimace: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  

I hate to lose, and that’s not a bad thing. We were created with an inherent desire for excellence. However, if my college sports experience taught me anything, it would be that the cost of surrendering our life, every single part of it, to seeking the true greatness of the kingdom is completely worth it.

Baseball was my sport, and I played at THE George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. It is a small Division III Christian university with a rich history in baseball and an athletic leadership team that is fully committed to building the kingdom in sports. My freshman year was easily my best year in terms of performance. I was pitching all the time and striking out pretty much anyone who came to the plate. With a fastball that could reach as high as 90-91 miles per hour, I was the fireman they sent in when there was a fire that needed to be put out. 

However, that year was spiritual hell for me. From the time I left home to the day we were sent home because of COVID, I was walking through the valley of the shadow of death without a single clue as to where God was. No matter how much I wept, pled, prayed, and sought His face, I could find zero sense of his presence and peace and had no confidence in my salvation. While the Lord brought godly mentors and friends into my life, every day was a battle. I did not know if I had the strength to keep fighting, but I knew there was nowhere else to go but the feet of the Father.   

Looking back now, I know that season of life was the best thing that ever happened to me. When faced with the desperate need for God, I came to realize that I had to pay whatever cost was necessary to find him. There was and is nothing else that will ever bring us true life, purpose, or joy.  

Still, as I slowly came out of the spiritual valley and as my sophomore year began, I assumed that my maturing faith and hard work would translate to success with my God-given gifts on the baseball field. Little did I know that counting the cost, for me, would mean giving up my sport, the very thing that had brought me to George Fox.  

My sophomore year started great. I became our closer and the strikeouts were flowing. I was consistently hitting 90-92 on the radar gun with hopes of even more velocity. Then in week three I got hit in the face with a bat. It was completely random: a black Marucci Cat9 had flown out of my teammate’s hands and directly into my face. It knocked out parts of two teeth and gave me a concussion. The symptoms lingered far longer than I knew, and when I came back, I couldn’t throw a strike. I started hitting batters. A lot. I blew multiple saves and failed in the biggest moments. All this was happening while our team seemed spiritually dead and I was desperately praying for revival.

With spiritual warfare coupled with identity issues and the pressures of being a student-athlete during the COVID year, I had a rough sophomore year. 

Coming back as a junior, I felt once again that the path to success had been paved. I was convinced it was God’s will that I would come back better than I was before, and I was filled with hope and determination. Then, on the first day of fall, I felt a sharp pinch in my shoulder as I tried to warm up. I had a shoulder impingement, which meant I couldn’t raise my arm above my shoulder without pain. I was out for the rest of the semester. 

I spent hours a day in the training room. But what hurt the most was that I couldn’t throw. When I finally came back a week before the season started in the spring, I still had no idea where the ball was going, and I had lost velocity, too. I had been up to 93 that summer, and it dropped to about 87-89. That season I spent more time on the bench than I ever had in college. 

When my senior year rolled around I felt healthier and ready to go. I was still not throwing as hard, but my hopes were high. I was fully believing the Lord’s promise to finish his work in me and make his glory known. It wasn’t about my performance. I desired more than anything to see God’s presence and love become tangible and manifest on our team. Still, I expected that to happen in some way on the baseball field. 

In our first game of the year, however, I hit three batters in the span of nine pitches. I was pulled, and I didn’t pitch again for over a month. I was bewildered. I just didn’t get it. Why was God allowing me to go through this when all I wanted was to seek his will, to make his glory known, to see his people come back to him? 

I spent a lot of time yelling at God in frustration that year, urging him to come through and do what he said he would do.   

In my last two weeks, I finally began to get a few chances on the mound, and I held my own. I felt like myself again. Yet, as each day passed, I saw the writing on the wall. I knew God’s timing was perfect, but he was running out of time. The end of my career was a week away, signaling the closing of those dreams I had when I first came to George Fox as a freshman. 

Then Senior Day arrived. 

I wasn’t sure if I would get to pitch. But in the eighth inning, with our team holding a 9-8 lead, I got the call. As I took the mound, the only thought going through my mind was “You are so loved right now.”

Many of the fans in the ballpark knew my story. So when I struck out the first batter, the energy in the ballpark seemed to build. The second batter, a friend from high school, lined a single up the middle. Then I struck out the next batter, and the crowd’s energy grew even more. The last batter dribbled a grounder directly to me, and as I scooped it up and tagged first base, the place exploded. I started roaring as I walked back to the dugout, releasing four years of frustration and hope deferred.

The only way I can describe it today is that the Holy Spirit fell on a baseball field. I have never felt so loved and so near to the Father’s heart. The clutch God whose timing is always perfect came through in a way that could only be explained by pointing to him. All I could think as I left the field for the last time that day: his finished work is beautiful. 

When I surrendered my sport, my first love, he took it into his hands, and I lost it all. My health. My velocity. My comfort. My success. My dreams. My pride.

But when he says that losing our life for his sake is the way to true life, he is not kidding in the slightest. In place of my velocity, he gave me a passion and fire and message that did not rely on my gifts but his grace. In place of my comfort, he gave a resilience and grit that is ready to go to the ends of the earth to see his kingdom come and his will be done. In place of my success, he gave me compassion for those in all the spaces of sports: the stars, the go-to guys, the ones who fail beyond comprehension, the injured ones, the overlooked and forgotten, the frustrated, the insecure, and everyone in between.

In place of my dreams of professional baseball, he gave me bigger and greater dreams of helping build leaders who can transform sports into a place where his presence dwells richly and his kingdom becomes tangible. He gave me opportunities to serve and learn through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. And he sent me halfway across the country to study sports ministry at Baylor’s Truett Seminary.

One of my life verses—one that still makes me uncomfortable—is 2 Corinthians 12:9: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”

Like many athletes, I hate being weak. It isn’t fun. But the testimonies I have of watching God show up and make himself known in my weakness, both to myself and others, have far surpassed my insecure need to feel strong.   

If you are facing those battles and struggles, if you are feeling weak, know this: You have been set apart for a purpose, and the setting apart process hurts. The fire that refines and the valley that looks like it never ends are giving you a message and a life that could never have happened without the temporary and intense losses.   

My college athletic career was typical in some ways and unconventional in others. I wrestled with faith, identity, injuries, isolation, and hope deferred. I experienced physical, mental, and spiritual warfare. I also found God’s word to be true: you find your life by losing it. God has adventures for me that I wouldn’t have been able to step into without first losing what I thought was everything. 

My prayer for college athletes is that you would be with God where he is and say yes to the cost. I did not know the cost when I started my journey. If I did, I probably would have been terrified. But God truly is who He says He is. The Good Shepherd and Father, Friend and Healer, King and Savior. Knowing that God is worth it all. 

Austin Hallman is a lover of Jesus who is intensely passionate about seeing others walk in the fullness of who God calls them to be and in watching the kingdom of heaven become real in sports. He is a graduate student at Truett Seminary getting his Master of Arts in Christian Ministries with a Concentration in Sports Ministry and he got his Bachelor’s in Business Management at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. He is a proud son, brother, uncle, and friend and avid fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers and pizza.