Last summer, NFL quarterback Christian Ponder found himself contemplating retiring from the game. Only 28 years old, his roller-coaster career had left him in-between teams, and team spots were filling up quickly.
“I was grateful for the opportunity to have been on the football field,” he says, “but I was starting to talk to a few companies about either doing some TV stuff or going into the business world; I wasn’t sure what I would do.”
Christian had spent his first four seasons in pro football with the Minnesota Vikings, who decided not to re-sign him for the 2015 season after a few injuries and inconsistencies. He’d quarterbacked some great and not-so-great games for the Vikings, and fans sometimes booed him.
“It’s tough to know you’re disappointing people and not living up to their expectations,” he says. “The pressure that other people put on me is usually not that big of a deal to me because I expect so much of myself. But sometimes I’d get my priorities mixed up and let that get me down. But God builds your reliance on Him when you go through those things.”
After Minnesota, Christian went with the Oakland Raiders but was cut in September 2015. He then spent 13 days with the Denver Broncos, when Peyton Manning was injured, before he was released that December. Since then, Christian had worked out for a few other teams and gleaned some interest here and there, but there were no bites.
Until last summer.
Thad Lewis unfortunately tore his ACL in pre-season, and the San Francisco 49ers needed more reliability on their quarterback bench.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen with my career,” Christian comments, “so I was surprised to get a call from the 49ers and get another chance. One thing I’ve come to realize is that God’s plans are often different from mine. I try to remember that my relationship with Him needs to be my number one priority, and that there’s a reason for everything that’s going on around me.”
Christian grew up in a strong Catholic household, but his faith in God had grown stronger over the past few years, when he started attending a non-denominational church that stressed relationship over ritual.
“I’d always thought that if I honoured God, He would bless me on the field,” Christian says. “But after all the ups and downs, I thought maybe He wanted me done with football. I finally said, ‘That’s OK. If God says I’m done, I’m done.’ God presented this opportunity with the Niners because I was finally just seeking His purpose for me. When I left the consequences up to Him, that’s when the anxiety of ‘making the team’ left me and freed me up to pass my audition.”
For as long as it lasts, Christian hopes to make the most of the relationships he is now developing in San Francisco.
“It’s important to have fun, and the friendships you build in football are great,” he comments. “You get to be around men of similar ages and interests. I want to be purposeful in how God wants to use me as I hang out with the guys. We have started up a Bible study, because it’s so important to connect with people who can keep you accountable with all the temptations you face.”
Life on the road sometimes offers extra temptations, a factor that Christian’s wife, Samantha, also faces in her work as an ESPN reporter.
“Sam grew up with a family who was very strong in their faith,” says Christian, “so I fully trust her when we are often travelling separately.”
In 2014, Vogue called them one of the coolest couples in the NFL, and the way they met was even cooler.
“We had some mutual friends, but we basically started talking over Twitter,” Christian laughs. “Then we finally met up in Dallas, where I am from. We had the same weekend off and started dating, then married three months later.”
That was December 12, 2012; daughter Scout was born a year and a half later.
“Being a dad is awesome!” he smiles. “It’s definitely a lot of work but work that’s worth it. She’s now two years old. Everyone told us how fast time would fly and it’s so true. You don’t understand until you’re in it.
“The Bay Area here is one of the most desirable places to live,” he continues, “and everyone has treated me great. I’ve connected well with coach Chip Kelly and hopefully this will be long-term.”
With whatever remains of this roller-coaster ride that is football, Christian keeps his focus on his heavenly Father.
“I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds my future,” he says. “I am always choosing a new favourite verse as I read through the Bible. Right now, it’s Proverbs 3:5: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.’ “