The following story on Napoleon Kaufman appeared as the cover story of the Sports section in the Mercury News.
Published Sunday, Nov. 25, 2001, in the San Jose Mercury News
Kaufman announced in 1996 that he had a spiritual awakening. It wasn’t big news. We read every day about athletes finding God, see them kneeling in end zones, hear them sprinkling references about “my Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” into interviews.
Often these acts and words are met with skepticism from people who prefer a separation of church and sport, who wonder if these religious conversions are more about image-making than sincere belief.
But Kaufman didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the walk — leaving behind the NFL and the final year of a contract that would have paid him $2.5 million. And make no mistake, Kaufman left while he still could play. His 4.9-yards-per-carry average ranked fifth all-time for running backs with 750 rushing attempts or more, trailing only Jim Brown, Mercury Morris, Gale Sayers and Barry Sanders.
An ordained minister who now runs Crucified With Christ Ministries, Kaufman spends his weekends preaching at churches, mostly around the state.
He hasn’t looked back. He hasn’t had time.
“Football was a means to an end,” Kaufman says. “Don’t get me wrong. I loved the game. But now I’m doing what I was born to do. Scoring a thousand touchdowns in a year wouldn’t measure up to this. There’s so much more to life than just that game.”
As he speaks, Kaufman sits in a side room at the Civic Auditorium in downtown San Jose, minutes before he will take the stage at a youth rally. His voice steadily rises as he describes his religious conversion and how it has led him down a road less traveled.
“I can’t take $5 million with me when I leave this planet,” he says. “I can’t take cars or clothes or even the cheers. So many people are concerned about the life that is and not about the life that is to come.”
Then he leaps to his feet.
“Man, I just get so fired up talking about this!” he shouts.
Do you need to ask if he’s happy with his choice?
`I was empty inside’
Ask Kaufman a question and you will receive a sermon.
“You know how people say you usually come to God when you’re down and out?” he says. “Well, I came to God when I was up and out. I had money, cars, fame, everything. But I still felt horrible. I had all these things, and yet I wasn’t happy. I was empty inside.”
He was a first-round draft pick with a multi-million-dollar contract and the toys, perks and companionship that come with being a well-known pro athlete.
This was a much different world than anything he could have envisioned during a troubled upbringing in Lompoc with his single-parent mom, who was battling a drug problem. He has said that there were times he stole food because they had no money. He did a stint in reform school after getting caught stealing bicycles.
But sports, as it so often does, proved to be his ticket out.
A high school coach took an interest in him. Football gave him a sense of purpose and helped straighten out his life. His confidence grew as he blossomed into a 5-foot-9, 185-pound speedster. He earned a scholarship to the University of Washington.
From there it was on to the Raiders, for whom he still might be playing if not for a locker-room incident in 1996. Kaufman, always a brash personality with a swagger, had been swearing loudly when teammate Jerone Davison — an ordained minister — confronted him.
“You don’t look like the kind of person that should be cursing,” Davison told Kaufman. “You can do a lot for the kingdom of God if you just cleaned up your life.”
Thunderstruck by that thought, Kaufman says he woke up the next day a different person. This change, he adds, wasn’t as sudden as it sounds. He was baptized at age 11 by a concerned pastor. But it didn’t take. Yet years later, after he had made it big in the NFL, Kaufman would ask himself why he didn’t feel satisfied.
“God had been chasing me down for a while,” he explains.
When he was tackled, Kaufman says he finally felt at peace. Within a week he married his long-time, live-in girlfriend, Nicole. She turned to religion, too. So did Kaufman’s mother. And some teammates, such as guard Steve Wisniewski.
“One year we baptized six guys in the Raiders whirlpool,” Kaufman says.
A guy who would read the Bible in the locker room, Kaufman made no secret about feeling the church’s tug. The two-year deal he signed before last season contained a clause that allowed him to keep all of his $2.5 million signing bonus even if he didn’t play the second season.
Although he continued to be effective when he was healthy, Kaufman rushed for a career-low 499 yards in 93 carries last year as a backup to Tyrone Wheatley. He battled leg injuries that caused him to miss two games and limited him in others. He carried the ball just once in the playoffs.
As Kaufman grappled with his retirement decision, he consulted with David Cannistraci, the senior pastor at San Jose’s Evangel Christian Fellowship — Kaufman’s home church even though he lives in Alamo. Cannistraci asked him why he couldn’t play a few more seasons.
“Napoleon told me he had lost his excitement for the game,” Cannistraci said. “He wanted to preach. I respect him for being true to himself with a decision that I’m sure is going to cost him millions over the next few years.”
On April 11, Kaufman made it official — closing a six-year career with 4,792 yards in 978 carries and 12 touchdowns. And it was a clean break. He hasn’t paid much attention to the Raiders this season.
“When it comes to Sundays, I’m usually in a local church preaching,” says Kaufman, who usually receives a pass-the-plate offering from congregations for his ministry. “For the most part, I’m busy.”
He has kept in contact with former teammates such as Wheatley and Wisniewski, who says Kaufman misses his football friends, but not the game itself.
“I don’t think he has any regrets,” said Wisniewski, who is expected to retire after this season and pursue his own religious calling. “He’s being used by God in a mighty way. People who are going to see him preach and teach are blessed, and some lives are transformed by what he’s doing now.”
In fact, Kaufman has long-term goals of opening shelters for battered women and the homeless in Oakland, as well as starting a youth camp. A self-published book about his life is about to come out, and last weekend he began a Sunday morning Christian show on a Marin County cable TV station.
But why not continue playing football on Sunday and use that pulpit to spread the word?
“Does Billy Graham need football?” he asks. “It’s the message, not the football.”
New arena, same confidence
Kaufman, a drama major in college, is at ease as he walks on stage at the youth rally.
He introduces himself as someone who recently retired from the Raiders. But it will be the last reference to his former life. He could, for example, tell them how the 1991 national championship ring he earned at Washington now sits, tarnished, in a jewelry box at his home. But while it is a telling symbol of how he has changed, Kaufman avoids references to football.
This is typical of Kaufman, Cannistraci says.
“There are athletes who will stand up and always give the same speech,” Cannistraci says. “`This is how I grew up. This is how I got saved. This is my life now.’ But they’re not really ministers. They’re athletes who give speeches about their faith. Napoleon doesn’t play that card.
“He’s not one of these phony stage actors who gets into ministry. He’s the real deal.”
Kaufman also is a charismatic communicator. As he speaks, Kaufman’s rhythmic cadence creates the atmosphere of an old-fashioned revival. He begins his appearance at this rally by reading a Biblical passage that springboards into a sermon encouraging these young people to think for themselves and to become leaders.
Heads nod in agreement. Sometimes there are shouts of “Amen!” — like when he tells them not to emulate the images that they see on MTV.
Slowly, the decibel level of his voice rises as he builds to a crescendo, shouting a torrent of words that urge and plead his listeners to live righteous lives. By the time he’s finished, Kaufman has brought the small, cheering crowd to its feet.
But he’s not done. Kaufman asks the teenagers to approach the stage. While they eagerly come forward, he whispers into the microphone, repeating the same phrase.
“Thank you, Jesus.”
Once, when he wore the Raiders’ silver and black, young people flocked to him asking for autographs. This night, they waited for him to come down from the stage and place his hands on their heads and pray with them.
A few minutes later, Kaufman sits on a stairwell outside the convention hall, a look of utter peace on his face. If people could see him at this moment, he says, they wouldn’t wonder if he made the right choice.
“Could anything else be this special?”