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Ex-Saint and Super Bowl great talks big game, father’s struggles and God

Posted at 1:45 PM, Feb 01, 2013
and last updated 2013-02-01 12:46:14-05

By Jordan Hultine, CNN

(CNN) — As the 49ers and Ravens take the field in New Orleans’ Super Dome for Super Bowl XLVII, a man very familiar with that field, Chris Reis, will be watching the game with his family.

It was only three years ago that Reis was playing in the big game for the New Orleans Saints. He burst into the national spotlight with one unusual, but game-changing play, an onside kick recovery that surprised the opposition and many say paved the path for the Saints’ 31-17 victory over the Indianapolis Colts.

It was an unlikely position for a kid who grew up in a broken family, with a father who was in and out of his life and addicted to sex and alcohol. Reis broke through the obstacles to succeed, he says, in part by finding God in high school. He went on to play for Georgia Tech where he served as president of the school’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He was briefly signed as a free agent by the Atlanta Falcons, but the team cut him loose before he even saw field time. The Saints then signed him as a free agent, but sent him to play in the NFL Europe league. Later that year the team called him back to New Orleans where he played the next four years with the Saints.

His father, Mike Reis, finally broke the cycle of addiction after watching his son make that critical Super Bowl play — and realizing how much he’d overcome to get there. The pair is now closer than ever and recently co-wrote a book about their journey, “Recovery of a Lifetime.” They also share their stories, touring around the country as inspirational speakers.

Chris Reis sat down with CNN to talk about the book and his life experiences. Here are excerpts from that interview:

CNN: What was it like walking onto the field at the Super Bowl?

Reis: You never think you’re going to play in the Super Bowl, so walking onto the field, it just felt so surreal to me. I actually didn’t know if I was going to play the night before. I was the special teams guy, back up safety. So some games I would be up, some days I would be down — active, inactive. When they told me, “You’re up, you’re dressing,” little did I know … the onside kick would play a huge role in it.

CNN: How did it feel when people called you a hero of the game?

Reis: I don’t think I consider myself a hero. … I just felt more thankful that I could be a part of something so great. To me I was just doing my job. For people to call me a hero, of course that makes me feel good, it makes me feel like I’ve helped them and that’s what I wanted to do. But hero is such a strong word. 9/11 firefighters and policemen are heroes; I just covered up a ball. I helped win a game.

CNN: You write in the book you were expecting a big change after the Super Bowl, but what happened?

Reis: I think in today’s culture, everything is wrapped up in what we do, and I call it, “the next thing dilemma.” If I can just get that promotion, if I can just get on TV, if I can just win a Super Bowl, if I can just make more money. We’re always battling and hoping that next thing is going to satisfy us.

I think I had bought into society’s lie and built it up in my mind. I guess I expected a little more out of it, and now it’s like: What do I do? What is God calling me to do in my life? I really struggled for that off-season just finding purpose.

My purpose wasn’t really to win a Super Bowl. My purpose was my relationships within that season and what it really meant to us, but it took me a while to really understand that. And when people are harping at you that you’re a hero and that you won the Super Bowl and you have this ring, you kind of get this pride built up. And I’m like, well if that’s all this life is about, then it’s kind of sad.

I realize now that God has given me this gift of this onside kick and this semi-fame to be able to leverage it for his kingdom. To me, I can’t think of a better way to help people, to help people to understand our identity is not wrapped up in what we do, but (in) who we are and whose we are.

CNN: Your dad shares some incredible stories in the book. What was it like to learn so much about his sex and alcohol addiction?

Reis: No kid should know that much about their parents, and it was really hard writing this book because of that. There (were) a lot of emotional times. I knew a lot of what my dad did – didn’t know the extent of it – but it was really tough for us. It was tough for my dad to put that stuff in there. It doesn’t make him look good at all, let’s be realistic. But I think it shows the redemption, the recovery part of it. That’s the true recovery. We don’t ever try to tell people this is a sports book, because that’s not what it is. It’s a father-son book that just tells a story of redemption and how God’s love can fill any void in your life and can help restore relationships and redeem them. He did that through us.

CNN: Was the Super Bowl play the catalyst for your dad to quit drinking?

Reis: It wasn’t necessarily that play that inspired him, but it was more the significance of that play. It was really a recovery of “Wow, look how far Chris has come, and I claim to be a Christian, and I act this way.”

I think it helped inspire him. He’s an addiction coach now, helping people with substance abuse, and it’s amazing to see that. Everyone has their own catalyst. Everyone has their own, “I need to look back in my life and see what I need to change.” My dad’s was my life and this play. It helped put things in perspective. I think it was (God saying), “It’s time to surrender everything, not just portions of your life but everything in your life. Let me take care of it.” He’s been sober for almost three years now.

CNN: When did you become a Christian?

Reis: Throughout middle school and high school I had kind of been searching. … It twisted my thinking, it caused me to turn everything upside down and wonder, who is God? Sure, I believed in a God and I thought I understood it, but what does it mean to have a personal relationship? It was more of a process.

It was August of 2001. I’m coming home from a football practice in high school. I don’t know what it was at the time, but for some reason I had a bad practice and that sounds silly but that’s the walk I was going through and everything had sort of compounded.

This image of perfection that I was trying to keep up with was just weighing on me, and I needed someone to cry out to and I didn’t feel like I could cry out to anyone. I was in my car and I remember it was truly my first time talking to God and saying I can’t do this. It was the most authentic prayer that I prayed just saying, “I don’t want to do this life alone anymore. It’s just not fun.” For me it was that point of salvation that I really started to say, “This is who I want to be. This is how I want to be loved. This is the man I want to become.” … I made the decision that I was going to follow Christ with all that I have after that.

CNN: How did your faith play a role in your football career? Would you have been the same person without it?

Reis: No, I know for a fact I wouldn’t be the person I am without my faith. To me it’s who I am; it’s built the character. I want to look for ways to live out my faith in every opportunity.

Getting cut by the Falcons in 2006, my dream was over, crushed. I was about to get married, I felt like a bum. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I hadn’t graduated (from college) yet. So it’s like, “What are you doing with me, God?”

It was a lot of searching and praying that he has a plan for my life. Little did I know I would get shipped over (by the Saints) to NFL Europe. It was amazing to have the perspective that I’m not really over there for football — (and) to see the things that we saw: the people we were close with, the relationships that we built and to see the people who came to Christ and really started walking with him. I had an amazing season but that was secondary to what God was doing.

Then going into the NFL, people always ask about the Super Bowl: “How was it?” I always tell them the Super Bowl was great, onside kick was awesome. what I truly remember about that year, and it sounds cliché, … was the relationships that we built. We were so close as a team. We would hold Bible studies, and I saw marriages come together.

CNN: What do you hope to accomplish with the book? What do you want the take away to be?

Reis: What we want people to take away is just to be inspired. That it’s never too late to turn your life around, and this is not just from an addiction standpoint. When I go out and talk it’s always live for more — and it’s living for more than this world has to offer. If we’re just living for the next thing, hoping it will make us happy, it never does. We want to inspire people to be better husbands, better fathers, better mothers. We want to help people not make the same mistakes we did, and we want to give them a purpose to live for something greater than themselves.

Not everything is going to be perfect, but it can be better. We want to show the depths of how far my dad was – and not only that, but how he’s changed and that’s through the redeeming love of God. We can portray that love for other people and demonstrate how a heavenly father loves us and we can portray that that’s a God that wants to love you and have a personal relationship with you so it’s really important to us.

People want to feel like they’re not alone, and you’re not alone. Even a Super Bowl champion has problems in his family. It’s inspiring to us and we hope it inspires others.

CNN: Super Bowl prediction?

Reis: I’m going to say the 49ers, and I think with two great defenses, I don’t think it’s going to be a high scoring game. I’m thinking 21-17.