Jad Dean kicks for Clemson University in 2006.
Jad Dean kicks during a game in 2006           Copyright 2006 Vern Verna / Ai Wire

By Dean Lollis

Only 13 seconds remained when Clemson kicker Jad Dean stepped on the field attempt a 39-yard field goal.

It was his final home game of his senior year in 2006 and the Tigers were in Death Valley facing in-state rival South Carolina.  The Gamecocks held a 31-28 lead and this kick could send the game into overtime.

The field goal unit lined up, the snap came and Dean’s kick sailed wide left.  The Gamecocks won the game.

Since this was the rivalry game with South Carolina, the reaction to the missed kick was magnified, Dean said.  As a lifelong Clemson fan, Dean also magnified the missed opportunity in his mind.

“It was my last kick in Death Valley.  I missed it and walked off the field immediately after that.” Dean said.

That kick, coupled with what would follow it,  ultimately brought Dean to a spiritual journey that has changed his life.

To better understand what happens after that Carolina-Clemson game, you have to know more of how Dean arrived at that moment.

You might say that Dean’s blood flowed orange.  He grew up as a “diehard Clemson fan.”

“Until the end of my senior year in college, I had not missed a home Clemson game since, probably, third grade,” he said.

He had a standout career at Greenwood High School (S.C.) and received numerous regional and state honors.  Two recruiting groups (rivals.com and Superprep) ranked him as the top kicking prospect in South Carolina.

Dean was prepared to sign with Georgia when he received a call from Clemson.  A couple days later, Dean was officially going to play for the team he had rooted for for so many years.

In an interview at the time, Dean said: “I honestly didn’t think I would have this opportunity.  I didn’t think Clemson would offer a (scholarship for a) kicker and I was prepared to go out of state. This is like a dream come true.”

During his freshman season, Dean handled kickoffs and was named Special Teams Player of the Week after kicking four touchbacks against in-state rival South Carolina. In his sophomore season, he handled kicking field goals and extra points.  He, once again, was named Special Teams Player of the Week when he kicked three field goals in a win over South Carolina.

It was his junior season, though, that raised Dean’s status as one of the best kickers in college football.  He was one of the finalists for the Lou Groza Award which honors the nation’s top placekicker.   There was chatter and raised expectations that Dean would have the opportunity to play in the NFL.

That season, Dean kicked a 49-yard field goal in a win against the Gamecocks.  It was the longest field goal of his college career and he now had been a part of three straight wins over South Carolina.

Even with the notoriety he was receiving in that season, he knew that his fortunes could change quickly.

“The kicker is either the hero or they hate you,” he said. “There is no in-between. If they don’t remember anything about you, it was probably a good game.”

Then, during his senior year, he started to have some struggles on the field that led him to struggle with his faith.

“This was the first adversity I had,” he said, leading him to think that “the Lord was punishing me for not behaving, for not being a good Christian.”

There were high expectations on Dean from himself and from fans.  Yet, that season became a struggle for Dean to consistently connect on his kicks.

At the time, Dean said this when asked about his struggles: ”I don’t know. In my mind, I feel I am one of the best in the country and I’m just having little struggles right now.”

That regular season ended with the missed field goal against South Carolina.  That led him to a deeper struggle with God.

“I go from the year before where I was feeling on top of the world to getting death threats from (some) Clemson fans,”  he says. “And South Carolina fans were calling and tell me how much they loved me.”

It was a “dark time,” he said, and, in some ways, he felt like an outcast.

In the next week following the South Carolina game, he said, students avoided him in hall, some would avoid riding the elevator when they saw he was one it.  Even his friends struggled in what to stay to him.

“I was hurt, I didn’t understand and I was questioning God,” Dean said. “I thought he was angry at me.  I thought he was punishing me for not being a good enough Christian.”

A little more than a month later, the effects of that missed kick still seemed to be affecting Dean. He missed two field goal opportunities in a 28-20 loss to Kentucky in the Music City Bowl.  It was his last game in a Clemson uniform.

In some ways, “the” field goal overshadowed what he had accomplished in his career at Clemson.  Dean ended his career ranked fifth among all Clemson kickers for points scored in a game.

That missed kick would continue to haunt him in the years that followed. Eventually, Dean said, he tried to push it to the back of his mind because “it was almost too painful to think about.”

“There was a lot of hurt that I had to deal with,” he said.  It was hard to forget the calls, the messages on Facebook, and the comments on the message boards.

“99.9 percent (of the comments) were loving and supportive,” Dean said, adding that most of the negative responses came from a “vocal minority.”

His pain carried over into what had been one of his greatest passions growing up.  It became difficult for him to even watch Clemson games on television.

“It was five to six years later before I could even say I was content about it,” Dean said.  “I realize now that’s not my identity and it’s not who I am.”

His journey would take him to a couple of tryouts at NFL camps that did not pan out.  Eventually, he signed with the Greenville (S.C.) Force of the Arena League in 2009.  A back injury ended his season and he found himself home in Greenwood.

As he worked to recover from a back injury, he had the opportunity to find healing and peace in faith. The idea of faith wasn’t something that was new to Dean.  As he was growing up, his family attended church and he was there every Wednesday and Sunday evening.

“At one of the summer Christian retreats, I went down, said the prayer and was baptized,” He said.  “I thought that because I went to church and because I thought I was a good kid, that made me a Christian.”

In college, he had attended church and FCA meetings in what he describes as “almost an attempt to get in the good graces with the Lord so that he would bless football.”

Now that he was home again, an opportunity would present itself that would give him a new way to see his relationship with Christ.  While he was working out at the Greenwood YMCA, an FCA leader and family friend asked Dean to be a counselor at an upcoming FCA camp. That’s when things began to come together.

“I felt that every single speaker was speaking right to me,” he said.

In the time between the teaching and preaching sessions, he sat in his car and read through the FCA Bible that he received from the camp.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “But I knew something was happening.”

He wanted to know more about God and the gospel. Over the next few months, he read through the Bible multiple times.  It brought him to a moment of clarity about what he had been worshipping.

“Football was my god,” he said.  “It took something like me losing it for me to realize it was an idol that was in my life. Anytime football wasn’t going right, I thought it was because of my behavior.”

His perspective changed to see that faith was not about doing something to get something from God.  Through reading the Gospels, he realized the part that he had been missing was the other piece of the puzzle.  It was a matter of knowing Jesus and experiencing grace.

His new faith journey led him to experience a call from God into ministry.  Within six months, Dean started classes at Erskine Theological Seminary.  Today, he is a semester short of finishing his degree.

His faith has also given him a chance to have a new perspective on his journey through sports and his dreams of playing in the NFL.  A couple of years into his faith journey, he says that he came to realize that even if he made it to the NFL, there was a longing in him that would not be satisfied by football alone.

“Nothing was ever enough,” Dean said.  “It took something like this to help me realize it.”

Dean’s faith journey and his college football experience have opened doors for him to preach and speak to others.  He hopes that his story finds common ground with those who are listening.

“Everybody’s situation is different, but we are all searching for something,” he said. “We all place our identity in something.”

Today, Dean and his wife, Jena, live in Columbia but are in the process of moving as Dean starts a new job in Georgia.

As he looks ahead, He knows that God has called him into ministry, Dean said.  As he looks to the next few years of his life he can see himself working in full-time ministry in some capacity.

“I’m not sure what capacity it is that the Lord has called me to,” he said.  He, however, could see himself serving as a team’s chaplain.

“I love being around sports and love being athletes,” he said. “I have seen the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. “

As he continues his journey, Dean knows that it is a process of growing in his relationship with Christ.  In the future, he says, “I hope that I’m even closer to the Lord than I am now.”

“A year or two after I met the Lord, I felt God’s presence incredibly,” he said. “Whether that it is bible study or class, I’m 110 percent or nothing.”

So, he seeks to find balance in growing in his faith, looking to a possible opportunity to serve in ministry and in growing in his relationship with his wife.

It’s been nearly 10 years since he stepped on the field against South Carolina.  What happened in those final 13 seconds have given him a chance to experience grace, peace and healing in his relationship with God.

Dean Lollis is a writer for reignitemystory.com.  He can be reached at reignitemystory@gmail.com or follow on Twitter at @reignitemystory.