Former NFL quarterback answers call, prepares to move to Kenya
FRANKLIN — Rusty Smith has spent most of his life on the football field.
Now, he’s headed to a different field: The mission field.
Smith, a former NFL quarterback who played with the Tennessee Titans and New York Giants, will leave next summer with his family to begin serving a two-year commitment in Kijabe, Kenya, as part of the Africa Inland Mission team.
Smith will be teaching at Rift Valley Academy — a Christian boarding school in central Kenya operated by Africa Inland — and will be assisting with the spread of the gospel to unreached people groups.
It will be a major change for Smith, who has spent the past eight years as a head football coach and teacher at Grace Christian Academy (in Franklin), and for his wife, Nicole, who was the head volleyball coach at GCA and a former college volleyball star.
It will likewise be a big adjustment for Smith’s four sons — Rustyn (age 9), Camdyn (8), Koltyn (6) and Eastyn (2).
Still, Smith said there was no denying he been called to take on this challenge.
“God made His plans for us abundantly clear,” said Smith, who is currently working as a systems analyst for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. “This is what He wants us to do.”
Although Smith has had a relationship with the Lord since childhood, he never envisioned becoming a missionary. Rather, he assumed that sports — and football in particular — would be his livelihood.
And certainly, everything in his life seemed to be pointing him in that direction.
Growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., he was a standout athlete from childhood through high school, earning honors in multiple sports.
He then went on to have a celebrated career as quarterback at Florida Atlantic University, where he compiled school records in passing yards (10,112) and touchdowns (76) while playing for legendary coach Howard Schnellenberger.
Smith led FAU to its first-ever bowl appearance in 2007, followed by another bowl berth in 2008. He was named the 2007 Sun Belt Conference player of the year.
Smith was drafted by the Titans as a sixth-round pick in 2010. He spent four years in the NFL, seeing limited action while serving as a back-up quarterback.
After leaving professional football, Smith soon began his coaching career — and he figured that would be the end of the story.
“When I was at Grace Christian, I honestly thought that was where I would retire,” said Smith. “I thought I would be coaching and teaching until I died. I loved my job. I thought I had the best job in the world.”
Funny thing, though. God had something else in mind.
And just when Smith thought he had his life all mapped out, he suddenly had to call an audible at the line of scrimmage.
The seed is planted
This past January, Smith attended Passion 2022 (the annual Passion Conference developed by Louis Giglio) as a chaperone for a group of students from Grace Christian Academy.
Smith was responsible for transportation — which didn’t go especially well. “We were having a really major issue with one of the vans, and so I was not able to listen to about half of the speakers at the conference,” Smith said.
But one of the few sessions that Smith was able to attend turned out to be a life-changing event.
“I was only able to hear about two or three of the featured speakers, but one of them was David Platt,” said Smith. “I’ll be honest, before this conference, I had no idea who David Platt even was. Never heard of him. I was never interested in missions, and never felt the call to go into missions.”
But Platt’s message that day touched a chord with Smith.
“While Platt was teaching, I was just eating it up,” he said. “His whole message was explaining, from Old Testament to New Testament, why God wants us to take the gospel to the ends of the world and to all the people groups across the nations.”
Smith remembered how excited he was at that moment. “I was thinking to myself, ‘God, I’ll go wherever you want. This is definitely what you want me to do, and I’ll go wherever you need me to. ’ ”
But after the session came to a close, Smith began to feel differently. He said he thought he had simply been swept up in the moment. And the more he thought about it, the less inclined he felt to follow through.
He was happy and content with his role at GCA — and had no plans to change.
“I convinced myself that I was doing what God wanted me to do: coaching and teaching,” Smith said. “I remember thinking, ‘He’s not calling me into the mission field.’ ”
Seeing the signs
As the memories of the conference began to fade, Smith went on with life. But little did he know, he was about to have a “Jonah-Go-To-Nineveh” experience.
“About two weeks after the conference, God closed a door that I would’ve never closed,” said Smith. “He closed the door from coaching football in a way that I could not avoid and ignore. And over the next four weeks, my wife and I were in shock. It just came out of nowhere.”
Smith then began putting out “feelers” with schools and coaching staffs where he had connections (either previous teammates or friendships). He got in touch with high schools of all sizes — public, private, Christian — and even reached out to a couple of colleges.
There was no response. From anyone.
“None of the places that I was interested in called me back. Not one place,” he said.
“It was weird because you would think that you’d at least get a phone call back or a response e-mail for a guy that played quarterback in the NFL for four years, had eight years of head coaching experience and has a track record of taking teams to the playoffs,” he said. “But no. I didn’t hear from anybody.”
One night, while having dinner with friends, Smith was discussing his situation, and causally mentioned — almost jokingly — that maybe God wanted him to get out of football and go to the mission field.
His friends, much to his surprise, agreed. Yes, they said, it sounded like God was calling him.
Smith said he immediately began to think back to David Platt’s message.
“My heart started racing,” Smith recalled. “I had goosebumps and cold sweats. … When dinner ended and we got in the truck, I said to my wife, ‘Look, I don’t know how to say this, so I’m just going to come out and say it: I think God might be calling us into the mission field.’ And her response was, ‘Okay, well, let’s go.’ ”
And with that, Smith surrendered. There was no dodging Nineveh this time.
Falling into place
Smith had no idea what the first step was in becoming a missionary. He said he literally typed the phrase “how to be a missionary” into the Google search bar and hit the return button.
Eventually, Smith and his wife began looking into some of the most widely-known missionary organizations — IMB, Ethnos360, ABWE and African Inland Mission — to see where God was leading them.
For a brief period, they felt they were being called to serve in Manila, Philippines. They even began making arrangements to make the move.
But then another twist occurred.
One day, Smith received two separate e-mails regarding Rift Valley Academy — the school that works through Africa Inland Mission. Smith said this was no coincidence.
“Completely out of the blue, two different missionary organization mobilizers, from two different organizations, sent me an e-mail on the same day, a couple hours apart,” said Smith. “Both of them basically said, ‘You need to look into Rift Valley Academy through Africa Inland Mission.”
From there, things began to fall into place.
“God just kept opening doors,” said Smith. “We eventually accepted membership to their mission organization and then ultimately accepted an appointeeship to go to Rift Valley Academy where we will be living on campus in Kijabe, Kenya.”
The Smiths, who will be raising their own support for their mission work, will begin “doing life” in Kenya in July.
Smith’s duties will include teaching at the boarding school where more than 500 students live.
“These students and their families live all across the continent of Africa among people groups who are either unreached or unengaged, and they don’t have the gospel presented to them or accessible to them in any way, shape or form,” he said.
One way that Africa Inland is sharing the gospel is by helping transcribe the Bible for people groups who do not have a written version of their language.
“Our organization will send a team in to learn the language, learn the culture, create an alphabet, translate the Bible into their language, and then present the gospel,” said Smith, noting that the Bible-translation process will likely take 20 years or longer to complete.
“That’s what our organization does,” he added. “The desire, purpose and vision of our organization is to see Christ and our churches in these tribes and villages who don’t have access to the gospel.”
Preparing the family
Smith is obviously aware that his life is soon going to be quite different.
No more coaching. No more watching football on TV. Essentially, no more sports at all.
And yet, as difficult as that transition might be — especially for a sports-minded family — Smith said his four boys understand that something bigger than football is taking place.
“There are some sacrifices involved with going to Kenya, knowing that there’s not going to be American football, there’s not going to be baseball, there’s not going to be an emphasis on athletics like there is here,” he said.
“Those are going to be things that our kids are going to miss. Those are going to be things that I’m going to miss,” Smith said. “And so that’s definitely hard, and we’ve already started to say goodbye to some of those things now.
“But the boys seem to be understanding why we’re doing it,” he said. “Nicole and I are trying to do our very best to be open with them in terms of explaining the purpose of this. It’s a biblical commandment for us to do these things.”
Smith said most of the knowledge that his younger boys have about Africa is from watching the movie, “The Lion King.”
“They’re all relatively excited,” said Smith. “The middle two are still thinking more along the lines of, ‘This is going to be an adventure.’ And one of my sons thinks he is going to have a pet lion.”
There is, of course, some sadness among Smith’s family and friends, who know that they will have only limited communications in the years ahead.
“I mean, we are not just moving to the other side of the country,” said Smith, “but to the other side of the globe.”
Change of heart
During his career as a football player, Smith tried to be a witness for Christ in the locker room and on the field. But he certainly did not envision becoming a missionary one day.
“Never,” he said.
In fact, he made it very clear that he had no intention of going into the mission field.
“Early in my marriage, my wife went on a short-term mission trip, and when she got back, she said, ‘I think (going on mission trips) is something that we should do.’ And I told her very abruptly, ‘No, absolutely not. I’m playing football and I’m going to play football for a long time, and then when I’m done playing football, I’m going to coach football. So, no, I’m not interested.’ ”
Now, though, roughly a dozen years later, Smith finds himself preparing for a trip to Africa to share the gospel.
“It’s pretty crazy to think about,” he said. “We’ll be leaving on July 1 for training. And then, almost before we know it, we will be in Kenya. And then, it’s game on.”
A whole new game, as it turns out, for the former NFL player. B&R
To learn more about Smith’s ministry, contact him by e-mail at email@example.com or go online to https://usgiving.aimint.org missionary/120320.