Failing into success

Culture | A basketball player's trials led him down a life-changing road

Issue: "Aging in place," March 31, 2001

With so many stars shining during the NCAA basketball tournament, University of Kansas senior swingman Luke Axtell has been largely forgotten. By many people's standards, his basketball career has been an indisputable failure. Transferring after an outstanding freshman season at the University of Texas, Mr. Axtell has since sat out his sophomore season because of NCAA transfer rules, lost the final third of an unexceptional junior season to illness, and spent most of his senior season either on the bench in street clothes or playing limited minutes through the severe pain of injuries. But Mr. Axtell refuses to complain. "The Lord's concerned with where my heart is," he said. He would love to be on the court, fully healthy, and this season has been "super hard, super disappointing." Yet the trials have tested and strengthened his faith. He now sees hardships as coming from God for the good of believers: "People who don't believe that are just setting themselves up for a fall." That perspective is relatively new for Mr. Axtell. "I came to KU with the same expectations [as at Texas]," he said. "I'd score points, but for a winning team." And he would do it on his own, his way, just as he had for years. God, however, had apparently decided it was time for some lessons in humility. Mr. Axtell's antipathy to authority brought him into constant conflict with the KU coaching staff as he missed classes, turned up late for meetings, and generally pitted his will against the rules. "I knew they couldn't break me," he said, "so I did whatever I wanted." Running laps seemed a small price to pay for self-indulgence. Meanwhile, beneath the surface, issues he had ignored were chipping away at the veneer of strength. Media attacks and obscene phone calls from Texas fans had followed his controversial transfer, and Mr. Axtell pushed it all deep inside. After illness aborted his junior season in late January 2000, Mr. Axtell spent much of the next summer working out, and he returned to Kansas in top physical condition. But true peace continued to elude. "I was still doing it all on my own," Mr. Axtell said. Although he was taking a more disciplined approach to basketball and school, his heart had not changed. "I was still a hard partier," he admitted with a rueful laugh. "I was just more 'disciplined.' I didn't do it all the time." Inside, he remained torn between his self-will and his knowledge of what is right, until on the evening of his 22nd birthday-Sept. 19-he finally admitted to himself that he was daily moving farther from God and even his own ideals. "I couldn't be self-sufficient unless I wanted to be miserable," he said. That night he trusted in Christ for his salvation and was baptized in the chilly water of an outdoor pool. For the first time, Mr. Axtell discovered true peace. As he began following biblical principles rather than inventing his own, he discovered that life was better without the pressures of demanding complete control. He made his commitment public in a song he wrote for the season opening "Late Night with Roy Williams": "God gave His Son / to die on the cross for sins to come / Jesus, I long to see Your face / Jesus, I belong to You / Jesus, I live for You." Then the testing began. In early November, just hours before the KU team left for New York for its first regular season games, Mr. Axtell came down hard on a teammate's foot in practice and suffered the worst ankle sprain Coach Roy Williams had ever seen. As the ankle ballooned and the team doctor decreed that travel might make it worse, Mr. Axtell sat in the Allen Field House training room and cried. "It was as though God had hurt my feelings," he said. Gradually Mr. Axtell submitted to the test, accepting the injury as a challenge to his newfound faith and looking for the lessons to be learned. And as his season deteriorated-back spasms from a bulging disk followed the sprain and took him out of the Kansas line-up for this month's NCAA tournament-his reliance on God grew. "God has our best in mind; He knows our fears and our desires, and we can trust Him to do what's best for us." Mr. Axtell will never be remembered as a Kansas star. His name won't adorn the record books, but instead will be synonymous with unrealized potential. The NBA career he had aimed for since high school will probably never materialize. But his basketball career has not been a failure.

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