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Story Archives: Heart of a Champion
|Heart of a Champion|
Huntington graduate Joe Champion ministers to thousands of people each Sunday as founding Senior Pastor of Celebration Church, a multi-site church with campuses in the Austin, Texas metroplex and in Mozambique, Africa.
But he credits his time as a long-snapper at LSU with preparing him to preach in front of throngs of people.
"I credit looking out between my legs at all the people in Tiger Stadium to looking out at all the people on Sunday morning," Champion said.
Champion, who turned 47 on Thursday, has certainly come a long way since his days of playing football at Huntington, a school which closed down last year much to the former lineman's dismay.
"I will never forget playing games on Lake Concordia (at original Huntington Stadium) and hearing the cotton gin press," he said. "Some of the best friends I have were from those days from 1980-83 at Huntington."
Football was all Champion knew growing up. His father, Jim Champion, was an outstanding football player in high school in Charleston, Ms. He earned a scholarship to Mississippi State, where he played offensive and defensive tackle.
Jim played three years of professional football for the New York Yanks and Dallas Texans.
He then spent more than 30 years in the coaching ranks, starting as an assistant coach at Mississippi State.
Joe served as ball boy for the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons when his father was an assistant coach for both teams. Jim was also an assistant with the St. Louis Cardinals and New Orleans Saints.
The Champions moved to Natchez in the summer of 1980 and then to Lake St. John in the fall.
Champion began playing football at Huntington as a sophomore under Joe Meeks.
"I remember we had 60 guys and one Universal weight machine with five or six stations," Champion said. "Every 30 seconds Coach Meek would blow that whistle and we would rotate."
Champion, standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 160 at the time, played offensive guard and defensive tackle.
"I remember my first two plays on defense I jumped offsides," he said.
By his senior year, Champion was playing both ways. He actually began duties as a long-snapper in junior high at Dunwoody Junior High in Atlanta.
"My dad already knew that no matter how big or small you were, long-snapping could be a ticket," Champion said. "It ended up being my bread and butter. When I was a sophomore, we would get in the backyard and I would snap 100 balls a day to him. He would wear his ski gloves and just slap the ball down."
Champion was named first team All-State and all-district at guard as a senior and was selected to play in the Louisiana Independent Schools Association All-Star game.
Champion received offers from Louisiana-Monroe and Louisiana Tech.
"And all the schools in Arkansas," he said. "I was kind of scared of those Arkansas schools because of their mascots (Arkansas-Monticello Boll Weevil, Arkansas Tech Wonder Boys and Southern Arkansas Muleriders)."
Champion signed with Southeastern Louisiana. He was red-shirted his freshman year in Hammond and played offensive tackle and special teams. Champion underwent knee surgery and following his sophomore year talked with LSU head coach Bill Arnsparger about transferring.
"I heard rumors that Southeastern was giving up football," Champion said. "I talked to Coach Arnsparger, who said he needed a long snapper."
Southeastern dropped its football program the following year and Champion earned a scholarship to LSU in 1986.
"Long-snapping was not as critical then as it is now," Champion said. "Everything is much more specialized now, even in life. Back then your offensive tackle would be a kicker. But now with everything being faster and guys coming off the ends being quicker, you have to be specialized.
Champion was part of the LSU football team which went 9-3 in 1986, going 5-1 to win the SEC. The Tigers lost to Nebraska 30-15 in the Sugar Bowl.
"We had to ride a bus to the game with our Walkman's on, while Nebraska players got out of their cars with their wives and strollers," said Champion, who had to go head-to-head with All-American Danny Noonan on punts and PATs. "The Sugar Bowl actually ended up being the last game my dad got to see me play."
Jim Champion died January 10, 1987.
LSU went 10-1-1 in 1987, defeating South Carolina 30-13 in the Gator Bowl.
"The bowl games were the highlight," Champion said. "Those were a lot of fun. We were treated so well. It was like a dream come true."
Champion said he has enjoyed LSU's recent success on the gridiron.
"I was so pleased with the end of last season," he said. "It was a little rocky with the question marks surrounding(Jordan) Jeffeson, but they really got stronger toward the end. I'm going to try and make the Oregon game in Dallas."
Champion married Lori Champion in July of 1990.
They have three boys — Mason, who is going to be a freshman at LSU; Connor, who is 14; and Jackson, 11, who attended the Les Miles football camp.
"I still have some LSU connections," Champion said
Jackson was named after former Trinity Episcopal football coach Jack Benson, who is a close friend of the Champions.
After college, Champion worked out for a few NFL teams.
"But I knew I was too small and my heart was with the ministry," he said.
Champion was considering becoming a chaplain in the military.
"But God sent me in a different direction," he said.
Champion became youth pastor at a church in New Orleans and served as co-pastor of that church from 1989-93.
Champion then moved on to become senior pastor at a church in Donaldsonville from 1993-98.
From 1998-2000, Champion hit the road as a full-time speaker.
He arrived in Austin in 2000 where he planted the seeds for Celebration Church, where he and his wife serve as pastors.
Champion is passionate about helping people connect with their destinies through the life-giving ministry of the local church. He serves on the lead team of the Association of Related Churches.
Over the years, Celebration Church has grown from the Champion family of five to over 9000 people in attendance each week across four different campuses, both locally and internationally.
Celebration Church is a non-denominational church with a vision to reach the city of Austin, and the globe (Africa, New Zealand and soon in Australia), with the gospel of Jesus Christ and to raise up and train ministers, missionaries and Christian leaders through the Celebration School of Ministry.
Champion is a globally recognized leader and speaker, serving on the boards of OneHope, Association of Related Churches (ARC) and Oral Roberts University.
"It's kind of surreal at times," Champion said. "It's very similar to playing in Tiger Stadium, it's a rush. And you never know what's going to happen from Sunday to Sunday. Just like when you were the snapper, everybody is watching you."
Texas governor Rick Perry, who is running for president, has been a visitor to Champion's church and is one of his many influential friends.
"We are involved in the community extensively," Champion said. "It is a very humbling thing."
Champion served as chaplain of the University of Texas football team last year. He became good friends with former Longhorn assistant coach Will Muschamp, who is now head coach at Florida.
Muschamp asked Champion to perform the chapel service the Friday before Florida's game at LSU on October 8.
"I've got to figure out what to tell my friends. I'll just tell them the Lord doesn't answer all prayers in Tiger Stadium," Champion said with a laugh.
Champion said he is grateful for his many blessings, but added that his parents, Jim and Sarah, had a lot to do with that.
"My dad always planted within us the expectations to do big things," Champion said."My brother, Greg, just retired as a 2-star general in Afghanistan. My dad always challenged us and instilled in us the desire to do something. But we remain humble. It's like the story of Saul, who faltered when he became a big shot. We're thankful for the growth of our church, but it's nothing compared to what can be done."
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