PLAINVIEW – Armando Garza looked at a big man wearing baggy black pants and a black jacket. Tattoos covered his body. His broken English with a heavy French accent was good enough to communicate, but could be difficult to understand.
“Mando,” he said. “Me and you, we will go out to the pub tonight and we will drink many glasses (of beer) and we will sleep with many beautiful women.”
It wasn’t the first thing Garza wanted to hear from his host roommate after arriving in Toulouse, France, as part of an Athletes in Action baseball team. Garza and fellow Wayland Baptist University teammate and Plainview High School graduate Todd Jeffress, joined the AIA group on the recommendation of Wayland coach Brad Bass.
Tattoo, as he preferred to be called, had picked the group up at the airport and sped through town, taking the players to where they would meet their hosts for their nearly three-week stay in Toulouse.
The AIA baseball team toured Europe during the summer, playing baseball and sharing testimonies and the plan of salvation with their opponents. Garza, who admits to being somewhat new to Christianity, was wondering what he had gotten himself into.
“I thought, I’m with a Christian group …” Garza recalled of his first encounter with Tattoo. “I was kind of scared of him.”
After a talk with his general manager and coach, and several nights in what Jeffress described as a “party town,” Garza finally decided to go out with Tattoo and his friends.
“I went out with him and it turns out that he didn’t drink at all,” Garza said. “It took a lot of pressure off of me. He didn’t drink, but he was still the life of the party everywhere he went.”
Graza and Jeffress were fascinated by the cultural difference and excited to play baseball and share Christ in Europe. However, the summer trip may have been more beneficial to them in their personal Christian walks.
Not only did the AIA group share with their opponents after each game, but they also held baseball clinics for children in each town and had an opportunity to witness to the kids as well.
“At first I was hesitant,” Garza said. “I thought it would be weird. But I found that they were curious.”
Garza said he was asked a lot of questions that he was sure he could answer, being new to the Christian walk as well.
Garza grew up attending the Catholic church with his family, but said it ended up just being a habit with no real meaning for him. At some point he stopped attending and didn’t return to church until he met Jesse Travis, the daughter of Drew Travis, who pastors the First Presbyterian Church in Plainview.
“I ended up going there and being part of the youth group. I was a little more interested, but at the same time it was just church and that was it,” Garza said.
It was until WBU assistant baseball coach Josh Milner started invited Garza to Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings that Garza really started asking questions.
“I always thought Christianity was just rules. Do this and don’t do that. Then there were all these self-righteous people who thought they were better than me. I didn’t want to hear that,” Garza said. “Then I got to Europe and they said it was nothing like that.”
Garza said what was emphasized most among the group during the trip was a personal relationship with God.
“That made sense to me,” Garza said.
Garza said the team’s GM used a sports analogy of playing to win instead of playing not to lose in your relationship with God.
“If you are playing to win, you are confident and you expect to win,” he said. “I applied that to my spiritual life and said that if I am playing to win, I will give everything to God. I put everything in God’s hands and I will go out and live life according to His will. That’s how you play to win.”
The biggest impact on Jeffress’ life came from the chapel services the team held in Atlanta, prior to leaving for Europe.
“Our chaplain was the chaplain for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers,” Jeffress said. “He had some amazing stories and that is what got to me – his faith.”
Jeffress was struggling with questions about what to do with his career and education, wondering if he should transfer and look at other educational opportunities. He was also thinking about a career in architecture or physical therapy, but wanted to remain around athletics.
“(The chaplain) was telling stories about faith and that God leads you where He wants you to go,” Jeffress said.
Jeffress began talking to the athletic trainer who had been in a similar situation, wanting to stay around sports. After spending time with the trainer, Jeffress is focused on pursuing a career as a trainer.
Aside from the journey of personal discovery, the group also had baseball games to play. The team split its games in Toulouse and continued playing in Prague, the Czech Republic and Germany where Jeffress pitched a perfect game. Jeffress said he gave up infield grounders to short and first that were easily handled, then struck out the rest.
“I just wished I was throwing like that against Oklahoma City,” he said.