Isiah Gonzalez was convinced the moment Kasey Dougherty said the word Eagles.
Dougherty, who joined FCA’s staff in September 2016, wanted to grow the ministry’s impact in Philadelphia. She began inviting high school students — especially student-athletes — in spring 2017 to two new weekly Bible studies through FCA’s Community Huddles. Dougherty knew Gonzalez, a 16-year-old junior at the time, played flag football through Timoteo, a Christian sports nonprofit organization. Her hook for Gonzalez was the fact that players from the Philadelphia Eagles, in partnership with FCA and Timoteo, had agreed to come speak and co-lead the eight-week Huddles.
“If I get a chance to meet the Eagles, I’m going,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve been a diehard Eagles fan.”
A teenage fanatic, Gonzalez has been energized by the Eagles’ performance this season ahead of their Super Bowl appearance Sunday against the New England Patriots. No matter the game’s outcome, Gonzalez said he will always cherish this season for the rest of his life. His reasons, besides watching the Eagles’ success, are Dougherty and the nine players who shared their faith with him.
In Gonzalez’s eyes, the team’s season didn’t start in late July with training camp. Instead, the date was April 25, 2017. Inside the cafeteria at Esperanza Academy that evening, Gonzalez and more than 35 students were introduced to quarterback Nick Foles and receiver Jordan Matthews.
The players explained how their weekly Bible study during their season strengthens their bond on the field and in their relationship with Jesus Christ. They showed the students FCA’s Athlete’s Bible and began reading verses. Students also read from FCA’s book “Rise,” a devotional study on how teammates can build better character together through Christian principles.
Each week, the Huddles, comprised of students and players, read about different character traits. They discussed how each trait related to their lives.
“Even though they’re professional athletes, they still make time to talk to the Lord,” Gonzalez said. “They shared their testimony with us and showed us that, through Christ, you can do anything.”
In the Huddle’s first meeting, the students, understandably, were star stuck.
Jordan Matthews (front left) prayed with students during one of the Huddle's gatherings.
Foles and Matthews had their message — and the students wanted photos. Matthews said students wanted him to take selfies with them or for him to say something on their Snapchat account. Matthews ended the first meeting by bringing everyone together in a circle. After Matthews prayed, he was swarmed. Gonzalez, of course, wanted a photo.
Once the students settled down, Matthews did his best to deflect their attention off of him.
“Our mission is to get on foot and get face-to-face with other believers and say, ‘I am no different than you,’” he said. “I don’t care what ESPN says. I don’t care what your dad says. I am the same as you.”
Matthews, 25, was the first Eagle to connect with Dougherty.
Dougherty, FCA’s multi-area director in Philadelphia, met Matthews in the fall of 2016 when he and his fiancé, Cheyna Williams, a forward for the Washington Spirit, spoke to athletes at Drexel University. Later that year, Dougherty watched several Eagles profess their faith on the field in a road game against the Cincinnati Bengals. Quarterback Carson Wentz encouraged other believers on the team, including Matthews, to wear custom cleats with the phrase “AO1” — which Wentz coined to stand for Audience of One — and the Bible verse Romans 5:8.
After the game, Dougherty sent Matthews text messages. She told Matthews what he and his teammates did was exactly one of FCA’s core principals in athletes using their platform to tell all they influence about their faith. She expressed her desire to have the players who wore the cleats partner with FCA in launching ministry opportunities in the city.
When Dougherty explained that high school ministry was an area of need, Matthews suggested the idea of starting the weekly Huddles with students.
He then challenged his teammates at one of the team’s Thursday Bible study gatherings. He voiced how what most Eagles fans can do is usually attend a game, cheer and perhaps get an autograph from one of them — or they can boo and curse at them. He asked his teammates a question: How great would it be if we were no longer football players to people?
With FCA, Matthews thought there was no better way as NFL players to display the gospel than to do what Jesus did. He asked another question: What happens when you sit face-to-face with somebody week to week to week? Within minutes, Matthews said, his teammates joined him. On Jan. 7, 2017, Dougherty, with the help of Matthews and tight end Trey Burton, set the Huddles to begin in April during the Eagle’s offseason team activities.
Foles signed with the Eagles in March as the backup quarterback to rejoin the team that drafted him in 2012. Dougherty and Matthews said Foles was instrumental to the Huddle.
Foles, 29, told the students at the first Huddle meeting that he acquired everything society says to strive for — wealth, fame, and status. Yet after receiving such possessions, he said nothing satisfies his soul the way his relationship with Christ does.
At that point, Dougherty felt the Huddle was already a success. Even if the students’ attendance fluctuated or decreased the remaining seven weeks, at least the students heard such important messages from Foles and Matthews.
The Huddles, however, grew. More than 100 students attended during the eight weeks, and multiple players were at each gathering. At the second meeting, Foles told Dougherty he wanted to purchase an FCA Athlete’s Bible for each student who attended.
“Everybody else was trying to figure out what are we going to say, or how are we going to present this or where is the Huddle going,” Matthews said. “Nick just said, “Let’s just get the Word in all these kids’ hands.’”
Gonzalez, who attended the Huddle all eight weeks, said Foles’ gesture meant a lot to him.
“As an athlete, I always thought I wouldn’t have time for it,” Gonzalez said of the Bible. “Now, the book helps me.”
Isiah Gonzalez (front left), his twin brother Xavier (front center) and Carlos Morales (front right) attended FCA’s multi-sports camp at Kutztown University last June with their Timoteo teammates and coaches.
Ted Winsley, the Eagles’ chaplain, enjoyed watching the fellowship between the students and the players develop. Winsley said the two groups related to one another on topics such as what true success is, how to handle failure and the sins that come from temptation. With many players younger than 30, Winsley said they understood the students because they were students just six or seven years ago.
“I loved the authenticity of the young people,” Winsley said. “The players were more in awe of them because most of the players are newer believers or have gotten serious about it since joining the team. They were honored being around high school students who had the wherewithal to realize their need and desire to have a relationship with Christ.”
Some of the character topics were unity, consistency, purpose, heart and caution. Gonzalez appreciated when the Huddle broke into smaller groups and the students could share their thoughts and ask questions.
Burton, during one gathering, put on equipment made by Dougherty — a helmet, shield and sword, among other pieces — to display how Christians should have on the armor of God in the spiritual battle against Satan. Other players who helped co-lead the Huddle were tight end Zach Ertz, linebacker Jordan Hicks, safety Chris Maragos, receiver Torrey Smith, receiver Marcus Johnson and Wentz.
At the last Huddle at Neumann Goretti High on June 13, 2017, the group of 45 people took photos together, students and players both smiling.
“By the fourth week, Carson Wentz is not Carson Wentz, the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles,” Matthews said. “The kids would say, ‘Oh Carson is coming and he’s going to share the Word with us and we’re going to listen and grow.’ That’s what I really wanted to get to.”
Later that month, Dougherty encouraged Gonzalez and his fraternal twin brother, Xavier, to attended FCA’s multi-sports camp at Kutztown University. Gonzalez was unsure at first, but he experienced FCA’s ministry in another way by playing sports alongside other student-athletes who wanted to grow in their faith.
Dougherty watched Gonzalez, his hands interlocked and head bowed in prayer with his peers at camp, surrender his life to Christ.
“It was pretty amazing to see because that kid wouldn’t have come to our Huddle without the Eagles,” she said. “He’s an example of life changed.”
Gonzalez, 17, plans to attend the camp again this summer.
“I have a relationship with Christ,” Gonzalez said. “I thought I would be, like, too cool for it, but now I feel comfortable. All I want to do is make the world a better place, and try to convince my friends about the good Word.”
Gonzalez and Dougherty were eager to watch the Eagles perform after meeting believers on the team. But on Aug. 11, 2017, the team traded Matthews to the Buffalo Bills.
“Our first loss was Jordan,” Winsley said. “It was like a kick in the stomach.”
The Eagles, though, started the season with a 10-2 record. Dougherty continued to minister to the players, including Matthews, during the season with text messages and words of encouragement. Known by her friends as a casual Eagles fan, Dougherty, 40, gained more admiration for the players amid the pressures they face while being expected to perform well.
Many of the players in the Huddle endured pain. Maragos (knee), Hicks (Achilles) and Wentz (knee) all had season-ending injuries. Matthews’ season also ended in December because of a knee injury.
“I remember sitting with Trey and Jordan,” Dougherty said, “and just saying, ‘I don’t know how you do this job without Jesus.’”
Gonzalez, with the Huddles continuing in the fall semester, had a successful senior season at Olney High. He helped the Trojans reach the playoffs, as he was a 5A All-Public League receiver. He recorded 603 yards on 22 catches, including 12 touchdowns. He attended a couple Eagles games to see his mentors play in person, too. Gonzalez said Burton, 26, was thrilled to see him at a game in December.
Nick Foles (top center) listened to a Timoteo staff member speak during a Huddle meeting.
After Wentz’s injury, Gonzalez and Matthews told their friends to have faith in Foles. The Eagles, despite many analysts considering them as underdogs in the playoffs, advanced to the Super Bowl behind stellar play from Foles. In the NFC Championship Game, Foles, with poise, threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns in the victory over the Minnesota Vikings. After the game, Foles told reporters that all of his glory goes to God.
“When Nick got the job, everybody said the season was over,” Matthews said. “God is so intentional with how He’s doing this whole thing. You can’t go better than 11-for-11 in a half versus the Vikings. Obviously, the Lord is trying to get the attention of people through these men. He’s doing it in a way that none of us could have thought.”
Before the playoffs began, Dougherty asked Burton, Foles and other players if they wanted to continue their involvement in the Huddles this upcoming spring.
“It sounds like they want to do it,” she said. “I keep saying we’ll talk after the end of the season and they keep winning, which is great. The kids in this city are really hungry to hear something different and something that might give them hope.”
Gonzalez will watch Sunday’s game with pride. He’ll shout, “Fly Eagles Fly!” in hopes the team wins its first Super Bowl trophy.
More important, the Eagles’ 2017 season for Gonzalez will be most remembered for three of the biggest blessings in his life: The Athlete’s Bible that Foles gave him, the players’ faith message to him through FCA and his eternal rebirth as a Christian.
Jordan Hicks (front left) and Ted Winsley (front center) posed with students for a group photo after one of the Huddle's gatherings.
Photos courtesy of Kasey Dougherty and FCA Philadelphia.