Ruth Jackson spoke to former premiership footballer Wayne Jacobs about finding God, being a parent and starting One In A Million
Ruth Jackson: Tell us a bit about your story…
Wayne Jacobs: I wasn’t born into a Christian family as such, but like most families back then we had a limited understanding. My parents were married in a church and christened us as children, but we didn’t really attend church so wouldn’t have a faith as I would know it now.
I grew up in a family where my parents divorced when I was 6 years old. My mum was seriously ill and ended up having a heart operation, so as a young person I had some difficult times. It was tough, but one of the things I had to help me was that I played football.
School was a tough period for me. There were lots of troubles and issues, but I left school and managed to become a professional football player, and it was during that period that I came to faith.
I left school with no qualifications, so I put all my eggs in one basket, which was football. At the age of 22 I had a really serious knee injury and a specialist in Harley Street said I might never play again. That was devastating at the time. I lost everything. I lost my home, I lost my contract and I was really struggling. A friend of mine who had been going through some things himself said he had met somebody who prayed with him, and he told him about me and asked if I would like to see him.To be honest, I said I’d go to see him just to keep my friend quiet. I had been out drinking the night before and had a headache, so I wanted to shut him up!
Young people need support, love and encouragement
To cut a long story short, I went to visit this man, who prayed for me and prayed for my knee, and I had a healing. That just turned my head! What is this? What is it all about? I started looking into Christianity and eventually I gave my life to the Lord.
RJ: Did you carry on playing football after the injury?
WJ: The injury cost me about 18 months of my football career, but yes, I got back to playing for a local team, Rotherham United. I then went to Bradford City and spent eleven years there. I had some great times. We were promoted into the Premiership and we played at Wembley! Then I retired as a player and went into the management side of it, but at the same time we started a charity helping children and young people.
RJ: What was the heart behind the charity? How did it start?
WJ: Following the Bradford riots of 2000 there was a widespread feeling of disaffection and disenfranchisement among young people, with many feeling isolated, marginalised and unsupported. Opportunities were limited and facilities lacking, with communities suffering high rates of family breakdown, school exclusion, drug and substance misuse, crime and anti-social behaviour.
I was praying one night in 2002 and just felt this phrase “one in a million people” being put onto my heart. I remembered the difficulties I had gone through as a young person and managed to come through, and obviously in many ways I had a privileged time of being a professional footballer. During that time as a footballer you could visit children in schools and hospitals, where people would say: “They listen because you have got a voice; because you play football.” You could open a door into a person’s life just because of being a professional footballer.
It was about me bringing my sort of gifts to effect and seeing if we could change some of the situations of the children and young people who don’t have opportunities that others do. I met a businessman, Matthew Band and we co-founded the charity. We very quickly brought in people around us and built it into a charity with trustees and developed it from there.
We are a Bradford-based charity that engages predominantly with disadvantaged children and young people aged between 5 and 19. One In A Million uses formal and informal education to break cycles of deprivation in young people’s lives; valuing and celebrating their uniqueness; letting them know they are one in a million.
I have to say, first and foremost, that without the good team around us the charity would not be where it is. There are lots of amazing people who have been part of an amazing journey. The team have got great gifts that they bring to it. We’re not a faith organisation, as in preaching or teaching the faith, we have varied backgrounds. We’re just delighted to be part of our city and are trying to make it a better place for children and young people.
RJ: How do you balance caring for your own children and the thousands of young people you work with on a regular basis?
WJ: It’s a difficult one. I don’t think there is a middle line that everybody knows and can walk on. It’s about just edging backwards and forwards each time to create balance. Of course, if you’re a parent, modelling your faith as best as you can, for me, is hopefully letting the Lord, through the Holy Spirit, change who I am, daily, weekly, monthly. Small changes, I must say, but looking to the Lord to really direct your steps through his word and through his teachings, and through your prayer life, and just trying to reflect that to your children. It’s not being perfect but wanting to be more Christ-like and emptying yourself of yourself.
As I’ve got older and my children are now teens you realise that they’re going to do more of what you’ve done than what you’ve said. We know words are powerful, we know words can create and destroy, so obviously you’re careful with your words and you’re positive in your affirmation, but it is about what they see as much as what they hear. And it is in those times that they’ve got to find out who they are and what part they have to play.
From the moment they are born you are about making them independent. They have to find out some things for themselves. They have to decide and weigh things up. As much as you influence, you trust the Lord on that. He is real, he is alive and he has got your children’s best interests at heart. As my children have got to late teens I think my personal prayer life is really important.
RJ: What is it about sport that engages young people?
WJ: As an organisation we also use arts and enterprise, but sport in particular is a great leveller of people’s backgrounds, social standing and ethnicities. Everybody comes together and you’re all the same; from all those places, whatever your background is. Especially in team sport, you’re all playing on an equal basis.
There’s also the discipline. There are always rules to sport or whatever activity you’re playing. There’s an achievement, there’s social interaction. And you’ve got the outcome, which teaches you to deal with success and failure. I think it’s a wonderful tool for impacting young people’s lives.
RJ: Do you see a difference between your work with younger children and older teenagers?
WJ: Just because of the different place they’re in and life stages, really. I think the challenges for young people are the challenges for all of us in modern-day culture. Behind it all, the questions young people face have been there for a long time. They just come from different angles. It’s just “Who am I?” really. I think every human being needs that solid place of acceptance and appreciation. Love, really; love being expressed. Everybody needs to feel they’re in that safe and accepted environment; that they’re being encouraged. They’re the basic ingredients. We know through our faith we have that relationship with the Lord.
I think our faith gives us a real peace in where we’re going. We have that support and love from the Lord. And young people need support, love and encouragement. It’s just about trying to create that and give a chance to some young people who maybe haven’t had the platform or foundations others have had to approach life.
RJ: You could have done anything you wanted when you retired from football. Why are you so passionate about young people?
WJ: I just felt the Lord speak to me about One In A Million. I’ve always been a person who tried to pass on advice. I appreciate it, as I had some struggles growing up myself. Young people have got their whole lives ahead of them, and they’ve got so much potential.