From Soccer Stardom to Godly Devotion
I GREW up in a small coal-mining village in Yorkshire, England. Though I hated school, the one thing that I did get pleasure from was sports. Especially did I enjoy football (soccer).
One day, after playing for the school team, I was asked by a talent scout if I would like to play for the Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club. I was unimpressed. Upon leaving school I naturally expected to start work at the local coal mine, but my mother suggested we should at least travel to Wolverhampton to hear what the Club had to say, in view of their offer. So I agreed.
The visit was memorable. I felt an atmosphere of excitement. The manager was a sincere man and he persuaded me to sign on for the “Wolves,” as the team was called.
I was 17 when given my chance to play in the first team. The game was at Leicester and we won. The next match was at home and I scored. Headlines on the sports pages declared, “New Star Is Born!”
Life as a Soccer Star
The only time I was really happy was when I was playing football, especially scoring goals. I remember on one occasion at Preston kicking the ball some 35 yards (32 m) for a goal. I can see the ball now going straight into the top corner of the net like a rocket. Then I ran the 35 yards to where the Wolves’ supporters were standing behind the goal, and raised my clenched fists, asking them, in effect, if they had ever seen anything like that before. The crowd responded by chanting my name over and over.
I was chosen to play for the England Under-18 team a number of times, eventually being selected for the England Under-23 National side. Many said it was now only a matter of time before I would be picked to play for the full England team.
Being a soccer star did not solve the really personal problems of life, however. I had trouble with a rebellious attitude; I didn’t care what happened to others. So bad was it that the manager arranged for me to visit a psychiatrist. But I did not change. Then one day I met Jean and soon we decided to get married. The team manager was delighted. He hoped that marriage would stabilize me.
I liked Jean because she was pretty. She liked me, she said, because I made her laugh, but we did not truly love each other. Jean said that dating a soccer star was one thing but being married to one was a completely different matter. After a few weeks our marriage became a very stormy one. On one occasion, in a fit of temper, I threw a teapot at Jean, which hit her on the thigh and then shattered a glass door. She responded by taking a pair of scissors and cutting up into pieces the latest suit I had bought. I thought of leaving Jean and, because of the way I acted, she even threatened to commit suicide.
Contact with Jehovah’s Witnesses
After two months of marriage there was a knock at our door and a man I later came to know as Ken introduced himself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. As soon as I realized he was representing a religion I told him I was not interested. But before I closed the door he asked me if I would like to see a peaceful earth. I did not answer his question, but I felt that I wanted to tell him about the way my father and baby sister had died. And I did.
My father had been a popular, well-respected man, just 42 years of age, when he died of cancer. I could still remember the wave of bitterness that swept over me as I stood by his grave. Just two weeks later my baby sister died. My mother was brokenhearted. And I could not forget how, as an 11-year-old boy, I had walked up the stairs with the dead infant in my arms and laid it on the bed. Why had these things happened?
Ken asked me if I thought God could put all things right. I remember saying emphatically, “Never!” Ken then showed me 2 Timothy 3:1-5, and one phrase caught my attention, namely, “men will be lovers of themselves.” I said: “People today are like that.” In fact, I admitted, “I’m like that!” He went on to explain what conditions would prevail in the time period the Bible calls the “last days.” He suggested we continue our discussion the following week, and I agreed. We began to study the Bible with the aid of the book The Truth That Leads to Eternal Life. Jean laughed at the idea of my reading the Bible, but when she walked through the room on the fourth week she asked a question and Ken answered it. So she asked another, and it was not long before Jean was taking part in the study.
Soon Ken began inviting us to the Kingdom Hall. Being very self-centered, I wondered what kind of impression I would make. During my first meeting I was talking to the person sitting next to me in what I imagined to be a whisper, but an attendant politely asked me if I would mind keeping quiet. This did nothing for my ego. After the meeting concluded, quite a few people introduced themselves and asked my name. Surprised that they did not recognize me, I told them I was Peter Knowles. They did not even know I played football. When they asked, “Whom do you play for?” that was the last straw. I thought everyone in Wolverhampton knew me. The experiences of that night were the first of many that were to result in my seeing myself in true perspective.
Jean and I continued learning, but our problem was in applying God’s Word in our lives. In our home the principle “Let the sun not set with you in a provoked state” was never practised. (Eph. 4:26) I found it difficult to relax. I was always on edge, a bag of nerves. Even in our Bible study I would sit in one chair, then another, often ending up sitting on the floor. Playing football brought pressures. As a result, I was tense, and this led to quarrels with Jean. Soccer stardom was not helping our marriage.
Loving Help When We Needed It
One thing that made a great impression upon us during this period was the kindness of the congregation. They showed us wonderful hospitality. How different this was from my association with other footballers! We had never been invited to their homes, nor had we ever considered asking them to visit us. But here we had found people who really could live in the new order we had been studying about.
The 1968-1969 season had come to an end, and during the off-season, along with several other British clubs, we had agreed to play a tournament in the United States to promote soccer. While there I got in touch with Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of them in particular looked after me when we were in Kansas for six weeks, taking me to some meetings as well as to the offices where volunteers were busy preparing for an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Looking back, I now realize that this was a critical time in my spiritual advancement.
Two Different Ways of Life
Back home, the training for the new season had begun, but the congregation was looking forward to going to Wembley Stadium, not to watch football, but to attend the “Peace on Earth” International Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That week is one I will never forget, for, in addition to attending my first assembly, I also had to play three football matches. Here was a unique opportunity to contrast the atmosphere of the dressing room with the family spirit of the convention. I looked at the crowds at the games where I played, then compared them to the 82,000 who attended the convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses on Sunday. That week brought home to me very forcefully the tremendous difference that existed between a life of soccer stardom and one of godly devotion.
However, I still did not think it inconsistent for me to play football and to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. One night I invited the presiding overseer of our congregation to come and watch me play. We won and I scored one of the goals. Later that evening he called at our home and we chatted for a while. Finally I asked him what he thought about the game. I was shocked when he said I was a different person on the field from the one who attended meetings in the Kingdom Hall. I explained that before every match I prayed to Jehovah to help me not to lose my temper. However, he told me that on the field sometimes I acted as if I were a gladiator. But I was not convinced.
Later, when we were playing against Manchester United, the crowd gave me a tremendous ovation. They would sing, “Give it to Knowles; we want goals!” And whenever I scored they would go wild, shouting my name all the more. Slowly I began to realize that what the overseer had said was true. Many in the crowd were treating me almost like a god. It was a form of idolatry, and I knew it was wrong. But I still did not want to give up the game. I remember before one match praying to Jehovah: “Please help me to mix the two. Please help me to keep my self-control and please, Jehovah, help me to score three goals, through Jesus’ name. Amen.” But in my heart I knew my days of soccer stardom were nearing their end.
My Choice—The Results
One day when being interviewed by a national sportswriter I mentioned that I was thinking of giving up the game. He rushed off to get a photographer, and the next morning it was all over the sports pages in the newspaper! “Peter Knowles becomes one of Jehovah’s Witnesses—thinking of giving up the game!” From then on, things moved quickly. I knew that being one of Jehovah’s Witnesses and serving Jehovah with godly devotion could bring me the reward of everlasting life. Soccer stardom could never do that. So I set a date just a few weeks off. My last game was when we played against Nottingham Forest.
Three weeks later, Jean and I were baptized in symbol of our dedication to Jehovah. Apart from later playing in my brother Cyril’s testimonial game to fulfill a promise I had made to him, I have never returned to my former life in the soccer world.
In the congregation at the time were two full-time teachers of the Bible and we spent a lot of time with them preaching the good news of God’s kingdom from house to house. We were often invited into the homes, and frequently would leave a copy of the Truth book. But it was difficult to talk about the Bible, and for over two years we could never start a Bible study with anyone. All that everyone wanted to talk about was football. A lot of pressure from many sources was brought to bear to persuade me to return to football. But in addition to letters asking me to return to the game, there were many from Witnesses all over the world encouraging me not to give up my faith. We really felt that we were now part of a worldwide association of brothers and sisters. We stayed with it, and within six months we had the privilege of devoting our full time to preaching the good news of God’s kingdom, and then, nine years later, I was privileged to begin serving as an elder in our congregation.
If we had not started to serve Jehovah, there is no doubt that Jean and I would no longer be together. Our faith has truly united us. Now we are content because we know what the future holds. We still have our ups and downs of course, but thanks to the counsel from God’s Word, we are now well able to cope with any problems that may come along our way.
One Bible text that really impressed me was 1 Timothy 4:8, which says: “Bodily training is beneficial for a little; but godly devotion is beneficial for all things, as it holds promise of the life now and that which is to come.” Thinking of the “life . . . to come,” I look forward very much to seeing both my father and my baby sister, along with many millions of others, resurrected here on earth in God’s new order of righteousness in the near future. Considering the “life now,” I am far more content than I ever was when playing football.
Some may feel that they can play professional football and still be Christians, but for me that could not be. During the game, maintaining self-control becomes difficult, if not impossible. The game is fiercely competitive and so often promotes idolatry. When I think back to the time when the crowd was chanting my name, viewing me almost as a god, I realize how dangerous it can be. Now I feel settled. My worship of Jehovah has brought me peace of mind as well as many genuine friends. It has helped me to love, not just myself, but also my wife and, most of all, Jehovah God.—Matt. 22:37-39.
I have had a life of soccer stardom. Now I only want to live a life of godly devotion.—Contributed.