Jalen Phoenix, Chris Strange form Powerful Team of Hits, Faith for Crown College
If one thinks about inspirational Christian movies related around sports the one that most will probably think of is Facing the Giants. Where most find the big inspirational moment is when the big touchdown or scoring play occurs in the final seconds to pull a victory from the jaws of defeat. It is feel good stories like these that most gain inspiration from.
While these are exciting stories that warm our hearts and motivate us to live our faith with greater fervency, the truth is that the inspiring characters from the Bible are the ones who did the grunt work that changed the world. While Jesus performed many miracles, most often the stories that surround how He changed people’s lives are based upon Him just doing everyday things – talking to a woman at a well in Samaria, holding no condemnation on a woman caught in adultery, or just having a meal with tax collectors. It was the everyday things that he did – the grunt work of the Gospel – that made the most difference.
Most love to focus on His amazing accomplishments and how He saved the world through His death and resurrection, but there were those who were already putting their faith in Him based upon the simplest of acts. People who were changed because He loved people and walked long distances in the sun just to be able to do the work the Father had in store for Him. What He taught was that it was often not the big, miraculous moment that made the biggest difference but was, instead, the everyday things that He did that changed people’s lives.
At Crown College, they have two men who have grasped this concept and are living lives dedicated not only to reaching personal excellence that will help them both academically and athletically, but they are inspiring teammates, classmates, coaches, and even opponents in the way that they are living on and off the field. Those two young men are defensive back Chris Strange and defensive lineman Jalen Phoenix
A Brotherhood Born in Competition and Love for One Another
Most often, these are the kinds of stories that deserve their own feature, but the truth of the matter is that the story of one is really the story of the other. Chris and Jalen have become such good friends and inspirational “competitors” to one another that to separate them is like separating peanut butter and jelly. They are still great on their own, but when put together they are exponentially better.
The two play different parts on the defense, but the synergy in their roles makes one better because of the job of the other. Strange is a defensive back whose job it is to cover wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs to ensure that they cannot make plays. His job is made so much easier when his lineman put pressure on the quarterback so that he does not have to spend an extended period of time chasing down a receiver.
Phoenix is a defensive lineman, whose job it is to stuff running plays and get after the quarterback to make sacks. When his defensive backs are covering receivers well, that means there is no place for a quarterback to throw and he has more time to chase down that golden boy and drop him for a loss.
The role is not lost on either player, and both have made it a friendly competition to find ways to outdo the other. This led to an impressive battle between the two last season which saw Jalen narrowly defeat Chris in tackles (69-68). It was something that the two openly discussed each game.
“We always compete with one another,” Chris explains. “We look up the stats to compare to each other after every game. Whenever I see he had better numbers, I am like ‘Man!’ It is a lot of fun because our friendship has also turned in this competitiveness as well.”
While there is this friendly rivalry, the performance of one has enabled the other to be much more effective. Chris led the team last season in interceptions with 4. That was twice as many as he had in each of the two previous seasons (two in both 2013 and 2014), and was a result of him not only maturing into the position, but also benefitting from the play of his close friend.
The same can be said of Jalen. He has been an outstanding pass rushers since he arrived at Crown College, posting no less than 6.5-tackles for loss (TFL) in any season. In 2014 he posted 10.5-TFL which included 5.5-sacks. The fact that Chris is covering the opponent’s wide receiver so well is giving him that extra split second to make plays and wreak havoc on the opposing offense.
While their play on the field has helped to develop a close bond between the two, their friendship goes way beyond football. The two were roommates last season and share a friendship that is more like brothers than just friends. They push each other to excellence, both on the field and in the classroom, and expect the very best from one another. That relationship has been a key in helping both young men to focus on what truly matters most.
A Separate Path To Success
When most think of a guy going to a Christian college, the instantaneous assumption is that they must be a really good person who is dedicated to Jesus. A person who wants to go away to college so they can live out their faith and grow stronger in the Lord. At college, the assumption is that the young man would always get it right; rarely getting into any kind of serious trouble.
That was the path for Jalen Phoenix. While not claiming to be “goody-goody” in anyway, he came to Crown College because he expected to live out his faith. His choice of a school that was a 12-hour drive from Cincinnati, OH, where he grew up, was more about extending his life experiences than about anything else.
“I came here because of football and how Crown is faith-wise. That was a big part for me. I knew I needed a change of scenery. I am from Cincinnati, OH, and I just knew I needed a change of scenery. So 12 hours – I felt this was perfect.”
Jalen came to Crown and worked to improve his faith and to reach the educational success that would open doors for him when he graduated. As a business administration major, he always knew that he wanted to open his own business or to help others to do so, and so his ambition became the driving force that pushed him to succeed.
Chris Strange had high aspirations for himself as well, but when he arrived at Crown College he allowed the freedom of being away from home to change his focus, and this led to series issues for the then freshman.
Chris grew up in Texas and had many options on where he could go to play football, which included fellow Minnesota Division-III school St. Scholastica. He hadn’t really considered Crown to be a serious choice at first, nearly committing to St. Scholastica but, at the last minute, he changed his mind and decided to become a Storm. Little did he know that he would be battling his own internal storm.
The defensive back came to Minnesota looking to improve his faith and gain an outstanding education, but his first year was a real tempest of sorts, as he soon found himself kicked off the team.
“When I first came here I have to admit that I got off that path. That is part of my testimony and what I use to share and help others. My freshman year here I got kicked off the team, but the coaches really loved on me, and helped me to get back on the right pathway. My teammates, without judging me, loved me and helped me fight through what I was battling with. So, I had to do a lot of things to get back on the football team. The coaches had to go before committees and fill out a lot of paperwork to fight for me and that showed me that they loved me and were there for me. They didn’t have to do this, but they did for me and gave me a second chance.”
With the support of his teammates and his coaches, Chris turned his focus 180 degrees. He worked even harder on the field and in his personal life and was, once again, back on the field for his sophomore season. While not pleased with his conduct, he is happy that he can be of inspiration to others.
“I spend a lot of time talking to the freshman about how easy it is to get off the pathway. It is an important part of my testimony, a strong part. I know they have home sickness, and so I talk to them about how you can have fun without doing things that get you into trouble. We are here with you, we can play video games, go out to eat, even play in the snow. I help out with them as much as I can help them to grow together.”
Those experiences have enabled Chris Strange to be a difference maker in the lives of his teammates who are facing their own hurricane of inner struggles. Sophomore quarter Taylor Watkins is so thankful for the manner in which Chris has used his testimony to help the QB. Taylor was a transfer student who had let the freedom of being away at college in Idaho get him into some situations he was not proud of. The cornerback helped him to turn it around.
“I am so thankful to Chris. I know he was going through a lot of the same things I was when he was a freshman, and he took a lot of time to talk with me and help me get grounded in my faith again. We were roommates last season and he showed me that there were ways to have fun with my teammates without putting myself in a bad situation. He made a big difference for me.”
Jalen also gets that he has a role in helping new students to more fully integrate into the college. He embraces that role because he faced his own challenges when he came west nearly a thousand miles to go to school.
“I come from a big family and we are all really close. When I came here and there wasn’t any one up here I knew it was really tough, so I understand what it is like for new guys who come here and don’t have anyone around. I try to take them under my wing, talk to them, hang out with them to help them with the transition.”
Their Faith Is the Most Impressive Part of All
Chris Strange and Jalen Phoenix have proven to be exceptional players on the field. Their instincts and talent makes this Crown College defense one of the most dangerous in the UMAC. However, it is not just their play on the field that makes them truly special. It is not even their performance in the classroom that makes them amazing young men. It is their commitment to their faith and their desire to live out the ideals of that faith that really makes them stand out at a school where faith is the foundation of the institution itself.
Jalen came to Crown because he wanted to get a quality education and he wanted to play football. He also wanted to live out his faith and Crown College allows him to do just that.
“My faith is one of the reasons why I came here. I try to stay strong in that. I read in the Word every day and I pray to stay strong. That is really important to me. You get frustrated at times, so I just try to stay in prayer so I am at an even keel. I can do that here.”
Chris is loving the opportunity to serve God no matter where he is at, even on the gridiron. He embraces the sacrifices that Jesus made for him and wants to show his love for God through the way that he conducts himself on the field.
“I just want to be the best for my family, for God, for my coaches and my teammates. When I take the field I think of all the things that Christ did for me. When I am hurt I think of all that He suffered for me and I fight through it. I just think that Christ died for me so I can give my best on the field. I need to give 100 percent every play.”
It is the ability to take the skills that God has given them and to be able to perform on the field that really inspires these two young men. They want to give all the glory to God for how He has blessed them with the skills that they have.
While they love the service aspect of their roles, they also love the challenges that football offers them. Jalen is a young man who loves to get after the quarterback and hit people. However, he loves the chess match of the game even more.
“I like to adapt. I just love playing football, so I just do whatever I can to help and have fun. I think it is a great scheme for anyone to play in. It’s very technical, strategic. I love that aspect of the defense we play. There is a lot to adapt to and I enjoy getting inside my opponent’s head.”
“Studying what my opponent will do is one of the best aspects of the game. I love to find those things that help to make plays and beat them before the ball is snapped. That is one of the most enjoyable parts of the game.”
The two seniors are having a lot of fun these days. Chris is second on the team in tackles through the first two weeks of the season and has forced a fumble. Jalen had to sit out the first game with an injury, but came back and made 5-tackles, including 2.5 for a loss. They continue to be a big part of this defense with their play and their leadership abilities.
As the Crown College Storm look to get into the win column this weekend, they can be sure that Chris Strange and Jalen Phoenix will be giving it their all and leading this team to greater success. They will come with a powerful testimony that will inspire teammates, coaches, and fans alike. Unfortunately for Martin Luther, they will also come with a powerful set of hits that will leave a lot of the Knights players bruised and battered. It’s the football way of practicing their faith. After all, it’s like Jesus said, “It’s better to give than receive.”
By Robert Pannier