RANDOLPH, N.J. (AP) - Mike DeVito cleared his throat a few times, took a couple of steps from behind the lectern and looked out at the dozens of people seated in front of him.
This was no locker room speech or game huddle for the New York Jets defensive lineman. DeVito was giving his first sermon at a church filled with congregants looking for spiritual guidance from their special guest.
“I was nervous, brother,” DeVito acknowledged a few moments after his passionate presentation last Sunday. “But I think it turned out OK.”
No doubt about it. Just as he has for Rex Ryan’s defense the past few seasons, DeVito got the job done.
“He seemed very comfortable engaging the crowd,” said Jets left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who was there to support his teammate. “It seemed like he had done this before. To see him doing God’s work and be so excited, it’s just great.”
A devout Christian who is considering a post-football career as perhaps a youth minister or pastor, the 26-year-old DeVito was part-teacher and part-preacher as he spoke about the meaning of faith for about 20 minutes at RCC – a Relevant Christian Church – complete with a PowerPoint presentation. He also threw in a few jokes that drew a roomful of chuckles, and several of his points were met with an approving “Amen!” or “You’re right!”
“I’m so proud of him,” DeVito’s wife, Jessie, said with a huge smile as several people hugged and thanked her husband a few feet away.
While so much focus during the NFL’s strange offseason has been on the contentious lockout and how players are staying in shape while they wait to go back to work, DeVito has been using some of that extra time to strengthen his faith.
“He delivered a great message,” said church member Jay Trevorrow of Flanders, N.J. “I think God has great plans for him.”
DeVito has been working closely with Morning Star New York associate pastor Adam Burt, a former NHL defenseman who has served as the Jets’ chaplain for three years. DeVito regularly studies the Bible and pretty much anything else he can get his hands on that helps him learn more about living and teaching as a Christian.
“When I saw Michael’s heart, he has a real passion in it,” said Burt, also the itinerant pastor at RCC. “As much of a mountain of a man as he is, he loves people deeply. I had no idea that his heart would be like, ‘Hey, someday I might like to do this,’ but the closer I get to him, I can definitely see the call of God being on his life and that’s exciting.”
Burt also recently had DeVito speak to athletes at West Point and Columbia University about making religion a major part of their lives. And, DeVito said, this is only the beginning.
“I feel that with this platform God has given me, it has allowed me to meet people, reach out to kids and be in situations where football facilitates it, but it allows me to talk about God,” DeVito said. “I love talking to the youth and trying to set the right example because if you can set a good foundation right from the start, it’s going to help them avoid so many problems down the line.”
DeVito is a friendly guy with the media, a quiet and easygoing presence in a Jets locker room filled with players who speak their minds, just like their coach.
“But when it comes to his faith in God, if you come and talk to him about that, he’s a totally different person,” said Jets tight end Matthew Mulligan, who has been best friends with DeVito since their days together at the University of Maine. “In college, he would never be able to get up and talk in front of people like Sunday. It’s just been a big transformation that I’ve been able to see.”
It all started a few years ago for DeVito, who grew up in a nonreligious Italian home in Massachusetts. He was hanging out in his apartment during his junior year at Maine when two Mormon missionaries showed up at his door.
“When I first saw them coming, I really don’t like to be mean to anybody, so when they asked to come in, I was like, ‘All right,’” he recalled. “Not because I wanted to hear about God, but it was more like I didn’t want to just turn these guys away.”
Well, DeVito kept listening and that visit turned into several more. For the first time, he realized he had to make changes: no more drinking and partying; no more living with his then-girlfriend; no more scoffing at religion.
“They had a good idea of who Jesus is, and that’s what I needed at the time,” he said. “I’m not a Mormon, but they knew Jesus and they gave me that foundation.”
It was also during this time in 2006 when DeVito’s friend, Mark Stetson, was slain. DeVito called it “my eye-opening experience.”
“When I got up to that coffin and saw a 23-year-old man dead,” DeVito recalled, “it was like, ‘Whoa. Man, this isn’t guaranteed. I can’t think I can take care of this on my own time. It’s not about my time. It’s God’s time.’
“There was no turning back.”
The defensive lineman confided in Mulligan, who was raised as a Christian, and the two moved in together and helped each other with their faith. When DeVito signed with the Jets as an undrafted free agent in 2007, teammates Kenyon Coleman and James Dearth served as spiritual mentors. DeVito and his best friend were reunited as teammates two years later when the Jets signed Mulligan as a free agent.
“We’ve been able to do Bible study together, go to church together and look at different things and know what we believe in,” Mulligan said. “He’s a really good football player, but he’s got his priorities straight.”
After some resistance at home because “I tried to force-feed it,” DeVito has even gotten several members of his family to share his beliefs. He knows religion isn’t always a popular topic, especially to some who roll their eyes at the mere mention by athletes of God, faith and the like.
“At the end of the day, I have to do what I’m called to do, no matter what anyone else says,” DeVito said. “And, it just so happens some of your best Christians out there are some of your toughest players on the field.”
That includes DeVito, whom Ryan has called one of the strongest of his players, if not the most underrated. DeVito has helped make up for the loss of the injured Kris Jenkins the last two years with little fanfare, including last season when he had a career-high 59 tackles.
“I think it’s funny how his play on the field really mirrors his spiritual life and his faith,” Burt said. “He’s just one of these guys who’s just determined and ferocious and just always showing up. There’s this hunger, and I think that’s translated to his football career.”
DeVito has been preparing for the season – whenever it starts – with former Jets strength coach Sal Alosi, who resigned a few weeks after he was suspended for tripping a Miami Dolphins player during a game. That stuff doesn’t matter to DeVito now.
“Everybody makes mistakes and it’s not like because of what happened, he automatically became a bad strength coach,” he said. “I wanted to go with someone I trusted and who knew how to train NFL players. He has me on the program I’ve been going through for five years now, and I keep getting better and better.”
And that’s exactly what DeVito is aiming for outside the weight room and far from the football field. After all, he says, the Bible is the most important playbook he’ll ever study.
“As much as I do want to get back to football and back to work, I’m not going to let this time go to waste,” DeVito said. “I’m just trying to see what path God has for me, and what better time than now? I won’t take this for granted.”