Former Georgia and Miami head coach Mark Richt was at North Metro Baptist Church on Sunday night to talk football, faith and family for the annual Night Of Champions.

Local high school football teams filled up the worship center to hear Richt discuss his trials and tribulations from his youth all the way up to his recent announcement of his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease.

This year’s Night of Champions started with Richt supplying anecdotes of his coaching and playing career, but got more somber and introspective as the night progressed. Richt spoke in depth about his unruly youth and how one terrible day led him to a relationship with God.

The year was 1986 and Richt was just a young, 26-year-old graduate assistant at Florida State University when he witnessed a tragedy that has defined his adult life — his friend, Pablo Lopez, was gunned down at a college party. An argument at the party escalated and a local non-student came back with a sawed-off shotgun and shot Lopez in the stomach. Lopez was only 21 at the time of his death.

This caused an awakening in a young Mark Richt. He listened intently to then Florida State coach Bobby Bowden when they had a team meeting the following day.

“Coach Bowden got in front of the team, and he was hurting like everybody was hurting,” said Richt. “[Bowden] said that I don’t know where Pablo is right now, I don’t know where he is going to experience eternity, I don’t know where he was with his faith. I know there is a God in heaven that loves us. He wants us to live with him forever in Heaven.”

“[Bowden] pointed at Pablo’s seat and he said ‘Pablo used to sit right there on that seat, now he’s gone. You guys are 18 to 22, you think you can live forever, just like Pablo thought he was going to live forever and now he’s gone. If that was your last time, instead of Pablo, do you know where you will spend eternity?’”

Bowden encouraged any players to come visit and talk to him one-on-one. Richt walked into his office the very next day, knowing where he would have spent eternity if he had been in Pablo Lopez’s shoes. He asked Bowden to receive Christ. They knelt down and prayed in his office and Richt has been a man of faith ever since.

Richt spoke of two more pivotal moments in his personal life that reinforced his relationship with Jesus. Both of these incidents that strengthened his convictions have taken place in the last few years.

It was Oct. 21, 2019. Richt and his family were at their home in Destin, Fla. He decided to head to the gym by himself. As he was finishing up his workout, disaster struck. Richt could feel a shooting pain growing in intensity in his upper arm. He fell to the ground in the locker room with nobody within 50 steps to hear him crying out for help. He pulled every ounce of energy he had to cover those 50 steps and get help.

He got help and was rushed to the emergency room where his heart stopped beating, but Richt did not feel overwhelmed or traumatized.

“Guess what I felt? In my spirit I felt peace,” Richt said. “I remember saying, here I come Jesus. Off in the distance I can hear my body gasping. So my body is fighting to live, but my spirit is ready to go.”

Richt survived this tragedy, but took the college football world aback with his recent Parkinson’s disease diagnosis. Richt smiles and cracks a joke when his diagnosis is brought up, but his voice softens as he talks about his most difficult challenge yet. He is in Stage 1, where speech and movement begin to slow down. He knows that his body is beginning to fail him, but his spirit is at peace.

“If you think about the temporal things, the short-term things, it could scare you to death. Leave you depressed, laying in the bed and never coming out,” Richt said. “If you think about the eternal things and you know what eternity is going to give you, it gives you peace to live everyday and enjoy everything.”

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