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How faith will influence Kirk Cousins’s free agency decision

(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Quarterback Kirk Cousins is again the focus of Redskins news, amid conflicting reports about the status of his contract negotiations and a roiling debate about using the franchise tag on the pending free agent. Such a move could protect Washington from long-term financial obligations and guard against a Cousins letdown in 2016, while also hurting Washington’s short-term salary cap situation and leaving the future murky.

What Cousins himself wants is unclear. Aside from generic assurances that he wants to be where he’s wanted, Cousins has mostly remained mum about his future. But if the assumption is that Cousins will be motivated primarily by dollar signs, the assumption might be incorrect.

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“For the first time in about nine years I’m now able to pick where I want to play,” Cousins told the massive Willow Creek Community Church outside Chicago during a recent appearance, referencing his time at Michigan State and with the Redskins. “I go back to what I said on Fathers Day, Proverbs 3: 5 and 6. It’s my life verse: trust in the Lord with all your heart. Don’t lean on your understanding, but acknowledge Him and He will direct your steps. So right now my wife and I are just trying to come before the Lord and say Lord, what do you have for us. The people on the outside say ‘Oh, you’ve got to go where the most money is, but God, where do you want us, speak clearly.

“And again, we can grow, and that’s where we want to grow as believers in hearing the voice of God and discerning what He’s telling us and what He wants us to do,” Cousins went on. “But the same verse that was there when I was being benched — trust in the Lord, don’t lean on your understanding, acknowledge Him and He’ll direct your steps — is the same verse now after a positive season where we’re looking to see what’s next. We’re going to keep trusting Him and that’s not going to change.”

The Book of Esther

Cousins has made no secret of his religious faith, talking repeatedly about how he’s relied on his background and his beliefs as he moved from a backup to a fill-in starter to the quarterback of a division champion. His father, Don, is the lead pastor at a large church in Orlando, and the quarterback has frequently spoken to congregations and religious groups during his professional career, while also mentioning his faith in a football context.

It’s no surprise, then, that Cousins would place his football career in a religious context. That he cited the Book of Esther as one of the inspirations behind his breakout season might have been.

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Cousins told the congregation that his father had recently studied the Book of Esther, becoming attached to a verse that comes near the narrative peak of the book. (Esther, for those not familiar, involves a dude named Haman coming up with a plot to smash the Jews, but Esther and her cousin Mordecai come up with a counter-plot and get the king on their side, and Haman is foiled, and everyone celebrates and eats tri-cornered cookies. Roughly.) And the verse Don Cousins settled on captured the moment momentum switched sides. Here’s the translation Kirk Cousins cited:

On the day when the Jews enemies had hoped to overpower them, the tables turned and the Jews overpowered those who hated them.

Many Jews are quite familiar with this story, which is commemorated in the holiday Purim, whose customs include the eating of tri-cornered cookies and the waving of noisemakers, among other (more serious) things. But I can’t say I’ve often heard it cited by athletes.

Don Cousins, Kirk said, “challenged me and said ‘Kirk, I believe God wants to turn the tables in your life, in your situation, so we need to be praying that for you going forward. So all offseason last year and through the season we prayed ‘God, turn the tables, turn the tables.’ My first three years in Washington I probably hadn’t been as successful as I would have liked. I ended up being benched in my third year … and so we really wanted to see God turn the tables one way or the other, whether it was on the field or off the field.

“And we prayed that and prayed that all year long, and sure enough, God chose to certainly turn the tables on the field with some of the performances we were able to have down the stretch. And it was really a neat thing to see how we prayed God’s word back to him, and then He said I’m gonna show you how good I really am, and I’m going to turn the tables beyond your wildest dreams.”

Cousins cited the same verse when talking about the specific events of this past season: Washington’s slow start, and the criticism he faced, and then the team’s impressive finish.

“It was unbelievable,” he said. “I look back, and when I was going through that stretch when we were 2-4 and I had thrown more interceptions than touchdowns, I’m getting up in the morning and praying, saying ‘God, what are you doing? Why did you put me in this position just to fail? What’s going on? And it was almost as if God said ‘I’m going to allow that to take place so that you can watch me turn the tables. I’m going to allow you go to do the desert so I can bring you to a place of blessing, and it’s going to be that much sweeter once you go through that.’
“And many times I would pray to him, crying out ‘Lord I need you, I need you, I feel like this  is over my head, I need you.’ And I felt his voice back to me just kind of laughing, saying ‘Kirk, I’ve got this, just relax, I’ve got this, I’m God and that’s not changing.’ And it was a special journey, but God is still God at 2-4 when you throw more interceptions than touchdowns, and God is still God when you’re winning football games and things are going well. That doesn’t change.”

And Cousins again returned to Esther before the December win over the Bears, which started Washington’s season-ending four-game win streak.

“This verse says, depending on the translation you read, it says ‘On the 13th day of the 12th month, on the day when the Jews enemies  had hoped to overpower them, the tables turned and the Jews overpowered those who hated them,” Cousins told the congregation. “And we had been praying that: ‘Lord, would you turn the tables in our lives, just like you did for the Jewish people and for your people in the Book of Esther.’ And we prayed that all season, and we get to the Chicago game , which happens to be played on December 13th, the 13th day of the 12th month.

“And we didn’t realize  it until the morning of the game. My dad gets up to, again, meditate on that verse, spend some time with the Lord, draw near to Him, and for whatever reason, God waited until the day of the game to kind of reveal to my dad it was there all along: the 13th day of the 12th month. So my dad calls me and says ‘Kirk, I don’t know what this means, but this kind of hit my heart and my mind: it says it right there, the 13th day of the 12th month, and you’re going into this game right now on the 13th day of the 12th month.’
“And he said ‘I don’t know that that means you’re going to win the game, I don’t know that that means you’re going to play well, but just know that I think what it’s saying is God knows where you are. He sees you. He sees what you’re going through. He sees what you all are going through and he’s not turning a blind eye, and He’s got a plan, and He’s doing something, and He’s working. And it was almost like a God wink, to say Kirk, I’ve got this. Stop worrying. Be still.”

(Purim, for what it’s worth, will be celebrated in late March this year, since the Jewish calendar is not the same as our January-December version. There is also a leap month in the current Jewish year, further complicating things. Two months of Adar! Crazy, right?)

Humility, Confidence and ‘You Like That’

Cousins was also asked during the appearance about how to balance the confidence he needs as a starting quarterback with the humility required by his faith. His answer mirrored what he’s said in the past.

“I think at times, I’ve lacked confidence,” Cousins said. “I’ve felt too inadequate, to where it was hurting me professionally and I wasn’t able to have the success I needed to. And it took having some experience and saying ‘Okay, I’ve  been there before, I’ve done this before.’ You have to go through some failure in order to get to a place where you can say ‘Okay, I’ve been here and I can succeed.’ I certainly picked up confidence as the year went on, and that made a big difference.
“But I do think for me that’ll be a balance as I go forward,” Cousins said. “If I have a lot of success, it’ll be a fight to not start to think that I’ve got it figured out, and if I have failure to not allow myself to think that I’m over and I have nothing left. That’ll always be a tough balance, but I go back to the phrase that I’ve always tried to hold on to: I pray as if everything depends on God, and I work as if everything depends on me.”

Which led into a question about his ‘You Like That’ moment, and whether he was actually angry at CSN’s Tarik El-Bashir. (He was not.)

“It’s alumni weekend, all the former players were back,” Cousins said, flashing back to the win over the Bucs. “And now we’re down 24-0, and I’m going ‘Oh my goodness. My days as a quarterback in the NFL, I’m watching them just die right in front of me.’ And then suddenly  we come back and we win 31-30, and again it was like the tables just turned, and it was like this is crazy.
“And after being doubted so much and just feeling like I had a lot of attacks coming at me and just feeling like my back was against the wall, to then have that moment where it flipped, I just felt vindication. I felt like God showed up, and not that God favors the Redskins over the other team — I don’t want to get into that, not at all — but He sees where  we are and He wants to be with us and walk with us through things. And He certainly did that day.
“And just out of excitement and passion and disbelief almost in what happened, I looked at [El-Bashir], and it wasn’t really directed to him, it was kind of directed to everybody. And it wasn’t even a question. It was a statement. I wasn’t even giving him a choice. It was You Like That! I’m not even asking you, I’m telling you: You Like That!”

Cousins talked about how quickly the expression took off, and how it had surprising staying power, and how ultimately he used it to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the International Justice Mission. He also asked the team to include an IJM logo on its You Like That playoff towels.

“And I’m standing there at the national anthem, seeing them [save] as we’re running out on the field, [getting] chills, going only God. Only God could do this. At the end of October we were 2-4 and I was getting booed out of the stadium, and now we’re starting in a playoff game, with a ministry that is making a difference for  the Kingdom in the darkest places in the world, their logo is on every towel in the stadium, they’ve got 65,000 of them. Only God could do that. And when we sing a worship song about how Good he is? He’s good. He’s really good.”