Sarah Russell grew up on St. Simons Island, Georgia. Her family attended church, but for Sarah it was nothing more than a boring ritual. “I will never go to church when I get to college,” she determined. For Sarah, life found its meaning on the basketball court.
“I grew up playing sports,” she recounts. Sarah attended a large high school, and the community was very involved in athletics, so her skill brought her much fame.
She excelled at basketball, breaking records and helping her team secure victories, and was popular at school, yet in her senior year she began to feel a void that sports could no longer fill. “There’s got to be more to life than basketball,“ Sarah thought. She never considered Christianity as an option because she didn’t see it as relevant and because other students she knew who were outspoken about wanting to live for God also lived hypocritical lives.
Unknown to Sarah, Abby, a young woman who worked with a local ministry, knew of Sarah and had been praying for her for a long time. When Abby’s friends found out they counseled Abby to pray for someone else—that Sarah had no interest in God and the likelihood of that changing was slim to none.
Her fame in sports opened the door for Sarah to speak at a baccalaureate service her senior year of high school, and she accepted. She didn’t know what a baccalaureate service was, but when she realized she was expected to talk about her relationship with God, she panicked because she realized she didn’t have one. She asked Abby to help her know what to say, but she wanted Sarah to grapple with the issues herself. In that process, Sarah realized it wasn’t about going to church, but about knowing God. When speaking, she shared the information she knew and was learning about Christ although she still hadn’t yet put her faith in Him.
Someone in the audience asked her if she would speak the following Sunday to a group of as many as two thousand people and Sarah agreed. They then invited her to a weekend retreat, and on that Saturday night she accepted Christ as her savior. “I felt like God completely opened my eyes,” she explains. Sarah had spoken to the media after games, but never in front of large groups of people, so when she got up to speak the next day as a new believer, she prayed “Lord, I know You’re real; you’ll just have to speak through me.” She didn’t remember a word she said, but saw how God could use her to influence others to know Him better.
Sarah enrolled in Mercer University where she continued to shine on the basketball court, accruing numerous awards as well as speaking opportunities. “It was extremely hard because sports is such a do-or-die thing, and so much is based on your performance. It was very easy for me to get basketball wrapped up in my identity,” Sarah explains.
“My junior year, we were a really, really good team. We beat a lot of teams we shouldn’t have beaten.”
Her team advanced and was on the threshold of going to the NCAA tournament when life took a turn for Sarah. During a game, Sarah tore her ACL (anterior cruciate ligament, a major ligament in her knee), so she had to redshirt her entire senior year. Being a redshirt allowed her to attend classes and practices, and dress for games, but not to play. It gave her the ability to heal from her injury and also gave her another year of eligibility. It also accomplished something of more significance, according to Sarah. “God used that time to completely restore who I was in Him, because so much of my identity had been wrapped up in basketball. So it was a hard time, but it was also a sweet time with God."
Although the Lord had used her messages to influence others, Sarah had no formal training in speaking or the Bible. So while preparing for a camp message she realized, “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve never been trained; I’ve never even really been to a lot of Bible studies. I remember thinking ‘I want to be better equipped and trained to be able to communicate the gospel and truth better.’ So I did a lot of research. I didn’t know a lot about DTS, the history or the people, but I felt the Lord was pulling me to come here.
"I always said I would never go to Seminary. I thought Seminary was for boring people—people just studying—and I said ‘That’s not for me! I just want to be passionate about the Lord.’ But since I’ve been here, I feel God has grounded me and given me a deeper foundation on truth, and even tradition too—how important that is. I grew up going to a traditional church and hated it so much that I’ve been completely anti-tradition. But being here, attending chapel, meeting with the professors, establishing and building upon a foundation of truth, and studying under some of the greatest teachers and people who are walking out their faith have been awesome."
During college, Athletes in Action had a profound effect in shaping Sarah’s attitude toward athletics. "They teach you how to compete as a Christian athlete, and how to use sport, not just as something you do, but as a way to worship the Lord, so that completely transformed my life."
Sarah is pursuing a Master’s degree in Christian Education, as she feels that will best equip her to teach and speak truth into others’ lives. She currently coaches a high school basketball team in Dallas, and loves it. "There is a huge need because it’s so performance-driven." Because of that, Sarah is confident God will raise up leaders in the sports arena, and hopes to be one.
As far as her future plans upon graduation, Sarah is open to various possibilities. She enjoys speaking, studying, coaching, and of course, playing basketball. She has a heart for working with kids in the inner city, and is open to going overseas as well. She played semi-pro basketball for the Atlanta Battlecats this past summer and looked forward to a promising future playing pro ball, but felt that God was tugging at her heart to invest in Him.
And Sarah doesn’t regret her decision. “If I had to do it over again, I would, for sure, still choose coming to DTS over playing professional ball,” she explains.
One of Sarah’s favorite things about playing basketball has been the opportunity to invest in her teammates’ lives. “There were very, very few Christians throughout my entire five years of playing basketball,” she remembers, “and just to be able to see some of my teammates come to Christ was great, and made all the hard work worth it.”
Sarah’s future may include playing professional basketball, but now she’ll bring more far more to the court than her athletic abilities.
The mission of Dallas Theological Seminary is to
glorify God by equipping godly servant-leaders
for the proclamation of His Word and the
building up of the body of Christ worldwide.