The redemption of Ryan Broyles was only just beginning.
Entering last season, the University of Oklahoma wide receiver had seemingly overcome all the controversy surrounding his indecisive recruitment, his arrest and season-long suspension as a freshman for the theft of gasoline and his showboating antics.
His transformation into one of college football’s most dynamic playmakers was so inspiring that Oklahoma had him speak at pep rallies before the season started. But as remarkable as Broyles’ turnaround was, he still felt empty.
“I was missing something,” Broyles says.
While Broyles appeared to be flourishing, he knew he wasn’t living like he should. He was tired of the drunken nights he spent in bars, his incessant profanity and the crass messages of the rap music he enjoyed.
“I just thought that’s how I was supposed to live,” Broyles says. “I’m an athlete. I’m supposed to be cocky. I’m supposed to party. I’m supposed to love on girls. I was oblivious.”
That was before Broyles’ longtime girlfriend, Mary Beth Offenburger, convinced him to start attending church every Sunday. It was before the couple bought Bibles for each other — and Broyles began reading his so much that Offenburger couldn’t keep up.
That was before Broyles came back from a mission trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti in May and committed his life to God — completely this time. It was before he started memorizing Bible verses.
Now, Broyles doesn’t go to church anymore with a hangover. He has stopped cursing and turned off the rap music.
He has even quit having sex with his girlfriend since he returned from Haiti.
And while Broyles doesn’t want to talk about being just 37 catches short of setting the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision record for career receptions or his team’s No. 1 ranking entering its game Saturday night at fifth-ranked Florida State, he does want to tell you how much different his life has become.
“I’m more at peace than I’ve ever been,” the 23-year-old redshirt senior says.
“I love football to death, but life isn’t all about football. That’s just how I feel. It’s a part of life. Life is really about giving back and learning, being developed as a man and walking my life like Jesus walked it basically.”
Broyles’ new outlook has been such a drastic change that some of his friends still are struggling to accept it. Others, though, are proud of him.
“(Ryan) has grown substantially in the last few months,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops says. “His personal conduct is exactly what you’re looking for in a leader, and the care and concern he shows for others is impressive.”
Before the 5-foot-10, 188-pound Broyles even arrived at Oklahoma, he already was polarizing. Without a scholarship offer from the Sooners, Broyles finally committed to rival Oklahoma State in mid-January 2007, a little more than three weeks before signing day.
When Oklahoma running backs coach Cale Gundy saw on television that Broyles had chosen the Cowboys, he called and offered him a scholarship that same day.
Having grown up in the same city as OU, Broyles switched his commitment to the Sooners two weeks later. But after feeling guilty about not being true to his original commitment to Oklahoma State, he changed his commitment back to the Cowboys less than a week before signing day.
Then, the night before he signed his letter of intent, Broyles talked with coaches from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. When he woke up the next morning, he knew he should go to Oklahoma.
“I just had a gut feeling and went with it,” Broyles says.
Six months later, Broyles had impressed enough in Oklahoma’s preseason practices that he was slated to play as a freshman. But in the early morning of the eve of the Sooners’ season opener, he was arrested for stealing gas from a closed Norman convenience store.
A police officer found Broyles filling up his sports utility vehicle by using a key he had inserted into the gas pump and in possession of override codes.
“I wouldn’t say I was a knucklehead, but people said I was,” Broyles recalls. “I was just a regular kid just following. I followed guys in this locker room.”
A second chance
Always upbeat emotionally, Broyles remained that way even after his arrest. He knew he could redshirt but didn’t think he would at Oklahoma.
Broyles expected Stoops to dismiss him from the team. When Broyles met with Stoops about his arrest, the conversation was short.
“What were you thinking?” Broyles recalls being asked by Stoops.
Stoops suspended Broyles for what ended up being the season but still allowed him to practice with the scout team. Broyles later pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor count of attempted petty larceny for the gas theft and received a six-month suspended sentence with a $100 fine.
During Broyles’ season on the scout team, his confidence began to grow as he made catches in practice against future NFL draft picks Quinton Carter and Nic Harris. The suspension also allowed Broyles to focus on his academics.
“I almost feel like that was a blessing, though, because I learned a lesson in it and the same time I got to develop my game,” Broyles says of his arrest.
After a year of redshirting, Broyles’ promise was evident by his 46 catches for 687 yards and six touchdowns in 2008. The next season, he broke out with a team-high 89 catches for 1,120 yards and 15 touchdowns.
One of those scores, however, drew criticism. During a blowout loss at Texas Tech, Broyles high-stepped into the end zone in the fourth quarter to celebrate his 51-yard touchdown catch and was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
His celebration was viewed as selfish and brash because of the game’s lopsided score. He insists he was simply thrilled to score after Oklahoma’s struggles throughout the game and didn’t realize his actions had caused controversy until he read the negative reaction the next day.
“It was spontaneous,” Broyles says. “It’s not like I get in the end zone and stomp. I was excited playing football.”
Despite his antics, Broyles was far from being comfortable in the limelight back then. Growing up, he had always enjoyed the attention but was overwhelmed by how much he received upon arriving at Oklahoma.
He retreated from his fame so much that he wore a ball cap out in public to help conceal his identity.
But Broyles became caught up in his celebrity at bars. He drank after every game and throughout the offseason.
Another issue for Broyles was his nonstop profanity.
“I would say the n-word to you, even to a white person,” he says. “It would just come out, though.”
Broyles says listening to rap music reinforced his drinking and cursing.
“It would bring all the wrong messages,” he says. “It encouraged me to party and go get drunk. I was just living the college life, having fun with no worries.”
In the months leading to last season, though, Broyles began to question his lifestyle.
Yet, because Broyles found comfort in following his older teammates’ lifestyles and didn’t want to lose them as friends, he refused to change his ways.
His girlfriend, however, continued to talk with him about being more dedicated to church.
“She just kept plugging away,” Broyles says.
Losing his way
Broyles grew up attending church on Sundays with his parents, but when he was 14, his mother told him it was his decision whether he would continue going. He started attending church intermittently.
All the while he identified himself as a Christian, but what he didn’t know then was that he really wasn’t one.
“I knew about God and Jesus, but I never had a relationship,” Broyles says. “I never actually felt what He could for me.”
In college, Broyles went to church some, but not on Sundays during football season. He convinced himself he was too tired to go and that he needed to relax.
Offenburger would sometimes go to church without Broyles. She attended Norman High School with Broyles and has dated him the past six years.
She used to not like that Broyles even played football and that he was praised for it.
“We’ve got to do something the right way and that’s bigger than us,” Broyles recalls Offenburger telling him.
So Broyles and Offenburger started regularly attending Journey Church in Norman in August 2010. The services made Broyles feel cleansed and more at peace.
It made him want to live for God, but when Mondays came, he reverted to his former ways.
“That soon got old,” Broyles says.
Before last season, Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones approached Broyles about starting a Bible study at Jones’ home on Sunday nights. Broyles agreed to participate and went to the first session.
It marked the first time Broyles had read and talked about the Bible with others. He knew the Ten Commandments but realized during the Bible study that he didn’t know much else.
The experience made Broyles feel awkward.
“I knew I had to get serious,” Broyles says. “No one on my team, even when I’ve been up here, had ever cared about me as a person. It was always as a football player. Landry was the first person in my environment that I know that really reached out to me.”
Broyles didn’t attend the Bible study again but kept going to church with his girlfriend. His conscience also continued to eat at him about his drinking, cursing and choice of music.
Last September, Broyles and his girlfriend bought each other Bibles. It was Broyles’ first Bible since he had received one from his old church in 1998.
The couple wrote the date Sept. 23 in their Bibles, and Broyles vowed to start reading his. They began reading together about Adam and Eve.
“It gave us something to talk about,” Broyles says.
When Offenburger couldn’t devote as much time to reading the Bible with Broyles, he continued on. Soon, he was telling her about what he had been reading.
“It gave me a purpose,” Broyles says. “It was better than any book I had ever read.”
Before Broyles began reading the Bible, he had never been able to finish a book. Now, he couldn’t stop reading the Bible — and felt good doing it.
“At first, I was like, ‘Wait, stop for me,’ ” says Offenburger, 20. "But then I realized that was selfish and was like, ‘No, you should keep going.’ ”
With his life more rooted in church and Bible scripture, Broyles started making changes in his life. Except for after Oklahoma’s regular-season finale victory against Oklahoma State, Broyles didn’t go to bars last season, a campaign in which he had team single-season records of 131 catches for 1,622 yards and 14 touchdowns.
He started spending Saturday nights after games at home with Offenburger instead of leaving her alone when he went with his friends, as he had in the past. He would tell his friends he planned to go out but then wouldn’t reply to their text messages of, “Where you at?” “Where you been?” and “You’re changing.”
Finding his way
Broyles was distancing himself from his old ways. When he talked with his friends, Broyles realized he was maturing but they weren’t.
“It all came back to what I was reading,” he says.
For the first time, Broyles started going to church with his girlfriend without having a hangover from the previous night.
“It felt good,” Broyles says.
Broyles still had his struggles, though. He continued to curse and listen to rap music.
In January, Broyles decided to remain at Oklahoma instead of declaring for the NFL draft, believing he could improve on his projected second-round status. A few weeks later, he was at church when he noticed a man looking at him oddly.
At first, Broyles didn’t think much of it. But the next Sunday, the same man stared at him, just like he did the Sunday after that.
Eventually, the man introduced himself to Broyles. His name was Adam Barnett, Journey Church’s college pastor.
Barnett told Broyles he wanted to get to know him and asked for his telephone number. Broyles and his girlfriend were skeptical, but Broyles ended up giving Barnett a chance.
The two met for the first time at a Starbucks in February, and one of the first questions Barnett asked Broyles was, “What are your plans for life?”
Broyles, who had brought his Bible to the meeting, was at a loss for words.
“I don’t really know,” Broyles told Barnett.
Broyles told Barnett about how he had become more involved with church, started reading the Bible and stopped partying. When Broyles was finished talking, Barnett made Broyles look even more inward.
“I think you have a purpose,” Broyles recalls being told by Barnett.
Since then, Broyles and Barnett have been meeting once a week. This past summer, Broyles started attending a college ministry at Journey Church on Tuesday nights.
“He’s a completely new man,” Barnett says. “He’s always been a good guy, but over time he’s become a Godly guy.”
Showing the way
In May, Broyles and eight of his teammates went on a mission trip to earthquake-ravaged Haiti with an organization called Mission of Hope Haiti. The day after their arrival, they attended a Sunday church service in a city an hour-and-a-half outside Port-au-Prince.
Even though most in attendance had nothing more than what they wearing, they erupted in joy during worship. Broyles was especially taken by how passionately the children praised God, loved each other and expressed the hope they had.
Even without shoes on, not knowing where their next meal would come from or where they would sleep, the children were always smiling.
“Why can’t I be like that?” Broyles recalls thinking.
During the trip, Broyles met a boy named Toussaint. The boy translated for him the words of the Creole songs the children sang.
The two struck up a friendship and talked about things like the boy’s interest in basketball. The day before Broyles left Haiti, Toussaint told Broyles he liked him and had been drawn to him because he was always smiling.
“The whole time out there, I just felt like, ‘Man, I’m giving back to these kids, but they have no idea what they’re doing to me,’ ” Broyles says. “They were doing so much more to me.”
When Offenburger picked up Broyles at the airport after his trip, his first words were, “I’m not going back to my old ways.”
“There’s no way I can go back,” Broyles told her. “I’ve got a bigger purpose in life than living the way I had before.”
After his trip to Haiti, Broyles stopped cursing and listening to rap music. He also abstained from having sex with his girlfriend.
“Sexual immorality is just wrong,” Broyles says of his abstinence. “I feel like that’s made our relationship so much stronger, and it really does. It’s amazing how I didn’t see that before.”
Broyles still thinks about Haiti daily and exchanges emails with Toussaint. During the first church service he attended there, he taped the congregation singing and still gets emotional when he hears it.
“I want to cry every time,” Broyles says.
Offenburger was so moved by Broyles’ stories about Haiti that she donated many of her clothes to a charity. In March, Broyles is planning to go with Offenburger on a mission trip to South America with Barnett and others.
“She keeps saying I inspire her,” Broyles says of Offenburger. “It’s crazy. I’m inspiring the girl that I love.”
In the meantime, Broyles remains on a constant quest to learn more about God. He is reading the book, “The Pursuit of Holiness,” and the book of Matthew in the Bible.
To be able to talk to others about God more effectively, Broyles also is continuing to memorize Bible verses, which he started doing three months ago. He does it by writing the verses on sticky notes he puts in places like the bathroom mirror in he and Offenburger’s apartment.
When Offenburger brushes her teeth in the morning, Broyles sometimes recites the verses and asks her to look at his sticky notes to see if he’s correct.
Broyles is working on starting his own Bible study group and is excited about preparing the lesson plans. He also spreads the word of God on his Twitter account, which has more than 10,000 followers. One man wrote that his son had accepted Christ in part because of Broyles.
“It’s like I have more words to say now,” Broyles says. “People are going to listen because I play football, but I’m going to use it try and change people’s lives.”
As Broyles’ faith has grown, Barnett says, his passion and determination for football also have increased.
“He wants to do well in the game to honor the Lord with his effort and not just honor himself,” Barnett says.
Broyles also has become more comfortable with all the fanfare. He didn’t know what he wanted to study in college at first but started taking human-relations classes on the recommendation of a former teammate.
Broyles now likes interaction with other students. He learned about being a better communicator and has incorporated those teachings into his life.
Broyles is on track to graduate in December with a degree in human relations.
“Three years ago, I would not be talking like this,” Broyles says. “I’d be closed off. It’s helped me break some boundaries and be more confident.”
Broyles still wears a ball cap when out in public but is used to the awkward stares. Now, when approached by fans, he enjoys having genuine conversations with them.
“I’m not hiding anymore,” Broyles says.
Some of Broyles’ friends have started coming to him for advice, and they talk good-naturedly about him possibly becoming a pastor someday. They sometimes call him Preacher Broyles.
Before this season, former Oklahoma football player Michael McDaniel, who is now a pastor, spoke with Broyles and his teammates. Afterward, Broyles talked with McDaniel about how he got involved in the ministry.
“That might be my calling,” Broyles says.
And if Broyles does become a minister, he will have plenty of material — his own redemption.