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OU football: Local pastor, church gives players escape from life outside football

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Mayfield wedding

Adam Starling ordains the wedding of former Sooner Baker Mayfield and wife Emily Wilkinson in Malibu, California.

You might have seen him on Bennie Wylie’s Instagram. Or on Kenneth Murray’s and Caleb Kelly’s social media. Or maybe even as the minister at Baker Mayfield’s wedding. 

But most often — and in his mind, most importantly — you’ll find Adam Starling front and center at Victory Family Church on a Sunday in Norman. 

The 37-year-old pastor from Mustang, Oklahoma, has become a well-known local in the Norman community. Notably, Starling has formed strong relationships with dozens of Oklahoma football players and staff members. 

“A tremendous guy. A guy I know I can depend on if I need to talk to anybody,” said Murray, OU’s starting middle linebacker. “Definitely one of my favorite people I’ve met since I’ve been here.” 

In a way, Starling has taken on the role of the team’s unspoken pastor. Through serving at Victory Family Church for the last six-and-a-half years, he’s created unbreakable bonds with some of the Sooners’ brightest stars. Guys like Ty Darlington, Trevor Knight, Samaje Perine, Mayfield, Murray and numerous others have been drawn to Starling and Victory Family Church. 

Why, you might ask?

The answer is simple. Starling and Victory provide an escape from the everyday pressures of being known as a college football player at the University of Oklahoma. Though often viewed as a celebrity on or around campus, at Victory one can be known as “Kenneth Murray, the person,” rather than “Kenneth Murray, the football player.” 

“Everybody deserves a place where they can just come in and be a part of a family,” Starling said. “That’s a really, really big deal to us. We try our best to protect that. ... I want them to have an environment where they can just be normal.” 

***

When Starling first arrived at Victory in January 2013, the church had just around 100 parishioners. 

Starling, who studied at Southwestern, a small Bible college in Texas, said during his first year at Victory, the church wasn’t focused on attracting college kids. That quickly changed upon his arrival, as it’s now one of the most popular churches in Norman among OU students. 

Starling credits some of this popularity to the first few football players who started attending when he arrived. He recalls Joey Halzle and Ryan Reynolds — who at the time had finished their OU careers a few years prior — as a couple of the first well-known players to regularly attend. This led guys like Darlington, Knight, Perine and Nila Kasitati — who were on the team at the time — to follow in their footsteps.

“The culture and atmosphere just kind of blew me away,” said Darlington, now an offensive analyst at OU. “And Adam has been awesome. He’s a great resource for our guys, and he’s continued to be a friend and mentor to me as well.”

From there, Starling became a familiar face around the program, as his Sunday sermon was a hot commodity for many players. It started with Halzle and Reynolds, trickled down to guys like Darlington and Perine, and is now carried on by players like Kelly and Murray. 

One of Starling’s closest friends also happens to be Wylie, OU’s strength and conditioning coach. The two work out together three to four times a week at Oklahoma’s facilities. Starling said Wylie takes care of him physically, while he takes care of Wylie spiritually. 

As for the players, Starling has made deep and meaningful connections with many of them. 

“He’s just a great guy,” said OU senior defensive lineman Neville Gallimore. “He’s a guy that if I needed somebody to talk to, I could talk to him ... just a good, positive person. With football and all the things going, just knowing there’s a guy like that, that wants to know you as a person, is extremely valuable for us players.”

Starling has officiated dozens of players’ weddings — most notably Mayfield’s this past summer, after Mayfield personally called Starling and asked him to minister it.

“I’m standing up at Baker’s wedding, looking around and seeing Saquon (Barkley), Odell (Beckham Jr.), Bob Stoops and Lincoln Riley, and I’m going, ‘Wow this is kind of cool,’” Starling said. “But I never really think about it like that. I think it’s like anything else when you get to know somebody — it doesn’t seem unique anymore.”

But Starling doesn’t form bonds with these players just to say he knows them or even to score a trip to Malibu for the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner’s wedding. He seeks them because he cares for their well-being and who they are as people.

“He’s very intentional about that. I think he’s aware of that. He will go out of his way to make sure he’s not misconstrued as far as his intentions,” Darlington said. “It’s crucial to have someone like that — because some people will set your entire identity here on how you’re playing, who you are as a player and how good you are. It’s absolutely paramount to find some people and places where you’re not isolated, where you can be real with people, and people can accept you. 

“The church, and that type of atmosphere, can help alleviate that a little bit and help people accept them for who they are as a person, and not just a football player.”

***

Starling said nearly every OU athletics team is represented at Victory in some form or fashion, from volleyball to gymnastics. He has an affinity for helping college students, knowing this is likely their first time away from family, and some may be questioning their faith.

He also recognizes the constant struggle of student-athletes, as they spend most of their time in the classroom and on the field or court. He said having a place like Victory, where they can be free of the pressure, is essential. 

“I know everyone wants something from them,” Starling said. “I’ve always wanted to create a safe place where I don’t want anything from them, our church family doesn’t want anything from them, we’re not trying to get autographs, we’re not trying to benefit from our relationship — we’re just a place that can kind of help make a family atmosphere and just be there for kids.”

Starling said the No. 1 lesson he teaches players is to be themselves. 

It sounds simple in theory, but Starling said it’s one of the most difficult things to do as an athlete. Don’t be the person who came before you. Don’t be the person next to you. Don’t be the person the fans want you to be. 

Be the person you want to be. 

“He’s taught me so many valuable life lessons,” Murray said. “He teaches me something new every time I see him. So being able to go in there and worship and learn and not be messed with by anybody — it’s definitely something cool, and something you can’t find everywhere.” 

The players talk a lot about what they’ve learned from Starling. But Starling himself said he and the church are constantly learning from them. 

“I think when you see teenagers being pushed like these guys are being pushed, and being criticized like these guys are being criticized, and still be expected to perform at the highest level, it just makes me step back and kind of say, ‘Stop making excuses,’” Starling said. “I think, frankly, it’s inspiring what they do.”

As long as Starling is around, OU student-athletes will continue to attend Victory Family Church — because, at the end of the day, it’s people like him who help players escape from the everyday spotlight. 

“He’s real and raw and honest,” Darlington said. “I feel like there’s people that you come across that have that ‘it factor’ as a person. 

“Adam is one of those people.”

 

I joined The Daily in the fall of 2016 as a sophomore. I've covered the soccer team, both men's and women's basketball, as well as the football team for the past two years. I have been the sports editor since spring 2018.

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