Pete Carroll’s assistant Ben Malcolmson on his faith and football journey
If Ben Malcolmson, Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll’s personal assistant, were to play the game “Two Truths and a Lie,” his truths would be more incredulous than fiction. That’s because Malcolmson’s life has been full of random, against-all-odds encounters.
And it’s the subject of his book, “Walk On — From Pee Wee Dropout to the NFL Sidelines–My Unlikely Story of Football, Purpose, and Following an Amazing God.”
The underdog makes the team
As a student journalist on the University of Southern California’s “The Daily Trojan,” Malcolmson assumed the closest he would ever get to the football field would be reporting from the sidelines. He had played football through the fifth grade, but after that it became apparent that his small stature would get in the way of any sports dreams.
“I was a late bloomer, I was a small kid,” he laughed with KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson.
But in his final days on the paper, during the last semester of his senior year, Malcolmson had an idea for a great sports new scoop that would let him go out with a bang. The USC football team, then coached by Carroll, was having open walk-on tryouts — what if Malcolmson himself underwent the experience?
“In the process of interviewing some guys, I thought, ‘Why don’t I go through the tryout myself, get a first-person perspective, bring people on the inside?'” he said.
The journalist planned to poke fun at himself while showing how hard it is to make it onto a prestigious football team. At 160 pounds and having not played since fifth grade, he never once assumed he stood a chance against 39 guys who had all been high school football players.
The day after tryouts, however, Malcolmson received a phone call telling him that he was on the team.
“It never even crossed my mind that I could make the team … there was never even a dream that this could turn into something,” he said.
He knew Coach Carroll from previous sports articles he had done, and wondered if the coach could be pulling a prank on him. However, Carroll was entirely serious.
That day, the football reporter became a football player.
Just because he was on the team, though, did not mean that he was playing in games. As the person with the least football experience, Malcolmson was the last in the 54-man lineup. He didn’t mind it — for him, it was exhilarating to practice with the team, run in the tunnel at the start of each game, and share in the camaraderie of being a Trojan football player.
But the USC students wanted more for him. After a shoulder injury kept him missing in action for a while, Malcolmson returned for the final three games of the season. A student campaign called “Get Ben In” started — his supporters even made t-shirts with the slogan.
“So many people got connected, saw themselves in just the average Joe student, and so it was really fun and really exciting, obviously,” he said. “As we approached the end of the season, [I thought], ‘Maybe I could get in a game. I’m the end of the bench, the very last guy, but maybe with all this support, maybe it’s possible.'”
In a scene that Malcolmson described as “like a movie,” when it came time for the final play of the final game — against USC’s rival, Notre Dame — Carroll told him, “Benny, you’re in.”
“It was just crazy … all those people that rallied, they got to see it come to fruition,” he said.
Bible study struggles
But Malcolmson’s endeavors on the USC football team were not all successful.
When he attempted to start a team prayer group the day before a game, no one showed up. He decided to try instead with a Bible study for his teammates. Once again, Malcolmson sat in an empty room, waiting for teammates who never showed up.
“I was crushed,” he said. “It was pretty discouraging.”
He couldn’t make sense of it, especially because — with his lack of a football background — he could only assume that he was on the team “for some supernatural, big, heavenly divine reason.”
The football player asked his grandfather, a member of the Gideons, to send him 100 Bibles. Malcolmson put them anonymously in all of his teammates’ lockers over Christmas.
After Christmas, when Malcolmson walked into the locker room to practice for the team’s Rose Bowl game, he was excited to see how the gifts had gone over. Nothing prepared him for the scene into which he walked.
“There were Bibles shredded everywhere, just pages ripped up, torn all over the floor. The trash can was half-full of Bibles,” he described. “It was the most crushing sight I could have ever imagined.”
Worse, just a few days after the Rose Bowl game, Malcolmson found out that his teammate Mario Danelo had died suddenly.
“How do you even process losing someone at that age, when you’re that age?” he said. “It was just soul-crushing, so much grief.”
At the funeral, Malcolmson was surprised to see that one of his Christmas Bibles sat on top of Danelo’s casket. He had no idea what Danelo’s personal religious beliefs had been, or even if he had had any beliefs, but the sight comforted Malcolmson immensely.
“It was incredibly powerful for me to be able to move through that grief,” he said.
Young Life encounter
Malcolmson stayed close with his coach, and a few years later, went to Seattle on Carroll’s request to become the assistant to the new Seahawks coach.
In Seattle, Malcolmson began ministering to teens with a local chapter of Young Life. It was there that he was shocked to run into a former USC teammate, Taylor Odegard.
“He definitely lived it up in college, so we see each other at this Young Life meeting, and I’m like, ‘What the heck are you doing here?'” he said. “Not only at this Young Life meeting, but why are you in Seattle?”
Without knowing where the books had come from, Odegard told Malcolmson that his views on religion had changed the very day the Bibles were passed out in the locker room.
Having turned away from the church in which he grew up, Odegard had been upset to see the Bibles, thinking that someone wanted to force religion upon him. He didn’t throw his Bible out like some of the other players, but he did shove it in his locker without reading it.
When Odegard headed out to the field that day for practice, he saw Danelo, his best friend, looking at the Bible. Danelo genuinely asked him how one would begin to read the Bible. Odegard sat down and shared the Bible with him. The two best friends ended up missing half of practice that day.
The new experience with Christianity happened just days before Danelo’s death.
“Taylor said that for the rest of that week, every spare minute Mario had, he was either reading that Bible, or asking him questions … Mario encountered God, he started a relationship with God in an entirely new way that week that he never had before,” Malcolmson said.
Odegard now told Malcolmson that his life had changed forever that day. Malcolmson revealed to Odegard that it was he who put the Bible in the lockers.
“I thought [the Bible giveaway] was a total failure all along … I never knew [about Danelo],” he said. “And then Taylor’s life gets turned around, my life gets turned around years later hearing this story.”