“James, keep your room straight!”
“Clean up the kitchen.”
“Do it again, and do it right!”
My mom was strict. She barked out orders like a drill sergeant in an attempt to keep her three sons in line. She took the tough approach…there would be no deadbeat sons in her home. We were to be responsible men who made a difference in this world, good fathers who treated their wives with respect. She was determined that none of us would turn out to be like our father.
Looking back now, I understand that she was trying to protect us. My mother had firsthand experience with evil in this world. She also saw it played out every day at the hospital and sheriff’s office where she worked. I get it now. But at the time, I didn’t understand her tough love. All I knew was Mama was always yelling at me.
To a young child, it was confusing. Nothing I did ever seemed to satisfy her. Nothing was ever good enough. I lived in a constant state of fear of failure as she pushed me to be the best of the best. My best always seemed to come up short.
High school was like a coming of age for me. I was determined not to fail at any level—academically, athletically, or on the job. I sought to do everything with excellence. I was determined not to be a woulda-coulda-shoulda story.
Desperate to get out from under my mama’s authority, I sought after every chance to get a college scholarship. I was certain college would be my ticket to success. I went to the coach at my high school. “Coach,” I said, “I can’t be a deadbeat in my mom’s home. Help me find something that I can excel in, something that will cause colleges to take notice of me.”
I put irons in every fire—football, weight lifting, track, and wrestling. I also carried a full-time job. Whatever it took to set me apart, I did it. I made it to the state finals in wrestling, and I became a state champion in weight lifting. But my football abilities caught the eye of college coaches.
I was a big guy with a knack for falling on people at the right time. Big schools, small schools, schools from every direction…they started calling me. Florida State University and the University of Miami offered me positions on their teams. In the end, I chose a position at Albany State in Georgia. I hoped that at a smaller school, I’d receive more playing time that would, in turn, open doors for me to play in the NFL. Albany State’s location also put much desired distance between Mama and me.
When people go through tough times as youngsters, they often create fantasy worlds where they can hide from all the pain in their lives. Some people use clothes, cars, jewelry, and fancy hairdos to create an image that makes them feel good about themselves and lets them look good in the eyes of others. Others use substances to numb their pain. In college, I created my own façade to mask my pain—my sense of failure—through achievements, performance, and people pleasing. In the world I created for myself, I became the big man on campus. They called me Hollywood.
Everybody loved Hollywood—the coaches, the teachers, and the students—and that was fine by me. All I ever wanted in life was to be liked and accepted; but in my quest for acceptance, I became trapped in a cycle of performance. I had so many things on the table that I got distracted. I became so busy reaching for the applause of people that I got lost myself.
My fantasy world came tumbling down one day at football practice. I remember it like it was yesterday. The team was preparing for the homecoming game. I was on the line. The ball was hiked to the quarterback, but it came loose. Doing my job, I jumped on the ball…but then the whole team jumped on me! And just like that, my NFL dreams were gone. The ligaments in my leg were torn.
With a bum leg and shattered dreams, one might think I would have reached out for God, but I didn’t. No; I got up out of that hospital bed and jumped right back on the performance cycle, working harder than ever to please people and be a success. As I did, I moved further and further from the man God had designed me to be and the man Mama had raised me to be.
One night I was out having a good time with some friends. The police pulled us over, searched our car, and arrested us for possession of drugs. We were all taken to jail. Being politically connected, the other two guys received light sentences—one year of probation. I, on the other hand, received a fifty-year sentence. Fifty years on my first offense!
I was taken to the prison diagnosis center in Jackson, Georgia, where I was assigned the job of serving the men on death row, as well as the general population. How in the world did I end up here? I thought.
One day, I got into an altercation in the cafeteria. I was disciplined and locked in “the hole,” or solitary confinement. It was in the hole that I finally looked up and looked in.
For years I had been running, trying to escape the emptiness that overwhelmed me. I had worked with all my might to be somebody I thought the world (and Mama) would be proud of—to no avail. In the hole, my running came to an end. There was no more fooling myself or anyone else that I was all right. There was no place for fancy words or impressive skills to hide the man I really was. It was time for a change…a real change of the heart.
Sitting there in the hole, I saw my grandmother’s face and heard her familiar words: “James, if you keep trying to be slick, you’re going to end up either in jail or in hell.” And I finally asked myself, “What is there in hell that I would really want?”
My answer was nothing. There was nothing in hell worth my soul, worth my integrity, or worth my life. The minute I got out of the hole, I went straight to the prison chaplain. Maybe religion would give me a chance to get my life on track.
The chaplain told me something I’ll never forget. “James, you don’t want religion. Religion is merely man’s best effort to work his way to God. It will do nothing more than lead you straight to hell. What you need is a relationship with Jesus.”
He then told me how I could have a relationship with God, the Creator of this world, through His Son, Jesus. If I would take a chance and accept Jesus as my Savior, all my sin, all my failures would be wiped away—all of them! He also told me the good news that Jesus accepted me, just as I was, flaws and all. Through Jesus’ death, I could have a new life and real purpose. I could be saved from this pitiful life.
So I gave Jesus a chance…just in case. Just in case He was the Savior. Just in case He could change my life. What did I have to lose?
I began to read the Bible. Several stories caught my attention. The first was the account of the two prisoners hanging on either side of Jesus at His crucifixion. I could identify with them. One prisoner laughed at Jesus and rejected Him. The other believed and asked Jesus to remember Him. He decided to give Jesus a chance. To that prisoner Jesus said, “Today you will be with Me in paradise.” I was in awe that Jesus would remember a prisoner and reward him in such a way.
I also read about Joseph—a man God promoted from the pit of an Egyptian prison to the highest position in the land. What a story! I studied his life and began to follow in his footsteps, trusting that what God had done for Joseph, He’d do for me.
I began to serve those in authority with excellence and to treat my fellow men with respect. Committed now to living a life without compromise, I got serious about knowing God and honoring Him with my life choices. I didn’t just read God’s Word, I applied it. Through my obedience to it and a daily decision to align my thoughts with God’s thoughts, I became a new man. A healed man. A whole man.
And that’s how Big James moved from Hollywood to Hallelujah!
God began bringing honor and opportunities into my life. Every place my foot stepped, I became blessed. The prison guards started bragging on me. They scratched their heads and wondered, “What in the world is Big James doing in here?”
One day a huge fight broke out in the prison. You should have seen it—fighting was everywhere. Left and right, guys were jumping into the action, even attacking the guards. When the guys in my dorm began to rise up, I told them to sit down. They did. “You are not to fight the officers,” I told them. And they didn’t.
The next day the warden came to our dorm and asked the inmates, “Why didn’t this dorm riot like the others?” One by one they replied, “Because Big James told us to sit down.”
The warden reported the testimony of the inmates to the governor, which led to an automatic review of my case. Next thing I knew, eighteen months into my fifty-year sentence, I was heading to a transition center. Soon came a full pardon and the words, “James, you are no longer a liability to society, but an asset.” Those words were music to my ears.
I completed my time at the transition center and began my studies at Mercer University, working to get a degree in theology and psychology. One day while I was in the gym working out, a man approached and asked, “James, how would you like to be on the United States powerlifting team?”
I accepted his offer and watched in amazement as God began to open doors all over the world for His glory. First in Finland, then the Czech Republic; next came Amsterdam, Germany, and Canada. I approached each chance like it was my last—I gave it my all; I worked unto the Lord and not unto man (Colossians 3:23). As a result, I became a five-time world champion, five-time national champion, and the first man in history to lift over 700 pounds without the use of drugs or fancy equipment.
God continued to expand my territory by giving me an international platform to impact lives. I was given a place on the Power Team, a ministry of John Jacobs. As a member of the Power Team, I performed in thousands of schools and churches, demonstrating great feats of strength while introducing people to the greatest power source of all…God. I performed on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and was even given the chance to make special appearances on the television show, Walker, Texas Ranger. Then, God provided opportunities for me to return to prison through organizations such as HeartBound Ministries, Bill Glass Behind the Walls, and Inmate Encounter. I’ve spoken in hundreds of prisons, telling inmates about the choice I made that changed my life forever—the choice that brought me from a prison to the palace!
One thing I know, there is no limit to what God can do with a life that is committed to Him. When I chose to submit to God and give Him a chance, He lifted me out of my pit and gave me an enormous platform, so far beyond anything I hoped for or imagined. He moved me past being a football star, past prison walls, past being a world champion powerlifter…and He shaped my life into something that would impact the whole world.
My life became powerful the day I put myself in God’s hands. It also became blessed. God healed my relationship with Mama, and He blessed me with a beautiful wife of over twenty years and three incredible children.
Let me tell you something. What God did for that prisoner hanging on the cross, what He did for Joseph, and what He did for Big James—He will do for you. God isn’t a respecter of persons. All you have to do is choose to give Jesus a chance.
Take a chance on Jesus. He’s willing to take a chance on you.
Written by Big James Henderson
Photo by Jesper Aggergaard