Michael Clayton has always been a good football player.

The Baton Rouge native was a star wide receiver at Christian Life Academy and helped lead LSU to the 2003 national championship.

It wasn’t until a tumultuous NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that Clayton got a better understanding of what it meant to be a good man with a real testimony and purpose.

Last Sunday, Clayton shared his story and words of encouragement during the Men’s Day service at First Emmanuel Baptist Church in Baton Rouge. The theme was “The Steps of a Good Man Are Ordered by the Lord” taken from Psalms 37:23. It was the first of what Clayton hopes to be many messages from behind the pulpit.

“It wasn’t until I went through my six years of hell in Tampa Bay that I really had my testimony,” Clayton said. “My whole life, everything had been so good. God had always ordered me in a way that I had not to practice what I preached because I didn’t go through what some of the other men went through. I had two parents in the home. I wasn’t around drugs. I had great mentors. I didn’t really have a testimony yet.”

Clayton, 31, told the men that going through trials like he did and suffering failures don’t exempt them from being good men.

“What makes a man good? Is it because you don’t drink? Don’t smoke? Don’t party? Don’t chase women?” he asked. “Is that what makes you good? I believe myself to be good, and I believe there’s a lot of you in this place who believe themselves to be good, but we all have our vices in life.”

Ultimately, Clayton said, it comes down to one thing: “That one simple act is accepting the Lord Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.”

Even that decision doesn’t mean you won’t go through trouble — as Clayton learned.

“I had people in my life who would speak blessings in my life everywhere I went. I just didn’t really know what it meant,” he said.

Even at LSU, Clayton said, he would display his Christian beliefs on his eye patch, gloves and shoes. He said he recently found in his Tampa home a journal he kept during his freshman season in 2001. He asked the Lord to make him a leader of men and not to worry about his personal statistics — a request he had difficulty honoring at times.

“I didn’t even know who I was. I was so consumed with touchdowns and fame and being a big football star that I didn’t even know that God has something for me, and I was writing it on a piece of paper,” he said.

Clayton played three years for the Tigers before being picked by the Bucs in the first round of the draft in 2004.

A promising rookie season saw Clayton catch a team-leading 80 passes for more than 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns.

Soon after, he got a call from his crying godmother with a message.

“She said, ‘Michael, the Lord told me that you’re about to go through hell, that you have to stay close to God, you got to find your purpose in life and he’ll see you through it,’” Clayton said. “To me, my purpose in life was to play football, so I didn’t really know what it meant to find my purpose because I thought I was in purpose.”

Clayton never came close to repeating that rookie-year production.

“My career began to plummet,” he said.

But Clayton’s faith didn’t plummet.

“I found myself building myself up by serving others. I realize you can be a good man coming to church, but you’ll be a better man in taking what you’ve learned from church and giving it to somebody else. If I didn’t have those tough times in life, I wouldn’t be who I am today. … If you believe that your steps are ordered by the Lord, you embrace your trials, you embrace your tribulations. The tough times in your life, God uses that to order your steps.”

Clayton was released by the Bucs in 2010.

“It was an embarrassing moment for me, because football was all I’ve known. I didn’t know what God had for me,” he said. “I was lost.”

Clayton reluctantly signed with Omaha in the United Football League after the Lord had ordered his steps to be a “leader amongst men that you don’t know.”

“I decided to walk with the Lord,” he said. “I was not in control. The me in me didn’t want to go.”

The UFL stint was short, as Clayton got back in the NFL with the New York Giants. He played parts of two seasons, earning a Super Bowl ring in 2011 — but more importantly, he helped lead prayers with teammates.

The 6-foot-4 Clayton told the church that starting those prayer sessions was part of his calling to be bold for God. He challenged them to do the same in their lives and community.

“There’s some opportunities for some men in this room to be a leader amongst men that you don’t know,” he said. “God is calling you today to take back the throne. He’s asking for warriors of Jesus Christ to stand boldly before the throne to go get these young men that are lost in the community. … If the men are lining up with righteousness and goodness, then our wives will follow suit. If the men are lining themselves with God’s glory, then the children that we raise in this world will bear our fruit.”

Relax, eat, worship

The special Friday night worship services at Foster Road Baptist Church are back after a successful run last year.

The services will be held each Friday starting Aug. 1 in the church’s gym. A fellowship meal will be served at 6 p.m. with the service to follow at the church, 11333 Foster Road, off Plank Road in north Baton Rouge.

“It is thoroughly enjoyable, very laid-back,” church member Mary Goebel said. “We’re not actually in the church building, and it’s very relaxing. We get to just visit with different people, something on Sunday nights we really can’t do.”

The church usually holds services on Sunday mornings and Sunday evenings but tried the Friday services to do “something different” last August.

Another dynamic group of special speakers is set for this year. Children’s Night will be held Aug. 15.

The church’s pastor is Michael Morris. For more information, call (225) 775-0884.

Upper Room Ministry

For nearly half of her life, Betty Vaughan has been a part of the Upper Room Ministry’s weekly visits to the Northridge Care Center in Baker.

Vaughn and other members of the Upper Room Ministry recently celebrated 35 years of service and sharing the love of Christ at the facility, 3612 Baker Blvd.

“I was 35 years old when I became a part of this ministry,” said Vaughan, now 69. “It has been a blessing to know and have known each person that I have met there. I love them as my own family. They are precious people who have shown their love to us in many ways.”

Vaughan expressed the thoughts of many members who are thankful to be a part of the ministry, which started in 1979 under the leadership of Carl Beard, a member at Bethany Baptist Church in Baker. After Beard retired from ministering, Ministers A.J. Nicosia and Rip Rittell took charge.

The ministry originally met at the facility on Friday mornings, but now meets at 10 a.m. Wednesdays.

“We are there to share the word and love of God with the residents,” Nicosia said. “Anyone that has a burden for those living in the nursing home is welcome to join us. … Over the past 35 years, many have come and gone for different reasons, death or sickness, some have moved to other states. The team is still sharing the love of Christ and spreading the good news of the gospel.”

Other team members include Anne Nicosia, Doris Morgan, Elisabeth Haddox, Neva Curtis, Bea Davis, Betty Albarez, Ben Haddox, Tracy Albarez, Doris Morgan, Brian Hilbun, Beth Murphy and Shirley Wilson. They represent seven churches or ministries.

Hilbun said the meetings last for an hour. He said the group leads the residents in hymns and praise songs for about 20 minutes, usually followed by a small talk about the history of a particular hymn and its intended spiritual significance, and a short sermon.

“It is really an interesting thing that in God’s service when you intend to give something you receive more back in return,” Hilbun said. “The opportunity to serve with others that have a heart for God has encouraged me so many times, and the residents are really what makes it worth the time, their appreciation for us and their openness to God’s word make this endeavor so worthwhile.”

Faith Matters runs every other Saturday in The Advocate. Terry Robinson can be reached at (225) 388-0238 or s trobinson@theadvocate.com.