By all accounts, Kirk Cousins is a nice guy.
He compliments safeties and linebackers after they hit him. He apologizes to his offensive linemen for taking too long to get the ball out, and compliments them for securing the pocket for so long, despite his indecisiveness. He keeps the names and photos of local media members in his locker—not to memorialize a record of wrongs, but so that he’ll remember their names when he sees them.
It’s true: Cousins is a nice guy. But that’s not the whole story.
If kindness were hereditary, Cousins would’ve been fortunate. His dad, Don Cousins, has been in the ministry for more than four decades, a career that began in November 1975 when Bill Hybels recruited him for planting Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago.
But before long, the Cousins family moved to Holland, Michigan, and young Kirk realized his family’s faith needed to become his own.
“The Christian middle and high school I went to in Michigan really challenged me,” Cousins told me in a phone interview last week. “I learned that I needed to go from being a ‘Christian’ because I was raised as one to being a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ, to follow Jesus with all my heart.”
Cousins followed Jesus through college at Michigan State University and into the NFL as the quarterback for the Washington Redskins. Now in his sixth season, he’s a leader both on the field and also in the locker room.
For the vast majority of us whose acquaintance with professional sports is secondhand—handed down from HBO or Hollywood—it’s easy to imagine the NFL as a spiritual wilderness for Christians, a time when they’re left vulnerable to encroaching temptations at every corner. Between regular separation from family and no ability to attend church on Sunday, this preconception is reasonable.
But Cousins says this isn’t actually the case.
“I don’t think it’s different than anyone else’s secular work environment,” he said. “You have a lot of guys who are walking with the Lord, a lot of guys who are interested in spiritual things and want to learn more, and a lot of guys who feel like that’s not something they want to be involved with.”
From employing a team chaplain to hosting a regular Bible study for players, the Redskins (as well as the NFL’s other 31 teams) make access to spiritual community as easy for players as they can. Cousins sometimes leads the study; right now, he said, they’re in Genesis 14, focusing on the life of Abraham. Last year, they looked at Isaac and Ruth.
Unique, but Similar
Cousins considers his job as quarterback as a calling—no different than many pastors or missionaries or doctors.
“I believe the Lord has called me at least for this part of my life to be an NFL quarterback,” he told me. “As a result, I view the entire job itself through the lens of the fact that he’s called me to do it.”
To be sure, it’s a unique job with unique challenges. Most of us don’t have to deal with the scrutiny of millions watching to see if we thrive or fail. We also don’t have to avoid 300-pound blitzers, or hear the president of the United States crassly criticize some of our coworkers.
Regarding the comments of President Trump, Cousins mentioned the need to uphold individual players’ consciences as well as the team’s overall chemistry.
“I can’t pretend to understand someone else’s background and what they’ve gone through,” he said. “As a result, I can’t pretend to impose my opinions onto others. . . . It’s about each player doing what they feel they need to do, and I think our team has kept good chemistry throughout the process.”
He added that he’s felt no pressure to kneel from his teammates, and no pressure not to kneel from elsewhere.
Cousins believes challenges like these push him to depend on God.
“I get up every morning and feel the task ahead of me is bigger than I can handle, and it requires me to live by faith,” he said. “I do feel inadequate. Sometimes I feel like I’m sinking in the water, and I need to trust the Lord. The lifestyle has really helped me grow spiritually, if anything.”
Cousins points to the close-knit community with his teammates as a catalyst for this growth.
“During the season, when I can’t be at church on Sundays, my community is the guys on the team. The locker room is also my mission field.”
Cousins refers to his job as a “calling,” but he doubts there’s a distinctly Christian way to throw an out route or divine opponents’ pass coverage.
“I don’t want to overspiritualize what I do,” he told me. “I’m a football player, just like anybody else.”
But then he backtracked a bit.
“But because I want to honor God with my life, including my vocation and football career, I want to work really hard. I want to play well; I want to put a good product on the field. We serve an excellent God, and I want my product on the field also to be excellent because I believe that reflects well on him.”
Legacy of a Nice Guy?
Cousins has played in the NFL for six seasons and has been a full-time starter for three. He’s fully invested in the present goal of getting the Redskins to the Super Bowl in 2018 or beyond.
But as football fans know, every career teeters on the edge. It only takes one hit, one misplaced pivot. So even at the young age of 29, Cousins has given thought to what’s next—everything from broadcasting to politics, from coaching football to getting a law degree.
“When the Lord makes it clear that my time in the NFL is done, he’ll make it clear which direction I should head from there,” Cousins told me. “I feel like I’m living a dream as long as I play—and I hope there’s still more dreams to be realized.”
He’s also given thought to his legacy.
“I want to be a diligent, hard-working, humble, and servant-hearted employee of the Redskins and teammate with the guys I play with. At the end of my career, that’s what I want guys to say about me above and beyond the other things you strive for. . . . That matters far more than if you win a lot of football games and throw for a lot of yards. It’s about how you treat people and the impact you have on them.”
It’s true that Kirk Cousins is a nice guy. But that description is too imprecise.
Perhaps it’s better to say that Cousins is obeying Paul’s exhortation in Ephesians 4: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.”