Asif Shaikh could have momentarily left an information table and chased down University of South Florida football receiver Carlton Mitchell. Instead, the loud and boisterous Asif, who works with Cru, yelled across the courtyard, “Hey, you! You play football. Why don’t you run back here to me?”
Carlton, gimping from a torn hamstring that would soon require surgery, retorted, “Not now, man. I’m late for class.”
Carlton was late. But beneath the truth rested an unspoken preference of most athletes to spurn even a hint of fanaticism.
Asif’s wardrobe screams “South Florida.” His cars read, “Go Bulls,” and a school flag flies from his front porch, trumpeting his heart for the Division I program that rose to national prominence in 2007 in just its 11th season.
He is a USF sports fan. Yet, as a staff member with Athletes in Action, Cru’s sports ministry, it is Asif’s zealous care for the athletes whom he serves and a longing to guide them into significant life change that just as much defines the 39-year old.
“Without Christ, I am passionate,” says Asif. “But with Christ, I get real excited about my faith. I want to see myself change and [other] people changed for the Lord. The way I react to that can be a bit overwhelming.”
“In his enthusiasm for sports, he has had to be careful to not get carried away,” says Doug Gilcrease, AIA staff member of 20 years -- 17 years as Tampa, Fla., chaplain to professional athletes. “If people, and especially athletes, don’t feel comfortable with you, they’re not going to let you in.”
Asif, tenacious in pursuit and sporting a relevance that connects with college youth, got through to Carlton. He managed to get the athlete’s name and later followed his courtyard shout with an e-mail and Facebook “friend request.” “I told him that I was with AIA -- that the athletic director had given me permission to meet up with and encourage him,” Asif recalls.
His message landed. “I was facing surgery and having some problems with an ex-girlfriend, so I decided to give it a chance,” says Carlton.
Eighteen months and many meetings later, Asif, enroute to campus, phones Carlton. His voice, full of natural enthusiasm, exclaims, “Mitchell, what’s up, my brother?” And in a lower, softer tone, “Can you meet me outside?” Minutes later the two are bumping fists, exchanging an embrace and walking and talking of the athlete’s anxiety over a pending final exam. Asif throws his arm around him and prays.
“His prayers offer hope,” says Carlton. “He is real. He is like a coach, a spiritual leader -- a father figure to me. He really cares.”
Carlton, a believer in high school who hobbled spiritually before connecting with Asif and his straightforward challenges, knows he is not the same. “I no longer play football for the females and the fame. I was caught up in the hype and that is not right,” he says. “Now in Jesus’ name I play.”
“We have been focused on making the right choices since we first started to meet,” says Asif.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Asif's family moved to the States when he was 7. At age 11, he became a Christian, yet he hid his faith from his Muslim father until graduating from high school, when he announced his desire to attend Bible college. His father agreed, but the tension of their relationship propels him today at USF.
“I can offer to these young men the fatherly direction I never received in my youth,” he says.
“Asif is grateful. He is one who knows that he has been forgiven much,” says Doug, his colleague and mentor. “He is a go-getter, a ‘Cru’ guy all the way. There is no sitting around and waiting. He is always looking for ways to reach and connect people and tell others about Jesus.”
Asif remains outwardly assertive toward athletes, yet now in his second year with Athletes in Action, he is more seasoned in his approach. Early in 2009, he hopped from his red ’97 Mustang Cobra—“I like fast cars”—and visually scanned a USF parking lot. He spotted All-American lineman George Selvie.
“I walked over to George and said, ‘I just prayed for a divine appointment and you’re the only person I see,’” Asif recalls. Dusting off initial surprise, George, standing 6 feet 4 inches and 245 pounds, admitted he was not where he spiritually wanted to be. Now, most Tuesday nights, the two men meet.
“I was disappointed with football and depressed over the draft,” explains George. “He doesn’t just tell me about God. He listens to what I am going through and uses the Bible to encourage me.”
Asif never wore football gear himself, though he looks like it. At 6 feet 1 inch, 220 pounds, he thumps his buff chest that rivals some linebackers and says, “I don’t think it even occurs to most of these guys that I never played."
“These guys might look larger than life in their bodies -- physically developed -- but I am dealing with young men who have 18- to 22- year-old mindsets and issues of the heart,” says Asif. “They are lost and need Jesus.”
Asif didn’t enter ministry until age 32 and, after fundraising, didn’t start campus ministry until age 35. He is motivated to make up for lost time. “I have so much to do. I have got to go get the guys,” he says. “If you can’t get busy living, you’re going to get busy dying. I wasted 13 years and I am trying to catch up.”
“This is his passion and I am enjoying seeing him bloom,” says Asif’s wife, Leaha, who leads Bible studies with USF female soccer players and cheerleaders. “If he were neglecting our family that might be different, but he isn’t. He is doing what God made him to do.”
His job, however, rarely fits 9 to 5; many Thursday nights the two are washing dishes and cleaning house well past 1 a.m.
That’s when Carlton, sometimes George, and 10-20 other teammates come to Asif’s home to play some semi-competitive “cornhole” bean bag toss (on Asif’s USF colored boards, of course). Players devour donated steaks and then digest some biblical truth from Asif and two members of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- safety Will Allen and receiver Brian Clark.
“It seemed a no-brainer to use these NFL guys to invest in the lives of these college players,” says Asif of the college/pro partnership within AIA, at present unique to Tampa. It’s part of his plan to help boys become godly men.
“His progress in ministry boggles my mind,” praises Doug. “He saw things happen in 8 months that I didn’t see happen my first 3 years.”
“Some with his characteristics could venture into being too much of a fan -- too involved with the institution,” says Brian. “But he has learned that balance. Guys feed off his energy as he gets excited about what they are doing as players and what he is doing within AIA.”
Asif is never on campus wearing anything other than USF or AIA attire. He understands the power of his wardrobe to communicate to athletes as well as to coaches and administrators. “It is all about building relationships,” he says.
But bottom line, he’s a Bulls fan. “If I see a kid wearing a Florida, Florida State or Miami shirt, I’ll call him out: ‘C’mon now. You’re at USF.’”