Roll Tide: Football player turned minister, missionary reflects on journey to serving God


Two Auburn Tigers defenders try to wrap up A.B. ‘Bubba’ Sawyer (second from right, No. 27 in white) following the Crimson Tide’s 30-yard reception during the 1969 Iron Bowl. (UA Athletics/Crimson Tide Photos)

By Bruce Sims

Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist

Diving into the Ole Miss end zone for a touchdown during what has been called one of the greatest college football games ever was a high point in A.B. “Bubba” Sawyer’s life.

Sawyer, who now serves as minister of senior adults at First Baptist Church, Fairhope, said, “Alabama won that game 33–32, but it was during my senior year at Alabama (when) our team experienced a loss in the Orange Bowl to Nebraska that had me crying my eyes out.

“As a team we made so many mistakes there was no way we were going to win, and this was for the National Championship as both of us were undefeated,” he said. “They were ranked in first place and we were in second.”

After returning to the team’s Miami hotel following the game, Sawyer began a heartfelt time of reflection. The end result was that he gave his life to Christ.

Football career

“To me, my football career was over,” he said. “It began with my days at Fairhope High and culminated with the loss to Nebraska as a member of the Crimson Tide team.

“As I looked back I remembered how my friends and I were caught up in the tremendous success of Alabama football. I thought that if I could play for Alabama, I would never desire anything else.”

Sawyer, despite his diminutive size, did play for the Tide, as well experience the wins that came with playing there.

Shallow excitement

“However, I discovered that the deep and lasting fulfillment that I hungered for just wasn’t to be found in football,” he said. “My life was exciting in a shallow sort of way, but it was by no means purposeful.”

One evening, while having a casual conversation with a teammate, Sawyer listened as his friend explained how his life had become meaningful since he had begun to take Jesus and the Bible seriously.

“That brief conversation began a process of consideration that changed my whole life,” he said. “After the Nebraska game I knew I wanted what my teammate had.”

A few months later Sawyer graduated from the University of Alabama, and Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant made him a student assistant coach from 1972 to 1975.

“On June 14, 1975, I married Debbie Leytham, a cheerleader at Theodore High,” he said. The couple moved from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery in 1976, where Sawyer served as head football coach at St. James Academy.

“We spent two years there before we returned to Fairhope, where I served as an assistant coach at Fairhope High,” Sawyer noted.

And then it was off to the missions field — from 1980 to 1982 the couple served as volunteer missionaries to the Island of Mauritius.

“I was soaking in the tub, reading a copy of Contempo magazine,” he said, “when I came across a need in Mauritius for a sports coach. I called out to Debbie to get an encyclopedia so we could find Mauritius on the map. We had both been under conviction to go to the missions field, and this sounded like the perfect opportunity.”

The couple volunteered for one year, which soon became two when the full-time missionary took his stateside assignment.

Seminary training

“When we came home I was named as minister of youth at Fairhope First Baptist,” he said. “The church worked with me so that I could attend New Orleans Theological Seminary.”

Serving overseas

Once he had his master’s degree in hand he accepted the call to serve as minister of youth to a Baptist church in Batesville, Mississippi.

Following a three-year stint in Batesville, the couple attended French Language School in Tours, France, with the thought of returning to Mauritius as career missionaries. They served there from 1988 to 1991 before receiving a call to return to the pastoral staff of First, Fairhope, serving there from 1991 until 2001. It was then to Beech Haven Church, Athens, Georgia, from 2001 to 2016, when First, Fairhope, called them back to serve for the third time.

Sawyer was recruited to Alabama by Coach Jimmy Sharpe, who told Bryant that the kid from Fairhope had great stats, but he wasn’t very big.

Bryant replied, “A football doesn’t weigh very much and real bigness is in the heart. If he has speed and heart he can play.”

Today, Sawyer is in the midst of developing prayer warriors within Fairhope’s nursing homes, visiting the sick and learning the names of all the new members of First, Fairhope.

“Just as I was in search of a meaningful relationship with the Lord, I’m doing my best to develop such relationships with our senior adults,” he said.

About thealabamabaptist

State Baptist newspaper serving Baptists in Alabama, providing information, inspiration and interpretation as well as challenging readers to serve and find opportunities for ministry that further the kingdom of God.
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