In the eyes of many young men, Luis Fonseca had it all. Then he lost it all.
Now Fonseca has a chance to gain something more valuable than he might ever have imagined.
“Luis is uniquely gifted through his size, athleticism, personality, and being trilingual,” said Brad Stille (’94), pastor of First Baptist Church of Wixom, MI. “He saw the dark side of sin, but he made the decision to choose Christ. All of those things combined could make him an incredibly useful instrument in the Lord’s hand.”
Fonseca is a sophomore Biblical Studies major. He stands out from the rest of the student body in several ways—his age (27), size (6-foot-4, 328 pounds), heritage (born in Brazil), multilingualism (Fonseca speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese), and life experiences.
He was an offensive lineman on Michigan State’s football team in 2004, left football behind to pursue a lifestyle dominated by drugs and alcohol, then hit rock bottom and began to look for answers. He found them in a life focused on faith in Christ. Fonseca now plays football at Maranatha, but his primary goal is a position in full-time vocational ministry.
“At first, I struggled with the idea of being a pastor,” Fonseca said. “I can’t speak well, write well, even read well out loud … and I had lived a wretched life on top of that. But the Bible says I can do all things through Christ. What I can do is relate to people who are struggling. I can connect with them on a personal level. I’m ready for the Lord to use me in any way He chooses to.”
A Coach On the Field
Fonseca has started every game at right guard for Maranatha. He has also seen a bit of action at defensive tackle during his first full football season after a layoff of nearly eight years.
“I do things smarter now … if I still had my 18-year-old body, I’d dominate,” Fonseca said with a chuckle. “My mind thinks I can do things that my body simply can’t do any more.”
“Luis will tell you that he is rusty, and the curve of his football knowledge sometimes intersects with the curve of his body being pretty beaten up,” head football coach Andy Peterson said. “He is doing pretty well. It’s not very often that somebody gets off of one of his blocks. Once he latches on, it’s pretty well done. He has been just as helpful by being able to instruct the other guys. He remembers a lot.”
Not all of Fonseca’s memories are football-related … or pleasant.
Born in Brazil
His father, Jorge, began working for Dow Chemical Company in Brazil at age 17. Jorge climbed the company ladder to system architecture specialist before being sent by Dow to its facility in Southfield, MI, in 2000. Luis knew almost no English when he enrolled as a freshman at Walled Lake Western High School. He did know soccer—but not well enough to avoid being cut from the school’s soccer team.
Football was a more natural sport for an athlete of Fonseca’s size and frame. He excelled almost immediately and began to attract interest from some colleges (Akron, Toledo, Indiana) as a junior. He went to Michigan State’s football camp prior to his senior year and was offered a scholarship by the Spartans before the week was over.
Fonseca graduated from high school early in December of 2003 and enrolled at MSU in January of 2004.
“When I got there, I couldn’t understand how some of the athletes could party five or six nights a week and still perform,” Fonseca said. “Three months later, that’s exactly what I was doing. Going to parties helped make you popular, and being popular was what I chose to pursue.”
Cristina Fonseca, his mother, was a strong Christian who insisted on taking her children to church, even against her husband’s wishes (Jorge recently became a believer as well). Luis memorized Bible verses and listened to sermons, but said he never understood their full meaning.
Fonseca’s life began its downward spiral after he left the structure of home behind. He would party until 6:30 a.m., then go to early practice. Torn ligaments in his knee set back his ability to contribute to the football team. Fonseca eventually turned his back on his scholarship and left the team in August. He returned as a walk-on, then quit again.
Between ages 20 and 25, Fonseca was arrested five times and accumulated $20,000 in fines, primarily for alcohol-related offenses. He was no longer the life of the party. Fonseca vowed to quit drinking, but spent several months battling depression.
“I always thought I could fix my problems,” Fonseca said. “I finally got to the point where I knew I couldn’t fix them anymore. I needed to talk to somebody.”
Fonseca called First Baptist Church. Gene Krachenfels, then senior pastor, suggested Fonseca come to the church to talk. A few hours later, on Dec. 12, 2010, Fonseca made a decision that changed his life’s direction.
”The pastor showed me that the Bible said I was a rotten sinner, which I already knew,” Fonseca said. “Then he showed me in Romans that, without fully depending on Jesus, I would never be able to stop. I finally understood what those verses meant. That was the day I asked Christ into my heart.”
“Luis looked pretty rough, but he was so ready for the gospel,” recalled Stille, then an assistant pastor. “He knew the truth of it; he had just never received that truth for himself.”
Fonseca, in his words, “did a 180.” He quit drinking and smoking and began doing odd jobs around the church while learning more about his faith. In the summer of 2011, Fonseca began to suggest to Stille that he might be interested in attending a Christian college. Stille compiled a list of 6-to-8 colleges that he recommended Fonseca should consider. Fonseca picked Maranatha because of its regional accreditation and conservative theological stand—not for football.
“My priorities are different now,” Fonseca said.
A Brighter Future
Peterson, the football coach, says he is fine with that and shares Fonseca’s vision for his future.
“He doesn’t focus on his past as a gift,” Peterson said. “Some people go around telling their stories of woe. He is definitely not that way. He won’t try to one-up someone else’s stories. But, if you put Luis in contact with someone who could benefit from the lessons he has learned, he would do that. He will be able to connect with some people in ways that others can’t.”
Fonseca acknowledges that recovery from any addiction will be an ongoing struggle. Stille said he believes it’s a fight Fonseca will win.
“He went from a full-ride scholarship at a major university to almost losing his health and his freedom because of alcohol,” Stille said. “It will still be a constant battle for him, but he is incredibly determined and committed to his faith. Christ was able to take this young man and raise him above his circumstances.”