EUGENE — Open the doors, walk past the sign that states, “athletes and authorized personnel only,” and head down the hall. When you see a room guarded by a brown and red Dr. Pepper bin, enter.
There, inside the Casanova Center, you’ll see a man facing a crowd of nearly 20 University of Oregon athletes — there are usually about 35 to 50 on a normal Tuesday night.
He steps back-and-forth, side-to-side on the checkered carpet with his green and white Nike running shoes as he talks. He’s lean, a gray long sleeve Oregon shirt fitting tight against his muscled frame. His voice is soft but quick. His eyes have a way of pulling in an audience and never letting go.
Tonight’s chapel conversation is about struggle, injury and loss. It’s about anguish and dealing with disappointment — it’s a conversation Tony Overstake is used to having with members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
Overstake, a former state champion for Crater High, hasn’t left Oregon since arriving at the university in 1998 on a wrestling scholarship. During his senior year, he became a member of the FCA and the unofficial chaplain for the Oregon athletic program. Today, that’s a full-time job for him. Through his ministry, he aims to teach Oregon athletes that they are more than just athletes. They are people, too.
“I just wanted to help these athletes find wholeness,” Overstake said. “It’s not like I’m walking into the athletic department with a religious agenda that I’m shoving down people’s throats.
“I’m a resource.”
He walks up to his red iPad and begins to tell the story of Job from the Bible. It’s about a man who had everything in life before having it all taken away. Even after he lost his family, his wealth and his health, Job continued to love and believe in God.
Overstake turns to the crowd on hand.
“There’s a lot of good in this world,” Overstake said, “but there’s a lot of pain, too.”
He looks at the student-athletes in attendance. He lets them in on the benefit of what he’s created through the FCA — a church of people willing to help each other.
“But you don’t have to go through it alone,” Overstake said. “Trust, love and respect will pull you through and help you get through the bad times together.”
It wasn’t supposed to feel like this, Overstake thought, as he stood on the mat at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. He’d worked hard for four years as a wrestler at Crater. He called himself the most passionate wrestler he ever met, often coming early to practice and staying after to work on his technique.
But after winning the 125-pound title in 1998, Overstake felt empty. He thought by accomplishing his goal, he would be fulfilled.
“There’s got to be something deeper than this,” Overstake remembers thinking.
He turned back to religion, something he abandoned when he first entered high school. Through religion, he found the importance of keeping what he refers to as an outward focus. Instead of thinking only about himself and hoping that achieving goals would make him happy, he found outside ways to find fulfillment.
Chuck Kearney was an assistant wrestling coach at Oregon when he met Overstake. In 1998, Kearney took over as head coach. There was a press conference to announce Kearney’s promotion. The next day, after the press conference, Kearney sat at the kitchen table in the Overstake’s Medford home, and convinced Overstake to be the first wrestler signed by Kearney.
In Overstake’s first year at Oregon, he struggled. Kearney and his assistant coaches would bring up Overstake’s name in meetings.
“Is he going to make it or not at the college level?” they pondered.
Each day, Kearney wondered if Overstake would walk into his office and quit.
“In hindsight, I now know he would never do that,” Kearney said.
Kearney refers to Overstake as a “self-made man.”
“He weathered the storm of his initial struggles,” Kearney said.
Overstake finished his Oregon wrestling career with an 89-46 record and two Pacific-10 wrestling championships.
At this point in his life, Overstake had discovered what he calls wholeness. He was at peace with heart, mind and soul.
In high school, Overstake thought he would find wholeness through accomplishing his goals and winning a state championship. In college, he treated wrestling with a different mindset — one he now preaches to the athletes.
“I tell my athletes to know that they are already whole, and now they just go and compete because they love to do it,” Overstake said. “That’s way different than them having to go out and win in order to become whole.”
The love Overstake had for wrestling was equaled in anguish when he was too injured to compete. He had five surgeries over the course of his career: knee, two ankles, a nose and a shoulder. Another shoulder surgery is in his future as well.
Kearney vividly remembers when the Ducks traveled to Nebraska for a meet. It was standard procedure to leave injured wrestlers at home, but Kearney decided to take an injured Overstake.
Whenever a teammate would do well in a match, Overstake was the first person there to greet him with a high-five and a smile. Overstake’s positive nature was infectious.
“I truly think it was so appropriate that Tony was the first player I signed,” Kearney said
When his wrestling career was over, Overstake became an assistant coach for Kearney.
Kearney remembers watching some of his wrestlers warm up with Overstake. He saw the way Overstake could ease into a conversation with someone and help them with whatever was on their mind.
“For some of our wrestlers, warming up with Tony was life-changing,” Kearney said. “He was a great resource and support system for our team.”
Today, due to the injuries he sustained, Overstake can’t coach anymore. He can barely watch the sport, knowing he’s not a part of it, but he uses the same passion he had for wrestling in his work as a chaplain.
“I kind of just fell into the minster role and now I love it,” Overstake said. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Senior acrobatics and tumbling athlete Erika Schaefer was trying to hold it together when she and her teammates found out the news on that 45-degree day in February. Lauren Jones, a freshman on the team, had passed away from meningococcemia earlier that morning.
Schaefer had established herself as a leader on the team. Her teammates called her “mom” because of her caring nature. She didn’t know how to handle the loss of a teammate.
What Schaefer did know was Overstake’s schedule for the day. After four years of going to FCA meetings every Tuesday, she had fostered a relationship with the chaplain. At this time, Overstake would be working out in the gym at the Casanova Center.
Schaefer walked into the gym and found Overstake. She sprinted to him, tears starting to build up in her eyes, and told him they needed to talk. They walked outside and Schafer told him the news, bursting into tears.
“I’m not a crier,” Schaefer said, “but I let it all out.”
If it wasn’t for Overstake, Schaefer said she wouldn’t know what to do after Jones’ death. She said she would’ve been lost without the comfort from Overstake.
Throughout the season, after Jones’ death, Overstake gave chapel services and Bible studies before home meets. When the acrobatics and tumbling team was on the road, Schaefer took the lead. Wearing her traditional spiked up Mohawk dyed in green, she would lead the team in pre-meet chapel.
Schaefer first came to the FCA chapels during her freshman year. At the time, she wasn’t competing. She was a reserve athlete, “broken down and let down,” she said. At her first meeting, she realized she wasn’t the only one. Athletes struggling, or injured, or not playing were there, as well as the ones who were successful.
“I fell in love with it,” she said. “To know we were all able to support each other meant a lot.”
At her final chapel, on the last Tuesday of May, Schaefer felt the emotions building up. She had one last meaningful conversation with Overstake. She asked if he would marry her and her boyfriend when they decided to tie the knot.
“Of course,” he said, giving her a hug. “Just tell me when.”
The impact Overstake’s had on Schaefer is far more than she ever foresaw when she was a scared, meek, “definitely not a mohawk girl,” freshman. He’s family now, she said.
Recently, she was asked by someone if she had to do college all over again, would she do it at the University of Oregon?
“I say yes,” she said, “and it’s because of people like Tony Overstake.”