Jeremy Towns still remembers the time he dressed up as a doctor for Halloween. He wore scrubs, carried a stethoscope around his neck, and had a badge affixed to his shirt that proclaimed, “Emergency Medicine.” Today, Towns is a medical resident at the University of Alabama at Birmingham working in emergency medicine. A recent graduate of the University of South Alabama(USA) medical school, he hopes to ultimately work in a subspecialty such as critical care or sports medicine.
Towns said he remembers asking his mother on that Halloween night many years ago about what it took to become a doctor. “How do I become one of those? I asked her,” he said. “She told me that I had to work my tail off academically. So, I did. I always wanted to make the highest grade in class and to be the best.”
Towns’ journey to medicine has been a circuitous route filled with success at many different levels–first in football at the college level at Samford University and then with a stint in the NFL. His story is one of football and medicine, but above all is the story of his faith. It imbues everything he has done since he first truly encountered Jesus as a freshman football player at Samford. Today, that faith continues to drive his life as he mentors ministry groups on college campuses across the Southeast, holds football camps for underprivileged children, and makes plans for his future in medicine.
Finding Football. Towns played football at Birmingham-area Wenonah High School, but only played fully in his freshman and senior years. So, despite having stellar seasons and stats, Towns was not widely recruited. A call from Samford head coach Pat Sullivan changed all that. Towns worked part time at Walgreens when an announcement came over the loudspeaker that he had a call. “I answered it and he said, ‘This is Pat Sullivan from Samford.’ I went home and told my mother and then got a letter to sign for a full scholarship,” he recalled. “It was really a God thing because I hadn’t been offered by many schools. My mother said that I was going to sign this thing. She was right.”
Towns said that playing under the legendary Sullivan–the former Heisman Trophy winning quarterback from Auburn University–was a jumpstart to his success in a multitude of ways. “I remember once being at the old field house and he sat down with me. He told me if I’d make the most of the opportunity and grab life by the horns, I’d be capable of doing anything in life,” he said. “I didn’t immediately grasp it at that time, but it inspired me and got me going.” Towns went on to become a star on the Samford football team and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in sports medicine from the University in 2013. He said, however, that the most life-changing thing to happen to him while at Samford was being invited to a Bible study as a freshman. “I said it wasn’t really my speed, but they kept asking me. I finally came, really just to get this one guy to leave me alone. So, I would go to Bible study and make jokes. It was my goal to have Nick [Williams, now a player in the NFL] kick me out for being disruptive,” Towns said. “But one day he kept talking about how Jesus could be my homeboy, my friend. I wanted Jesus at that point. Someone I could tell my secrets to, who would be there for me, and who wouldn’t count my faults against me.”
Towns fell in love with Jesus and became outspoken about his faith. “I became so blunt and raw about God and had this fire,” he said. “Why wouldn’t people tell others about this love that’s so good? For the first month or two I was just frustrated that people hadn’t told me about Him. But then, I got focused. And I started talking to other athletes and students about Bible study.” Towns ultimately founded RANSOM (Radical Athletes & Student Oasis Ministry), a Christian organization designed to provide mentorship and leadership training on college campuses. “During one of my injuries, the mentor who led me to Christ told me that someone needed to be able to replace me. And that’s when I started planting leaders and reaching out to other schools,” he said. “I went to plant it at UAB, a volleyball player took it to Campbell University. It just spread.” Today RANSOM is on the campuses of Samford, UAB, Campbell (in North Carolina), Alabama State, Murray State (Kentucky), and Clarke-Atlanta (Georgia). Towns takes the job of mentor seriously, realizing that he has much to teach from his walk with Christ and his witness as an athlete. He also wants to equip new leaders. “I coached those leaders up, and then when I came out of the NFL I came back with that same passion. Students wouldn’t leave me alone. I couldn’t leave it alone.”
Medicine or the NFL? Following graduation from Samford, Towns felt torn. His plan was to head to medical school, but he also wanted to chase his dream of playing in the NFL. An apparent sign that he needed to pursue medicine came when he was accepted to USA’s medical program the day before Pro Day with NFL scouts. After going undrafted, his path seemed even clearer. With no professional football reality on the horizon, Towns committed to a weeklong mission trip to Dominica, an island country of the Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean Sea, with the Samford athletic director and others. “I was out of the country for a whole week and I found out that the Washington Redskins had tried to call me the day after I left. I was going to medical school in a week, so I didn’t want to call. But then he texted me back while I was in the Atlanta airport,” Towns said. “It didn’t work out right then, but then a day before going to medical school I got a call to fly up that day for a workout.”
Towns said, looking back, he knows that “the battle’s not mine, but the Lord’s.” He signed a free agency deal, despite his mother’s encouragement to do otherwise and medical school awaiting him. And Towns said that his decision was almost immediately rewarded with Christian mentors in the professional football league. “The night I made the team roster I sat next to the team chaplain, who happened to be the pastor of a girl I knew from South Alabama. And he just encouraged me,” Towns recalled. “He told me that I was the most blessed man in the room, and I felt that. Some people would just want to go to medical school or go to the NFL, but God was working what was best for me and what I needed.”
Towns spent three years in the NFL, playing with the Redskins, the Philadelphia Eagles, and finally the Buffalo Bills. He said that the friendships made and the lessons learned in the NFL were instrumental to his growth and to his desire to continue mentoring others in Christ. “I was around chaplains, and guys like Kirk Cousins, Colt McCoy, Alfred Morris, Tim Tebow. Great men of faith,” he said. “We’d sit down and just talk about the Lord.” Towns said the chaplain at Buffalo instilled in him a greater desire to be bold in his faith. “He would ask tough questions: If you lose time, can you get it back? If you lose money, can you get it back? He would say that God got me here, and if they fire me, I’ll go somewhere else. You just have to do what God tells you to do.” That lesson soon came to fruition, as Towns saw himself cut from his NFL team and heading back to his other dreams–practicing medicine and helping others.
Helping Others. Towns said that he knew after his NFL experience that he wanted to focus on reaching others with the Gospel. “God literally told me, ‘You’re getting all these things. Who around you are you taking with you?’ ” he said. “I wanted to pour into students and give them innovative ways to deliver the Gospel.” Upon returning to Alabama, Towns continued his work with RANSOM while also starting the medical program at USA. He established student groups on campus and began to mentor football players; he spoke to student groups and Bible studies. He also decided to start the Next Level Sports Camps for children in the Birmingham area. The one-day camps attract 300-500 students each Summer in football and volleyball; held at Legion Field, the camps are free and include lunch, t-shirts, and instruction from Towns and other former pro players. “We also share a faith message. I want to make it so Jesus is right there in front of them,” Towns said. “If the kids can get there, I want to give them a first-class experience. But I also want to show them Jesus.” Those camps were postponed this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, but Towns said that he looks forward to providing more opportunities to “show the kids Jesus, because it’s something some of them never see.”
While serving in those capacities, Towns graduated from USA and was awarded the 2020 Dr. Alexandra Greene Medical Student of the Year Award. Now at UAB he strives to serve in the next phase of his life and career and reflects on how Covid-19 has uniquely impacted daily life, health care, and even sports. “I myself follow the advice of infectious disease experts and epidemiologists,” he said. “There are many reports of widespread transmission of the virus at large gatherings.” He thinks it will be hard to effectively play football this season. Whether now, or when things get back to “normal,” Towns knows that he can be a strong witness. “As a doctor, I want to have a Christianity that means I never have to necessarily tell you about Jesus,” he said. “I want to love and serve you so that you will ask me what I’m doing and what makes me the way I am… I want to bring mercy to earth. Whoever I see walk through the doors, my job is to provide the utmost care and bring God’s love to them.”
-Cheryl Wray writes about sports for the Alabama Media Group, and is the coordinator of the Southern Christian Writers Conference. She lives in Hueytown, Ala. and is married with three daughters and six grandchildren.
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