RANDOLPH, N.J. — Mike DeVito cleared his throat a few times, took a couple of steps from behind the lectern and looked out at the dozens of people seated in front of him.
This was no locker room speech or game huddle for the former University of Maine football player, now a defensive lineman with the New York Jets.
DeVito was giving his first sermon at a church filled with congregants looking for spiritual guidance from a special guest.
“I was nervous, brother,” DeVito said a few moments after his passionate presentation eight days ago. “But I think it turned out OK.”
No doubt about it. Just as he has for Rex Ryan’s defense the past few seasons, DeVito got the job done. Just as he did while in Orono with the Black Bears.
“We had a chapel service for our guys and Mike was part of it but not a leader of it,” said Jack Cosgrove, Maine’s football coach. Cosgrove didn’t envision DeVito standing before a congregation, sharing his spirituality, but he’s not surprised.
“He was the most sincere kid I’ve coached. He’s genuine. When I took him from a $1,000 (scholarship) to a half scholarship he stood in my office and said, ‘Are you sure someone else couldn’t use this more?’ He was so grateful.”
STAYING IN SPIRITUAL SHAPE
A devout Christian who is considering a post-football career as a youth minister or pastor, the 26-year-old DeVito was part-teacher and part-preacher as he spoke about the meaning of faith for about 20 minutes at RCC – a Relevant Christian Church – complete with a PowerPoint presentation. He also threw in a few jokes that drew a roomful of chuckles, and several of his points were met with an approving “Amen!” or “You’re right!”
“I’m so proud of him,” DeVito’s wife, Jessie, said with a huge smile as several people hugged and thanked her husband a few feet away.
While so much focus during the NFL’s strange offseason has been on the contentious lockout and how players are staying in shape while they wait to go back to work, DeVito has been using some of that extra time to strengthen his faith.
“He delivered a great message,” said a church member, Jay Trevorrow of Flanders, N.J. “I think God has great plans for him.”
DeVito has worked closely with associate pastor Adam Burt, a former NHL defenseman who has served as the Jets’ chaplain for three years. DeVito regularly studies the Bible and pretty much anything else he can get his hands on that helps him learn more about living and teaching as a Christian.
“When I saw Michael’s heart, he has a real passion in it,” said Burt.
“As much of a mountain of a man as he is, he loves people deeply. I had no idea that his heart would be like, ‘Hey, someday I might like to do this,’ but the closer I get to him, I can definitely see the call of God being on his life and that’s exciting.”
IT STARTED WITH A VISIT
DeVito is a friendly guy with the media, a quiet and easygoing presence in a Jets locker room filled with players who speak their minds, just like their coach.
“But when it comes to his faith in God, if you come and talk to him about that, he’s a totally different person,” said Jets tight end Matthew Mulligan, who has been best friends with DeVito since their days together at Maine. “In college he would never be able to get up and talk in front of people like Sunday. It’s just been a big transformation that I’ve been able to see.”
It all started a few years ago for DeVito, who grew up in a nonreligious Italian home in Massachusetts. He was hanging out in his apartment during his junior year at Maine when two Mormon missionaries showed up at his door.
“When I first saw them coming, I really don’t like to be mean to anybody, so when they asked to come in, I was like, ‘All right,’ ” he said.
“Not because I wanted to hear about God but it was more like I didn’t want to just turn these guys away.”
Well, DeVito kept listening and that visit turned into several more. For the first time, he realized he had to make changes: no more drinking and partying; no more living with his then-girlfriend; no more scoffing at religion.
“They had a good idea of who Jesus is and that’s what I needed at the time,” he said. “I’m not a Mormon, but they knew Jesus and they gave me that foundation.”
It was also during this time in 2006 when DeVito’s friend, Mark Stetson, was slain. DeVito called it “my eye-opening experience.”
“When I got up to that coffin and saw a 23-year-old man dead,” DeVito recalled, “it was like, ‘Whoa. Man, this isn’t guaranteed. I can’t think I can take care of this on my own time. It’s not about my time. It’s God’s time.’
“There was no turning back.”
MAKING THE MOST OF HIS TIME
Ryan has called Devito one of the strongest of his players, if not the most underrated. DeVito has helped make up for the loss of the injured Kris Jenkins the last two years with little fanfare, including last season when he had a career-high 59 tackles.
“I think it’s funny how his play on the field really mirrors his spiritual life and his faith,” Burt said. “He’s just one of these guys who’s just determined and ferocious, and just always showing up. There’s this hunger, and I think that’s translated to his football career.”
DeVito has been preparing for the season – whenever it starts – with former Jets strength coach Sal Alosi, who resigned a few weeks after he was suspended for tripping a Miami Dolphins player during a game. That stuff doesn’t matter to DeVito now.
“Everybody makes mistakes and it’s not like because of what happened, he automatically became a bad strength coach,” he said. “I wanted to go with someone I trusted and who knew how to train NFL players. He has me on the program I’ve been going through for five years now, and I keep getting better and better.”
And that’s exactly what DeVito is aiming for outside the weight room and far from the football field. After all, he says, the Bible is the most important playbook he’ll ever study.
“As much as I do want to get back to football and back to work, I’m not going to let this time go to waste,” DeVito said. “I’m just trying to see what path God has for me, and what better time than now? I won’t take this for granted.”