When the cheering stops, many athletes find themselves at a crossroads in their life, unsure of how to approach the real world. That was the case for former OU lineman, Eric Pope, a starter on the 1985 national championship team, who hit rock bottom before turning his life around and making a comeback more rewarding than anything he had experience on the football field.
Pope was a homegrown product, gaining All-State status at Seminole High School in the early 1980s. Growing up a Sooner fan, there was little doubt he would cast his lot with Oklahoma.
“Watching the Selmon brothers play was something I enjoyed growing up and without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted to go to the University of Oklahoma,” said Pope. “When I came out, I was one of the top 100 players in America, blue chip, all-American. It was between Nebraska and OU. Texas asked me if they had a shot, and I told Fred Akers no. He appreciated my honesty.”
He signed with OU and at 6-3, 285, became a mainstay on the offensive line. Injured in his initial year, Pope redshirted and spent five years at Oklahoma, suffering through a couple of down years for the program before grabbing a starting spot on Barry Switzer’s squad that overcame a loss to Miami in the regular season on their way to a wishbone-fueled national title with a win in the Orange Bowl over Penn State. Pope was a second-team all-Big Eight selection that season.
“It was pretty neat. Really an interesting time,” Pope said. “In ’83 we opted out of a bowl game. We already had a game scheduled in Hawaii and instead of going to the Holiday Bowl, that trip became our bowl game. You know you’ve been to too many bowl games when you opt out of one. Only year we didn’t go to a bowl when I was there.”
“There’s a statistic on that 85 national championship team that not too many people know, but we graduated 100 percent of our seniors. Seven seniors, everybody got a degree.”
While in Norman, Pope was exposed to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes through its longtime leaders Chuck Bowman and John O’Dell. That relationship would help in his revival in later years. But first, he would have to travel down a dark path that almost ruined his life.
Undrafted by the NFL, Pope still had dreams of making a team. He was hopeful that a history of injuries wouldn’t derail his chances.
“I was one of those guys who was challenged with injuries before I even left OU,” said Pope. “I had five surgeries while I was there. But going to the league was something I wanted to do.”
Signing as a free agent with the then St. Louis Cardinals, Pope was excited about being a professional, but not as thrilled with his new digs.
“First year I arrived there it was a lot of fun,” Pope said. The difficult part is that OU had just gone through a renovation with workout and training facilities and we probably had the best in the country. OU’s facilities were much better than what the Cardinals had.”
Battling to become a member of his new team, Pope’s hopes were dashed by injuries early on. He suffered another injury in pre-season and was released from the Taxi squad midway through the season. Still, he had shown enough to Cardinals coaches that he was invited back to camp the following year, only to break his hand in an early pre-season game. By the time he was healed, NFL players had gone on strike and since he had signed a contract and had been paid up front, he couldn’t return as one of the so-called “scab” players who filled in while the regulars were sitting out.
After two years, Pope called it quits, deciding not to try and hang on to the dream that so many players chase.
“I had a short career, it was difficult overcoming injuries. It had nothing to do with my ability but rather my durability,” Pope said. “A lot of guys don’t want to let go, but I knew it was time. But I got to know a lot of great players during my time there. There were some really interesting characters on my team. Pat Tilley was a strong Christian, O.J. Anderson was there before he got traded to the Giants, Neil Lomax was the quarterback, Roy Greene, great receiver and a four-time Pro Bowl selection. Good times a lot of fun.”
Without football in his life, though, Pope began wandering through his life without any direction. He spent five years traveling around the country, on a downward spiral fueled by alcohol and drug abuse. He tried going through 12-step programs and rehab centers several times, but nothing worked for him. His epiphany came when he was arrested for possession.
“When I left pro ball in 1987, I had some nasty habits. Just got caught up in the wrong circle, the wrong group of people, and found myself using. I remember my grandmother telling me “You run with dogs, you wind up with fleas”. That’s where I was. My life was really challenged,” Pope said. “One day, I was getting ready to face a prison term because of alcohol and drugs. I told the Lord if he would deliver me that I would help deliver the message. October 19, 1992 is the last time I had any alcohol or drugs.”
“At that point, that was a valley. When I got to that place in my life, everything and everybody was gone and my life was being threatened by the use of drugs, I surrendered to what I knew was right and God came in and delivered me, set me free from drugs and alcohol. Not long after that, I began to carry the Gospel to share that hope of recovery no matter what level of human life you had gone to. I’m a living testimony that there’s nothing too hard for God. That’s what I live by now and I work with my kids and tell them that dreams can come true. Anything is possible in their lives.”
Thinking back to 1984 and his experiences with FCA on the OU campus, Pope reached out to his former mentors and began to put his life back together. He began speaking to children on the evils of alcohol and drugs, and eventually became involved with the Abundant Life Family Worship Center in Oklahoma City, where he became an assistant pastor, director of the church’s men’s center and a member of the church Board of Trustees.
“I live life the way I played ball – as hard as I can to hold on to it,” said Pope. “I speak as often as I can to share that good news in high schools and colleges. I’ve done a lot of neat stuff in my life since that time, sharing my recovery.”
“When I look back on it sometimes, I say “Wow”. Would I do it again? Well I probably wouldn’t want to go down the road I went with alcohol and drug abuse, but I’d be afraid to miss anything for this relationship that I have right now with God. When you see me now, you see someone whose renewed and regenerated in his heart and mind. My life is totally converted. There’s no residue left behind.”
Standing by Pope’s side has been his wife, Floritta, also an evangelist working with single mothers and youth, who grew up in Holdenville and was Pope’s high school sweetheart. They have four daughters, including Jhavonne, who was a sprinter at Texas Tech and OU. Along with her sisters, Erica, Hannah and Rebekah, they form a singing group that performs at church functions.
“My four daughters have tremendous voices and are sharing them to praise God,” Pope said. “I have been truly blessed in my life.”
Pope now spends his days working to provide hope and assistance to his community and warning youngsters about the danger of associating with the wrong crowd. He’s not sure his status as a former OU player has that much of an impact on the groups he speaks to but it is part of his life, just as the dark days that led him to a spiritual revival.
“I played ball in ’85 and it was the Big Eight then. Most of the kids I talk to now weren’t even born when I was playing ball,” said Pope. “But I really enjoy working with them. I really think that’s what God is calling me to do.”