The first thing audiences learn about Baptist preacher Neal Jeffrey is that he stutters. Not because it’s incredibly obvious — decades of practice have yielded only the occasional stumble. His face crinkles, and his eyes blink as his words get caught somewhere within the brain’s complicated speech process. It’s evident because he quips straightaway: “I’m a stutterer. All that means is that I stutter.” Jeffrey is the lead pastor of our neighborhood’s Prestonwood Baptist Church and a sought-after motivational speaker. He talks about how he achieved his dream to play pro football after leading Baylor University to a historic championship in 1975. Then he made a career out of the thing that has terrified him all his life.
You preach at Prestonwood every Sunday, but you’re also a motivational speaker.
I bet I’ve spoken in every high school in the Metroplex, to a football team or at a sports banquet. That kind of started 40 years ago when I was still at Baylor. I got started doing pre-game pep talks. I’m doing one just about every Friday night in the fall to inspire kids to play well, to make the game count. It just kind of evolved. Some dads or coaches heard me speak at a high school and said, ‘I got a business over here, and we’ve got salesmen. Why don’t you come fire them up a little bit like you did those athletes.’ I’ve done stuff all over America now. A big part of my story is my stuttering, which was a huge lid in my life that I thought was going to keep me down. Of course, everybody has a lid. Everyone has something. The question is, how are you going to respond to that? That’s kind of the message.
What was it like growing up with a stutter?
For most of my life I was ashamed. I tried to hide the fact that I stuttered. The only way to hide that is to never talk. So, I was pretty much in the background. In school, just saying ‘here’ [during roll call] was a struggle. Even to this day, though I preach, and our messages are on CD, it’s still hard for me to hear myself talk.
Any formative experiences that stand out in your mind?
Well, speech class. The first time I had to stand up and make a speech was in seventh grade. That was very traumatic and just a disaster in my mind. As a freshman in high school I had Spanish class, and we had to stand up in front of the class and do dialogue. Now, I like to joke and say if you think I can stutter in English, you should hear me stutter in Spanish. Pretty impressive. I was scared of girls. It’s hard to stutter and be cool at the same time. You can’t do that. So, I wasn’t real social. Although, I was always a nice guy, and everybody liked me, but I just didn’t hang out or party or date because you had to stand around and talk.
What did you do instead?
I was very involved in my church. I was a homebody and enjoyed my family. I played sports. I played everything. If I wasn’t playing something at school, I was playing something at home.
You made history as a quarterback at Baylor University. Can you tell me about that?
I was raised loving Baylor, and I like to say I’ve been a Baylor fan all my life, which means I’ve suffered all my life. Baylor had never really won much from 1957 to 1973, my whole life. My dream was to beat Texas and win a championship, which we hadn’t won since 1924. The game is still called the ‘Miracle on the Brazos.’ We were behind 24-7 at halftime. We just had this unusual sense in the locker room. Usually if you’re down 24-7, you’re a little bit upset, the coaches are mad, and everyone is kind of frustrated. But we had this real calm. We just turned the momentum around and came back and won the game 34-24. Then we won the first championship in 50 years at Baylor and played in the Cotton Bowl in January 1975. It was just one of the greatest experiences of my life. Every Baylor fan remembers where they were. It’s still an iconic game in Baylor history.
Then you went pro with the San Diego Chargers. What prompted you to leave for the ministry?
I always dreamed of playing in the NFL. I was drafted in the last round. Today they have 12 rounds; back then they had 17 rounds. So, I didn’t play a whole lot, but it was a wonderful experience for me.
I had felt as a senior in high school that the Lord was calling me to preach. But I stuttered so well at that time that I thought it couldn’t happen anyway. I didn’t tell anybody because I was almost ashamed of it. My second year in San Diego, I just felt that this is not what I was made to do. I was 26 at the time. I could hang around in the NFL for another five or six years and make a little money. Then I’m 31 or 32, starting a career. I decided I needed to get started now.
When did your stuttering begin to get better?
It changed a little bit at Baylor when I was a quarterback — a Christian quarterback. All these churches in Central Texas wanted the quarterback to come give his testimony. Obviously, I didn’t want to go. I was fearful and afraid, so I said no. I was still hiding the fact that I stuttered. If you’re a stutterer and you speak before a group and you try to hide it, it’s a disaster. It’s embarrassing for you, and it’s embarrassing for the audience. So, my wife decided — I was just dating her then — just tell them up front that I’m a stutterer and tell them some funny stories about football. So, I started doing that. I’d stand up and say, ‘I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’m a pretty good stutterer.’ Everyone is kind of laughing, so it’s out there. I kind of got over the fear of having someone see me stutter. I’ve matured in that. Of course, I speak all the time now. For the last 30 years, that’s all I’ve done.
So, you don’t get nervous before you speak?
I get nervous every time I speak. I get almost sick. It can be a little high school pre-game speech. It could be at Prestonwood with 7,000 seats. I’m going to be nervous. It’s just part of the deal.
Why do you keep doing it?
Because I’ve learned what’s on the other side of it: being used by God to encourage other people. I’ve seen it all these years. People are encouraged, challenged and uplifted. I love what the result is of speaking.
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