Like lots of boys, Miles McPherson dreamed of becoming a professional athlete. During his senior year at Nassau County’s Malverne High School, however, he didn’t find many scouts from big football schools knocking on his door.
A man who had coached him during his Pop Warner days knew someone at the University of New Haven. McPherson visited the campus, and in the fall of 1978 he enrolled as an engineering major and tried out for football. No one really knew just how good he was. “I didn’t even know myself,” he confesses.
It didn’t take long to find out. The coaches soon realized they had something special on their hands. A defensive back, McPherson was gifted with quickness and keen football instincts. He would soon stake his claim as one of UNH’s best.
In fact, he became the University’s first All-American and its first player to be drafted by the National Football League. By the time his college career ended he held 15 school records. His interceptions records—four in a game and seven in a season, feats he accomplished twice—remain the University’s gold standard to this day. In 1989, McPherson was inducted into the UNH Athletics Hall of Fame.
UNH turned out to be good for McPherson in more than one respect. At a campus party he met Debra Spencer, the young woman who would later become his wife. And he played football so proficiently that former Assistant Football Coach Gary Reho promoted him to NFL teams.
In 1982, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams. When the Rams cut him, he quickly found a home with the San Diego Chargers (his second stint with a “Chargers” team). Over the next four years he made solid contributions as a punt returner, defensive back and special teams player.
McPherson’s life appeared glamorous. But in reality it was far from perfect. He had developed an addiction to cocaine and it had cost him his relationships with Debbie and other friends. “I felt empty and alone,” he remembers. “Football didn’t satisfy me. I realized it would end soon and I didn’t know what I would do then.”
Two teammates, Sherman Smith and Ray Preston, intervened. Both Christians, they urged him to give himself to Christ. The conversion came in the stark light of morning on April 12, 1984, a date McPherson will never forget. “I’d been up all night doing coke,” he says. “I was out of control and I didn’t want to be that way anymore. That’s when I found Jesus and committed my life to him.”
Turning his back on drugs, McPherson joined San Diego’s Horizon Christian Fellowship and, in 1985, began holding Bible study with neighborhood teens in his home. “That’s when my ministry began,” he declares. Soon he was doing motivational speaking for the Chargers’ organization.
In September 1986, he retired from football, went to work for Horizon as a youth pastor and enrolled in Azusa Pacific University’s School of Theology. He received his Master of Divinity degree in 1991 and the following year he founded Miles Ahead, a nonprofit youth ministry. Along the way he reunited with Debbie, who would become his wife and the mother of his three children.
In 2000 he founded the non-denominational Rock Church in San Diego. In part on the strength of McPherson’s charismatic sermons, it has quickly become one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing churches, with an average weekly attendance of 12,000. A cornerstone of the church is its commitment to community service, a philosophy McPherson espoused in his book, DO Something. Last year his followers donated 600,000 hours of community service.“
Without the coaching I got the UNH, I wouldn’t have gotten into the NFL,” McPherson reflects. “God had a plan for me. It all began at UNH.”
Posted Winter 2011