In a nurturing environment like the University of Northern Iowa’s FCA Huddle, it’s hard not to grow when you’re surrounded by other like-minded athletes who love God.
And sometimes, you find a little love along the way.
L.J. and Stephanie Fort grew in faith and heart as student-athletes on campus, growth that continues into careers embedded in sports. L.J. plays linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Stephanie, a former UNI basketball guard, is set to join FCA staff for college women’s ministry in Pittsburgh.
The two met at UNI’s FCA Huddle, when L.J. was a senior and Stephanie was a freshman. L.J. had accepted Christ his sophomore year, and fueled his faith attending ministry events on multiple nights throughout the week.
Though she joined Huddles and engaged in numerous conversations, Stephanie had yet to make faith her own when the two were introduced.
“When I asked about her testimony, she said, ‘What’s a testimony?’” L.J. said.
LJ and Stephanie Fort both excel in sports and faith, and are grateful for their beginnings together at UNI.
He helped connect Stephanie with Lynn Trautmann, wife of his mentor, FCA area representative Ken Trautmann, and they began meeting to discuss Christ. Then, one evening as the four were out to dinner, Stephanie accepted Christ. Her faith took off and she poured over the Bible, speaking to girls’ groups and looking for discipleship opportunities. Soon after her transformation, she and L.J. began to date.
L.J. graduated and entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, while Stephanie continued her collegiate career on the hardwood for the Panthers. With both having crazy travel schedules, Skype became the couple’s best friend.
During Stephanie’s senior year, L.J. made a surprise visit back to the Huddle and proposed to her. When they married this past summer, they decided to be baptized together. A storm set in before the baptism, but the duo forged ahead, wading into the choppy lake while being pelted with rain.
As they rose from the water, the sky broke open into color and cloud, calming waves and settling a stillness over the moment. LJ and Stephanie were left speechless.
“It was just so personal and beyond words for that moment,” Stephanie said.
The Forts currently reside in Pittsburgh, where they’ve been acclimating themselves with the city and its people to establish continual spiritual development. For L.J., that’s a team Bible study, while Stephanie is steeped in a women’s study with players’ wives, and both attend a couples’ study.
(left to right) Ken Trautmann, Lynn Trautmann, Stephanie Fort, T.J. Fort after one of T.J.'s games.
They also continue to seek guidance from the Trautmanns and other mentors, and have created a solid foundation in prayer. “We remind ourselves that God is at the center of the relationship,” Stephanie said.
So far, it’s been an HGTV kind of life, Stephanie cozying up their apartment aesthetics and both settling into their new normal routine.
They build off the excitement and newness of life together, and for L.J., the added balance of the intensity of the NFL.
“It’s a performance-based business,” he said. “And there are a lot of negative thoughts to combat.”
However, he’s seen a shift in himself since his rookie year in 2012 that’s relieved a lot of pressure.
“When I first made it to the league, it was my dream, and I wanted this to stay my dream so I’d work super crazy to keep it,” he said.
He talks with Trautmann regularly for balance, and the mentorship keeps a connection to the dream-turned-reality of life in the NFL as a piece of ministry.
“Relationship with Christ is my key,” L.J. said. “It’s about perspective, to bring Him in at the center of everything for His glory. God’s still allowing me my dream, but it’s His [dream] too.”
As the Forts continue to feed themselves with Scripture and substance from fellowship, they’re desirous to extend the same care and cultivation they have received to others. The influence FCA has had on their lives deeply reverberates within them.
“Ken and Lynn are a big inspiration,” Stephanie said. “First, they led us to Christ. Then they helped get us into our faith and give us a boost to help us do what we never thought we could do.”
Identity in Christ is the glue that holds the Forts together, and they advise those in similar transition periods to keep anchored to Him as well.
“If you’re moving, get plugged in,” said L.J. “It’s so easy to drift off or get caught up, so find fellowship and mentors, wherever God calls you to be.”
L.J. and Stephanie’s faith was formed through vibrant relationships in UNI’s FCA Huddle that set a strong foundation. It has stretched and evolved as the couple has stepped into new terrain.
“In Cedar Falls, we started adding to an already established FCA at Northern Iowa,” Stephanie said. “Here, we’re starting our own.”
L.J. affirmed his wife’s opinion. “Iowa was such a spirited place, but now we turn Pittsburgh into our Promised Land.”