In 2017, all the external markers of success suggested that Kendrick Bourne had arrived. He entered the National Football League as an undrafted player with the San Francisco 49ers and signed a $1.6 million contract. Harboring an affinity for brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, he assembled a collection of hundreds of pairs of designer shoes with his new wealth. Going to nightclubs, meeting women and getting intoxicated was his idea of fun. “I was kind of on my pedestal vibe,” Bourne told me. “I was into doing things with mediocrity and not valuing myself and my body.”

But in 2021, all that changed.

Bourne was at a nightclub with friends when, amid flashing lights and loud music, he was jolted into a sudden realization. “I don’t want that in my life,” Bourne recalled thinking. “What am I even celebrating? I’m just here because this is what I do and this is a bad habit.”

He saw he was losing control and knew things could get worse. Although Bourne, now 28, had grown up in a Christian family, he hadn’t taken his faith in God seriously up until this moment. But right then in the club, he felt that it was God speaking to him, conveying a direct message of warning and protection. “The Lord showed me that night – if you want this lifestyle, you can have it, but ultimately you’re on a path of destruction,” Bourne told me. “I understood what the Lord said to me loud and clear, and it was my choice if I’m going to commit or have one foot in and one foot out.”

That moment set in motion the beginning of a spiritual journey that would turn a party-loving football player into a weekly churchgoer and a family man who cites Bible verses and says that he plays football for God.

This past March, Bourne signed a three-year contract with the New England Patriots worth up to $33 million, according to Disruptive Sports, the agency that represents Bourne. The contract came with a signing bonus of $4.2 million, according to ESPN. In his previous life, this new paycheck would have meant more Louis Vuitton shoes — now, Bourne is passionate about education for underprivileged youth, spending time with his family and writing what he calls “gospel rap.” He’s even considering becoming a preacher.

Since his spiritual awakening, Bourne sees material success as a divine gift not to be taken for granted. And he says his faith buoyed him during recovery from an ACL injury he sustained playing against the Miami Dolphins in October. “It’s been a mental challenge I’ve never been through before,” he said.

While previously this kind of injury would have crushed Bourne, now he sees it as God talking to him. “The Lord was reminding me that he’s in control and I was trying to control my outcome – I was trying to be better, better, better,” he said. “I needed to give it back to him.” He continued: “It’s been hard and it’s been a challenge but I think that’s what I need to become a better person.”

Drummer turned football player

Bourne grew up in Portland, Oregon, in a Christian household that took worship seriously. At church, his dad played the keyboard and his mom sang. When the church band needed a drummer, Bourne’s dad made him learn to play the drums. “Years went by and I got better and better,” Bourne told me. His father, Eric Turner, had his own religious awakening in his late 30s that was inspired by his mother, Bourne’s grandmother, who started her own Pentecostal Christian ministry.

Although Bourne went to church, he didn’t feel a strong connection to God early in his life. “I never really understood it when I was young and the personal relationship with the Lord was kind of ‘this is what I was taught,’” he told me. But his father believed that if he kept teaching Bourne about the love of God, he’d eventually come back. Bourne now sees his upbringing as a necessary “introduction” to the more profound spiritual awakening he later experienced.

Understanding the role of religion in sports

In sixth grade, Bourne discovered a fun outlet in playing football with cousins. He was really good at it, too. But while he recognized his talent, maintaining the focus and discipline was a challenge. In high school, Bourne played video games and hung out with friends, lacking a vision for what his life could be. “I struggled in high school with just being distracted by everything, trying to be cool, to fit in and not prioritizing sports as an opportunity to change my life,” he told me. He got his act together his senior year of high school when he transferred to the Milwaukie Academy of the Arts, where he played football and completed 54 passes for 1,292 yards and 18 touchdowns. He kept up his grades and was offered scholarships that got him to college at Eastern Washington University. “Getting college paid for was huge for my family and for myself,” he said.

But just when Bourne gained focus, it seemed to ebb away again. His lifestyle again slipped from disciplined to “reckless,” until his sophomore year in college, when he had a realization: “I had to restart my mind — I can’t just do what I did all over again.” He said he “locked in” and stopped partying as the opportunity to go to the NFL was becoming more tangible. “I had to shift my mind and start making those hard decisions,” he said.

‘That life was not for me’

A night club might be an unusual place to have a spiritual experience, Bourne acknowledges, but we live in a spiritual world, he noted, and even night clubs are not off-limits to God’s influence.

“It was life-changing. If I was never in that club, and never had that experience, I would never have realized how far I was down the rabbit hole,” he said. “God showed me that that life was not for me.”

Bourne started reading the Bible and going to church. His prayers acquired the meaning they didn’t have before. He wrestled with his relationship with material things, particularly the dazzling wardrobe of designer items he had accumulated.

“It was another epiphany — these brands, I don’t know what they represent and who they serve,” he told me. Reluctantly, he admits, he decided to sell his designer clothing, including a collection of about 200 pairs of designer shoes.

It’s not to say Bourne is against designer clothing or doesn’t like nice things. He lives in a spacious home in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and has a Bentley parked in his garage. He still likes his jewelry.

But the designer goods had become something like a trap that fed his ego. “I was caught up in impressing others and (having things) for the wrong reasons,” he explained to me. “Having nice things is not a sin — it’s good to look presentable and feel good, but then are you serving these things?”

Now he derives pleasure from doing things for others. Two years ago, for example, he bought his parents a home: “It’s something I’d been dreaming of doing,” he said in a video on his YouTube channel. Eric Turner describes it as a “surreal moment,” when his son told him and his wife, Louisa, that they could choose any house in Portland they wanted. “I really know how rare we are, and where he is to be able to do that,” Turner told me.

To continue to nourish his love for fashion, Bourne started his own clothing brand, “Bourne Blessed,” which is simultaneously a faith and fashion statement, representing God and the mindset that regardless of the circumstances, everyone is deserving of God’s blessings, Bourne said. It’s also a charity that supports education and youth programs. Even in his music, which remains one of Bourne’s hobbies, he moved away from profanities and lyrics that degraded women. “I changed all my music around to glorify the Lord,” he said.

Kendrick Bourne stands after his baptism in 2022 at the Waters Church in North Attleboro, Mass. | The Waters Church
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The worst year in football

While Bourne found new spiritual footing, however, his body was lagging behind. He still fought the old urges to eat unhealthily and resisted the disciplined regimen he had committed to in his mind. “It was a struggle — my flesh was like ‘we don’t party, we don’t hang out with women, we don’t do anything we used to do?’” he said.

God threw him in “refiner’s fire,” he explained. On the field, his performance plummeted, he told me, calling 2022 his “worst year in football.” But as has happened before in Bourne’s life, he summoned his focus again.

Bourne got married too, even though he didn’t totally feel ready for marriage. But in a sense, settling down was part of his conversion, too — he knew God wanted him to have a family and to commit to one person. His wife, Vanessa, “was that last piece” that fell into place, he told ESPN.

For his father, Bourne’s new commitment to family was the most significant change. At the wedding, Eric Turner thanked Vanessa for “rescuing” his son.

“As a father, I was a bit concerned about the fast life with young kids and money,” he told me. The fame and financial success that came with Bourne’s star rising were unfamiliar to his parents, and they worried how Bourne might navigate this new life. “For mom and dad who never had money, we didn’t know how which direction this could go.”

Hector Rivas from Disruptive Sports, an agency that represents Bourne, got to observe the changes in Bourne up close. “His focus was more on spiritual things and trying to be a good person and a mentor,” Rivas told me. In the locker room, Bourne has become a mentor to younger players on both personal and football matters. “He put all distractions to the side and said – ‘I’m going to focus on family, football and God.’”

Rivas, who is a Latter-day Saint living in Seattle, was inspired by Bourne’s openness about his faith. “Seeing Kendrick and how open he was in the media and public on his social pages, gave me a boost of confidence to display and share that I’m a religious person.”

Kendrick Bourne and Hector Rivas from Disruptive Sports pose for a photo at the 25th Anniversary Super Bowl Soulful Celebration in 2024. | Kyle West

Latter-day Saint support

Bourne was back at his best, his mind and body settling into an equilibrium, when the ACL injury interrupted his streak of successes. “It was devastating, because he was on pace to break all his previous records,” Rivas told me. He was was so struck by Bourne’s optimism during this time that he shared Bourne’s story of resilience with his seminary class for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where the students were learning about overcoming trials. “I wanted to share with my class a real-world example of someone who had a real story that not only affected their physical body, but their earning potential and ability to provide for their family,” he said. Students wrote get-well cards for Bourne, including inspirational scriptures. Bourne, in return, thanked them with a video. “If you put God first in everything that you do, your life … will have purpose,” he told seminary students in the video that has now been posted on Instagram. “That’s how I live now, with peace, joy, and a lot of purpose.”

Faith can be powerful in grounding elite athletes, Rivas told me, by introducing principles and boundaries that enhance the athletes’ focus. “Faith gives them a road map, and it helps them get where they want to go without all of the distractions that come with being a celebrity or a professional athlete,” Rivas told me. The humility that comes with faith can also help athletes remain open to constructive feedback to improve, he said.

Now six months after his ACL surgery, Bourne is just a few months away from getting back to the field.

There is another source of inspiration buoying Bourne through his recovery — his 3-month-old daughter, Ka’via Malani Bourne. The family goes on walks around their neighborhood in Foxborough, not far from the Gillette Stadium, the home of the Patriots. Bourne can now see how the spiritual epiphany at the night club three years ago led him to where he is today. “Having a family now — these things now that I truly am thankful for and cherish — is a gift,” he told me, “because it’s not going to last forever and I’m not going to be here forever.”