- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Pastor Jon Drummond strides into church minutes before the service is set to begin at the Noville Memorial Church of God in Christ, having hopped a train from New York and a cab from 30th Street Station to get to the corner of Somerset and North 8th Street in north Philadelphia.
He's wearing jeans and a button-down shirt and carrying a Team USA backpack, a reminder of where he's coming from: The adidas Grand Prix track meet on Randall's Island, where he accompanied the sprinter he coaches, Tyson Gay, and watched some of the athletes he would be putting together in Olympic relays in London, seeking a winning alchemy.
A woman is leading the small congregation in song in the converted building that's set up with folding chairs and a simple altar and podium with a microphone front and center. Drummond disappears into a back room and emerges wearing a gray summer-weight suit. He sits down at the organ and begins playing alongside a teenager on drums.
After a few minutes, Drummond steps up to the podium with his iPad, which has the Bible and all of his sermons and notes loaded into it. But he doesn't crack it open.
"I had prepared something, of course, but then the Lord put this in my heart,'' Drummond said, smiling at the few dozen people before him. "Pray for me, 'cause I'm gonna wing it.'' A few people call out their approval, including Drummond's mother, Evangeline, who is sitting in the front row resplendent in a navy blue dress and matching hat topped by a cloud of tulle.
Drummond, one of the world's best 100-meter men and most colorful quotes from the mid-1990s into the following decade, may be an even better preacher than he was a sprinter. He's been at the keyboard and in the pulpit since he was a little boy.
Almost 10 years ago, the pastor who had taken over his late father's church was in failing health and asked him to be his successor. Drummond was still competing, but he said yes, and since then he has commuted every weekend he possibly can from wherever he happens to be living at the time -- California, Texas, Las Vegas.
Honoring the commitment is challenging, especially this year, when his assignment as U.S. track relays coach is to help prevent the botched baton passes that afflicted both the men's and women's 4x100-meter teams in Beijing four years ago and restore American supremacy in that event in particular. Relay heats begin at the Olympic Stadium on Thursday.
The charismatic, extroverted Drummond provided comic relief at many an elite track meet, but he was also a tough, dedicated speedster who helped win a two Olympic medals in the 4x100 -- a silver in 1996 and a gold in 2000 -- and famously completed his leg at the 2001 world championships despite tearing a quad muscle in flight.
To many who have only seen him on YouTube, for better or worse, Drummond is the man who flopped on his back to protest a false start call in his 100-meter quarterfinal at the 2003 track world championships and refused to move for 45 minutes, consumed with anger and frustration that he might have blown his last chance. It is not the legacy he would have preferred.
"I had 13 years where I made championship teams, won medals, and all of a sudden you got this generation who just comes onto the scene and all they know is, 'Man, you're that guy who laid on the track,'" said Drummond, who still chafes at the seemingly endless succession of tweaks to the false start rule. "You're a spoiled brat to some; you're a hero to others. After a few years, I just had to recognize the fact that that's the way life is.''
The U.S. athletes looking for winning results and fairness in relay selections say Drummond's experience and blunt manner are assets.
"The first few years I was running, he was running,'' newly crowned 200-meter champion Allyson Felix, a veteran of both relays at the world level, said earlier this year. "I remember Jon as the leadoff for the relay. He's done it, and he knows the drama and the politics behind it. He tries to be more transparent, as transparent as he can be. Sometimes we'll know more in advance who's gonna be on the relay, and that's always been the drama.''
The privileged bubble of world-class track and field contrasts sharply with the struggles of the people who attend Drummond's church. He moonlights partly out of obligation to his hometown and partly because it grounds him in a way he can't duplicate anywhere else.
"[Elite sports] can give you a false sense of reality with the type of money that is made, the travel, the lifestyle, the celebrity, all that stuff,'' Drummond said. "You need something like this to bring it all back into perspective. It keeps me mentally secure, solid, sane.
"I feel like sometimes because of my exploits, it allows me to bring a small canister of hope that 'Look, I grew up in this environment, and I made it out, and yet I can still come back, and therefore you can, too.' I'm not any more than just Jon-Jon here.''
On this Sunday in June, he launches into a half-hour extemporaneous talk based on Ephesians 3:20, "Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us.''
Along the way, Drummond talks about hitting the gym to try to lose weight ahead of a "legends" race at the Olympic trials. The workouts are far harder at 43 than they were at 23, he says.
"You can't pack on a bunch of weights if you haven't trained your muscles to lift it,'' he says. "If you go in and try to show off, you can get 10 reps in but can't recover. The scripture kind of speaks to that. A lot of us, we are dealing with our daily lives in a fatigued state, and why it may seem it's so painful is because we haven't conditioned ourselves, haven't prepared ourselves. Maybe you are where you are because you didn't exercise what's within you.''
Everyone in the sanctuary is riveted, but at one point Drummond stops and apologizes: "This may not be one of those jump-up-and-down sermons, I'm sorry." He's capable of delivering those, too, sometimes eschewing formal dress and thundering away so loudly in a T-shirt and sneakers that people walk in off the street.
But Drummond serves in quieter ways as well. When he's in Philadelphia for the weekend, he keeps his office door open for anyone to wander in and reserves an hour after the service for counseling. He also returns each fall for the StreetGames (http://streetgamesusa.org/), an annual urban sports festival he co-founded that is devoted to addressing deeper dysfunction among inner-city families.
Drummond says he always finds a way to incorporate sports metaphors into his Sunday sermons. "It's so connected when you look at the life of a believer,'' he said. "Paul talks about it: 'You ran well. Who hindered you?'"
Yet Drummond says he is not a better preacher because he was an athlete. He feels it's the other way around.
"It's the Word,'' he says, "not the person delivering the Word.''