The 49ers Chaplain from San Quentin to the Super Bowl

In a winning season, Earl Smith also saw the team grow in faith.

The 49ers Chaplain Went from San Quentin to the Super Bowl


This year’s Super Bowl–bound San Francisco 49ers remind Earl Smith of the family-like unity the Golden State Warriors had when they won the NBA Finals in 2015.

And Smith would know. He serves as the chaplain for both teams.

From society’s perspective, Smith has ministered to the greatest and the least. His work as a chaplain started in California’s San Quentin State Prison, where he witnessed 12 executions and played chess with prisoners including Charles Manson. More recently, it has brought him to the sidelines of professional sports at its peak, celebrating big wins beside celebrity athletes like the Warriors’ Steph Curry.

“By virtue of who these guys are, they are the best of the best,” Smith said in an interview with CT, calling from Miami, where the 49ers play the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday. “They’re famous, yet if you allow yourself to be locked in on the fame, you might negate the opportunity to present Christ in a proper way.”

Most weeks during the season, Smith’s work resembles the work of any pastor. He prepares and leads the team Bible study, goes through a book study with the 49ers coaching staff, conducts a Saturday night chapel service, and makes himself available for counseling. Meanwhile, he’s spending his own daily time reading Scripture and meeting with his pastor.

Smith said people will often ask him about which players on the 49ers team are Christians, and in response he likes to ask them which people in church are Christians. His point is clear: “Only Christ knows the true commitment of the heart.”

A graduate of Bishop College and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, he focuses on spiritual themes that tap into the players’ interests: hope, trust, and accountability. He studied portions of the Lord’s Prayer with them, looked at different ways that David expressed his relationship with God in different Psalms, and talked about what the Lord can do with faith as small as a mustard seed. At the beginning of the season, he gave each player a tiny glass bottle, and with each victory he gave the players a mustard seed to put in their bottles.

This is the 49ers’ seventh Super Bowl appearance, and their second since Smith became the team’s chaplain in 1997.

Chaplaincy is a ministry of presence, of faithfully being there through the highs and lows. While there have been a lot of highs in a winning season, it’s not always a bad game or a bad record that hits the team spiritually.

During his years on the sidelines, Smith has seen losses far more devastating than failure to advance in the playoffs. He recalled a 2005 preseason game when he escorted 49ers lineman Thomas Herrion off the field after a win and prayed with the team in the locker room. When the prayer concluded, Herrion collapsed and died of heart failure. Smith stepped up to support a traumatized team and coaching staff after an unimaginable loss of one of their own.

As team chaplain, he makes a point to get to know a player’s spouse, parents, and children. He inquires about babies who have been born and family members who are unwell. And Smith said he always makes sure players’ parents have his phone number if they ever need him.

“I believe that in any ministry, it’s important not to just focus on the individual with the spotlight, but also those in the shadow,” he said in an interview with CT.

Just last month, third-string quarterback C. J. Beathard learned that his brother, Clayton, had been killed outside a Nashville bar. “There was nothing I could do other than hold [Beathard] while he grieved. I believe that is the presence that you have,” he said. “It’s not what you say, it’s just your presence, and how you’re there.”

Team officials permitted Smith to accompany Beathard to the funeral, where Smith ministered to Beathard’s family. Smith said their faith has buoyed them as they continue to mourn Clayton’s death.

The minister worked as a Protestant chaplain at San Quentin from 1983 to 2006—a calling that came to him after a near-death experience in a gang-related shooting when he was young (which he chronicled in his book, Death Row Chaplain).

A few years ago, Smith brought players inside his old stomping ground to meet the inmates.

The players heard about experiences in the criminal justice system and exhortations on how to leverage their fame.

In 2019, Smith spoke with CT about the importance of giving inmates access to a chaplain in the moments before their executions. “[An] inmate was looking for a way to say ‘bye’ in peace, and because you said, ‘No, you can’t have [the chaplain],’ even in his death, there was no peace,” said Smith. “We often say that when they’re executed there’s going to be closure. Executions don’t bring closure. They just mean someone has died.”

Spending the bulk of his ministry career in prison chaplaincy led Smith—a member of San Francisco Christian Center—to develop a great sense of patience and trust in God to work through him and beyond him. “My role is to share in my faith Christ, and in sharing Christ hope that that person comes to a relationship and grows from that relationship,” he told CT in 2019.

When it comes to ministering to professional athletes, Smith knows the Lord has been at work in their lives before they put on a San Francisco uniform and that the Lord will continue to work in their lives after they leave the team. “Someone plants the seed, someone waters, and God gives the increase. That’s what sports ministry is,” he said.

As the season comes to an end, Smith said some players have kept their bottles of mustard seeds and said how much they mean to them.

“I have seen guys really grow,” he said. “I’ve seen young men who came in searching, who have gone from searching to helping other men that were searching, guys mentoring the walk for others.”

Now he’s ready to hand out one more seed.


I Marked People for Death. Jesus Marked Me for Life

How a gang leader found salvation in prison.

I Marked People for Death. Jesus Marked Me for Life.

In prison, I was a shot caller.

Shot callers have an elevated rank in the gang world. They are the power-brokers who determine who gets hurt (or killed) and who doesn’t. They command respect.

I started down this path as a teenager in South-Central Los Angeles, as a leader in the Rockwood Street Locos. I led the way when we invaded homes, broke into cars, ransacked convenience stores, and stabbed rival gang members. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the streets were bloody. Most of the time, it was kill or be killed.

Eventually, the LAPD caught up with me. I was sentenced to nearly 13 years for second-degree murder—along with 52 counts of armed robbery. I actually breathed a sigh of relief that those were the only charges the cops could pin on me.

Life Was Very Cheap

While awaiting transfer to New Folsom State Prison—a Level IV maximum security prison near Sacramento, California—I was housed with 120 murderers and violent criminals inside Pitchess Detention Center, north of Los Angeles.

At Pitchess, we segregated ourselves: blacks aligning with blacks, whites with whites, and Latinos with Latinos. Several dudes from two long-established gangs, 18th Street and Florencia 13, approached me about becoming a shot caller there.

One of my responsibilities was the control and distribution of shanks, the crude homemade knives used for stabbing another prisoner. I slept with all 13 of them under my mattress. When a riot went off, I made sure the right people got shanks. There were many violent upheavals at Pitchess, and inmates got stabbed and killed all the time. All it took was a wrong look at the wrong person, and you were done for. Life was very cheap.

After about six months, I was transferred to New Folsom State Prison. When the bus dropped us off at the main building, I saw guards pacing on catwalks, their arms cradling Mini-14s—small, lightweight semi-automatic rifles.

The warden, standing next to a phalanx of serious-looking guards in riot gear, cleared his throat. “I want you to look at the sign to your right,” he said. My eyes alighted on a white sign with red lettering that read, “No Warning Shots Fired.” “In case of a riot,” the warden continued, “we will not be aiming at your feet, we will not be aiming at your legs, and we will not be aiming at your torso. We will be aiming directly at your head to kill you.”

When the warden was gone, a guard approached me with a manila file in hand. “Diaz, follow me,” he ordered. I was led inside the prison to an interview room, where the guard introduced himself as a gang coordinator. “Listen closely, Diaz,” he said. “We know that you’re a banger and a shot caller, so we’re putting you in solitary.”

I would be cooped up in an eight-by-ten-foot windowless box, with all my meals slipped in through a slot in the steel door (or “gate”). Social interactions with other inmates (and guards) would be nearly nonexistent.

The only source of illumination in my cell was a heavy Plexiglas light that couldn’t be turned off, which made it difficult to get any sleep. And without a clock or wristwatch to consult, I had trouble distinguishing whether it was day or night. There was nothing to do—no TV, no radio, no books. Only the meals broke the monotony.

I had been told by prisoners in Pitchess that if you’re not strong-willed, then solitary confinement could absolutely break you. There were times when I wondered if I would keep my sanity.

‘Jesus Is Going to Use You’

After about a year at New Folsom, I heard the guards come by my cell with an announcement: “Protestant service. Any inmate wanting to go, stand by your gate.”

I had heard the same announcement for Catholics. Religion wasn’t something I was interested in. I knew next to nothing about Jesus, only that he was the one on all those crucifixes.

One time I was lying on my bed, listening to the voices outside. I heard an older woman say, “Is there someone in that cell?” She sounded Southern and spoke with a syrupy drawl. “Yes, ma’am,” the guard said, “but you don’t want to deal with Diaz. You’re wasting your time.”

“Well,” she answered, “Jesus came for him, too.”

She approached the cell: “Young man, can I speak with you?” Looking through the open slot in my gate, I couldn’t see anything except for the guard’s boots and a pair of spindly legs.

“How are you doing?” she asked. “I couldn’t be better,” came my sarcastic reply. “Young man,” she said, “I’m going to pray for you. But there’s something else I want to tell you: Jesus is going to use you.”

By now, I was certain she was crazy. Couldn’t she see I was locked away in solitary confinement? “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” I said. But she persisted: “Young man, every time I’m here, I’m going to come by and remind you that Jesus is going to use you.”

A year or so later, I was lying down in my cell, daydreaming, when I turned toward the wall opposite my bed. On that wall, something strange was happening. A movie was playing, a movie about my life. I saw myself as a young child, walking the old neighborhood at 9th and Kenmore. I witnessed incidents from my early days with the gang—everything in picture-perfect detail.

Then I saw a bearded man with long hair carrying a cross. As he trudged along, a mob of angry people shouted at him. When he arrived on top of a knoll, rough-looking men nailed his hands and feet to the wooden beams and raised the cross so it stood between two other men on crosses.

What got to me most was when this man looked at me and said, “Darwin, I’m doing this for you.” I shuddered. Apart from the guards and my family, no one knew my real name. Everyone called me Casey—my nickname for as long as I could remember.

Then I heard the sound of breath leaving him. At that moment, I knew he had died.

That’s when I hit the floor in the middle of the cell. I started weeping because I knew, somehow, that this was Almighty God, even though I didn’t understand what he had done for me. After hitting the floor, I knew I had to get on my knees. I started confessing my sins: God, I’m sorry for stabbing so many people. God, I’m sorry I robbed so many families.

With each new confession, I felt another weight come off my shoulders. When I finished, I knew something major had happened.

I asked to see a chaplain, who opened his Bible and explained who Jesus was and told me that what I experienced in that cell was salvation. He handed me a Bible and urged me to start reading.

I’d spend five or six hours reading that Bible, then fall asleep, wake up, and do some push-ups and calisthenics before picking up where I had left off. I didn’t understand half of what I was reading, but that didn’t bother me.

That was the start of my journey of faith. Eventually, I was released from solitary confinement and returned to the mainline prison population, where I was beaten for being a Christian and turning my back on my fellow gang members. But I was okay with that, because I was no longer a shot caller. I had found a new calling: telling other inmates about Jesus.

Casey Diaz is the author of The Shot Caller: A Latino Gangbanger’s Miraculous Escape from a Life of Violence to a New Life in Christ (Thomas Nelson). He lives in Los Angeles, where he owns a sign-making business and serves as a part-time pastor.

Original here