Trailing 35-31 against North Dakota State in the season opener in 2015, University of Montana redshirt freshman wide receiver Reese Carlson hauled in the biggest catch of his young career on a fourth-and-10, gaining 31 yards and getting a first down.
Five plays later, Montana scored to win the game.
To most, it looked like Gig Harbor High School grad was living the dream: Scholarship to Montana, playing in front of the football-adoring fans in Missoula, and contributing to his team's victory over the defending national champions on a nationally televised game on ESPN.
In many ways, life as good for Carlson — but something was missing.
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He started attending Crosspoint Community Church in Missoula, and brought some of his teammates along with him. The hulking football players stuck out and immediately caught the attention of the congregation and the pastor. A short time thereafter, the pastor asked Carlson if he wanted to be the youth director.
Between school, football and his social life, Carlson already had plenty on his schedule. But he felt compelled to serve, so he accepted.
“I fell in love with it,” Carlson said. “It was one of those times where you kind of figure out what you’re meant to do.”
Carlson said he felt a calling.
“It’s what God put me on this earth to do,” he said. “To pastor and tell people about Jesus. It was so evident to me. It was right in front of my face.”
Unfortunately, Montana didn’t offer a theology degree. It started to dawn on Carlson that if he wanted to seriously pursue a career in ministry, he was going to have to give up playing football at Montana.
After the season, Carlson informed his teammates and coaches that he would be transferring to Southern Nazarene University in Oklahoma.
“The reaction was generally, ‘You have a full-ride scholarship at a D-1 school, you made it,’” Carlson said. “People would say, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’”
Playing football at one of the highest levels was one of Carlson’s passions, but this calling felt infinitely more important.
“God just kind of exchanged my desires for his desires,” Carlson said. “I’m still passionate about football but it just became really apparent to me that my mission wasn’t just to play football, but to share the gospel with people. That was more important than football, it became really obvious to me.”
So when people ask if it was a tough decision, Carlson is truthful: Yes — but at the same time, no.
“I couldn’t believe I was going to get to go to school to study the Bible,” Carlson said. “It was tough, but it was so easy for me at the same time. At the same time, it was really hard to tell my coaches that, my teammates. I loved the place. There was no resentment toward anyone there.”
So Carlson packed his bags and headed to Southern Nazarene in Bethany, Oklahoma. But not before recruiting his girlfriend and high school sweetheart, Alison Corsi, who was attending Oregon State University at the time.
It was a tough sell, at first.
“Oklahoma seems like just about the least appealing place in the country,” Carlson said, with a laugh. “But she just has a really willing heart, and was willing to go wherever I felt like God was guiding me.”
Corsi (now Carlson), runs track at Southern Nazarene now, and married with Carlson in July 2017.
And Carlson is still playing football, now for Southern Nazarene, where he’ll be entering his senior season in the fall. He totaled 140 yards on 20 catches last season and rushed for 137 yards on 27 carries. He was named to the Great American Conference All-Academic team as a junior.
The Crimson Storm are a Division-II team and posted a 4-7 overall record last season. Admittedly, it’s not quite the same level of football as Montana.
“From the pure football side, at Montana and in the Big Sky, everyone is just big,” Carlson said. “They aren’t too many linemen under 6-foot-2. But there’s so much athletic ability at SNU. The athletic ability part isn’t too far off from Montana. … The biggest difference is definitely just the size of the athletes.”
Carlson still loves to suit up, but now he feels like he’s living his real purpose.
“My dreams and desires and goals have shifted,” Carlson said. “I feel like I have a real direction, a real purpose. I think that’s true for all of us. When we follow God, he gives us direction, purpose and a specific plan.”
Carlson is in the process of applying to graduate schools, where he’ll pursue a master’s of divinity, while his wife finishing nursing school at SNU. His college career didn’t go according to his original plan, but in the end, it has worked out.
“I’ve just learned to be open and willing to what our plan and purpose is,” he said. “I had my mind so set on football. If God hadn’t pulled me in a different direction, I could’ve been totally stuck on that. … Just being willing to move with the ebbs and flows of life, being willing to change course.”