Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder stood before a gathering of more than 1,200 - the vast majority from schools in Okaloosa County - Friday morning and delivered the keynote address at the 41st Fellowship of Christian Athletes Prayer Breakfast.
"It was a great experience and something that should help me mature," said Ponder, who spoke openly about his faith and the trials he's faced in his life. "I learned a lot and I hope the kids listened and took something away from this. Not only from me but from all of the kids who got up there and spoke. There were a lot of good messages out there."
Ponder followed the FCA representatives of eight local high schools, who shared their testimonies before the packed crowd at the Emerald Coast Conference Center, to the podium.
"That was pretty intimidating," Ponder confessed. "It's something that will help me grow as a speaker and a leader. There's always room to grow."
Growing in faith was the primary message from all who spoke to the crowd. Ponder was no exception. He talked about how his 2009 season-ending shoulder injury - which came in the midst of an outstanding season - helped him embrace his faith and lift him up during a difficult time.
"God's given me a pretty powerful message," Ponder said. "Now, I'm closer to him that ever before."
Discussing his faith with such a large audience was a first for Ponder, but he found strength from those high school athletes who spoke before him.
"I had never really felt comfortable talking about my faith until these recent events that have happened to me that I've learned from," he said. "I definitely felt good talking about it and I'm glad I've gotten to the point where I'm comfortable with it."
Friday's banquet, hosted by former FSU player Robert McEachern, a member of the All Sports Association which co-sponsors the event, included the presentation of the Taylor Haugen Award. The award's namesake was a 15-year-old wide receiver for Niceville High, who died after suffering an Aug. 30, 2008 injury during a football game, but left behind a legacy of living life to the fullest, relentlessly pursuing his dreams and putting his faith first.
Along with Taylor Haugen's parents - Brian and Kathy Haugen - Ponder presented the award to Shannon Donahue, a senior at Rocky Bayou Christian. Donahue, a soccer and volleyball player, student body president, honor student, homecoming queen and active church member, best represented the qualities which set her apart like the award's namesake.
"Taylor Haugen was an amazing, faithful young man," Ponder said. "Having the opportunity to help out the Haugen family was a great opportunity for me. I really feel very honored that they asked me to take part in it."
Ponder also had the opportunity to meet Danny Wuerffel for the first time. The former Florida quarterback and Heisman winner was on hand for the breakfast, which began a long day that was capped by Friday night's presentation of the Weurffel Trophy at the All Sports Association banquet. Ponder was a national finalist for the award, which goes to the college player who has set himself apart on the field, in the classroom and community, by leading an exemplary life.
Western Michigan quarterback Tim Hiller, whom Ponder met along with several past winners, was presented the Wuerffel Trophy.
"I had never met Danny Wuerffel," said Ponder. "Obviously he's a great guy and has a great thing going for him. He's really strong in his faith and he's accomplished a lot. To have a trophy named for him, and for me to be a finalist in that whole deal, I felt really honored."