when dr pepper changed my life

2011 was halfway through my senior year of high school. I had done my college visits, received my letters of acceptance, and had the daunting task of making a decision of which institution to attend for higher education. Hope College was my first choice. But of course, money was an unfortunate factor in making this decision. I submitted essay after essay in hopes of accumulating enough small scholarships to help me afford Hope. Senior year of high school, in AP English, I was not short on time spent writing. You can imagine my relief when I stumbled across a scholarship that was a video competition rather than an essay. The requirements were simple – submit a minute-long video about what you would like to pursue as a future career and how the scholarship would help you do that, AND mention Dr Pepper. Honest to goodness, Dr Pepper was (and still is) my favorite soda (and really the only soda I enjoy drinking), so I didn’t even have to exaggerate my appreciation for their company. It was such refreshing fun piecing together a short movie about my relationship with my brother and how that inspired my decision to pursue special education. When Dr Pepper called me to share that they loved my video and wanted to give me $2,500 in tuition, I was blown away. Like I actually enjoyed making this little tribute to my brother – you’re telling me I’m going to get money for it, too?

I remember the woman on the other side of call trying to interrupt me through my chorus of ‘thank you’s.’ “But. We loved your video so much that we would also love for you to compete in our football toss for the chance to win $100,000 in tuition!” …I kid you not, when I read about this scholarship opportunity, I kind of skimmed over the part about football. One, because football. And two, because I honestly did not think it would ever pertain to me. But here I was, on the phone trying to pretend like I knew what this football toss was all about (“I’m sure you’ve seen one of our throws during a game before?” 100% had not), all while trying to pick my jaw up off the floor. She ran through the specifics of the competition: all-expense paid trip to Dallas, Texas with a guest of my choice… time at the Cowboys Stadium… 30 seconds to throw as many footballs as I could… free entry to the Cotton Bowl game… and a whole slew of Dr Pepper goodies.

I watched videos of prior Dr Pepper tuition contestants, studying their approaches and the environment around them, while my dad built a replica of the giant Dr Pepper can. Just like I was training for any sport, I spent my evenings throwing footballs (borrowed from my high school’s football team) in my garage. Being December, some nights I threw in a winter coat and gloves, other nights I could get by with just a shirt. I practiced with and without distraction, through sore muscles in arms I hardly ever used for sport.

We had just entered the new year – January 2012 – and the nerves and pressure were piling high as we approached our departure to Texas. It seemed my whole school, town, family, and friends were counting on me. My ability to go to Hope College was riding on this. I couldn’t seem to rest in the peace of,” if it’s God plan for you, then it will happen.” I had my eyes on the prize, and I was only thinking of one thing: winning.

My dad and I flew down to Dallas where Dr Pepper was waiting for us at the airport to drive us to our hotel. Our hotel was beautiful and covered in all sorts of free Dr Pepper attire and items for us. We quickly learned that the competition itself would not be exactly as we had planned. Rather than doing a preliminary throw tomorrow (Saturday) and having the final throw live during the Cotton Bowl 3rd quarter (Sunday), everything would be recorded ahead of time, a commercial would be made using the footage of the final throw, and that commercial would be aired during the Cotton Bowl game on TV the next day. This new knowledge caused a simultaneous sigh of relief and pang of nervous needles throughout my body – the final throw wouldn’t be live in the midst of thousands of loud fans, but it would be tomorrow. Then, my dad and I met the others. I knew there would be 4 other competitors, but all of my thoughts leading up to the trip had me thinking I wouldn’t really get to meet them until it was time to throw. I mean, I didn’t want to. I figured it would only increase my anxiety knowing my opponents. And how awkward would it be having small talk with people you were hoping to literally crush in competition that same weekend. But here we all were, in a semi-uncomfortable bus ride to an 80’s themed VIP Cotton Bowl party (picture like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-esque). Small talk was had; I didn’t love it. But when we arrived at the party, the five of us grouped together (being under 21) to explore the sights, sounds, and TASTES. Free arcade games and food, dancing, laughing, winning TVs and iPods and hats. We left the party that night feeling like friends, and the ride back to the hotel was much less uncomfortable.

Arriving back at the hotel, our guests went to bed, and the five of us were craving to know each other’s stories. We stayed up late into the night (all realizing we probably weren’t going to sleep much that night anyway) sharing our stories, our hearts, and our hopes.

Glorie wanted to be a missionary, sharing God’s love and planting orphanages in his birthplace of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Claire wanted to become an oral surgeon after experiencing a jetski accident that resulted in a serious head and jaw injury. Courtney wanted to work for the American government improving relations between China and America. And Marcus wanted to become a media journalist who broadcast positive news stories featuring ordinary people.

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So. WOW. I felt entirely inadequate sitting around the lobby fireplace with these four inspiring, motivated individuals – chosen among thousands of video applicants. And suddenly,  I knew this whole opportunity was way more than just $100k. Every one of these friends deserved this scholarship, and I went to bed that night praying, “whatever is your will, God.”

I slept all of nothing that night, just as anticipated. And woke the next morning an absolute mess. I was in chills and sick to my stomach. I needed to shake this if I was ever going to be in the physical and emotional place to throw footballs. I attempted a run with my dad, but I couldn’t do more than a mile. I needed Holy intervention. My dad continued on his run, and I went back to the room where I had (what I now know to be) a panic attack. My hands locked up to the point where not a single finger could be moved. My breathing picked up. Tears started flowing. My feet went numb. Throwing up or passing out seemed like very plausible next steps. I tried to sit on my hands and pull back my fingers to relax their lock. Nothing was working. I knew I couldn’t throw a football with my wrists, so this was bad news. I considered backing out, calling in sick. I cried out to God, praying that he would give my body release and my mind peace. I prayed He would have His way. I just wanted to be able to move my body. Then I heard God say, “read.” So I picked up the only book I brought with me – the Bible. I clumsily flipped through the Psalms, praying and pleading as I read.

For the first time in my 18 years, I encountered the Living God through His Holy Spirit. My hands unfolded from their crippled form, my legs and feet regained their feeling, my heart and stomach chilled out, and I could breathe again. I was in His presence.

I continued to read as an act of worship for His amazing grace. I felt normal! Not fantastic, but just what one would expect to feel before a major competition – an average amount of nerves and a whole lot of sweat. Still today, I can vividly remember how I felt during this panic attack, and the shift I experienced when the Lord miraculously took me from being unable to move to being able to throw a football. I can only hope this story serves as a testament to His faithfulness.

Onward we ventured to the Dallas Cowboy’s Stadium. I followed my usual pre-race protocol by spending the bus ride listening to music – trying to calm my thoughts and rest in the presence of God that had been tangible since I broke down a few hours earlier. As we approached, my dad was all sorts of giddy to be granted special access to such a football cathedral. I was just looking forward to dinner when I knew my butterflies would have subsided. We had our photos taken all throughout the stadium. After I got used to the camera being all up in my face, I found a lot of relief in being able to distract myself from the impending competition with silly poses and exuberant photographers. When we received the cue that it was time to throw, the playfulness was replaced by palpable anxiety. Glorie, sensing this, gathered us together for a pep talk and a prayer. We prayed as we walked toward the looming cans in the distance, and though I was afraid, I knew what we had just experienced together in the last 24 hours would have been enough.381314_3006035835395_125049029_n.jpg 393865_3006034035350_1891015874_n.jpg

I barely scraped through the preliminary round of throws. But I did. It was Glorie and I in the finals. Both of us would walk away with either $23,000 or $100,000 and this knowledge felt deeply comforting. We prayed together and all remaining nerves were washed away entirely. The team wanted me to throw into the Dr Pepper Ten can because Dr Pepper Ten is for men. Irony + girl power, ya know. Video cameras on at every angle, we were counted down to begin. Right off the bat, I got into a rhythm. I felt confident, prepared, and completely in the zone. I remember not looking at the scoreboards until the final whistle blew to end the 30 seconds, and when it did, I was engulfed by cheerleaders and applause.

I had just won $100,000 in tuition.

I tried to wrap my head around what this meant. I mean this was A LOT of money. More than I would ever have again, I was sure. I knew exactly where I was headed and what I would do when I got there – Hope College, Special Education – this was really happening. For the commercial that would air during the Cotton Bowl game, they recorded me receiving my check (like one of those massive ones you see handed out on Ellen and actually wonder if you can take that bad boy to the bank – spoiler alert: you cannot) and thanking Dr Pepper. We had to run it a couple times because I couldn’t make it concise enough. An issue I’ve surely never had before. In the original takes, I had thanked Jesus, my friends, and my family, in addition to Dr Pepper. But that must have been too long because it wasn’t included. More photos were taken. The day concluded with a delicious dinner where the five of us were able to share our stories with the larger Dr Pepper team. I also slept very little that night, because WHAT ON THE EARTH.

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Interviews were next – TV, radio, newspaper. Then the Cotton Bowl pre-game party where Claire, Courtney, and Marcus all received the generous surprise of Dr Pepper tripling their $2,500 in tuition! And then, the Cotton Bowl game. Great seats = happy dad. Football was played. At the 3rd quarter, the commercial was aired, and I was called out onto the field with my check to be recognized. The rest of the evening I was some sorta celebrity. Unreal.

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I entered this whole experience with one person in mind – me. Selfish, with such limited perspective. I left with an equally happy and heavy heart – a deeper relationship with Christ, a really huge check, a dad who I got to share everything with, the most unbelievable experience of my life, and four new friends to whom I would have to say goodbye.

Fast forward a few months, I had accepted the offer to attend Hope College. I was getting back into the swing of normal high school living when Dr Pepper called to invite the five of us and a group of other contestants from various other bowl games to a photoshoot for Dr Pepper products and advertising. They spoiled us entirely, once again. It was absolutely wonderful reconnecting with my fellow Peppers and being introduced to several more. We roamed St Louis, got all gussied up, got our photos taken. Nothing quite like it.

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And when I began my freshman year at Hope College, my face was all over the United States. On Dr Pepper cans, bottles, and cases, on billboards, in ESPN magazine. It all came full circle. And oh my good gravy, God is so insanely faithful.

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There you have it, folks. My Dr Pepper story.  I am eternally grateful for everyone who helped me along the way, and for my brother for giving my future a purpose worth sharing.


 

 

 

 

 

3 comments

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  1. Sheila

    Such a great story! Thanks for sharing. You need to do a chapel on this. Loved how you all prayed together and had great goals and dreams for the future. God is good!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Joel Duane Wilson

    Wonderful story! It is so well written. Maybe you could help me write a similar story. I found the reality of Christ being personal when i asked Him to help me win a punt, pass, and kick contest as a chubby boy of 10 years old.
    Blessings Erin! Your dad and I played football together. And could he run!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joann Runkle

    Wow!!! Congratulations, Erin and the whole Rhodes Family!!! Thank you for posting this now!!! I am so glad to read all about your story, even if it is six years later!!!
    This is a beautiful, inspiring story Erin. You are an amazing young lady with an intriguing ability to write and express your courage and your strong faith in Your loving and faithful God. I wish you the very best with your high goals in your life. I know your parents and and your brother are very proud of you!!! Sincerely yours, Joann Runkle, your dad’s first grade teacher

    Liked by 1 person

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