From the Gridiron to the Pulpit
Former Oakland Raider Napoleon Kaufman leads a congregation in Dublin
Napoleon Kaufman’s world of tackles and touchdowns has given way to a life of hallelujahs and amens, and the 32-year-old former Oakland Raiders running back couldn’t be happier.
The Pleasanton resident and father of four now serves as the senior pastor at The Well Christian Community Church in Dublin. Now, instead of playing in front of some 60,000 rabid fans each Sunday, Kaufman leads a congregation of 400 at the church he founded.
“I’m still a Raider fan,” Kaufman says. “I’m just an armchair quarterback now instead of an active player. I will always love watching football, but I don’t miss playing the game and being tackled by 300-pound guys every week.”
Five years ago, Kaufman was at the peak of his football career. A first-round draft pick out of the University of Washington in 1995, he had risen to fourth place on Oakland’s all-time rushing list in just six seasons. Needless to say, when Kaufman announced that he was hanging up his cleats to pursue a career as a minister, he caught many by surprise.
“Napoleon was only 27 when he retired. He could still have a lucrative career playing with the Raiders, but he believes the ministry is his calling,” says former Raiders offensive guard and Danville resident Steve Wisniewski, 38, who is a member of The Well. “I tell people Napoleon is a better pastor than a football player, and that’s saying a lot, because he was an exceptional player.”
Kaufman’s epiphany came after fellow running back Jerone Davison, an ordained minister, said he saw something special in Kaufman. “He showed me there was so much more to life than football,” Kaufman says. “He said I had a gift and that I needed to be doing more with my life.”
Kaufman takes a decidedly low-key approach to running the church, which he opened in 2003 in a small suite in San Ramon. (The church quickly outgrew that space and moved to a converted warehouse on Dublin’s Sierra Lane.) Many of his parishioners don’t initially realize that their pastor was once a football star. “This is a place of worship,” says Kaufman, glancing around his modest church, located in an office park. “When people enter, they leave their credentials at the door.”
Parishioner Marilyn Gelnette of Pleasanton heard about The Well from friends and began attending services a year and a half ago. “Napoleon lives what he teaches,” she says. “He is incredibly humble and committed. The church leaders had to convince him to accept a salary.”
Kaufman’s wife, Nicole, is also a pastor at the nondenominational Christian church. On a recent Sunday, she and her husband stood in the front of the sanctuary greeting parishioners as they entered. The gospel choir–style worship team began to sing, and the church members, representing a diverse mix of ages and ethnicities, stood and joined in. “Our worship team is comprised of people from all different races—black, white, Asian,” Kaufman says. “I think it’s important to not just talk about diversity but to have people of color represented in our ministry.” Standing at the pulpit, the 5-foot-9-inch Kaufman encourages members of his congregation to find ways to help others, emphasizing that the greater community is really an extended family. Kaufman says the church board hopes to open a youth center and purchase two homes to be used as “places of refuge” for men and women escaping lives of drugs, violence, and abuse. When Kaufman talks about his hopes for the youth center, his enthusiasm is obvious. He would have welcomed such a haven during his own tough childhood. An only child, Kaufman grew up in Lompoc, Calif., not knowing his father. “I know I would have thrived in a place like our youth center,” he says. “Kids need a positive place where they can go to have fun, receive direction, and feel as if they are a part of something.”
For Kaufman, the church offers a sense of belonging that the silver-and-black brotherhood never could. “I really enjoyed my football career. But I got to the point where playing football didn’t give me satisfaction anymore,” he says. “I had fame and fortune, but I wasn’t happy. A lot of people might stay in a job where they weren’t happy, but I knew I needed to move on. The work I’m doing now is from my heart.”