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Former soccer star scores with the Lord

ON A MISSION: Ricky Otto today

UPON READING the Bible it’s clear a special reward awaits those who support prisoners, and during this season of Easter it’s timely to note that Jesus showed mercy to the repentant thief crucified alongside him.

With this in mind it’s not surprising many church congregations consist of ex-offenders who’ve experienced new life and hope upon following Christ. Ex-Birmingham City footballer-cum probation officer and ordained minister, Ricky Otto, is one such person.

Otto’s life demonstrates it’s not where you start it’s where you finish. Although expelled from school at 14, Ricky’s gone on to get a degree in theology and is making plans to study for a Masters.

He’s made it his life’s mission to help others transform their lives, whether it’s via his organisation Living Xperience Connections, which works with offenders and those at risk of committing crime or through the preaching of the gospel.

Otto grew up in Hackney, east London with his mother and brothers. He recalled: “Although my father was not around my childhood was safe, stable and secure.

“We didn’t have much but my mum made sure we had a roof over our heads, food in our belly and clothes on our backs.

“On the whole my childhood was good. Growing up on a council estate was brilliant and playing football all the time was heaven.”

Things changed at school though. Otto got into trouble for bullying. By age 14 he had been expelled from school and had drifted into crime.

During his teens and early 20s, he was imprisoned five times. He added: “My last time in jail I was sentenced to 4 years at the Old Bailey and served three years in adult prisons.

“All my crimes were acquisitive, mainly burglaries and robberies. Back then life was all about reputation, so if you could handle yourself on street and in prison you were considered a force to be reckoned with. The impact of prison increased my notoriety.”

Thankfully his love for football remained intact and when the opportunity arose, he played in prison.

After one session two fellow prisoners had a conversation with him that changed his life’s direction.

They told him: “Don’t serve the time, let the time serve you.” Their words inspired him to get himself ready for a life outside and a career in football.

Upon leaving prison at 22, he contacted his former football team in Haringey. He was eventually selected to play for the first team.

Three months later he secured his first professional contract with Leyton Orient which heralded the start of an illustrious professional football career. One key achievement was becoming Birmingham City’s record signing when he joined them in 1994 for £800,000.

Despite turning his life around and embarking on a successful career as a professional footballer Otto always felt pulled to follow Jesus. It was a call he usually resisted but after the death of a good friend he could no longer resist.

“My conversion was radical and extremely uncomfortable,” he shared. “Like the apostle Paul when God revealed Himself to me and showed me His purpose and plan for my life I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood.

“The sequence of events that led to me confessing Christ as my Lord and Saviour goes back over 25 years, but what intensified my desire to seek the Lord was the death of my good friend Paul Pond in 2004.”

He’s never looked back since his prison conversation. He’s been based in Birmingham since his footballing days, with a burgeoning ministry and is looking at new ways to engage with offenders.

He says with pride: “At the moment I’m in the process of organising my teaching ministry in Hackney ‘From Menace to Minister’, which should launch later this year.

“I can’t wait to see what God is going to do in the lives of those I used to roll with back in the day.

“Also, I want to continue my education and start my Masters degree in theology.”

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