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Body Builder Emphasizes Inner Strength

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“I wasn't going to be a bodybuilder. I was a football player. But this one guy talked me into going to a bodybuilding show with him. And I did. And I took a second place. And I'm like, ‘Wow, I think I'm pretty good at this.’ So, I set my sites on, you know what? I'm done with football. I'm gonna be the best teenager bodybuilder in the world.” So says Franco Santoriello, who became one of the top bodybuilders in the world, gracing the covers of magazines and winning international awards. but Franco’s childhood was far from an idyllic one.

“What I remember about my parents' fighting is it was frequent. When my mom and dad fought, we didn’t just hear it,” he says. “The whole neighborhood heard it. It was loud, and it was – it was really – it was hurtful. What we did as children, I would run into my room and just have this fear in me  that, you know, what's gonna happen now?...Is Mama gonna get hurt? What child should have to walk around with that fear in them?”

Franco grew up Catholic, but says he didn’t know God.  “I got confirmed, baptized. I was an altar boy. But my conception of God was, He was a man that was hung on a cross.  I didn't know that God was right here with me,” Franco says. “The only way I knew I could really talk to God or communicate with God was through a priest.”

Franco’s parents eventually divorced, and it brought his insecurities to a new level. “There was a split, and my dad just kind of like took off. It ripped a hole in my heart.”

In middle school, Franco tried drugs for the first time.  “There was a party going on, and one of my brother's friend, you know, he  turned me on to a joint. It was just like, something hit me where it was like, ‘Hey, I'm gonna be okay.’ I just kind of escaped myself.”

Franco’s drug use continued--and escalated--through high school. “It wasn't long after that we started messing around with pills, you know, speed, Quaaludes, things like that. So at 15 years I did cocaine,” he adds. “And immediately, at that point, I was just, you know, drugs were just very common to me.”

When Franco was 24, his brother became a Christian.  “He knew his little brother needed Jesus. Because he knew the life of sin that I was living in. So he got me to church.  And I identified right away that I was a sinner,” he says. “I knew I needed a Savior. But my problem was, I didn't want a Lord. I didn't want anybody taking over my life and putting – and surrendering myself to be in control of me.”

As a world-famous body-builder, Franco had endorsements, money, fame, and women. He also had all the drugs he wanted. “At thirty years old, getting ready to train for the Night of the Champions, one of the bigger bodybuilding events in the world. I met this professional wrestler, and we were working gout a couple of times,” Franco recalls. “And he asked me if I've ever done heroin, and I was like, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Do you want to try it?’ And I'm like – he said, "It'll give you a really good workout." I'm like, ‘Why not?’ And that's how I got introduced to heroin. it wasn't long after that that I had an overdose that killed me.”

Franco was rushed to the emergency room, where he coded. “I know I was dead because. “When I woke up in when I woke up in the trauma unit, the doctor looked at me and said, ‘You're lucky, son; we had to bring you back.’”

Two failed marriages and another brush with death after a heart attack were not enough to slow Franco down. But a hit and run accident in 2011 was. “I ran back home, got out of the car. There was a cop sitting in the driveway, and he asked me, he goes, ‘Were you driving this car?’ And I looked at him, and I said, ‘Yeah, it was me.’ And they ran my ID and found out I had drug warrants in Ohio.”

Franco was sentenced to three years in jail, which game him time to reflect on his life. “For six weeks, I laid in a rack, in prison, crippled in fear. I just laid there, saying to myself, day after day, ‘What in the heck happened to me?’ I remember I was on top of the world,” he says. “Now I’m on the bottom bunk in prison. What happened to me? As my addiction went on, and I crushed lives and I broke relationships, and I hurt people in my path, that added to all the guilt and shame and pain.”

One day, while he sat on the edge of his prison bunk, Franco prayed. “And I was like, ‘God, I know that you're real. That’s what the Catholic Church taught me. I believe in you. But, can I get some help here?’ I'm like, ‘I quit. I need you.’ And it was at that moment it felt like all of a sudden, my hands were freed, and I was able to reach my hand up out of that quicksand and, just like that, God's mighty hand came down from there and grabbed mine and pulled me up. And I was able to take a breath,” he says. “See, that day, God's hand was the light and love and hope that this hopeless man needed to survive another day. And I remember him telling me, ‘You need to read your Bible, because there's freedom. You can get deliverance in God's Word. You want to be set free from drugs, read the Bible. There's strength.”

Franco saw a Bible at the end of his bed. he picked it up and began reading it. “The next day I woke up, I'm like, ‘Wow, maybe I should try what I did yesterday again.’ So, I cracked open the Bible, and I went and worked out for five minutes again.”

He began working out again and soon was using his platform to minister to other inmates.
“Nine months later, I was running that prison,” he says. “I was doing workouts four hours long. I had everybody in the prison wanting to work out with me. I was running fitness programs, Bible studies. I mean that’s all that I did every day. I said, ‘Wow, this works.’”

Today, Franco is free and heads jackdup4jesus, a ministry that uses body-building to bring people to Jesus. he tells his story in his book, Before and After. “The enemy used bodybuilding to bring me down,” he says. “He used it because I became very prideful. It was able to fuel my addiction, and it just destroyed my life. God has taken that same sport and that same platform, to bring back to me, to bring glory to Him. I'm still an addict today, but I'm addicted to Jesus. My real true audience today is the addicts and inmates, because that’s the place where He got ahold of me. And He wants to get a hold of every inmate in the world today. My vision statement is to encourage, motivate and inspire the broken, bound, and bruised to live a victorious and purposeful life in Christ.”

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About The Author

Randy Rudder

Randy Rudder received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Memphis and taught college English and journalism for 15 years. At CBN, he’s produced over 150 testimony and music segments and two independent documentaries. He lives in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, with his wife, Clare, and daughter Abigail.