Mayo Sowell: From the gridiron and prison to the pulpit

Former Auburn Tiger to open new church

Mayo Sowell followed a winding path to the pulpit.

It started with a promising future as a linebacker for the 2004 undefeated Auburn University Tigers and continued until an injury-shortened chance with the Buffalo Bills.

After his professional career ended abruptly, Sowell, drifted from job to job, eventually becoming homeless and turning to drug dealing to keep his pockets full. The money was good. He said he invested in two restaurants - one in Buckhead and the other in Miami - owned luxury cars and stayed in nice hotels.

He had moved to Atlanta in 2005 after college but traveled to other homes in California and Florida.

”It was the quickest money I could see myself getting besides robbing and stealing from someone.” he said. " I jumped headfirst into the underworld. I had a moral compass on right and wrong instilled by my parents, coaches and mentors, but it was a synthetic compass. It wasn’t real.

“I lost my soul in Atlanta,” said Sowell.

And then he lost his freedom in Phoenix when in 2008 he and several other men were arrested on charges of conspiracy with intent to buy and distribute cocaine. He served nearly five years in federal prison before being released on 10 years probation.

These days, however, Sowell, now 40, is preaching the Word of God and reaching out to those who are searching for faith or who have lost their way.

Sowell recently started the nondenominational LIIV Atlanta church, which will launch services in the City Springs complex in Sandy Springs, beginning Sept. 18.

He and his wife, Kai, the church’s co-founder whom he met in Atlanta years earlier, decided on the name, an acronym for love, integrity, influence and victory.

“I have been called to align everyone in Atlanta with a common cause and that common cause is to see Atlanta live, to see Atlanta flourish and Jesus is leading that cause,” he said.

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In 2009, he was incarcerated at a minimum security federal prison camp at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, where he was transferred from an Arizona prison. There, Sowell met Howard Chewning, who was sentenced to more than 14 years for conspiracy to traffic cocaine.

Chewning, who is currently senior pastor of City of God Church in Tampa, had been mentoring men for several years at Maxwell.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

He saw something in Sowell and felt the Lord was leading him to connect with Sowell, whom he said was “not pursuing the Lord inside.”

Chewning told him that God loved him despite what he was doing and that everything he had done prior was forgiven. That included the lifestyle that landed him in prison.

“That’s what made me fall in love with Jesus, that we would forgive me from something that I couldn’t seem to forgive myself,” Sowell said. “It was just a lack of pressure, meaning God wasn’t forcing me to change. I felt the arm of acceptance.... (Chewning) said I was going to do more for God. It resonated with me. “

He understood that his past set the stage for his future.

It was all part of his journey that God could use in his future.

“It all made sense,” said Sowell. “Football made sense, Selling drugs made sense. I had led a life of being fearless. He (Chewning) offered me hope and I was open to it. What makes people resistant to hope is when someone ties a string to it.”

Chewning took Sowell under his wing. He and eight others lived next to each other, exercised together and read the Bible together. They became like family.

“I believed that the Lord had a hold on his life and he was all in,” said Chewning, who joined a ministry in Jacksonville, Fla. after his release.

Prior to launching his LIIV church, Sowell served in several roles with the Birmingham-based nondenominational Church of the Highlands, one of the nation’s largest megachurches. It’s led by Senior Pastor Chris Hodges, an author and founder of Highlands College, a ministry training school.

Sowell began attending after his release and while living with his parents in Birmingham.

He was asked to open a campus in 2018 and held a variety of positions, including executive pastor.



It’s been “overwhelming to see him advance - to blossom,” said Ellen Sowell, his mother who lives in Irondale, Ala., on the outskirts of Birmingham. “It’s nothing but God.”

He was raised in a religious household and was a junior deacon in Shade Grove Missionary Baptist Church in Natchitoches, La., where his father, Eugene, was born and where the family lived for about 15 years after relocating from California.

When Sowell got in trouble with the law, his mother said she felt like a failure. She had raised Sowell, his brother and two sisters to be honest and loyal and to never get in trouble. “I was devastated for a long time.”

She noticed a change while in her oldest son was incarcerated once he met Chewning and several other men who were positive influences.

The family home was about a mile from Church of the Highlands, which Mayo Sowell had started to visit .

One day he was standing outside the church and a man invited him to attend a small group gathering elsewhere. Sowell explained that he couldn’t pointing to an ankle monitor that limited the distance he could travel.

No problem, the man told him and brought the small group gathering to the Sowell family home.

Sowell is “very serious about his walk with Jesus,” said Chewning. “He doesn’t have a religion. He has a relationship with Jesus. He really wants to be with the Lord. That’s his foundation. That’s his true strength.”

Today he and Kai live in Marietta with their three children, Cannon, Brave and Liberty.

Sowell recently spoke about his most cherish possession - a Bible that was given to him by Kai while he was in prison. It was his first personal Bible.

He never takes it out of the house.

Sowell said he reads it several times a day. “It’s been torn apart and rebound three times.”

He thinks his winding path has placed him right where he needs to be.

“Jesus has totally forgiven me for my past,” said Sowell. “In the eyes of God, I only have a future with him. I don’t have a past.”