Before John Cassis began his career as a motivational speaker, he was a professional baseball player. He never made it to the big leagues, playing in the California Angels minor league system back in the early 1970s, but he did have a brush with greatness.

“I once faced the great Nolan Ryan. He hit me in the head with a fastball and knocked me unconscious,” says Cassis, who will be the opening keynote speaker at the Religious Conference Management Association Emerge Conference, January 29–February 1 in Minneapolis. He went to the hospital and was fine, but that didn’t stop a clever headline writer from having some fun at his expense. “The next day the headline read: ‘X-Rays On Cassis’ Head Reveal Nothing.’” Ouch.

It’s these kind of humorous anecdotes that weave throughout Cassis’ inspirational message of facing adversity, embracing change, and refreshing the spirit. He calls it catching a second wind, and as someone with such a varied and accomplished career—he’s caught that second wind a few times.

After leaving baseball, he became a minister for five years in Colorado and then moved to Chicago to work for an organization called World Relief, which has a mission of feeding the hungry. While in Chicago, he still preached as well as delivered speeches for World Relief.

Then one Sunday Chicago Bears all-pro linebacker Mike Singletary heard his sermon, and ended up inviting him to give inspirational talks to the Chicago Bears before games. Cassis conducted chapel services before the team’s home games for 12 years, from 1983 through 1995. He even accompanied them to the Super Bowl in 1986, the year the Bears won it all.

It was during this time that his career as a motivational speaker blossomed. He became one of the most sought after speakers in the country, making dozens of appearances a year for corporations, associations, and religious organizations.

In 2004, at age 56, he took time off to chase a dream, qualifying for the U.S. Open golf tournament. It meant beating hundreds of competitors in regional and sectional tournaments, including touring professionals who had lost their exemptions. And Cassis did just that, becoming one of a handful of amateur qualifiers to make it to the 2004 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y.

Meeting the challenges of change in our work and our personal lives is a necessity, Cassis says. “Too often we sit in the sidelines, benched by our fears.” Getting off the bench is about courage and choosing to change. He encourages audiences to turn challenges into opportunities. “It’s about renewal. It’s about refreshing our spirit, our attitudes, and coping with change and the pressures of daily life,” says Cassis.

Through his blend of warmth, motivation, and humor, attendees will come away with a renewed sense of passion and purpose to ignite new potential and launch into success. He will also talk about his faith, which has helped him cope with his own challenges. He cites the Bible passage Isaiah 40:31 as an inspiration: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Cassis has worked with meeting planners for 30 years, so he knows all about their world and the pressures they are under and will no doubt share some stories that meeting planners can relate to at RCMA’s Emerge conference. “I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be fun.”