LAFAYETTE — Reading Bible verses between slices of pepperoni pizza helped Charles "Peanut" Tillman on his faith journey.
Every week during the 2000 school year, Tillman and teammates Ryan Cade and Jonathan Raush would get together and order a large pepperoni pizza or two from the Papa John's next door and spend hours discussing God, faith and the Bible.
"We would just sit there and read, learn and talk about God and faith," Tillman fondly remembered. "He would decipher it for us. It was literally just a conversation. That's when I really grew in my faith. I was 19 and just hungry for some knowledge."
The "he" sitting at the table with the Ragin' Cajun football players was longtime Ragin' Cajuns football chaplain Eric Treuil. The man lovingly referred to as "Jesus Coordinator" has spent the last three decades helping dozens, if not hundreds, of University of Louisiana football players to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ.
"Eric was the first one to really challenge me to read the Bible," Tillman said. "While I am reading it, I am learning all of this stuff that I didn't know. I was mesmerized at what I was learning and I was excited about it. I still remember seeing the excitement on his face while I was getting closer to God. He was the main one to bridge that gap from God and religion for me."
TAKING A DIFFERENT PATH
Treuil developed a love for football at an early age growing on the West Bank of New Orleans, even playing for his high school team at River Oaks Academy. Treuil was good enough to be offered as a walk-on at Southeastern Louisiana, but opted to attend Nicholls where he would pursue his passion for the arts — theater and radio-television.
"I already knew that most actors do not make their living on the stage," said Treuil, who managed the campus radio station at Nicholls, where he graduated in 1982. "That's why I was trying to be diverse. I pulled together my own degree."
While pursuing his passion for the stage and screen, Treuil unexpectedly began a path toward his faith and the seeds were planted while preparing for a role in the play “The Shadow Box.”
"It was my junior year in college, and I am doing a play that is all about death and dying," Treuil recalled. "I am 20 years old and thinking that I am never going to die. So for research for the role, we went to this assisted living facility and interviewed people who were terminally ill. So I am assigned a 76-year-old woman. I remember thinking '76 that is so old,' so you have to be ready to die. I am a punk kid and I sit down and ask her 'How does it feel to be dying?'"
"The woman starts crying," he added. "It was like I got punched in the face. She had no clue about what was going to happen when she died. I walked out of the place and said 'You know what, I am not going to wait until I am 76 to figure this out.'"
For the next few days, that encounter would weigh heavily on Treuil until a fellow cast member spoke up one evening at rehearsal.
"We were talking about the research and one of the cast members said 'I have something for you to read'. It was a Bible," Treuil said. "This was the first time that I ever touched it or read it for myself. I can remember being blown away by the stories."
Treuil may have begun exploring his faith but he had not yet decided to change paths. That would happen soon enough. The summer after his junior year at Nicholls, Treuil decided to ride with a friend out to California, with the hope of pursuing acting in Los Angeles. The plan was to stay briefly with his friend's family while going to auditions. A member of his friend's family happened to be an associate pastor of an Assembly God of Church.
"I had never seen people praying before the meal before," said Treuil, whose mother was Lutheran and father Catholic. "These were the first people that I met who claimed to be Christian and walked it and talked about it."
Instead of looking for acting jobs, Treuil spent that summer in California with that family and exploring his faith. He had found his true path.
"My life radically changed," Treuil said. "I didn't do any more acting. I didn't have any clue what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I needed a change. I quit drinking that day. I didn't need a 12 step program because I went from Step 1 to Step 12. It radically revolutionized my life.``
PART OF THE PROGRAM
Treuil returned to Nicholls for his senior year, went on to graduate school and married his wife Annabelle. During this time, he was mentored by a pastor and started the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship chapter at Nicholls.
In 1987, Treuil and his wife felt called to Lafayette to begin a chapter on campus. The chapter didn't have its own facility and that first meeting was attended by a mere three people.
"I still remember that I had started the meeting and after about 10 minutes or so, one of them raised their hand and said they weren't into this and left. So we were down to two."
Treuil didn't become the Ragin' Cajuns football chaplain until 1993, when the on-campus priest asked him to assist with chaplain duties. After he left the campus ministry, Treuil naturally asked the new priest to help with being team chaplain.
"He came to one thing and one game and he said 'I wasn't into this'," Treuil said. "I then invited the next priest and he wasn't interested either. So it ended up being just me."
Early on while serving as chaplain for coach Nelson Stokley, Treuil simply handled the chapel message during breakfast for home games, and sometimes was asked to come out to practices. That role would soon be expanded under new coach Jerry Baldwin, who just so happened to be a preacher.
"He walked me around the room and said 'I don't know if I want you,'" Treuil recalled. "He then told me 'if you are going to be team chaplain then you need to travel.’ He asked if I could come to every game. That was a game changer."
Treuil would continue to travel with the team for road games under the coaches who would succeed Baldwin — Rickey Bustle, Mark Hudspeth and Billy Napier. Treuil always did his best to be there not only for the players but also the coaches, and remembers one time trying to relate to one of them.
"Coach Bustle was having a hard time," Treuil said. "I told him that you and I have similar jobs. Working in campus ministry, I am relating and dealing with the same kids that they are dealing with. I said 'our jobs depend on 18-to-20 year-old kids. The success or failure of our jobs depends on those kids'. He said, 'Yeah, but the difference, Eric, is you don't have 25,000 people looking at how you are doing every week.'"
A GENUINE APPROACH
Treuil's biggest impact has been the conversations that grow from his weekly Bible studies, whether held over pizza or at the UL Chi Alpha chapter on Johnston Street. A fundamental principle of those study sessions is welcoming students from all faith backgrounds and not passing judgment.
"There isn't another better proponent of faith in athletics than Eric," said close friend and Ragin' Cajuns Director of Football Operations Troy Wingerter. "For some kids, based on their upbringing, the topic of Jesus can sometimes be complicated. They may not be very open about it or not be around people that are open about it. Eric makes everything a conversation, an open conversation. He does a phenomenal job with that."
"For me, I am not promoting a church or a church doctrine or anything like that," Treuil said. "I am encouraging them to become men of God. That they know who created them and why he created them. I am never going to alienate anyone."
For those who were helped in finding God, Treuil's genuine approach to discussing faith was key.
"Especially for a college kid, a lot of times pastors and chaplains avoid people," Cade said. "He saw it as a challenge. Even when you do fall short, he didn't write you off. He cared about you as an individual. There was nothing we couldn't talk about. I had conversations with Eric that I could never have with my own parents. There was no conversation that was taboo for Eric."
"He was the first person I was ever around that could preach but not come off like a stereotypical preacher, like the ones you see in movies and TV shows," Tillman said. "I never heard that kind of preaching before. It was so organic and I actually understood it."
IMPACT OFF THE FIELD
Treuil's work has not been relegated to just weekly Bible studies or chapel on game day. He has also been key in many players dedicating their lives to Jesus Christ.
"As a senior, we changed football coaches and I was really kind of lost and stuck in a hole," Cade said. "I was a starter for two seasons and then I wasn't. It was a really tough period.
"I didn't want to be in school and my grades sucked," Cade added. "He really mentored me during that period. He told me 'focus on getting through this valley and don't let this hiccup affect your trajectory'. Getting through that senior year was brutal but he helped me get through that. Without a doubt, he has had the single most impact on my life spiritually."
Cade isn't the only one.
For years now, the Ragin' Cajuns have stayed the night before a home game at the Hilton Garden Inn across the street from Cajun Field. The hotel's swimming pool has served for dozens of baptisms performed by Treuil.
"The Hilton may have more baptisms than the local churches," Wingerter joked. "But in all seriousness, it is such an incredible thing to witness. To watch them find their path and Eric help them with that is special."
One of those special moments occurred at the Hilton during the 2012 season. The night before the Western Kentucky game, several players asked to be baptized, including star quarterback Terrance Broadway.
"God was dealing with him," Treuil said. "He wanted to be there for his son unlike his father. I told him that he had to commit his life to Christ and he did."
"It was the day by day pushing for us to grow by Mr. Eric," Broadway said on why he got baptized. "He is not pushing you to be a more religious person. It was more of pushing us to be more of a man, a respectable man, with responsibilities.
"As college athletes we don't always handle every situation the right way but to have someone there that can always give you advice, is what led myself and others to get baptized."
Treuil would also be instrumental in Broadway marrying his longtime girlfriend, which included having him officiate the wedding — something he has done for dozens of players.
"Mr. Eric was the main person to challenge me to do it," Broadway said. "He asked me questions about where I was in my current life. Where did I see my life going. He challenged me to think outside the box. I had a son at the time and it made me look at it in a different light. We were not living like we were married."
KEEPING THE FAITH
Treuil's time as Ragin' Cajun football chaplain has been a blessing, but that doesn't mean there haven't been dark times. More than two years have passed since assistant coach D.J. Looney died on the practice field on Aug. 1, 2020.
Treuil still gets overwhelmed thinking about that day.
"I had been quarantined due to COVID protocols and that day was the first day I am back in the bubble," Treuil said. "Coach Looney is out there and he runs across the field. We dabbed up and he said 'Hey Rev, when are we going to get some more tacos?' I said, 'Soon coach' and he ran back across the field."
The next thing Treuil knew was that he heard people yelling and calling for something.
"I thought they were working on a player but I went over and it was Coach Looney. He had a heart attack right there. It was gut wrenching. I took the players in the locker room to pray while they were working on them."
Later that afternoon, Treuil brought Looney's parents in to view their son's body. Yet, as dark as that day was, Treuil believes he was meant to be there.
"I can't help but believe that God put me there that day," Treuil said.
Despite his age, and having his three children (Ana Cristine Treuil, Victoria Treuil and Benjamin Treuil) all grown, the 60-year-old Treuil has no plans of slowing down his faith work.
He currently serves as the executive director for the Lafayette Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship, but also director for all of Chi Alpha chapters in Louisiana and the South Central Area (Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and New Mexico).
"He is dedicated," Tillman said. "He is a true servant of the Lord. He is living out his life and being the best Christ life as he can be. It's through sports. He's not necessarily preaching but just talking. He wants to connect with you and that is what he does."
So what keeps driving him? Easy. The same thing he discovered four decades ago when his path went from aspiring actor to servant of God — his faith.
"I am committed to it because football is all consuming," Treuil said. "If we don't go into that world then many times they are not coming out to ours until later on in life. My life is much richer today because of the relational connections with all these people over the years. It fuels my soul."