WNBA star Maya Moore shocked the sporting world when she put her career on hold in the middle of her prime to pursue justice for an innocent man, Jonathan Irons, behind bars. ESPN’s new documentary ‘Breakaway’, part of their 30 for 30 series, debuted last night and put she and her family’s faith in Christ on center stage.
Jonathan Irons went to prison at just 18 years old, after being tried as an adult for assault and burglary with a deadly weapon. Despite there being no physical evidence connecting him to the scene and a number of other holes in the case, he was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Maya Moore was just 8 years old at the time of Irons arrest.
Director Rudy Valdez beautifully captured the long and faithful story of how one of the top basketball players in the world would eventually become not only involved, but intertwined with the young confused teen sitting behind bars, eventually see his miraculous release over two decades later, and how the Moore family’s faith in Christ was the driving force behind it all.
HOW IT HAPPENED
It all begins with a simple act by the chaplain at the prison, who noticed a dejected Irons, still in shock that he was somehow in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The chaplain gave Irons some tough love about his (sloppy) attire, and encouraged him to go to chapel. Irons did just that, which led to him meeting Hugh Flowers, who was volunteering as the choir director at Jefferson City Correctional Center.
Flowers struck up a relationship with Irons, asking him if he could sing. Turns out, Irons has “perfect pitch” – it was the first time someone told him he was good at something. Irons enjoyed church and choir, leading he and Flowers to grow very close.
Flowers daughter, Cheri Williams, and her husband, Reggie Williams, eventually heard about Irons through their father. Reggie felt led to look into Irons case, leading him to begin speculation that he might actually be innocent. This became somewhat of an obsession for Reggie, who put in countless hours (after working at his regular job) studying the case. He continued noticing problems, and eventually found a major break that would, albeit it years later, help exonerate Irons.
Cheri and Reggie are Maya Moore’s Godparents. With Maya’s family now deeply involved in Irons’ case, he was becoming part of the family even though still behind bars. Moore would eventually go “outside of her comfort zone” and tag along to the prison to meet Irons. Maya was 18 and heading into her first year at UConn when the pair first met.
Moore was also growing in her faith at this time. According to ESPN, Moore describes her walk with the Lord as being crucial to her identity, particularly in light of not having a father figure in the home:
“It hit me so hard when I was in middle school that God is my father and he is my identity,” Moore said on The Grove Podcast in 2019. “He is my security. He is what matters most about who I am. I’ve become such a believer in the beauty and power and need for fathers, especially godly fathers. And whatever our culture says, I’m convinced that the best way for kids to grow up is with their mom and their dad.”
The timing of her faith plays a key role in the story of Irons, because having rooted her identity firmly in Christ before she went on to fame in college and the WNBA, it enabled her to make the decision to walk away and focus on what she felt truly mattered, despite the pressures and expectations of being the best player in the WNBA. If her identity was wrapped up in basketball, this may not have happened and Irons may not have ever been freed.
Moore and her family spent nearly two decades in the quest to free Jonathan, and “Breakaway” does not hide the faith motivating all the efforts. Prayers, praises, giving glory to God – all are second nature to this family and demonstrated throughout.
When Irons finally learns he is on the path to freedom, his first reaction was to praise Jesus. Here’s a man who has spent 20 plus years in prison, and he’s thanking God. The family presented him with a beautiful cross necklace, one they’ve had prepared for over a decade in hopes of giving to him if he were ever released.
The necklace, Cheri Williams explained, is in reference to the story of Joseph in Genesis, which she believes resembles Jonathan’s story. Wrongly imprisoned, eventually restored.
At his hearing, before even knowing the outcome, Irons told Moore and company that “God is a chain-breaker, you hear me? God is a chain-breaker.”
You can watch this remarkable journey of faith and hope once again tonight on ESPN as Breakaway will air for a second night in a row.
You can also watch Moore’s speech at the 2021 ESPY awards, in which she accepted the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and once again spoke passionately about her faith. Here’s her entire speech:
“One of the most freeing things I’ve come to realize, I’m a created being, wonderfully made in God’s image,” Moore explained. “And that means I don’t have to define myself. But my all knowing, all loving, all powerful creator has designed me for a beautiful purpose.”
After Irons was released, he proposed to Maya and she said yes. The pair are now married, Moore has not yet decided if she will return to basketball, and Irons works on criminal justice reform issues.
Praise God for the wonderful testimony of God’s goodness through the Moore family and all those involved in this story!