You’ve seen them on high school, college and pro football fields, crossing the goal line then raising their hands heavenward, giving the glory to God.
And no doubt it will happen again Sunday as the world focuses on the extravaganza of the 50th Super Bowl. Many football players bring their Christian faith to the field.
And many found or strengthened their ties to God as members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which was founded in 1954 by Don McClanen and has grown into an international, interdenominational ministry designed to bring young people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
“If athletes can endorse shaving cream, razor blades and cigarettes, surely they can endorse the Lord, too,” said McClanen on FCA’s website. “The name Fellowship of Christian Athletes just came naturally. We would not be ashamed of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
New Orleans Saints’ tight end Benjamin Watson is a lifelong FCA member and one of the most popular players on the team. He’s a finalist for the 2015 Walter Payton Man of the Year Award for his off-the-field community service.
For as long as he can remember, Watson said, his father, the Rev. Ken Watson, who played linebacker at the University of Maryland, has been a speaker for the international Christian ministry’s annual summer camps, where thousands of student-athletes hone their sports skills while developing their spiritual gifts through prayer and Bible study.
“We’d get in the car and Daddy would drive to Maryland or Florida or somewhere where he spoke at the FCA camps,” said the 36-year-old Watson from Florida, where he was attending the FCA President’s Retreat last week.
“I was the president of my high school huddle (prayer group),” said Watson, who attended Northwestern High School in Rock Hill, South Carolina, and went on to play at the University of Georgia, where he earned All SEC honors his senior year.
“I met my wife (Kirsten) at FCA at Georgia, and I’ve continued to be involved in some capacity all my life,” he said. “I speak at FCA events and support it financially.”
His nonprofit organization, The One More Foundation, is dedicated to spreading the love and hope of Jesus Christ to one more soul, according to Watson’s Saints biography. The foundation annually hosts the “The Big BENefit,” which provided gift cards to 25 families selected by the New Orleans Family Justice Center.
He and Kirsten have five children, and he recently published a book of his thoughts on race relations in America called “Under Our Skin: Getting Real About Race.”
“When you’re talking about FCA, you’re not just talking about sports; you’re talking about people who support athletics, the fans, those who play sports on every level not just professionals,” Watson said. “It can penetrate into any kind of schools, neighborhood — suburban or urban, country — whatever it is, because of the power of Christ.”
“I encourage everyone to get involved in it at their school, to volunteer for it, get their kids involved in it,” Watson said. “This is really a ministry that tries to unify people through the avenue of sport and draw them to the ultimate truth, Jesus Christ.”
And, while he couldn’t say how many players in Sunday’s Super Bowl belonged to the FCA, “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt there are some.”
In the beginning
Sixty-two years ago when McClanen was starting FCA, he devised a simple formula for the ministry based on what he called the 4Cs — campus, coaches, camps and community. From a single summer sports camp, FCA has grown into a huge ministry that in 2015, according to its annual report released Monday, has:
Reached over 450,000 students on 14,689 campuses worldwide
Brought 94,505 coaches and athletes to 619 FCA camps in 41 states and 36 countries
Received 62,260 total commitments to Jesus Christ
Distributed 153,097 Bibles worldwide
Received nine consecutive 4-star top ratings from Charity Navigator
Ended the year with $109 million in revenue
Increased FCA staff to 1,300 across the USA and internationally
FCA in Louisiana
As hundreds of coaches and athletic directors gathered at the annual Louisiana High School Athletics Association conference in Baton Rouge last week, a team of FCA staffers manned a table in the Crowne Plaza’s main hallway.
A constant stream of coaches stopped by to greet the men who, in each area of the state, are helping to impact students in a positive, spiritual way.
Terry Slack, state FCA director and director of northwest Louisiana schools and colleges, including LSU Shreveport, Centenary College and Southern University at Shreveport, explained that each campus has a student-led Bible study and prayer group called a huddle.
“Huddles are in usually in middle schools, high schools and colleges, and we even have a dozen elementary school huddles,” Slack said. “We have a pretty good presence on all the college campuses in Louisiana.”
Slack estimated there are about 400 huddles across the state including about 100,000 students.
“The key thing about our ministry is that it is student led,” Slack said. “We have a (adult) huddle sponsor at each campus. Every (school) club, whether it is the Key Club or the French Club, there are adult leaders. Our FCA staff is the huddle sponsor.”
As far as arguments by secularists that Christianity should not be proclaimed on public school campuses, Slack just smiled and said, “We’ve had no hassles. We’re blessed to be in the Bible Belt. We have good rapport with principals and coaches.“
Mike DiMaria, FCA staffer for southeast Louisiana schools in Livingston, St. Helena and Tangipahoa parishes, added that the FCA presence on the campus “allows an umbrella for other FCA kinds of organizations to be on the campus as well,” like Young Life or CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ).
“When we have a meeting, we’ll have 500 or 600 students,” DiMaria said. “I spoke last week at Walker High School to over 200 students and 500 or 600 at an assembly at Live Oak, Denham Springs High School.”
Slack said while they focus on the coaches and the athletes, because they are usually the campus leaders, all students are welcome.
“Kids need Jesus. We all need Jesus,” Slack said. “We give out Bibles; there is no charge for anything.”
Andy Stroup is FCA staffer for the greater Baton Rouge area, which includes 110 schools, Baton Rouge Community College, LSU and Southern University, with a total of about 42 huddles. Stroup played football at LSU in the late 1990s and credits FCA for his salvation.
“I was looking for answers, and I turned to FCA,” Stroup said. “When sport collided with tragedy and all this beautiful mess I’d made of my life at LSU, I needed some answers. And when I found the truth who Jesus was and the love of Christ for the first time, there was nothing I knew to compare to that.”
Walter Allen is FCA staffer in the five parishes around Ruston, including Louisiana Tech University and Grambling State University. Like the others, he played high school sports and was an FCA student huddle leader.
“FCA changed the atmosphere on our campus,” Allen said. “When two football players were caught smoking marijuana, the coach had the FCA players be the judge and jury. We decided to give the offending players another chance. It really shaped the culture of our program.”
Albany High School athletic director and football coach Blane Westmoreland played football, ran track and was in FCA at Live Oak High School.
“It was a big impact on my life,” Westmoreland said. “It gave me a chance to be with kids my own age and fellowship together in school.”
Now, as a coach, he said parents and his school board love it. “They say it’s a great organization for our student athletes and the entire student body.”
“The Fellowship of Christian Athletes gives kids role models that are living out their faith, and they learn biblical principles of how to live a godly life,” said M.L. Woodruff, sports minister at Istrouma Baptist Church and a longtime FCA member. “It’s not just about the sport. It’s not just about winning but the process of becoming a godly man or a godly woman.”
Brandon Brown, athletic director and football coach at St. Helena College and Career Academy, described the FCA huddle at his school as a partner in what he’s trying to accomplish with the young men in his program.
“What FCA has done for me and my program, No. 1, it has brought them closer to Christ,” Brown said.
He also mentors the young men off the field, and that extra effort has changed attitudes.
“I had some kids who believed that they couldn’t and now they believe they can, and I give the FCA program credit for that,” Brown said. “Christ is exemplified across our whole campus.”
Brown said he willingly shoulders additional responsibilities as a black man coaching and mentoring some black male student-athletes.
“I have to be father to a lot of young men, and that’s the beauty of the job, being able to walk in and see a kid, but see him for not only for what he is but see him for what he can be,” Brown said.
Hollis Conway agrees with Brown about being a role model for young black men. He is the FCA staffer for northeast Louisiana, including the University of Louisiana at sMonroe, 66 schools, 26 huddles and about 1,000 students. He was recently inducted into the USA Track & Field Hall of Fame for setting the still-standing high jump record of 7 feet 10.5 inches at the 1991 World Championships. He earned a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics and a bronze in 1992 Olympics.
“The Bible says to whom much is given much is required,” Conway said. “Growing up in my community, there were issues specific to the culture where I lived. Two Olympic medals gives me an open door to say, ‘Listen, I know what it takes to be successful because I’ve been successful on the grandest scale.’ We’re supposed to use what God has given us to make a difference.”