Ben Palmer said he knew he wanted to be a coach in the seventh grade because his coaches made a major impact on his life.
Palmer’s been a Marine sergeant. He also was an assistant coach at two Shreveport-based powers, Evangel Christian and Calvary Baptist. Now the 28-year-old is fashioning his own dream as a first-year football coach at Christian Life Academy.
“My coaches were like second dads to me, and I knew at a young age I wanted to do the same thing,” Palmer said. “I wanted to be there for kids, the way my coaches were. Everything in life that I have achieved, I owe to my coaches. I want kids to have that chance.”
Sports fans probably won’t utter Christian Life in the same breath as Evangel or Calvary. Yet Palmer sees similarities as he prepares to lead the Crusaders, a longtime 1A school, into Class 2A.
“Looking around, I could tell the framework is here to make this place as good as it wants to be,” Palmer said. “This can be the next Evangel. This can be the next Calvary, but someone needs to come here who’s willing to roll up their sleeves and work to put the meat on the bones.”
The work started with an offseason upgrade to CLA’s football locker room. The face lift pays homage to past Christian Life standouts Michael Clayton and Roshaun Matthews of LSU, Oklahoma’s Rufus Alexander, Stefen LeFors of Louisville and New Mexico State’s Dillon Farrell, now an offensive lineman with the San Franciso 49ers.
Palmer said what CLA has is not that different from what Evangel had when he was an assistant there. There is more to come, including an offseason upgrade for the weightroom.
“We don’t have the best facilities in the state, but we have people here who know what it takes to win,” Palmer said. “We have kids that are hungry and willing to work, and it’s a lot like what we had at (Calvary and Evangel).”
Christian Life has had its share of success through the years. There were a series of semifinal appearances in the 1990s and a Class 1A runner-up finish in 2008. But after a 2-8 record in 2014, Palmer was hired to rebuild, and he hit the ground running. He’s creating a game program and formed a booster club to encourage more students to come out for the team.
Some drastic culture changes are met with resistance. Palmer said the school and players have embraced the changes.
“I thought it was going to be like pulling teeth to come in here and change the culture and take four years minimum,” Palmer said. “It’s blown me away how quick the kids here have bought in.”
Crusaders senior Pierce Provost is impressed by what he’s seen of Palmer so far.
“He’s trying to change the atmosphere, make us a family, bring the school up and make us all believe in everything we do around here,” Provost said.
Palmer’s four years in the Marine Corps honed his organizational skills. He’s brought that leadership training and military structure to the Crusaders football team.
CLA players earn ranks based on individual accomplishments such as grade-point average, 40-yard dash time and weightlifting totals. There are squads within the team that have leaders. Players have different colored armbands to denote rank.
“It shows what guys are in charge, who to listen to and who runs the team,” senior Trey Lewis said.
“There’s more competition in all the drills when we compete against each other,” junior Jacob Kibodi said.
As commander-in-chief of the Crusaders football team, Palmer understands the job ahead. He’s ready for the challenge — as his “troops” move into a 2A district that includes etablished teams like East Feliciana and Episcopal, along with another newcomer from 1A, Madison Prep.
“I don’t think they truly understand the fine details of what it takes to be at that elite-caliber program, but the good news is they’re willing to do that,” Palmer said. “They’re all on board. There’s no push back from anybody.”