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BCS chaplains lead football players to championship life

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–Being a chaplain for a college football team that has made it to one of the four Bowl Championship Series (BCS) games is not unlike being a pastor of a large church. The rewards, challenges and observations as seen from the inside are much the same.

Their duties range from building relationships with players and coaches to conducting various pre-game services and devotionals. They also visit the players in the hospital, counsel, disciple them one-on-one and conduct Bible studies.

Because each campus is different, no two chaplains are alike. What works at Washington State, for example, might not work at Miami, and what the Iowa chaplain discerns is necessary may not be what the Oklahoma chaplain needs to do. What does get preached within these powerful football programs is the powerful gospel of Christ. It continues to be used by the Holy Spirit to bring athletes and coaches to Christ.

For those in the athletic community who are Christians, chaplains are in a perfect spot to spur them on to love and good deeds, according to Iowa chaplain Jim Goodrich. Quarterback Brad Banks handed out a Bible that Goodrich had given him to a freshman player named Clinton Solomon.

“I remembered that Brad had asked me for a Bible about a month before that, but I didn’t know he had asked me for it for the purpose of handing it to a teammate,” Goodrich said. “Clinton said he told him where to start reading, in Matthew, and whenever you have a question or don’t understand things just pray and ask God to give you guidance. Open up your mind to what it says and He’ll answer your prayer.

“You can see multiplication right there in that little story. I know it’s happening behind the scenes.”

Iowa’s great success on the football field this season translated into a high number of attendees in chapel services. Between 40 to 45 players and coaches kept showing up at chapel as the Hawkeyes rolled through Big Ten play undefeated and into the Orange Bowl. At Washington State, though, where the Cougars were storming into the Rose Bowl, numbers were down.

Success in such a shifting environment is hard to measure, according to Washington State chaplain Steve Barke. He said he took to heart what one of Washington State’s assistant coaches shared after the Cougars learned they would be losing their head coach, Mike Price, to Alabama.

“I was talking to one of those coaches who was going to be going with him, a coach who was in our Bible study, and his comment was it was a really hard decision to go,” Barke said. “He said, ‘I really prayed a lot about this, and I’ve never done that before, and that was because of you.’ Those kinds of things, seeing that people are actually involving God in their lives because of what I do, are really rewarding.”

Sometimes when a chaplain has been faithful in one location for a very long time, God will take that chaplain into deeper levels of trust and pastoral care within a program. This has been the case with Clint Purvis, who has served with head coach Bobby Bowden at Florida State since 1988.

Purvis was able to minister to one family with twin brothers when one of the young men died. The university paid for the chaplain to fly out to Texas to be with the grieving family, and he did all he could do to support them. In another setting, he had to perform a funeral for a former player who had committed suicide.

“That was very painful, but then you have your victories,” Purvis said.

“When Todd Williams asked me to walk out with him for his last game at home as a parent figure, when he asked me to walk out on Parents Week in his jersey and represent him, I was very honored,” Purvis said. “I told people that Todd is 6-6 and 350 pounds. He gets his size from his mama but his good looks from me. Todd graduated in December with a double major in criminology and sociology, and people said he’d never make it.”

Each of the seven BCS chaplains said they place a high value on developing relationships. Not everyone they touch will become a Christian, but the importance of authentic moments, meaningful times of interaction within the entire athletic community, cannot be emphasized enough by these men.

“I’m a facilitator of spiritual growth and development,” said Southern California chaplain Mike Sylvester, who serves with Athletes in Action.

“I try to build my role with them as one of service,” said Oklahoma chaplain Mike Whitson, “to do whatever it takes to get them to see Christ for who He really is.”

Georgia chaplain Kevin Hynes agreed.

“My role is to love and serve these players in the name of Jesus Christ in the hope of leading them to a personal relationship with Him, and to grow them in Christ-like maturity,” he said. “I’m here to serve them.

“They call me Chappy,” Hynes said. “It’s the most rewarding position I’ve ever had. I served my country in the Marine Corps, I served my community as a deputy sheriff, but I love serving God (as a chaplain). It’s an awesome, awesome, awesome ministry.”

Whitson, who has become a bit of a fixture in Norman, Okla. due to his association with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, has been able to involve the players and the coaches in a service project. This year they helped more than 160 families in Norman through a food drive at one of the home games. Whitson also reaches out to needy children by helping to put together a football clinic for inner-city youths on the day of the Oklahoma spring football game.

“With all the challenges and distractions that are out there today for young people, it is not wise to leave your players totally without counsel in life issues,” Whitson said. “The programs that take care of the spiritual aspect of their players will benefit greatly in the long run. The coaching staff at OU sees me as a Christian who is investing time in the players and coaches. Hopefully they see me as a positive influence. My role is not to pump them up to play but to challenge them in their spiritual life.”

At USC, Sylvester attempts to teach spiritual maturity principles to a group of football players who have sought him out. His approach differs a bit in that he likes a little distance between himself and the head coach.

“I know that the guys who come to me aren’t there because the coach said, ‘Hey, go to chapel,’ so what I get in my opinion is a distilled cadre of guys who are genuinely interested,” Sylvester said. “For me it’s a good weeding-out mechanism that allows me to focus on the guys who want to grow. Those who aren’t interested, I can engage them outside of a group setting, just one-on-one.”

Steve DeBardelaben is part of a unique chaplain partnership at the University of Miami. He is a longtime Athletes in Action minister who shares his work with the football program with Steve Caldwell of FCA. “We’re gifted similarly, but we’re not exactly the same,” DeBardelaben said.

What has worked among the Miami Hurricanes is a partnership where DeBardelaben and Caldwell, supported by AIA staff Arlene DeBardelaben and Jenise Winston along with veteran FCA staffer Joe Oliver, blend their talents. “We have made a commitment to work together, plan together, pray together, debrief together and critique each other,” Steve DeBardelaben said. This is what works in Miami, where chaplains “help bring a family spirit to the team” as it has been riding a wave.

For the energetic Hynes, whose passion and zeal are known within the Georgia program, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing God save someone from his sins.

“Leading people to the Lord, seeing men alive in Christ Jesus, seeing the regenerate heart, seeing the sovereign God reach down from heaven and pluck these young men from eternal damnation, that’s my biggest reward,” Hynes said.
Allen Palmeri, a freelance writer for www.BPSports.net, is a member of North Pointe Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: GEORGIA BULLDOGS.