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Documentary shows athletic success, kingdom impact of Carson-Newman coach

"Sparks – The Ken Sparks Story" tells the story of the longtime Carson-Newman University coach whose evangelism among players was just as well known as his winning reputation on the field. Photo courtesy of "The Ken Sparks Story"/Facebook

JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. (BP) – For 40 years, Ken Sparks coached and led thousands of young men on football fields in east Tennessee. Over that time his impact led to wins and championships, but also innumerable lives changed for the Gospel through the man referred to as “the Billy Graham of coaches.”

“Sparks – The Ken Sparks Story” continues in theaters a week after its debut, telling of the longtime Carson-Newman University coach who died in 2017. For 37 years, Sparks led the Eagles to five national championships and a 338-99-2 record, retiring fifth in all-time NCAA wins. In that time, he was also highly involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and an active member of Manley Baptist Church in Morristown.

Carson-Newman is a private Baptist university in Jefferson City and affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

“He inspired me. He gave me that role model of how to coach,” said Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy, one of several testimonials in the documentary spearheaded by actor/filmmaker Jeff Joslin, who quarterbacked for Sparks at Farragut High in Knoxville and later at Carson-Newman.

Alan Duncan, associate pastor at Manley Baptist, was a kicker in the late 1970s for the University of Tennessee who also preached throughout the state (One such trip to Chattanooga so impressed a highly regarded recruit that it led Reggie White to sign with the Volunteers.). At one point, Sparks, then head coach at Farragut, asked Duncan to speak to the school’s FCA group.

It began a lifelong friendship between the two.

“I’ve met a lot of wonderful Christian men throughout the years, but he’s the most amazing I’ve seen,” Duncan told Baptist Press. “Ken was a competitor like no one I’ve ever known and had high expectations on the football field, but he was always about sharing the Gospel.”

Duncan would go on to NFL training camp stints with the Eagles and Broncos. Eventually, he signed alongside White, his former UT teammate, with the Memphis Showboats of the USFL. The league’s spring schedule allowed him to work in the fall as a volunteer coach with Carson-Newman kickers and learn from Sparks.

“During two-a-day practices he would have me and others come in and speak to the guys,” Duncan said. “He became a great friend, and we saw each other often since he was a member at Manley for at least 30 years.”

Shortly before his death, Sparks was inducted into the FCA Hall of Champions at the C-N Championship Coaching Clinic, which he founded in the mid-1980s. Weakened by cancer at the time, Sparks was unable to attend in person. However, several in his coaching brotherhood spoke of his influence.

“I could tell there was something unique about him,” said then-Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, currently head coach at Liberty University. “I was drawn to that. He’s an incredible role model. I followed the wins, but the things that you hear that really stand out are the players who come back and say such great things about him after 20 years.”

It was nearly that long ago when Joey King, coach at Carrollton (Ga.) High, was soaking up those lessons as a quarterback for the Eagles. Six seasons as a high school coach have led to a 79-6 record, two state championships and a No. 1 NFL draft pick. That has provided a significant platform with athletes and their families, one that King doesn’t waste.

“[Sparks] always insisted on making an eternal impact [on players],” King told BP. “He focused on the scoreboard in your heart more than the one on the field. It showed me that you can glorify God as a football coach in how you treat people through how you work.

“It was an honor to play for him.”

Another former player, Brandon Haywood, is literally days into his first role as a head coach. A quarterback for the Eagles from 2009-12, Haywood was named to the top position Monday (Jan. 10) at Woodland High in Cartersville, Ga. In the local paper, The Daily Tribune News, the 31-year-old spoke on behalf of King and others who point to Sparks’ influence.

“We feel like in this position and with this platform that we can impact people like he did,” Haywood told the Tribune News. “… The impact he and the rest of the coaching staff made on us pulled something out of us to make us want to do the same thing.”