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Former football standout returns to team as chaplain

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)??Although he once spent his Saturday afternoons tackling ball carriers and attempting to intercept passes from opposing quarterbacks, this fall William Blackford is helping young men tackle spiritual problems by passing along the gospel.
Blackford, a master of divinity student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, still remains close to the gridiron by serving as chaplain for the University of Louisville’s football team ?? the Cardinal team for which he played defensive cornerback from 1987?92. Blackford’s call to ministry has strengthened his desire to remain connected to a game which has played a large role in his life.
“I understand the game of football and I understand what sacrifice it takes to succeed as a player,” said Blackford, who came to U of L as a walk?on player and led the team in interceptions in 1990. “I know the joy of winning and the disappointment of losing. I think that has given me some credibility and respect” among the team’s members.
However, above admiration and respect, Blackford wants team members to know that he’s concerned about their personal and spiritual lives more than their athletic ability. “I am not so interested in whether they win games as I am in seeing them win in the game of life,” Blackford said. “I am a fan, but not in the strict sense of always wearing team colors and dressing up my children in Cardinal outfits. I am a fan in the sense that I want to see these young men succeed in life.”
Blackford’s primary duties for the U of L team include “spending time and developing relationships (with the players) so that they have someone with whom they can share their concerns.” He also delivers game?day devotional messages and prays with the team before they take the field. Blackford, who became chaplain this fall after serving as assistant to former team chaplain Bob Bailey, is now assisted in the ministry by another Southern student, Kyle McClellan, who formerly played defensive end at Taylor University in Upland, Ind.
The two former football players are gratified by the results they see in their ministry to U of L players.
“We have had a wonderful response from the athletes and coaching staff,” Blackford said. “In the end, I believe we are going to see God doing a great work as some of these young men give their lives to Christ. My goal, the reason I am here, is to see these young men develop a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Rico Williams, junior running back for the Cardinals, sees God’s hand in Blackford’s chaplaincy of the team.
“I think he was sent to this team for a purpose,” Williams said. “It’s hard for some people to relate to all the different types of guys we have on this team, but William seems to be able to reach just about anyone. He used to play this game, so he knows what we go through every day.”
Blackford, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, felt called to ministry when he was 17 years old but did not immediately surrender to the call. Rather, he focused on football and claimed “Most Valuable Player” honors in western New York’s all?star game his senior season in high school. Blackford found out only later he was under consideration by several prominent college gridiron programs.
“My (high school) coach didn’t feel like I was good enough to play in the big programs,” said the former cornerback. “It was only later that I found out that Penn State, Clemson and some others had inquired about me. My coach never told me. Another coach in the area had connections at U of L and that is how I decided to go there. Syracuse called (about a scholarship) the day after I left New York.”
In spite of the disappointment of not being recruited, Blackford is glad he came to call Kentucky home. While a student at U of L, he met his wife, the former Nell Knox, who holds the all?time individual scoring record for the women’s basketball program. They are the parents of two children, Jelani Sorraya, 2, and William McKinley IV, three months.
Blackford committed his life to vocational Christian service in the spring of 1992. But he still chose to try his talents in professional football and, following a brief stint with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League, returned to Louisville in 1993 to accept a position with the General Electric Corporation.
“I didn’t know anything about the ministry or the seminary, but Rev. (Kevin) Cosby said I needed to get a good theological education,” Blackford said of his pastor at Louisville’s St. Stephen Baptist Church. “That is why I came here.” He enrolled in Southern Seminary in the spring semester of 1994. Cosby is a Southern alumnus.
Since he plans to graduate this coming spring, Blackford will remain the Cardinals’ chaplain only through the end of the present season. After graduation, Blackford will pursue pastoral ministry, which is where he feels the Lord is leading him.
In addition to his football ministry, Blackford also is working to put together a nonprofit organization to minister to Louisville’s urban areas.
“I have a burden for the inner city because I was raised there and it is a tremendous mission field,” Blackford noted. “This organization would be empowerment?driven rather than program?driven. It would be devoted to helping people shape themselves, their communities and their families through spiritual vitality, personal development and economic self?reliance. It could be a force in helping bring the gospel to the inner?city people.”
Since pastoral ministry is his ultimate calling, Blackford hopes the developing inner?city ministry will extend his influence in the community. In the meantime, Blackford’s chaplaincy for the U of L football team is a ministry that’s making a difference with young men.
Running back Williams believes that Blackford helps him and his fellow players keep things in perspective. “We may not play a better game just because we have faith in the Lord. But, as William tells us, we have to put our faith in the Lord if we expect to be first in the things that are most important in this life. And that’s much bigger than football.”

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  • William T. Chandler