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NAIA coach of the year learns lesson after player’s death

WEATHERFORD, Okla. (BP)–Starting wide receiver Alvin Milton snagged a 54-yard touchdown pass with 1:29 left in the game to give the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Bulldogs a 19-15 win on Oct. 26, bringing the Bulldogs’ record to 5-2.

Ten hours later Milton was dead.

“I received a call at 5 a.m. the Sunday after that game,” head coach Paul Sharp recalled. “And I cried.”

He said he cried for several reasons, but mainly because he was scared. “I didn’t know where Alvin was, if he was in heaven or hell.”

Sharp later was named the Rawlings-NAIA Division 1 Football National Coach of the Year after the Bulldogs finished the season at 9-3 and won the NAIA Division 1 national championship.

Milton, who was recruited from junior college, and three Southwestern basketball players were killed as they returned to the university’s Weatherford campus after a trip to Oklahoma City following the football game. As they were eight miles from campus, a driving rainstorm left inches of water on the roadway, causing the car to hydroplane and cross the median into the path of an oncoming truck. No alcohol was involved in the accident.

The death of one his star athletes taught Sharp, a deacon at Weatherford’s Emmanuel Baptist Church, a lesson.

“As coaches, we have a tremendous opportunity to minister to young people in a lot of different ways, not just physically and academically, but spiritually,” he said.

The coaches are there to aid injured players, help them find summer jobs, speak at the Baptist Student Union, involve them in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and lead in prayer before games and meal times.

“We are concerned about them, and not just on the football field,” Sharp said.

“But after Alvin’s death, I realized that even though I had been a Christian influence through my lifestyle, I had not been a bold Christian witness. I had had an opportunity for two years to be a Christian witness to Alvin, but had passed it up thinking a good Christian lifestyle was enough.

“I made a vow that never again would a football player come through our program without me witnessing to him,” Sharp said. Sharp remembered Milton as a loveable guy. “He always had a smile on his face. His smile was so big, he could have eaten a banana sideways.”

Sharp said he had invited Milton to go to church, but Milton said Sunday was his only day off and he wanted to sleep in.

When Sharp went to Milton’s funeral in Lubbock, Texas, he confessed the “first thing I wanted to find out from his family was if he was a Christian.”

Milton and his twin brother were orphans and spent the first 12 years of their lives at Buckner Baptist Home for Children in Texas. At age 12 they went to live with a foster family in Lubbock.

Milton’s foster father told Sharp that both Alvin and his twin brother had made professions of faith at Buckner when they were 11.

“That was such a relief to me to know Alvin was in heaven,” Sharp said.

Many of his players are well-grounded in spiritual faith when they come to college, the coach said, but others are not.

“When I’m recruiting, I always ask them what church they go to, and let them know about a church of like faith in Weatherford. Then when they get to campus, I encourage them to go to church.”

Sharp said the team had a spiritual awakening last spring, but the tragedy brought the players even closer together.

“Many of them became inquisitive about the spiritual life, and more were concerned about salvation,” he said. “It helped them put things in perspective and realize what is important in life.”

Sharp, 60-50-1 at Southwestern, is a past president of the NAIA Football Coaches Association. He was born in Arkansas, raised in Douglas, Ariz., attended Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., and coached there as an assistant. He became Southwestern’s head coach in 1986 after stints as an assistant at Central Arkansas and Lamar. He and his wife, Sherrie, who teaches at Southwestern, have two sons, Aaron, 15, and Adam, 12.

“We all like to win when we’re in competitive sports,” Sharp admitted. “But what is more important for coaches is to minister to young people and help shape their lives.”

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  • Dana Williamson