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Tennessee football players spend off-season making spiritual plays

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The day he set foot on the green grass of Neyland Stadium at the University of Tennessee, Will Bartholomew had a simple prayer request — he wanted to see his teammates accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Nearly two years later, Bartholomew’s prayer was answered.

In February, Bartholomew, UT kicker David Leaverton and several other teammates attended a retreat sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. By the end of the weekend, Cedric Wilson, Eric Westmoreland and Charles Small had accepted Christ and three other teammates recommitted their lives to the Lord.

For Bartholomew, it was a moment he won’t forget. “I had been praying for everyone on my team ever since I got to campus,” he said. “That’s why I believe God brought me to UT, to tell people about Jesus.”

And Bartholomew isn’t the only member of the UT football team who sports a desire to tell others about Jesus Christ. From the coaching staff to the players, some observers have noted that revival has broken out on one of the nation’s most prestigious football programs.

That’s not to say the road to spiritual revival has been easy. Along the way, the Volunteers have dealt with injuries, humility and a heartbreaking loss to the arch rival Florida Gators that ended their quest for consecutive undefeated seasons.

“That loss to Florida hurt pretty bad,” said Bartholomew. “But like David [Leaverton] said, `It’s only a game.'”

Bartholomew credits that outlook to his relationship with the Lord. “It’s like that for just about the whole team,” he said.

And some members of the Volunteers have something else in common — Southern Baptist ties. Bartholomew, Leaverton, Tee Martin and coach Phil Fulmer are all members of Baptist churches.

Baptist Press recently visited the UT campus in Knoxville to learn about how their Baptist heritage has impacted their lives.


Bartholomew’s Southern Baptist roots are about as strong as his family’s heritage at UT. The hard-nosed fullback’s grandfather played for the team during the legendary 1938 and 1939 seasons. Like his grandson, Sam Bartholomew Sr. played on the only other UT team to go undefeated.

On the field, Bartholomew is known for his tough, determined spirit. Off the field, Bartholomew carries those same qualities into his walk with Christ.

“Every morning I wake up and surrender to a higher authority,” Bartholomew said. “Nothing matters in this world but Christ.”

He’s quick to say he doesn’t do anything without consulting with the Lord — even in football. “I remember when I was trying to decide where to go and I asked God to reveal the answer to me. I prayed real hard,” he said. At the time, he was considering attending another school and the decision weighed heavily.

In the end, Bartholomew listened to God and went to UT, winning two SEC championships and one national championship. And he also met his wife.

“She is such a godly woman,” Bartholomew said of his wife, Shelley. “God has truly blessed me.”

And if his plate wasn’t full enough, Bartholomew has served as president of UT’s FCA the past two years.

On Sundays, the Bartholomews worship at Sevier Heights Baptist Church in nearby Sevierville. As for the future, he said it’s in God’s hands. “My first thoughts are playing in the NFL or going into the business world, but I haven’t ruled out the ministry either,” Bartholomew said. “I’m just going to try to live like God would have me to live.”


Leaverton came to the hills of Tennessee from the plains of Texas, having grown up and accepted Christ at First Baptist Church, Midland, Texas. And it was at First Baptist where Leaverton learned to be a committed follower of the Lord.

For the team’s ace kicker, that means being at church every Sunday morning, even during football season.

“My relationship to Jesus is even more important than sleep,” Leaverton said. “It’s difficult on some weekends, but I try to stay faithful.” One way Leaverton stays focused is through discipleship provided by his pastor in Knoxville.

Leaverton also finds the time to help with the youth ministry at Christ Covenant Church, a small congregation in Knoxville. “I’ve enjoyed the smaller church,” Leaverton said. “I’ve enjoyed the family atmosphere.”

Back on campus, Leaverton has been busy helping Bartholomew disciple their fellow teammates. “Will and I are starting Bible study groups and we are helping some of the guys who just got saved,” he said. “It’s a humbling responsibility, but it’s been such a blessing.”

As for his own daily walk with the Lord, Leaverton said it’s important to remember that Satan is always lurking. “We’re under spiritual attack. And the best way to combat that is to spend time daily with the Lord. The Bible is our spiritual bread.”


Martin is a man with a mission. He proudly shares the fact that his name is written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. So proud, that he actually had a word of testimony tattooed onto his arm.

Martin is more than obliging when fans ask to see the “In God’s Hands” logo emblazoned on his massive arm. “It’s true, you know,” Martin said. “I really am in the hands of God.”

Martin uses his personal testimony as evidence. Raised in a housing project, Martin attended a Baptist church in Alabama where he accepted Christ. He went on to lead the UT Vols to their 1999 national championship and first undefeated season since 1938.

Along the way, Martin has earned praise for his composure both on and off the football field.

“God’s been great,” Martin said. “To bring someone from a humble background and onto a football team … . I’ve been very fortunate.”


The man responsible for heading one of the most powerful football teams in America is a quiet, unimposing man who came to a relationship with Jesus through a combination of examples set by the congregation of First Baptist Church, Winchester, Tenn., the FCA huddle group at his high school and his parents.

“Christ has been a very strong influence in my life,” he said. “He died for my sins. No one is perfect. When we do falter, his love and grace forgives us. He wants us to spread the gospel. He has shown us how he expects us to live. It’s our obligation and responsibility to live as close to these principles as we can.”

As the team’s head coach, Fulmer sets an example of Christian living through his relationships with the players and staff. “God is doing remarkable things today,” Fulmer said. “I am blessed to have such great players.”

For Fulmer, the emphasis is not on football, but family. He and his wife, Vicky, have been married 18 years. They are the parents of three daughters, Courtney, 16; Brittany, 14; and Allison, 12.

“Our family is very strong in the local church and also in the FCA. We try to have a quiet time together as a family each day,” Fulmer said.

The head coach credits his wife with being a strength for him in his own walk. “My wife is a tremendous Christian lady and a real strength for me,” he said.

At UT, Fulmer was instrumental in forming a FCA chapel program. “My first year here, I started a chapel program. There were six guys at the first meeting. Now we have numbers in the 50s and 60s,” he said. “We have a very strong commitment to that.”

And Fulmer doesn’t plan on quieting his message of Christian values. “The fact that he will come again, I live with those principles every day. I share those principles with the football team.”


Ford and his wife, Sandra, were married at Salem Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, Tenn., in 1970. They’ve been members there ever since. Ford, the sports information director at UT, was ordained 18 years ago as a deacon.

His wife serves on an advisory committee for the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home in east Tennessee.

Ford said it is a blessing to be around a group of athletes and coaches who are not only committed to athletics, but to a relationship with Jesus Christ.

“Coach Fulmer speaks out very well about how he feels about our athletes,” Ford said. “He definitely takes a Christian stand and he is involved in programs that promote Christianity.”

Ford’s office also assists players who enjoy sharing their personal testimony. “We hook up churches and players for youth meetings and other activities and we try to direct people to athletes who are willing to share their faith,” he said.

“These young men are looked to as role models and they accept that responsibility,” Ford said.

Additional photos posted in the BP Photo Library. Photo titles: WILL BARTHOLOMEW, TEE MARTIN, FULMER FAMILY and BUD FORD.

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  • Todd Starnes