It started with some old magazine clippings crammed in a dresser drawer and an invitation to speak about his job. Humble beginnings, for sure.
Of course, Don McClanen was just trying to honor another Son of a carpenter who came from humble beginnings. By doing so, McClanen’s vision turned into a movement that has lasted 60 years and become known as “the heart and soul in sports.”
That vision became reality when the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was founded in 1954, but not before seven years filled with prayer and petition by McClanen, who had first entertained the idea of launching an organization after joining a panel discussing “Making My Vocation Christian.” A young basketball coach, McClanen wondered why athletes endorsed products, but not a Christian lifestyle.
At the same time, McClanen—whose dad was a carpenter before the Great Depression—was clipping articles from magazines about well-known Christian athletes, a practice he continued for several years. One of those articles was about Dr. Louis H. Evans, a former basketball player at Occidental College who had been featured in a LIFE magazine article listing America’s Top 10 clergymen.
During a chance meeting with Evans, McClanen shared his vision. “If athletes can endorse shaving cream, razor blades and cigarettes,” he told him, “surely they can endorse the Lord.” Evans encouraged him to write letters to the men featured in those old clippings.
The letters went out, addressed to football stars Doak Walker and Otto Graham; baseball players Carl Erskine, Robin Roberts and Alvin Dark; Olympians Bob Mathias and Bob Richards; coaching and front office legends Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bud Wilkinson and Clarence “Biggie” Munn; and even broadcasters Tom Harmon (the 1940 Heisman Trophy winner) and Red Barber. In all, 19 letters were mailed, each carefully laying out McClanen’s God-given desire for what would become FCA.
Fourteen of those 19 men told McClanen they were interested.
One of the men who did not respond was Branch Rickey, then the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager notorious for inventing baseball’s affiliated minor league system and knocking down the game’s color barrier while with the Brooklyn Dodgers by signing Jackie Robinson.
McClanen tried and tried to get a meeting with Rickey, sensing he could be an important cog in FCA’s future. Finally, while on a family trip to the east coast and after mortgaging his own car in order to pay the extra expenses to travel and personally meet several of the men who expressed interest in his idea, McClanen was informed that he could drive to Pittsburgh for the possibility of a five-minute meeting with Rickey.
On an August day in 1954, he got his five-minute meeting with Branch Rickey.
It lasted five hours.
During those five hours, McClanen shared his vision for FCA, noting Evans’ enthusiasm for the idea. Rickey, who knew and respected Evans’ ministry, was enthralled by what McClanen shared.
“Finally, he made a statement that I’ll never forget,” McClanen was quoted as saying in Sharing the Victory, Fifty Years – One Mission. ‘This thing has the potential of changing the youth scene of America within a decade. It is pregnant with potential. It is just ingenious. It’s a new thing; where has it been?’”
Rickey got McClanen in touch with Paul Benedum, a Pittsburgh businessman who less than a year later put the organization on stable ground with a $10,000 donation.
Three months after McClanen’s meeting with Rickey, on Nov. 10, 1954, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was chartered in Oklahoma.
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Early the next year, McClanen arranged for several well-known Christian athletes to come to Oklahoma City and Tulsa to speak at high school assemblies and college campuses. Erskine, Roberts, Walker and Graham were just a few of the big names who shared their testimonies. In his book Impact for Christ, author Wayne Atcheson called those events, “the real kickoff for FCA.”
That led to an increased number of speaking engagements in Oklahoma and Texas for FCA-affiliated athletes, and McClanen began to plan a nationwide push of the new organization.
In early 1956, major citywide events—similar to those in Oklahoma City and Tulsa the previous year—were scheduled for Denver, Houston and Indianapolis. As a result, 90,000 young people heard the gospel from some of the nation’s most popular athletes and coaches. The Denver events were even covered by Sports Illustrated, giving FCA a much-needed publicity push.
That year turned out to be a big one, with Estes Park, Colo., hosting the first FCA National Conference, a precursor to today’s FCA Camps. Rickey was the keynote speaker and director of baseball; Michigan State’s Munn and University of Denver athletic director Tad Weiman were deans of athletics programs and coaches clinics; Kansas basketball coaching legend Phog Allen was director of basketball; retired USC coach Dean Cromwell led the track portion of the camp; Graham and Walker served as football directors; Oklahoma coach Ray Jenkins was in charge of wrestling; and Guideposts editor Len LeSourd, who was instrumental in helping McClanen make early contacts during the founding of FCA, handled tennis. Even sports announcing and sports writing were covered, with Harmon, then the CBS Pacific Sports Director, in charge of announcing and Kansas City Star sports editor Ernie Mehl directing sports writing.
Olympic hero Rafer Johnson, who won a silver medal a few months later in the 1956 Olympics and a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics, and former Baylor football player James Jeffrey (who eventually became the third executive director in FCA history) were among the 10 Huddle leaders.
McClanen willingly stayed behind the scenes as camp director.
Since then, FCA Camps have become a staple of FCA’s ministry. From the first camp in Estes Park in 1956, when 256 campers attended, FCA Camps have grown to 429 camps in 38 states and 25 countries with an attendance of 59,752 in 2013. This past summer, 5,002 campers made a first-time commitment to Christ, and 7,120 more rededicated their lives to Him.
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Over the next six decades, FCA’s ministry continued to grow in a variety of ways. Whether it was high-profile opportunities like leading a worship service at the White House in 1970, or less noteworthy—but equally important—tasks like middle school students inviting their friends to a Huddle meeting, the people and relationships that came out of FCA continued to make a difference.
In-school Huddles have given FCA a platform to share Christ’s love on campuses across the nation. These groups are among the last remaining Christian organizations in America’s public middle schools and high schools. On college and university campuses, FCA Huddles have not only brought coaches and athletes together in Christ, but also entire student communities.
Since 2004, high school and middle school students across America have met each year at stadiums, gyms and ballparks for Fields of Faith, peer-to-peer events in which students invite their own classmates and teammates to hear fellow students share their testimonies, be challenged to read the Word of God and follow Jesus Christ.
Huddles have invested in more than the sports culture at their respective schools. Many have given away Bibles on campus, led school and community service projects, and taken on other projects to positively affect their campus.
And, while using athletes’ hero statuses to share Christ was McClanen’s idea, it is his coaching brethren who have become the primary focus of FCA. In fact, FCA staff members are fond of quoting Billy Graham, who said, “A coach will influence more people in a year than most people will in a lifetime.” The most effective way to reach more athletes, FCA has realized, is to first reach the coach.
Coaching legends such as Tom Landry, Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Grant Teaff, Frank Broyles, Dean Smith, Kay Yow, Tony Dungy, Raymond Berry and Jerry Kindall have joined FCA over the years to impact countless athletes and fellow coaches.
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Benefiting from the leadership and vision of McClanen and the six men who would follow him as FCA’s national president, including Bob Stoddard, James Jeffrey, John Erickson, Dick Abel, Dal Shealy and Les Steckel, it is exciting to look into the future of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
A greater emphasis on FCA’s community ministry will allow it to take the gospel to a much larger audience. Seven million youth compete in high school sports, but there are more than 50 million youth ages 18 and under who play sports in the U.S. A greater emphasis on youth and club sports will greatly multiply the reach of the gospel through FCA. So will a greater focus on women’s staff development and, by extension, FCA’s reach to female coaches and athletes.
“When you have a vibrant women’s staff, our female coaches and athletes will be better served,” said Donna Noonan, FCA’s national director of events and women’s staff development. “There will be more discipleship groups, and women will feel more connected to FCA and hopefully become lifelong participants.”
FCA is well on its way to becoming a ministry without borders. Longtime FCA executive Dan Britton has been named the organization’s first executive vice president for international ministry, charged with reaching the 96 percent of the world’s population that lives outside the United States. He says FCA International’s strategic plan includes five steps: connecting FCA’s 450 field offices and 1,000 staff members to the world; training those who would lead sports ministry overseas; translating and distributing resources; developing an affiliate program to see leaders from across the world build sports ministry in their own country; and working in unity with and under the umbrella of the International Sports Coalition, a group of organizations from across the globe that come together to serve the world in sports ministry.
“It is my dream that we move from doing international sports ministry to being an international sports ministry,” Britton said.
“We are moving in that direction.”
For 60 years, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has never stopped moving, never stopped growing. Whether it existed only in the form of a dream and stack of old magazine articles in a basketball coach’s dresser drawer, or in the very real possibility of reaching every corner of the earth, the vision remains the same: to see the world impacted for Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.