The Common Good
August 2009

A League of God's Own

by Joe Murchison | August 2009

At age 29, Don McClanen founded the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Five ministries later, McClanen -- now 83 -- continues his remarkable journey.

Don McClanen has founded five major Christian ministries, including the 2-million-person Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and the influential Ministry of Money. His life has been a circuitous path, from coaching basketball at a junior college to founding FCA, followed by initiating a ministry to inner-city youth in Washington, D.C.; starting a church-renewal ministry; creating Ministry of Money to help people follow Christ in their financial lives; becoming a spiritual guide for numerous groups of pilgrims to build relationship with people in poverty-stricken and war-torn communities in developing countries; ministering to the wealthy; and raising millions of dollars for projects to aid poor communities around the world.

When Don heard those calls, which most others might have considered implausible or even impossible, he responded with an emphatic “yes.” One of Don’s favorite sayings is from Alfred North Whitehead: “Without the high hope of adventure, religion degenerates into a mere appendage of a comfortable life.”

IN FEBRUARY 1946, the day Don was discharged from the Navy after serving on a submarine in World War II, a Navy lieutenant standing on a train platform asked him offhandedly, “What are you going to do now, sailor?”

Don replied, “Well, I’m probably going to go to college.”

The lieutenant said Don should consider Oklahoma A&M University (now Oklahoma State). The suggestion grabbed Don’s attention. He knew the university’s football team ranked third in the country, behind Army and Navy. And its basketball team, coached by the legendary Henry Iba, had just won its second straight national title.

Don arrived for school in Stillwater, Oklahoma, with his new wife, Gloria Clark, and they began attending a local Presbyterian church. One day, the youth pastor asked Don to give a three-minute talk on making his vocation Christian. He agreed, but was puzzled. As a physical education major, how was he supposed to marry his faith with his aspiration of coaching sports teams?

Later that spring, Don attended a physical education conference in Oklahoma City. One of the speakers was H. Clay Fisk, a school principal and former coach from Tulsa. There was nothing overtly religious about Fisk’s talk. But Don was moved and inspired by Fisk’s challenge that coaches, in the way they live their lives, can “lead a young person up a mountain or down a drain.” An anguished sense of sin awakened in Don—that he was failing to be the Christian model he wanted to be. The words of St. Paul rang in his ears: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

After the talk, while others went to lunch, Don slipped out of the hotel. After walking four blocks, he saw an open door to a church, sat down in a back pew and prayed simply, “Lord, I surrender my will to you.” That was it—no deep emotion or grand spiritual insight. Yet Don came to call that moment his real “conversion,” the beginning of a shift from belief to obedience.

Don started to take note of prominent athletes who were Christians. He collected articles about them from newspaper sports pages, magazines such as Life and The Saturday Evening Post, and from Guideposts, a national magazine that printed inspirational stories about people of faith. An idea took shape: that Christian stars could harness the worship of sports heroes into a positive influence on youth.

In March 1954, Don’s third year as athletic director and basketball coach at Eastern A&M College, he picked up the Daily Oklahoman newspaper. A small announcement said Dr. Louis H. Evans Sr., national minister-at-large of the Presbyterian Church, would be speaking on the following Thursday evening at First Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City. Don immediately thought of a Life magazine clipping in his top dresser drawer about Evans, a former all-conference basketball player at Occidental College in Los Angeles, whom Life had listed as one of the country’s 10 leading clergymen. He is the perfect person to help me realize my vision, Don thought. But a moment later, he realized his basketball team had a game scheduled on that night. He slammed the clipping back into the drawer and swore, God, I thought this was something you wanted.

The day after Evans appeared in Oklahoma City, Don, Gloria and their two children climbed into their four-door white Pontiac and drove 190 miles to Oklahoma A&M. They planned to stay with their old campus minister, Rev. Bob Geller, and his family. Don continued to brood over his lost opportunity of the previous evening. When the McClanens pulled up at the Gellers’ home a couple blocks north of campus, Bob’s vivacious wife, June, hurried out to the driveway. “I’m so glad you are here early,” she said. “Come in and put your things away; we’re having a guest for supper.”

“Who is the guest?” Don asked. “Dr. Louis H. Evans,” June replied. She explained that Evans had come to speak during the campus’ Religious Life Week. About an hour later, Evans arrived. A handsome man with a square jaw and outgoing personality, he spoke with an easy authority befitting one of the Presbyterian Church’s most prominent clergymen. He also looked the part of a former basketball player, his business suit enclosing a 6-foot-4-inch frame.

Don launched into his vision. “It’s an attempt to witness for Christ through Christian athletes, capitalizing on the hero worship phenomenon in society,” he explained. “I’ve been hanging on to these clippings about Carl Erskine and you, Graham, and Doak Walker.” (Erskine was an all-star pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Otto Graham an all-pro quarterback with the Cleveland Browns, and Walker an all-pro halfback with the Detroit Lions.)

“Don, that’s a great idea,” Evans said. “Why don’t you write these guys and see what they say?”

THAT WAS ALL the encouragement Don needed. He drafted a two-page letter that laid out his dream of founding “some type of organization which would provide an opportunity for those of us (athletes and coaches) who are so inclined to speak and witness for Christ and the wholesome principles of good character and clean living to the youth of our nation.” Such an organization “might actually be one of the greatest contributions ever made to the youth of our country,” he said in a flourish.

Gloria typed copies of the letter, and they went out in April 1954 to 19 people. Most of these were professional or All-America football, basketball, and baseball players, as well as Olympic stars and national-title-winning coaches. Within weeks, 14 of the 19 had replied that they supported the idea. Don was elated.

Now that Don had famous athletes willing to help, he talked to school administrators in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, who were enthusiastic about the idea of sports stars coming to speak at their high schools. Officials at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma A&M, and the University of Tulsa also quickly climbed on board. “You mean you can really provide people like this for us at no expense?” was their general reaction.

However, elation quickly turned into terror. Don began to awake in the middle of the night in a panic, wondering, Oh, my God, what have I done? He hadn’t met any of these athletes he was promising to deliver. Would they really decide to come? How would he pay their airfare and hotel costs? Don knew he had to talk face-to-face with those who answered his letter to gauge their level of commitment. Lacking travel money, Don took out a $1,000 loan, using his car as collateral. He traveled to New York City to visit Len LeSourd, managing editor of Guideposts magazine.

Don told how Guideposts articles had helped him identify recruits for his cause, and asked LeSourd for permission to reproduce clippings and photographs. LeSourd expressed his desire to be supportive. He also furnished background information on Branch Rickey, a friend of the LeSourd family and a man Don was most eager to contact.

“MR. RICKEY WILL see you for five minutes.” With these words, an assistant ushered Don into the office of Rickey, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates and one of the most important figures in American sports.

Don, 29 years old, had been trying for months to see Rickey. Don believed Rickey was the main cog he needed to get his organization into motion. First, Rickey had great influence in the sports world. His brilliance as a baseball executive had powered his previous teams, the St. Louis Cardinals and Brooklyn Dodgers, to eight pennants and four World Series championships. Essentially Rickey had invented modern baseball: He formed the first minor-league farm system, dismantled pro baseball’s color barrier by hiring Jackie Robinson to play for the Dodgers, initiated the use of batting helmets, and marketed the game to women as well as men. Equally important, Rickey was a devoted Christian with strong Methodist roots—his mother had named him Wesley Branch Rickey.

Don recognized Rickey immediately—the bushy eyebrows, grey suit, white shirt, bowtie, and, clamped in his hand, an unlit cigar. Despite the assistant’s warning that Don had only five minutes, the meeting lasted five hours. Don laid out his dream of bringing ballplayers together to influence youth for Christ. He ran down a list of athletes he had contacted and others he knew were Christian. “Do you mean Robin Roberts is a Christian?” Rickey exclaimed when Don mentioned the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who had faced the Pirates’ Vernon Law, a devout Mormon, the previous evening. “You mean these were two Christian men pitching against each other?”

“Yes,” Don answered, “and there are lots of others like them.”

Now Rickey also leaned forward. He asked if Don had any money. Don explained that, no, he had taken out a $1,000 loan using his car as collateral to pay for trips to visit athletes that summer. This prompted Rickey to reminisce about taking over the impoverished St. Louis Cardinals during World War I. When visitors came to the Cardinals’ office, Rickey said, he would bring a rug from home to dress up the place. Soon Don thought to himself, This guy wants me to hang around. I’m not burdening him.

“You’re going to need some money,” Rickey said. He pledged to help Don raise $10,000. Between phone calls about player trades, Rickey continued to brainstorm with Don. “This thing has the potential for changing the youth scene in America in a decade,” Rickey exclaimed.

“Would you put that on your stationery?” Don asked.

Later, following lunch with Rickey and Vernon Law, Don left with a four-sentence Rickey endorsement. Little did he know that the organization growing out of that meeting, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, would become the world’s largest Christian sports organization.

DON’S MINISTRIES HAVE changed lives and, for that matter, the national culture. When Don founded FCA in 1954, religion was generally a private and individual matter in the nation’s locker rooms. Today, pro and college teams have chaplains and Bible study groups, the players often pray before games, and star athletes frequently testify to their Christian faith.

Through periods of triumph and despair, Don has lived deeply, passionately, abundantly. To some, Don’s spiritual life and achievements can seem far beyond reach. But if Don’s life is worth the telling, it is to underline that all people, according to their gifts, can accomplish great things. Or more properly said, those grafted into a small community of serious disciples can be opened to God’s indwelling Spirit and be used to accomplish great things.

Joe Murchison is a freelance writer in Laurel, Maryland. This article is adapted from Caution to the Wind: Faith Lessons from the Life of Don McClanen, Founder of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Ministry of Money (Cross Training Publishing, 2008).

Jocks for Jesus
In 2008, FCA reached 356,250 people on 7,125 campuses and worked with more than 46,000 coaches and athletes around the world.

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