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March 2009 Dave Pond Frank Kelly Lacrosse Legacy FCA Lacrosse
It was a cold, dreary day in February 1984, and Big Red sophomore midfielder Frank Kelly III was scuffling through what seemed like a neverending string of lacrosse drills at Cornell University.
A multi-sport star at Baltimore's Calvert Hall College High School two seasons earlier, Kelly was used to getting showered with accolades and praise for his on-field achievements. But at Cornell, stress fractures in his shins, coupled with an uncanny ability to draw the ire of legendary Big Red coach Richie Moran, had placed him squarely on the team's bench, searching for both playing time and purpose.
"From the time I was in the seventh or eighth grade, my gods were football and lacrosse," said Kelly, now the chairman of the leadership board of the Maryland/Delaware FCA. "So I fully expected that when I got to Cornell, I'd be starting as a freshman."
Instead, Kelly spent big games in street clothes, watching his teammates battle against some of the top lacrosse programs in the nation. Hopeful that his stress fractures could be kept at bay through extra rest, Kelly had retired from football the semester before. Once he hit the lacrosse field in February, though, they returned with a vengeance.
FCA's Lacrosse Ministry has been around since 1989.
"There was one drill where I had the ball taken from me three times in a row," Kelly said. "I went to the end of the line with this hall-of-fame coach screaming at me, a 20-year-old sophomore with pain in my legs and tears in my eyes, and I just committed my life to Christ that day. I said, 'That's it. If I never play again, I need You in my life.' I knew I needed Him to be the Lord of my life, that I needed to have a relationship with Him and do things His way."
In that instant, Christ replaced the superficial games, sports and practices that had become his false idols — and Kelly began to change from the inside out. Kelly's father, Frank Jr., encouraged him to praise God for everything, regardless of what he envisioned as his circumstance.
"I believe God called me to put lacrosse and football on the altar like Abraham did with Isaac," Kelly said. "As I did that, He chose — pretty miraculously in my opinion — to give me the game back."
Fast forward several weeks, and the Big Red found itself being dominated in a game against Adelphi University. Moran threw player after player onto the field in an attempt to slow down Adelphi's star midfielder, even playing an attacker out of position rather than giving Kelly a chance.
"Before, I would have been so angry, but I just thanked God and praised Him through it all," Kelly said. "Finally, midway through the third quarter, he finally put me in.
"The Holy Spirit played through me that day, and next thing I knew, it was a tie game. We lost the game on a late goal, but afterward the coach — the guy who had ridden me so hard for a year and a half — pulled me aside and told me it was the most incredible game he'd ever seen anyone come off the bench to play."
Within a few games, Kelly was starting every match for Cornell — virtually injury-free — and he remained a starter throughout the rest of his college career.
At the invitation of one of his former football teammates, Kelly also began to attend a Campus Crusade for Christ-based Bible study before partnering with lacrosse teammate Kevin Frank to start a study for their fellow Big Red athletes.
"God pulled Kevin and me together for a purpose. Everyone was saying we were evangelists, and we didn't know what that meant," Kelly said with a laugh. "We just knew what we were learning about God was incredible and that we wanted people to check it out."
Thinking that his lacrosse career was over upon graduation from Cornell, Kelly, on a mission trip to Japan, applied to go on staff with Athletes in Action and Campus Crusade for Christ. But God was calling him to a different mission field, one he had previously left when he went to play for the Big Red.
"Acts 1:8 says that you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be His witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth," Kelly said. "God made clear to me that my Jerusalem was Baltimore, and that I needed to go home and start there."
So the former prep star began to coach lacrosse at his old high school, and even played professionally for several seasons with the Baltimore Thunder of the Major Indoor Lacrosse League [MILL]. But throughout his continued on-field success, Kelly's heart remained focused on the one true God, and he desired to connect Calvert Hall students and others with Christ. After much prayer, the young coach asked for a lunch meeting with Calvert Hall administrators
Frank Kelly III (right) with son Frankie
"I told the principal and chaplain what had happened in my life at Cornell, and that I wanted to start a fellowship for our athletes at Calvert Hall," he said.
Regional Director Mark Gassman, current multi-area director in Kansas City, Mo., supported Kelly's vision, and the Calvert Hall group eventually became one of the first FCA Huddles in the Old Line State.
Maryland is now home to 140 Huddles statewide, and Calvert Hall remains a Kelly family mission field. For 21 years, the school's Huddle has met every Thursday morning, first with Kelly at the helm, then brother, Bryan, who is now the school's varsity lacrosse coach. Kelly’s 17-year-old son, Frankie, is the current Huddle president.
Gassman also encouraged Kelly to move further into the mission field and explore the creation of an official FCA Lacrosse program. At the time, there were FCA Camps for football, baseball, soccer and basketball players, none in which young, talented lacrosse players could sharpen their skills while learning about Christ's love.
In total, only seven or eight students attended FCA's first lacrosse camp that year at Gettysburg College (Pa.) — camps that now attract hordes of the best lacrosse players in the nation. One of the inaugural campers, as Kelly recalls, was a talented, but somewhat "troubled" kid named Sean McNamara, who only ended up at FCA Camp because his original summer-camp plans fell through.
"I was just going to FCA Camp for lacrosse," McNamara said. "I knew about God, but I hadn't invited Him into my life, or had any real relationship with Him."
But God was at work, and McNamara gave his life to Christ at Gettysburg. He would continue to volunteer with FCA during his college years before going on staff in the late 1990s.
"My relationship with Christ began at that camp, and my relationship with godly role models began there as well," said McNamara, who is now vice president of FCA Sports, focusing on sport-specific ministries. "It's just so exciting to see how important those relationships still are in my life today."
At the same time camp-planning was taking place, Kelly and former Thunder teammate Dan Britton (current FCA senior vice president of ministry programs) began to kick around the idea of putting together a tournament team of elite players who both loved the game and were open to growing in their relationships with God.
"Danny decided he would call this big tournament in Vail, Colo. — one of the biggest international lacrosse tournaments — to see if we could get in," Kelly said. "We were put on the waiting list, and they called us the next spring and told us we were in if we wanted it."
Trusting God, Kelly and Britton pre-booked 20 flights without even knowing who would be on their new team. Four Kelly brothers — Frank, John, David and Bryan — were on that inaugural squad, which improbably made it to the championship game.
"As a family, we kind of look at ourselves as missionaries to the lacrosse world."
-- Frank Kelly III
"We didn't really know how we would do, but we had such an incredible time both on and off the field," Kelly said. "Guys were really putting a stake in the ground for Christ because of that team and what happened in Vail, and the idea of having a number of FCA teams was planted through that experience."
Nowadays, hundreds of young lacrosse players vie for spots on various FCA Lacrosse teams, but the focus remains on Christ over earthly honors. Within each team, doubters, seekers and Christfollowers come together to build community and fellowship in a program where on-field successes are no rival to spiritual rebirth.
"From the very first team that went to Vail, our purpose has remained the same," Kelly said. "We told the players, 'We're going on a five- or six-day retreat to Colorado. And, by the way, bring your lacrosse equipment.' We always try to keep that mindset. We've always looked at our primary mission field as the players on our teams first, then their families."
Members of the Kelly clan have been involved in FCA Lacrosse for years. Along with his position on the regional board, Kelly is currently a member of the FCA Lacrosse leadership team and previously served on the FCA National Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2003. His wife, Gayle, as well as his parents and brothers, have also poured time, energy and resources into the ministry.
The next generation of Kellys is already following suit. Frankie Kelly played with the FCA national high school team this summer while Stephen, 13, along with cousins Patrick and Johnny, all competed for FCA's U15 team in Vail. Kelly's nephews Kenny and Timmy also competed on the U13 team, which was coached by his brother David. And all have displayed a vibrant and competitive spirit both on and off the field.
According to McNamara, even though they aren't even out of their teens, the younger Kellys have made a significant impact on their teammates and peers through their talents and examples.
"It's been very encouraging to see how they handle themselves and embrace the opportunity to have their own walks with the Lord, not just relying on what their parents have done," he said. "To see their character and the way they are living their lives, it's just a lot of fun to see Frank's kids being the leaders for the next group of kids coming through the ministry and to see how faithful God's love is for many generations."
For Frank and Gayle, it's a confirmation of what they've felt for years.
"As a family, we kind of look at ourselves as missionaries to the lacrosse world to some extent," Kelly said. "If I take a step back and take a look at my testimony, how and where I came to Christ and how He's led us into this thing, I know God had a plan for us to have some type of influence on the lacrosse community. So that's just what we've tried to do."
FCA Lacrosse National High School Team
Interested in playing with FCA Lacrosse? It isn't too late to try out for this year's national high school team. Visit fcalax.com for locations, dates and more information about the remaining regional tryouts.
Photos courtesy of Frank Kelly III.