November 2008 Don McClanen Tom Rogeberg Obeying God's Call
It was 54 years ago this month. A young, small-college basketball coach in Oklahoma realized his dream of providing major sports stars the opportunity to influence their fans to follow the only true Hero we can ever know—Jesus Christ. It marked the official beginning of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
That coach, Don McClanen, was overjoyed.
McClanen, right, with
FCA President/CEO Les Steckel
It’s hard to imagine the world of sports before chaplains were common in locker rooms; before football opponents joined in midfield prayers; before articulate Christian athletes and coaches shared spiritual insights through best-selling books, magazines and highly rated radio broadcasts.
Were it not for Don McClanen’s passion and persistence more than five decades ago, we might still be searching for examples of how sports and Christianity could merge. His recently released biography, aptly titled Caution to the Wind, tells McClanen’s remarkable story of founding five different ministries and inspiring several generations to live lives totally surrendered to Jesus Christ. Whether it was establishing what has become the world’s largest sports ministry (FCA), an inner-city youth ministry in the nation’s capital (Washington LIFT), or “reverse pilgrimages” for wealthy Americans to reach impoverished nations (Ministry of Money), by starting each of the ministries, McClanen changed numerous lives...including his own.
Answering each of God’s calls took a huge step of faith for McClanen and his wife, Gloria, and each brought incredible challenges and personal sacrifice. Some of those steps were even taken amid intense, personal heartache.
In 1947, their first child, a son, died one day after he was born. Then, in 1960, their 10-year-old daughter Judy died after openheart surgery. A painful separation from FCA, a wilderness period in which he became a sod farmer, and the constant pressures of ministry fundraising could have defeated many men, yet McClanen continued to obey the Lord. He frequently threw “caution to the wind,” even when the next experience seemed unnatural.
After serving in the Pacific in World War II, newly married Don and Gloria were led to Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University) in Stillwater, Okla. The school had a respected athletic program. At the time, its football team was ranked third in the nation, and its basketball team, under legendary coach Henry Iba, had just won back-to-back national championships.
McClanen considered the school to be a great place to major in physical education so he could become a coach. And, while serving as a manager for Iba’s basketball team—a role he held for three years—McClanen received great training for his chosen career.
The McClanens: Don and Gloria
While at Oklahoma A&M, his youth pastor asked McClanen to consider how he would merge his faith with his desired profession. The thought puzzled McClanen for some time, and it wasn’t until he attended a physical education conference in Oklahoma City that the pieces fit together.
At this conference, one of the speakers challenged the coaches to recognize how their own lives and examples could lead young people either “up a mountain or down a drain.”
McClanen pondered that statement. He considered himself to be failing in his desire to model the Christian life. He took a walk to sort his thoughts, during which an open door to a church several blocks away beckoned him inside. There, in the house of God, he prayed simply, “Lord, I surrender my will to You.”
Years later, McClanen would come to understand that this prayer took him, for the first time, from belief to obedience.
McClanen soon began collecting newspaper and magazine articles about Christian athletes and coaches. After graduation he started his coaching career at a high school near Stillwater. He then took the position of basketball coach and athletic director at Eastern Oklahoma A&M (now Eastern Oklahoma State), all the while continuing to collect the clippings.
After reading in one clipping that 30 million American youth had no religious training at all, McClanen began posting the articles in his team’s locker room and holding team prayer before games. Soon, McClanen was dreaming of a time when well-known Christian athletes would advertise their faith on television and in magazines the way they advertised other household products.
But how could this happen? Where would he even start?
One night in 1954, McClanen shared his vision with a visiting pastor and former college basketball player. The visiting pastor was Dr. Louis Evans, who had been named by LIFE Magazine as one of America’s top 10 clergymen.
L to R: Dr. Louis Evans and Rev. Roe Johnston
with McClanen and Rickey
Evans was amazed to discover how many major athletes of the day were Christians, as reported in McClanen’s collection of clippings. He suggested that McClanen write to those athletes and ask if they would be willing to become public witnesses for Christ and utilize society’s hero worship to further God’s Kingdom.
McClanen immediately drafted a letter to superstars of the time such as Otto Graham, Doak Walker and Carl Erskine. His letter detailed his vision of founding “some type of organization which would provide an opportunity for those of us 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.”
Before long, McClanen was thrilled to receive positive responses from most of the 19 athletes, even though, as he said, they didn’t know him “from a bar of soap.”
McClanen soon began contacting high school administrators to see if they would allow sports stars to come speak at their schools. Based on the positive responses, he then wondered how he would ever pay for the airfare and lodging of the athletes. His temporary solution was to take out a $1,000 loan on his car and set up funding appointments with several potential contributors.
The Lord led McClanen to positive face-to-face meetings with Graham, Erskine and Branch Rickey. Then the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Rickey (best remembered for breaking baseball’s color barrier by bringing Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947) agreed to meet McClanen for five minutes. Their time together spanned more than five hours.
Rickey’s excitement for McClanen’s vision resulted in an endorsement letter to other leaders in the world of sports and the promise of securing important initial funding from his associates.
In September 1954, with progress quickly being achieved, McClanen’s yet-unnamed organization had its first advisory board meeting. And it was at that meeting in Oklahoma City, with a firm resolve to emphasize “Christian” rather than merely “religious athletes,” that the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was born.
One month later, FCA was first announced to the nation in a publicity pamphlet produced by Guideposts Magazine. Then, in November, the ministry was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in Oklahoma.
McClanen’s new biography,
Caution to the Wind
by Joe Muchison, is now available at fcagear.com!
While enthusiasm for the new ministry outreach was high, funding was low and slow to come.
McClanen continued to coach, teach physical education and serve as athletic director at Eastern Oklahoma—all that while trying to keep FCA afloat. He was aware that, at any time, finances could dry up, and Gloria was praying that FCA wouldn’t lead their family to bankruptcy.
In June 1955, with FCA still struggling to remain solvent, McClanen was asked by his advisory board to accept the full-time position of administrative director. He had always anticipated that the job would go to someone with major athletic credentials, but no one had stepped up to take that critical role.
Despite considerable financial risk, McClanen took on the job and agreed to the enormous challenge.
Now, through that one decision, the world has been forever changed. Truth be told, it has been all the more blessed. Impacting more than two million lives annually, FCA truly has become “the heart and soul in sports.”
As for its founder, Don McClanen is still overjoyed.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.