December 2010 Dave Pond Family Tradition
For many families, FCA is more than a summer activity or a school-year ministry; it’s a vehicle of spiritual transformation that draws each member closer to the Lord through sports. As the ministry ages, more and more stories are surfacing regarding how FCA has become a way of life for many families, even impacting multiple generations.
One such example is found in the state of New Jersey where former NFL linebacker and current FCA State Director Harry Flaherty and his family are reaching the world of sports for Christ through FCA. And for this sports-minded—and sportsgifted—family, it doesn’t get any better than that.
A four-year career in the NFL first catapulted Harry Flaherty into prominence on the football field. But, if you ask him, it’s his work through FCA and reaching people for Christ that has brought him the greatest rewards.
Since his arrival on staff in 1995, Flaherty has been instrumental in the ministry’s widespread growth throughout the Garden State. At that time, FCA had a presence in just 20 schools. Today, God has thrown open the doors to more than 150.
“God’s done a great work here,” Flaherty said. “It’s not an easy area, but we’re just trying to be light and share the vision of FCA wherever we go.”
“That’s what I love about FCA: it influences the influencers—the kids who are the leaders of the next generation .” – Flaherty
A two-time All-American linebacker at Holy Cross, Flaherty saw pro action with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys, as well as with the Baltimore Stars and Tampa Bay Bandits of the former USFL. While in Tampa, Flaherty experienced the ultimate spiritual milestone by giving his life to Christ during a conversation with former NFL chaplain Ira Lee “Doc” Eshelman in a hotel lobby.
“I grew up in a family where I never doubted that my parents loved me or that God existed, but that hotel was where I first started a personal relationship with Christ,” Flaherty said. “I always thought the gospel was just Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but I realized that the gospel is the perfect life of Jesus and His substitutionary death on the cross for me. That’s when it became personal for me.”
The following year, Flaherty hit his second major milestone while taking part in informal workouts at the New Jersey home of longtime NFL coach Jim Garrett. At the Garrett house, Flaherty found more than football instruction; he found his future wife: Garrett’s daughter, Janine.
With seven siblings, Janine’s suitors were well-screened by the family, but Flaherty wasn’t questioned.
“Honestly, I had no reservation that Harry would be anything other than the genuine guy he portrayed when he was coming to work out with us,” said John Garrett, one of Janine’s brothers. “It was easy to see that he was a man of great character and would be a great person for my sister to date.”
The couple was engaged in 1987 and married the following year. Flaherty retired from football and spent the next seven years traveling the world with Eshelman and Sports World Ministries telling stories about his career as a professional athlete and sharing a vision of hope with an estimated 800,000 high school students. During those years, Harry and Janine, who currently serves as manager of FCA’s New Jersey office, also welcomed five children into their family: Harry Jr., now 21, Zach (20), Jacob (19), Abigail (17) and Jesse (15).
L to R: Harry Sr., Jesse, Abigail, Harry Jr., Jacob, Zach and Janine Flaherty
Along the way, the Flahertys developed a deep love for FCA. Flaherty himself was part of the Huddle at Holy Cross, and as a member of the Philadelphia Eagles, he attended an FCA breakfast at the invitation of former national trustee and NFL quarterback Gary Cuozzo. Afterward, Flaherty began serving as a ministry volunteer before officially coming on staff.
Through it all, though, the ministry was never a solo endeavor. It was a family affair.
“I’ve been involved with FCA since before I can even remember,” said Harry Jr., a three-year starter at tight end for Princeton University and a leader of the team Bible study that was cofounded by FCA President Les Steckel’s son Luke in 2004. “FCA has really been a spiritual backbone for me. Growing up in it and constantly being influenced by great men and women of God through the ministry has taught me about priorities—putting God first and always trusting in Him. It helps remind me that serving Christ comes before football or anything else, and it motivates me to do everything for God to the best of my abilities.”
The Flahertys were intentional about pouring spiritual matters into their children from the time they were little. They shared Scripture with them and encouraged them to explore a personal relationship with Christ and be His lights in a dark world.
Harry Jr., who also serves with FCA/Athletes in Action at Princeton, said it would be easy for his dad to coast on his reputation as a former NFL player during outreach events but that Flaherty’s genuine passion for Christ leaves no room for self-praise.
“My dad’s not just about himself or his accomplishments on or off the field,” Harry Jr. said. “He takes a real interest in each person he meets, young or old. Others see that and notice that there is something different about him, which enables him to have an impact. He doesn’t strive for a reputation; he just wants to encourage people and build relationships with them.”
Flaherty’s calling to reach others for Christ is one that is also shared by members of his extended family, many of whom God has already placed in prominent positions on a national and global scale.
One of his brothers-in-law is U.S. Army Lieutenant General David M. Rodriguez, who commands the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command and directs the day-to-day operations of coalition forces across Afghanistan, while three others are currently members of the Dallas Cowboys coaching or front-office staff: Interim Head Coach Jason Garrett; Judd, the team’s director of pro personnel;and John, the Cowboys’ tight ends coach.
Harry Flaherty Jr.
“We’re all so fortunate and humbled to be in the positions we’re in,” John said. “For me and my brothers—because we’re in the NFL and with the Dallas Cowboys—we certainly have a bit of credibility right away. God has blessed us with the opportunity to really impact our players and anyone else we come across by showing that there’s a difference in our lives. We try to stay grounded in our faith, believing in Jesus and who He is. When we take that approach to life and coaching, we can share Him with those around us.”
The impact of the entire Flaherty family is broad considering the sheer number of them. Harry Jr., his three brothers and sister count more than 50 cousins in their family. Many of them share a faith in Christ and have even spent a number of years attending FCA’s annual Kutztown, Pa., sports camp together.
“FCA has been an amazing ministry in our lives, even in allowing Janine and me to minister to and with our own family,” Flaherty said. “Every year, John and Judd come up to Kutztown to coach, and they bring their families with them. So, we have a great opportunity on both sides of the family—the Flaherty side and the Garrett side—to get together in the summer.”
In this sports-loving family, many of the “next generation” also are heavily invested in FCA on their university and high-school campuses. Harry Jr. speaks regularly at local Huddles and youth organizations, while his cousin, Army linebacker Andrew Rodriguez—MVP of last year’s Army-Navy showdown—is active in West Point’s FCA Huddle.
“It’s been a blessing to get more involved with FCA on a leadership level while I’ve been at Princeton,” said Harry Jr., who spearheaded an effort to bring Princeton athletes into FCA Huddles at nearby schools. “It’s tough, especially here where the academics are so challenging. But when you’re focused on your mission as a Christian on campus and in the locker room, you feel less pressure to perform and have better perspective on how to handle things.”
In a tangible display of his priorities, Harry Jr., as a high school star, once chose the Kutztown FCA Camp over invites from Division-I coaches who wanted the coveted tight end prospect to attend their summer football camps.
“It spoke volumes to me that FCA Camp meant that much to him,” Flaherty said. “That’s what I love about FCA: it influences the influencers—the kids who are the leaders of the next generation. These are kids who have great leadership skills and are living for Christ and sharing the gospel. It’s not just about sports to them.”
WHAT'S YOUR STORY?
The Flaherty family has built a legacy through FCA. If your family has a similar story, let us know! Share it on our Facebook page or send an
e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To Flaherty, the entire ministry of FCA has been the pathway through which he and his family have been able to fulfill a high calling.
“What we are is God’s gift to us, but what we become is our gift to God,” he said, “and that’s the reason I’m excited about the ministry of FCA. That’s why it’s so important, and why I believe it always will be.”
--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.
Photos courtesy of Janine Flaherty and Beverly Schaefer