Back to the Gridiron: A Story of Healing, Restoration, and Hope

The thought of coaching, stepping on a football field, or even going to see a high school game again was far removed from his mind. But God had other plans.

Sometimes, the greatest ministry can be birthed out of the deepest pain.

Coach Russ knows this all too well. When his only son passed away five years ago, he wondered if he would ever recover…if he would ever be able to find his purpose in life again. 

Russ’ relationship with his son was very special. Having grown up without a father himself, Russ poured everything he had into his relationship with his son. He spent years coaching his son through youth football and then continuing to watch him play every Friday night in high school. After his son’s passing, the thought of coaching, stepping on a football field, or even going to see a high school game again was far removed from Russ’ mind. But God had other plans.

In the midst of this very dark period in his life, Russ felt God speak a profound message to his broken heart: Quit wasting your pain. At the time, he didn’t know exactly what that meant. But he did know that he wanted God to transform his life—to take this horrible tragedy and use it for something good. 

God was moving, and as time went on, events began to transpire in Russ’ life that led him toward a miraculous transformation. After having been divorced for years, he met and married a woman from a different state and ultimately moved there. God began soothing Russ’ heart, bringing healing and laying a foundation on which He would build a powerful ministry.

After his move, Russ began connecting with other local Christian men. One day at a men’s Bible study, he found himself at a table with a local school’s athletic director. He didn’t know it at the time, but this athletic director and active Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) leader would become a great supporter and encourager for Russ in the years to come. After they talked for a while, the athletic director asked Russ if he could connect him with his varsity football coach. And after a great meeting, the head football coach asked Russ to join his staff because he felt Russ had a lot to offer his athletes, both on and off the field. Russ felt surprised and unprepared for this opportunity. But through the encouragement of his wife and God’s prompting, he accepted. 

Initially, the learning curve was steep. The X’s and O’s were a lot different than those he had used during his previous coaching days, and it took him a bit to get into the groove. But soon Russ became the defensive backs’ coach and the culture coach of the team, pouring into the inner core of the players, mentoring and shaping the captains and leaders, and helping to set the tone for what it means to be a leader on and off the field. As the weeks progressed, God provided opportunities for Russ to share his story and his faith, even ministering to other families who had dealt with similar loss. He was beginning to see what it meant to “not waste his pain” as God empowered him to use it to bring healing to others. He was finding a new purpose for his life, and FCA was right beside him, providing support and playing a big part in the transformation of both Russ and the team.

Since 1954, FCA’s goal has been “to lead every coach and athlete into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and His church.” And as the years have rolled on, they have continually sought to provide the necessary items to equip and empower coaches and athletes for that particular purpose.

FCA directly empowered Russ through their coaches training and certification program, E3 Discipleship Training. FCA has created this framework for coaches who desire to impact their athletes, giving them the tools and training they need as well as the backing and support of FCA certification. Russ was able to complete the program virtually, working around his unique and busy schedule. 

Utilizing the Team Huddle Bible Study model established and proven out by FCA, coaches and players met for a weekly Bible study at Russ’ house, where they were encouraged and challenged to live and compete according to biblical principles. FCA also provided special FCA Bibles as well as food for some of Russ’ Huddles. With FCA’s support, Russ ministered to players and coaches even after the season ended, digging deeper into what matters most in life. Those weekly Huddle meetings proved to be an invaluable part of growing the FCA community and culture within the football program. 

The coaching certification and team Huddle tools that FCA provided certainly helped empower Russ to make a difference in the lives of the football coaches and players on his team. But to expand outside of their program and bring together athletes from different communities and backgrounds, Russ’s football team joined three other local football programs and took part in FCA’s One Team summer football camp. 

According to one of FCA’s area directors, “At the height of the civil unrest and racial tensions in our country, FCA sought an opportunity to bring our various communities together for what we called our ‘One Team’ initiative. This cause brought together inner-city and affluent suburban high school football teams for three days of faith, fellowship, and football.” 

During the camp, players and coaches heard from area business and ministry leaders, including Russ, about life lessons and how their faith impacts their daily lives. One of the lasting impacts of the camp came later that fall when players and coaches began meeting on the field post-game for prayer with players and coaches from the opposing teams, resulting in impactful times of prayer and powerful visuals of how God can bring people together for a common purpose. 

God has always been in the business of redeeming and restoring. 

And often, during that process, He will write a new chapter right on top of the old one. He will lay a new foundation of healing in the very place we have experienced our deepest pain. He will establish purpose in our lives that we never could have imagined in the midst of our despair. And that’s exactly what he did for Russ. 

Through the empowering and equipping of FCA, a man who once thought he’d never step foot on a high school football field again now walks those yard lines every day. A man who never thought he’d coach again is inspiring players and changing lives from the very place of his pain. A man who wondered if he’d ever find purpose in his life again found it in his early fifties–reaching young athletes, bringing hope to grieving families, and inspiring all who share the locker rooms and playing fields with him. God showed Coach Russ what it means to “not waste his pain” by using it to minister to countless athletes and families.

Fellowship of Christian Athletes - AN ETERNAL IMPACT
Sports have a unique and special place in the world. There are few other vehicles that lend themselves so well to promoting growth, learning new skills, dealing with adversity, developing leadership, building teamwork and communication, overcoming obstacles, and even growing in faith. And at the helm of each of these sports teams are coaches who have been given a profound opportunity to make an eternal difference in the lives of each young person under their care. If you are one of those coaches and are looking to make an eternal impact, you can reach out to FCA for support. They have groups throughout the country that would love to partner with you, equip you, pray for you, and encourage you to reach even more coaches and athletes with the hope of Jesus Christ.
Visit FCA's website to find out more and to see how FCA can support you, your school, and your community. 

Shawn Washburn, the father of four great kids and one energetic dog, lives in Cleveland, Ohio. You can find him at shawnwashburn.com, where he hosts the Engineering Your Business podcast and helps business leaders optimize their people and processes.


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