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Lessons on the gridiron

For this championship football team — it’s a ministry, not a program.

By Kirk Noonan

On the back parking lot between the football stadium and baseball field of Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport, La., it is still and quiet. Suddenly the doors to the locker room burst open and 120 high school boys spill onto the lot. Despite the oppressive summer heat and humidity, a din of chatter and laughter rises as the boys, football gear in hand, board buses. Ten minutes later, the buses are part of a caravan led by a police escort en route to the team’s first scrimmage of the season, two and a half hours away.

Denny Duron: "God said, ‘They have taken Me out of everything and look at what has happened. Put Me back into everything, and I will show them what I can do.’"

Though only a scrimmage, tonight’s action is important to those who follow Louisiana high school football. Some believe it will be an indicator of whether or not ECA will be the powerhouse it has been in years past. Since 1993, when ECA won its first of six state championships, the eyes of cross-town rivals, the media, fans and college football recruiters have been on the Eagles. Last year, ECA was crowned high school national champion by Fox Sports after capping a 60-game winning streak in Louisiana’s 5-A state championship. Though proud of their accomplishments on the field, coaches, players, parents and fans say football is only a means to an eternal end.

"Our players learn to play football and that it’s a fun game, but more important it’s a tool that can be used for the kingdom of God," says John Booty, senior associate pastor at First Assembly of God in Shreveport and the quarterbacks coach. "Outside of that it is pointless and futile when you think of it just as a game."

Denny Duron, pastor of First Assembly and offensive coordinator for ECA, says the football program started in 1990 with a pile of hand-me-down uniforms. The vision then was to provide a service for the boys at the academy. But that changed, says Duron, when the Lord gave him and Booty a vision for a football ministry.

"God said, ‘They [society] have taken Me out of everything and look at what has happened. Put Me back into everything, and I will show them what I can do,’" says Duron. "Since then that is what we have rallied around.

"It’s like being a youth pastor of a large group, except we are with these boys every day and we get to know them better than even some of their parents know them," says Duron. "The level of involvement we have in their lives is powerful."

Grady Morris, a parent of one of the players, agrees. "Every day there is prayer and encouragement," he says. "The coaches have taken time to mold and shape these kids and teach them that it is not good enough to be a good man; you have to be a good Christian man."

"We aren’t perfect, but we try to emulate Christ in everything we do," says Dennis Dunn, principal and head football coach. "God has honored that and has given us a platform to tell the world this is not about football; it’s about glorifying Christ. Even if we were 0-60 and it glorified Him, that’s what we would do."

Just past 5 p.m., the ECA caravan pulls into the parking lot of the high school in Monroe, La. The stadium is a testament to the importance high school football plays in Louisiana. Massive steel and concrete stands form a horseshoe around the field. Corporate advertisements adorn fences. Yard lines and goal lines are freshly painted and the Bermuda grass field is clipped and green.

As the ECA players are taped and equipped for the game, Allen Davidson, a deputy sheriff who provides security for the team, stands next to his squad car in full uniform. He wears a large ring studded with five cubic zirconia diamonds. The sides of the ring are inscribed, "National Champions 1999." Several of the coaches and others associated with the team also wear the rings. Davidson, like many ECA fans, does not have sons who play or who have played on the team, but he is loyal and faithful nonetheless. Being a part of the team, he says, has changed his life.

"This is like a big family, and I’m a part of it," he says. "I admire the coaches because they are true men of God. These men live what they preach — seeing that helps me stay on the right path."

Duron discovered how powerful football could be in reaching others for Christ when he was quarterbacking Louisiana Tech to two NCAA Division II championships.

"I was called to Tech to be a football missionary," says Duron, who played professional football, but retired early to pursue the ministry.

Rick Berlin, a former college teammate of Duron’s and now the outreach pastor at First Assembly and defensive line coach at ECA, says Duron led him to the Lord at Tech.

"I was doing all the things a worldly guy would do while in college, but when the bottom fell out I turned to Denny," he says. "I admired him because he stood for what was right. He told me I could make my life right with Christ. I got radically saved my junior year in college and haven’t been the same since."

In time, Berlin led his sister, mother, father and brother to Christ. Last year his son, Brock, who played quarterback for ECA, was named USA TODAY player of the year and led ECA to its first 5-A state championship.

"Last year with Brock was special," Berlin says of his son. "He won so many wonderful awards for his achievements on the field. But I am more proud than anything that he serves Christ with all his heart and loves God. Him making it to heaven is the greatest award he’ll ever receive."

Believing that one of the most effective ways to reach unbelievers is to accept them where they are and show them solid models of God’s transforming power, such as Berlin, ECA has an open-enrollment policy — meaning they accept non-Christians into the school.

"We are an all-inclusive school. Some of our kids come from difficult home lives and backgrounds — we don’t just take in Christian kids," says Dunn. "We present them with the gospel every day and we do reach many of them while they are on campus. They go on to become incredible men and women of God."

Marc Pittman’s son, Chase, is on the team. Chase’s older brother Cole played at ECA and earned All-America honors and a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas. Pittman admits he sent his sons to ECA because of the "top-notch football program" and the fact that his sons would get many looks from Division I college football scouts. But when Cole came home from school one day and asked him if he would stop swearing, things in the Pittman household changed. As a result of the influence teachers and coaches had on his son, Pittman says, the entire family has grown closer to God.

"Evangel Christian Academy changed my life dramatically. It has blessed me in every way," he says. "I picked up a rock from Evangel’s football field and put it in my pocket just so I could have a piece of the school with me at all times — that’s how much this place means to me."

As the players warm up and stretch, the coaching staff encourages and dispenses advice freely. Minutes before the game begins the ECA players and coaches gather in a circle at the 50-yard line. The players whoop and holler, pumping themselves up for the scrimmage, before dropping to their knees.

"Put your hands on the person next to you and let’s pray," Dunn directs.

The pitter-pat of hands landing on shoulder pads beats lightly before a loud chorus of prayer and petitions rises. Players and fans from the other team look on curiously.

On the first drive of the varsity scrimmage Brent Rawls, a senior quarterback, throws a 40-yard pass to a wide receiver who scores a touchdown. Unlike many high school programs ECA relies heavily on its passing game rather than grinding out the yards on the ground. In doing so, the program has produced three of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks in Brock Berlin and Josh Booty, who currently play at the University of Florida and Louisiana State University respectively, and Rawls who has already received offers from the University of Texas, Florida State University and LSU. Rawls says he is ready for the temptations and pressures of college football because of lessons learned at ECA.

"When I go to college, it’ll be hard at times, but I’ll just live my life for the Lord and He’ll take care of the rest," he says. "I’ve made a commitment to Him and I know He’ll be there the rest of the way."

Jeremy Desoto, a senior outside linebacker, is quick to tell how his life changed as a result of playing at ECA.

"When I came here I thought God just had a lot of rules, but since being here I learned about God and fell in love with Him," he says. "One day during chapel, I said, ‘God, if You are real, I want to know You and feel You.’ God filled me right then and there."

After the game, the players gather in the middle of the field for prayer and a pep talk from the coaches. By 10:45 p.m. the buses are headed for Shreveport. The caravan arrives at ECA just past 1 a.m. Most of the bleary-eyed coaches and several players gather in the coaches’ office to watch video of the game.

Though everyone here wants to win another state championship and keep the winning streak intact, there are higher goals, says John Booty.

"There is more to life than doing something great on the football field and people thinking you are wonderful," he says. "Life is about picking up the lessons that are going to make you the man God wants you to be. Some of those lessons are being learned here."

Kirk Noonan is the news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.


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