KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Sixty-five years ago, a young basketball coach wondered why athletes endorsed products like shaving cream and cigarettes, but not a Christian lifestyle. That insight became the backbone for one of the largest sports organizations that has a vision to see the world transformed by Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.
That young basketball coach, the late Don McClanen, founded the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in 1954 and its mission of leading every coach and athlete into a growing relationship with Jesus Christ and the church. But for seven years before that, he prayed about what the organization would look like and whom it would serve. He joined forces with the other FCA “Founding Fathers” — Louis H. Evans, Roe Johnston and Branch Rickey, among others—who made FCA come to life.
Evans encouraged McClanen to write to other athletic greats who were also strong in their faith — greats like football stars Doak Walker and Otto Graham; baseball players Carl Erskine, Robin Roberts and Alvin Dark; Olympians Bob Mathias and Bob Richards; coaching and front office legends Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bud Wilkinson and Clarence “Biggie” Munn; and even broadcasters Tom Harmon and Red Barber. In all, 19 letters were mailed, each carefully laying out McClanen’s God-given desire for what would become FCA.
Fourteen of those 19 men told McClanen they were interested. But Rickey, the then-Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager who had signed Jackie Robinson, didn’t answer McClanen’s letter. The young coach pressed on for a meeting, promising to drive to Pittsburgh to meet with Rickey on his own dime for a five-minute face-to-face. That meeting lasted five hours. Three months later and with a $10,000 gift from a Pittsburgh businessman, FCA became a reality, chartered in Oklahoma on Nov. 10, 1954.
Large events where top names in sports spoke to young athletes began in Oklahoma City and Tulsa, then a few years later, in Denver, Houston, and Indianapolis. Overall, 90,000 young people heard the gospel from some of the nation’s most popular athletes and coaches. When Sports Illustrated covered the Denver events, FCA had the publicity push it needed to explode.
Building on the words of Billy Graham, who said, “A coach will influence more people in a year than most people will in a lifetime,” FCA began focusing on reaching coaches as well as athletes. Coaching legends such as Tom Landry, Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Grant Teaff, Frank Broyles, Dean Smith, Kay Yow, Tony Dungy, Raymond Berry, and Jerry Kindall have joined FCA over the years to impact countless athletes and fellow coaches.
The first FCA National Conference was held in 1956 in Estes Park, Colorado, a precursor to today’s FCA Camps, now a staple of the ministry, growing to 805 camps in 42 states and 92 countries with an attendance of almost 90,000 campers this past summer. In addition, student-led and -driven Fields of Faith events involved approximately a quarter of a million student-athletes, coaches, parents and community members this year at 500 gatherings. Other events reach out to coaches.
“It is an amazing honor for the entire Fellowship of Christian Athletes family to reflect on 65 years and witness all God has done through this ministry,” said FCA President and CEO Shane Williamson. “Over the decades, countless FCA pioneers sacrificed much so that millions of coaches and athletes today could draw nearer to Christ through the sports they love.
“We may never know the full impact of FCA around the globe, but God had a plan for this ministry all along, and we can rest assured that true life change has happened, and continues to happen, in many hearts because of FCA.”
A timeline of Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ 65-year history can be found on its site including videos, quotes, articles, leader profiles, photos, and more.