Fellowship of Christian Athletes Highlights ‘The Firsts’ Who Helped Make the Ministry What It Is Today

Fellowship of Christian Athletes Highlights ‘The Firsts’ Who Helped Make the Ministry What It Is Today

From FCA Founder Don McClanen to First International Staff Member, All Were Trailblazers Leading Up to FCA’s 65th Anniversary This Year

November 18, 2019

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—This month, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA, www.fca.org) is celebrating its 65th anniversary, and along the way, many “firsts” have served as pioneers who helped the ministry remain focused on its vision to see the world transformed by Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.

For example, seven years before FCA was founded in 1954, a young basketball coach named Don McClanen first started collecting clips about pro athletes in 1947.

“For some time,” McClanen had said, “I have had the idea of forming an organization of athletes and coaches in this hero-worshiping nation of ours. If athletes can endorse shaving cream, razor blades and cigarettes, surely they can endorse the Lord, too.”

After years of dedication, McClanen’s dream was realized, and he worked directly with, inspired or witnessed many other “firsts” in the ministry’s history.

“The Fellowship of Christian Athletes has so many heroes of the faith,” said FCA President and CEO Shane Williamson. “Here at FCA, our founder Don McClanen is known for stating, ‘The question often asked is FCA as needed or relevant today as it was back then, and I would say more so. FCA is God’s amazing, miraculous dream being fulfilled still to this day.’ Especially during our 65th year, we celebrate these heroes, their legacy of firsts and their place in the timeline of ‘God’s amazing, miraculous dream.’”

Soon after McClanen’s idea was born, he began reaching out to professional athletes and wrote letters to 19 now-legends who were among the first to hear his vision for what would become FCA. In fact, the first three to meet with McClanen in early 1954 included sports greats Otto Graham, Carl Erskine and Dr. Roe Johnston. These three were also among the first to speak at citywide FCA rallies from 1956-61. Graham also served as the first FCA football camp clinician in 1956, and Johnston served as the first board chair from 1954-55. He also shared the first logo drawings for FCA in 1960-61.

These other notable “firsts” played an integral part of FCA’s history:

  • Dr. Louis R. Evans first said during the naming decision in September 1954, “Don, you take the ‘C’ (Christian) out of this thing, and you take me out of it.” Evans was also part of the first group to recommend camps, then called conferences, to expand FCA. He also recommended YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, as the location for the first FCA Camp in 1956.
  • Branch Rickey was the first to grab hold of the idea behind FCA and promote it with and for McClanen. Likewise, Rickey also served as the first FCA baseball camp clinician and gave the first rousing keynote message to 256 campers in Estes Park. Rickey was a man of firsts in baseball as well: the first to think up the farm system, first to hold “Ladies Days’ to draw female fans, first to target young fans, first to travel his teams by plane and the first to break the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson.
  • In 1955, Paul Benedum was FCA’s first major donor. The businessman gave $10,000 after being introduced to McClanen by Rickey at a banquet in Pittsburgh. This generous amount allowed McClanen to leave his coaching job and devote full-time to FCA. Benedum’s gift would be equal to more than $94,000 today.
  • “Deacon” Dan Towler was the first African-American to be involved in FCA, as well as the first African-American on the FCA Board of Trustees. Towler served several terms and eventually was elected Trustee Emeritus.
  • Gary Demerest served as FCA’s first Camp Dean, was the first to join McClanen as staff at the national office and initiated FCA’s first print publication, The Christian Athlete, in 1959.
  • Rafer Johnson was the first Olympian FCA Huddle leader and clinician, was also among the first to speak at cityside rallies and, unrelated to FCA, was the first with Rosey Grier to tackle and take the gun from Sirhan Sirhan, who shot Robert Kennedy, and played a key role in his apprehension.
  • Peggy Kirk Bell was the first female to serve on the FCA Board of Trustees in 1977, and that same year, was also part of the first group and the first female to launch FCA’s first sports-specific ministry—golf—and start the first FCA golf camp in 1979. Bell continued to lead this camp at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in North Carolina for many years and was also longtime FCA clinician and supporter. She was inducted in the World Golf Hall of Fame posthumously in 2019.
  • In 1962, Tom Landry was the first NFL Coach to attend the FCA Camp in Estes Park and was the first NFL coach to serve as the FCA Board of Trustees Chair, even while still coaching from 1973-76. Landry also reluctantly and humbly agreed to lend his name to the first FCA major donor program in the early 1980s.
  • Kay Yow was the first female coach to serve on the FCA Board of Trustees in 1989-94 and, in her first year as head coach, allowed an FCA campus ministry representative the opportunity to share the gospel with the North Carolina State women’s basketball team. Yow was the first and only individual to accept Christ that day, radically altering her life’s course for her, her teams and FCA for years to come.
  • In 1972, Bill Burnett was the first FCA field staff member supported by the local ministry. By 1973, 31 people were on staff with six regional offices.
  • Andriy Kravtsov was FCA’s first international staff member to “officially” advance the pursuit of FCA’s vision globally. Today, the Ukraine native leads an expansive area called “FCA Eurasia.”

FCA is still fulfilling its vision and following the Great Commission as it uses the vehicle of sports to make Christ’s name known. After much growth over 65 years, FCA has reached millions of people with the Gospel through the priority of putting the Word of God into each competitor’s hands. View a timeline of Fellowship of Christian Athletes’ 65-year history here, including videos, quotes, articles, leader profiles, Camp themes, photos and more.

Read more about Fellowship of Christian Athletes here, visit FCA’s website at www.fca.org, its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/fcafans or its Twitter feed @fcanews.

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To interview a Fellowship of Christian Athletes representative, contact Media@HamiltonStrategies.com, Patrick Benner, 610.584.1096, ext. 104, or Deborah Hamilton, ext. 102.