Crusade for the Lord is paying off as sports group increases number of Maryland youngsters playing on God's team

ONWARD, CHRISTIAN ATHLETES

June 09, 1996|By Tim Warren

It was a chilly spring night, and it was raining hard. "Noah must have gotten stuck on Route 295," Barry Spofford joked to a friend inside a ballroom at the BWI Marriott hotel. The weather notwithstanding, Spofford was in a good mood. It was a few minutes before the second annual "victory dinner" of the Maryland/Delaware chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and its director was in a mood to celebrate.

An hour later, he looked out from the podium at the crowd of several hundred young FCA members, parents, coaches, teachers, Christian businessmen and other supporters. He reminded the assemblage that when he took over the chapter four years ago, there had been only four FCA "huddles," or student-run groups, at state high schools. Now, he said, there are 45 in the Maryland/Delaware area.

"The FCA is you," he told the crowd. "Last year, we had huddles in 10 percent of the public high schools in Maryland. This year, the figure is up to 18 percent. But we can't stop until we penetrate every public school in the state."

Spofford waited for the applause to die down, then turned somber. "The kids today are being lost to incredible pressures in the world," he continued. "But with God as our coach, with the Bible as our playbook, we're going to establish Christ in our public school system through FCA. It takes a team effort to win the Super Bowl. I challenge you to join the team that will serve an awesome and mighty God."

The sports metaphors continued on this night in March when featured speaker Gary Cuozzo, a former Colts quarterback and FCA board member, asked the crowd, "What difference does it make if you score five touchdowns or 100 touchdowns if you do not reach eternity?" And he concluded, ominously, "America is gravitating toward Sodom and Gomorrah."

If at times the fusion of church and locker room, the shifting from the pew to the bench, seemed awkward, there was no denying the enthusiasm, the heartfelt response from the overflow crowd. And there was no denying the significance of this dinner, for it showed that the FCA had finally become a player in Maryland.

Don McClanen, a former Oklahoma college basketball coach and one of the FCA's founders, once said the group came out of his idea of starting "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."

While this nondenominational Christian group has been strong in the South and Southwest since its inception in 1954, it had never taken hold in Maryland -- until Barry Spofford, about to retire from the Navy after 30 years of service, was asked to take over the FCA's state chapter in 1992, after three other attempts at moving it forward had failed.

As deputy for operations at the Naval Academy -- the school's No. 3 administrative position -- Spofford had become active with the FCA chapter there. Then, after retirement, he decided that leading the FCA in Maryland was another way of fulfilling a pledge to God made 20 years earlier -- that "I will serve you the rest of my life."

From a cramped office in a modular home opposite Annapolis Mall, Spofford and his wife, Pat, run the day-to-day affairs of the FCA in Maryland and Delaware (the latter state only recently became part of the chapter). There are stacks of promotional fliers for FCA summer camps, which draw more than 13,000 young men and women each summer. On two long shelves are books, pamphlets, videos and leadership manuals to be dispersed to students interested in starting or joining a huddle.

The hours are long and the pay isn't much -- Spofford says he and his wife each draws a monthly salary of $600, out of a 1996 budget of $66,000. The Spoffords have volunteer help and hope to add a couple of summer interns, but basically they do all the recruiting, the fund raising, the newsletter-writing, the hand-holding and the cheerleading.

"Barry has made a remarkable difference," says Rob White, assistant principal at St. Mary's Catholic School in Annapolis and sponsor of a huddle there that draws about 40 to 50 students each week. "He's an amazing man of God."

Quiet Enthusiasm

At age 55, Barry Spofford is low-key and unprepossessing. He may be the worst former athlete in the FCA hierarchy: He says that as a 115-pound, third-string high school quarterback in Weston, Mass., "I had more guts than brains."

And at a time in which the FCA is trying to make its image hipper by using such devices as snappy videos set to a hip-hop beat, the skinny, balding, laconic Spofford seems as flashy as a shoe ** salesman. He even jokingly wonders why any young person would listen to him rather than Dan Britton, the handsome, charismatic, 28-year-old former Baltimore lacrosse player who is now director of the FCA's Northern Virginia chapter.

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