MIAMI — Former Northeastern Oklahoma A&M head football coach Chuck Bowman remembers Fellowship of Christian Athletes founder Don McClanen for his passion in getting great athletes to share their faith and be positive influences.
McClanen, who came up with the idea for FCA while basketball coach and athletic director at Eastern Oklahoma A&M (now Eastern State College) in the 1950s, died Tuesday. He was 91.
Bowman first met McClanen at the first FCA national meeting in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1956.
Bowman guided NEO to national football championships in 1967 and 1969 before embarking on a 30-year career with the FCA.
“He was a soft spoken, kind man who loved coaches and athletes,” Bowman said. “His passion was to get the great men in sports willing to share their faith and be positive influences in all they did.”
Bowman was a junior at the University of Oklahoma and could see the importance of what McClanen was wanting to do.
“Two of my teammates, Bill Krisher and Clendon Thomas, felt the same as I did and agreed to do whatever we could to help and support Don's vision,” Bowman said.
Krisher and Thomas both earned All-American honors with the Sooners and would draw a crowd anytime they were asked to share their faith, Bowman said.
“I knew one day I might have testimony worth hearing, but knew it had to be as a coach,” Bowman said. “It took some time, but with Don McClanen's constant encouragements, I finally had the opportunity to do what Bill and Clendon were doing.
“Don was always there, and became a great friend.”
A New Jersey native, McClanen, who served as a student manager at Oklahoma A&M before being hired at Eastern, joined forces with Dr. Louis H. Evans, Dr. Roe Johnston and Branch Rickey, among others, to help get FCA off the ground.
Evans encouraged McClanen to write to Christian athletes who were strong in their faith — 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.
Nineteen letters were mailed, each carefully laying out McClanen’s God-given desire for what would become FCA.
Fourteen told McClanen they were interested. But Rickey, the then-Pittsburgh Pirates general manager who had signed Jackie Robinson when he led the Brooklyn Dodgers, didn’t answer the letter. McClanen, however, pressed on for a meeting with him. He promised to drive to Pittsburgh to meet with Rickey on his own dime for a five-minute face-to-face conversation.
The meeting lasted five hours, and three months later and with a $10,000 gift from a Pittsburgh businessman, FCA became a reality, chartered in Oklahoma on Nov. 10, 1954.
FCA has become a worldwide ministry headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, with 1,200 staff members.
“Heavy hearts abound at FCA as we mourn the passing of our founder, Don McClanen,” FCA President and CEO Les Steckel said in a release, “yet we are overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of gratitude and respect for a man who has influenced so many. Don’s unwavering commitment and vision truly enabled FCA to grow to where it is today, encouraging millions of coaches and athletes to lead lives that are dedicated to Christ. For that reason, we celebrate Don’s life and his passion for ministry. Through his humble determination, FCA is able to touch hearts and continue to change lives—all thanks to our founder, who always gave glory to God.
“If there is ever a question about what God can do with a life totally surrendered, called and risking all to follow His vision, we can point to a young basketball coach from Oklahoma, who in 1954 saw the potential of athletes and coaches to share the gospel with the world. Sixty-two years later, that vision is alive and well through FCA, influencing lives for Christ across the globe—an amazing legacy. We praise God for the life of Don McClanen.”
McClanen also founded other influential ministries, including an inner-city youth ministry in Washington, D.C., a church-renewal ministry, and the “Ministry of Money” to help people follow Christ in their financial lives.
“There is no telling how many thousands of young men and women were touched by the ministry Don McClanen gave birth to,” Bowman said. “And, it all started right here in Oklahoma.”
Jim Ellis is managing editor of the Miami News-Record. He can be reached by phone at 918-542-5533, ext. 3052, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mnrsportsguy.