College (Jay Weiner of Star Tribune, 13 September 2002)
"Consider this: 100 Christian football players led
by a head coach who uncontrollably sheds tears when talking about his love for his team and
who, seconds later, rejoices in the notion of "ripping the face off" of an
Consider this: a set of rules, including "A
Covenant for Life Together," that all students must sign that prohibits, among other things,
on-campus dancing, alcohol use and premarital sex.
Then, making no judgments, listen as All-America
running back Mike Johnson insists: "Bethel is not weird."
No, Bethel College, in the St. Paul suburb of
Arden Hills, is just unabashedly evangelical Christian and it wraps its passion for Jesus
Christ around everything, including football.
And the Bethel Royals win.
"We do not try to win in order to be able to say
the Christians beat the lions," said George Brushaber, Bethel's president since 1982. "I want
us to be able to win and say we won with intensity, teamwork and dependability. Those are the
responsibilities I want to instill in those young men."
With two Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic
Conference titles the past two years (sharing last year's championship with St. John's) and
two trips to the NCAA Division III playoffs, the Royals are among the elite of the nation's
non-scholarship football powers. When they blew a 20-7 lead and lost 27-26 last week to
Whitworth (Wash.) College, it was the Royals' first season-opening defeat since
"We're not used to losing," said senior strong
safety Sam Lacy, whose class is 27-6 the past three-plus seasons.
It wasn't always that way. In the 1980s the Royals
were 17-75-3. Facilities were poor. The coaching staff was overmatched and under-equipped.
The talent pool was meek. Embarrassed, Brushaber decided football had to
Enter coach Steve Johnson in 1989. A Bethel grad
and former St. Cloud State, Montana State and Gophers assistant, Johnson came to understand
that somewhere out there, there are football-playing boys who want a Christian campus. He
proceeded to find them.
Bethel, affiliated with the Baptist General
Conference, a small denomination, needed football to attract male students; women comprise 60
percent of its student body. With the smallest per capita endowment of Minnesota's private
colleges, Bethel relies on tuition to operate; 100 football-playing students pay a lot of
Bethel, too, needs to cultivate donors. Sports is
a good entry point. The campus' 3,500-seat football-soccer stadium recently was upgraded for
$1.2 million. New soccer and softball fields and tennis courts cost $1.8
Love God, hit hard
There should be no confusion about the Royals'
ability to, simultaneously, serve God and thrash an opponent.
"I truly believe the Lord's brought me here, for,
among the many purposes, to play football," said Lacy, of Lewisville, Texas, who is a Bible
major. "How can you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and
not just whack somebody on the football field?"
Lacy, who is also the student government
president, went on: "[Defensive coordinator Jimmy] Miller says to me, 'Sam, when you go out
there on the field, feel the pleasure of the Lord.' The best way I can feel that pleasure is
to knock a guy on his tail by making a great tackle. For us to say, 'Come on, guys, we're
Christians, take it easy on the other team,' that's ridiculous. Football's a sport. The Lord
didn't call us to hurt anybody, but he called us to play with all our
Lacy has learned at the right hand of coach
Johnson, the son of a Baptist minister.
"Our foundation is in Jesus Christ," said Johnson,
46. "So people say we're religious weirdos. But our foundation as a program is that we're
going to love each other. That's the main commandment."
His eyes are welling with tears. "Coach J" is
known to cry so often that President Brushaber once gave him a towel as a
"Well, what does that mean, to love each other?"
Johnson continued. "It means I'm going to love you so much that I'm going to kick your hind
end if you keep making the same mistake over and over again."
The oiling of this intense relationship between
coaches, players, the game and God occurs every August on the first night of training
One segment of last month's team-building,
pep-talk-filled evening was most revealing. It came when the team sang together in a hymn
session. As if a choir and not a football team, 100 men lifted their voices. Some raised
their arms to the ceiling and others turned their palms up toward the sky. Some closed their
eyes and rocked back and forth, while others stood silent, seemingly
This was a window into Bethel. For all its
God-talk, there is vulnerability. Students and administrators acknowledge there is a range on
the spectrum of Christian commitment, from true believers to those in doubt. That applies to
the football team, too.
"I think we're just like any other Christ-centered
organization, where we struggle internally and individually with, 'How do I live this
Christian life?' " said Lacy, 22. "How do I really seek to be genuine amidst busy-ness and
outside influences? But, you know what? The most stable foundation I've found in terms of
realness is this team."
Coach Johnson is the stabilizer of the tribe. One
of his gifts is in his recruiting. There is no bait-and-switch.
"Bethel is exactly what I expected," said freshman
quarterback A.J. Parnell, of Kirkland, Wash. "Coach Johnson told me about Bethel when he
recruited me. I knew exactly what I was getting into. I love it. It's not a gimmick. Through
our playing of football, that's how I want to honor the Lord."
The Bethel path
When he's looking for players, Johnson identifies
-- or is approached by -- those boys and families who want the Bethel
Best example: 2001 MIAC Most Valuable Player and
math major Mike Johnson. He ran for 20 touchdowns and 1,462 yards last season. He grew up on
a farm near Pine City, Minn., and went to the Evangelical Free Church. He was offered a
couple of Division II scholarships.
But when Steve Johnson visited Pine City, he
didn't have to sell much. Mike Johnson had his mind made up. He approached the coach and
said: "I want to play for Bethel."
His mother, Cheri Johnson, was
"It was a good feeling to know Michael was going
to be surrounded by good kids who wouldn't lead him down the wrong path," she
But how straight and narrow is Bethel's path? Can
18-to 22-year-olds, with one foot in the real world and one at Bethel, refrain from
"Bethel is an easy place to lie," assistant campus
minister Matt Runion said.
He was talking to a chapel full of students
earlier this week. He didn't mean that Bethel is fundamentally dishonest, he said, but that
it's so easy for students to fool themselves about just how well they're living up to the
college's high moral standards.
Set hours when the opposite sexes must part. No
social dancing on campus, a restriction student leaders are fighting to lift. No
"It's not a matter of the Bible says, 'You
shouldn't drink,' " Brushaber said. "We're trying to establish a higher purpose where young
women and men can re-examine their own life choices and sort them out."
Violating the rules doesn't bring instant
expulsion, but, rather, "forgiveness and reconciliation," said Brushaber. "We don't have a
spy system. These are young people. They're going to make mistakes."
Even the football team?
There's talk in the MIAC that the Royals can be
overly aggressive in pileups or that they've been known to utter words stronger than "Gosh"
Steve Johnson denies his team is dirty, denies the
players or coaches wantonly swear, but says, "We're held to a higher standard, all because we
have this 'Christian-y' thing about us."
That thing is Bethel's strength. It's the Royals'
burden. It's their world. And they rejoice in it."
***give me your comments about this
(posted 11 November 2002)