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Faith & Football: Chaplains inspire young players

High school football coaches can take one hat off the crowded rack in their offices.

Mentor, drill instructor, groundskeeper and custodian—sure. But not counselor, not for those coaches lucky enough to have a team chaplain.

At least four of six county football teams have chaplains, who take on an important role for teenagers trying to focus on football instead of problems with girlfriends, family life, drugs and school—or the purpose for their existence.

“We feel like, as coaches, counseling is now part of our job description,” Maplesville coach Brent Hubbert said. “It’s good to have someone who can do it from a religious background. It takes the pressure off of us.

“We’ll have one every team I coach, if possible.”

Kirk Smith, pastor at Shady Grove Baptist Church in Randolph, is in his third season as chaplain for the Red Devils.

Another local chaplain, Marc Hodges, said he decided to begin serving as Thorsby’s chaplain five years ago because he wanted to be able to offer encouragement to people that were receiving criticism from many different directions.

“I believe that all kids need a non-threatening adult in their lives,” said Hodges, youth pastor at Victory Baptist Church in Jemison. “They get authority from teachers, coaches and their parents.

“We were looking to just encourage, let them know that somebody cares.”

Hodges tries to make at least one practice a week. He goes to the pep rallies on Fridays and then talks to the team during its pregame meal. Finally, Hodges prays with the players before and after games.

“Sometimes, the coaches are getting on them pretty good, and then I just come over and offer some encouragement,” Hodges said.

Chilton County High senior quarterback Taylor Hughes said not all players might take the messages seriously, but others take them to heart.

Hughes, whose father, Tony, is a former CCHS chaplain and pastor at Walnut Creek United Methodist Church, said many players appreciate having a chaplain available to listen to their concerns.

“I think it’s important to be able to go to somebody that is not going to make you run for something you did,” Hughes said.

Though Hodges ministers to players, he takes a different approach than he would with the youth at his church. Some of the players have never set foot in a church and are unfamiliar with most, if not all, of Christian teachings.

Also, the players haven’t voluntarily walked into a church in hopes of hearing a Christian message. So, Hodges avoids “ramming Jesus down their throats,” especially because some players might follow a different faith.

“I talk in a lot of generalities at first: God made them and wants them to do their best,” Hodges said. “We’re trying to minister to them and present them an option of a life with Christ.”

Hodges said there have been no instances in his five years of players or parents that opposed having a religious leader around the team.

“I’ve worked really hard to earn their trust,” Hodges said. “I try to show them that I really care about them. I believe with all my heart that I can’t share Christ effectively without showing Christ first.”

Hodges said he’s helped guide several players toward Christianity but emphasizes that building a congregation is not his purpose.

One current player is part of Hodges’ youth group at Victory.

“We’ve seen several of them accept Christ, and it has been fun to see them grow,” Hodges said. “They may not come to my church, but if they just live according to the 10 Commandments, they’ll be better off.”

Sometimes, messages really hit home.

Hodges talked to the Rebels the week after they had snapped a 17-game losing streak with a 28-6 win over Shades Mountain Christian on Oct. 9. He wore a shirt that got muddy during the postgame celebration.

The message was to forget about what has happened in past and keeping focused on the goals ahead.

“Just as silly as you think it is that I’ve got this dirty shirt on, it’s just as bad to walk around thinking about last week,” Hodges told the team.

And when quarterback Andrew Farris’ fumble in the next game, at county rival Isabella, was returned for a touchdown that gave the Mustangs the lead, Hodges was quick to reiterate his point.

Farris forgot the fumble and led his team to a 32-30 win in overtime.

“That was just the neatest thing,” Hodges said.