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Chaplains Roll Tide, show Hokie Pride

Chaplains Roll Tide, show Hokie Pride

It is rare that college football's season-openers have large national title implications, but that is exactly the case Saturday night at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where No. 5 Alabama and No. 7 Virginia Tech square off in the biggest game of the opening weekend. An early-season win over a Top-10 opponent would be a nice resume-booster once the BCS arguments inevitably surface in the winter.

Players to Watch

FCA's Johnny Shelton and Gary Cramer highlighted several prominent players who are all active in their campus FCA Huddles. A few are listed below:

Tyrod Taylor, QB, Virginia Tech
• ACC’s leading rusher among QBs last year with 738 yards
• 13-2 as a starter, including a 20-7 win over Cincinnati in last year's Orange Bowl
• Has four career 100-yard rushing games

Cam Martin, LB, Virginia Tech
• Shared team lead in 2008 with 3 forced fumbles
• Posted 51 tackles, including 2 sacks, last year
• Brother, Orion, was a defensive end who graduated last year

Demetrius Taylor, DT, Virginia Tech
• Expected to start for first time this season
• Had key fumble recovery in win over Georgia Tech last year
• Won Coaches Award for having an exceptional spring practice season

Drew Davis, OL, Alabama
• Started all 14 games at right tackle in 2008
• Iron Man Award winner for his dedication to strength and conditioning in the offseason
• Winner of FCA’s Christian character award at Alabama

Barrett Jones, OL, Alabama
• Played in three games as a true freshman last year
• Shoulder injury cost him most of the 2008 season
• Was the No. 1 high school offensive lineman in the state of Tennessee
In a game this big, there is no shortage of storylines. Perhaps overlooked, though, is a story about FCA’s ministry going on at both universities. In fact, Gary Cramer and Johnny Shelton, the chaplains at the University of Alabama and Virginia Tech University, respectively, recently spent a week rooming together at FCA’s Leaders of Excellence retreat in Cleveland.

Surprisingly enough, the upcoming game wasn’t a topic of choice. There were more important things to discuss.

“The most interesting thing about the trip is we didn’t talk about the game at all,” Shelton said. “I mean, at all. That’s what I love about it, though. We’re talking about ministry, we’re talking about what God is doing in lives of those athletes, we’re praying for each other’s athletes. It’s just powerful.”

Cramer said, “We didn’t want to tilt our hand, didn’t want to let the other one know what was going on, but as far as talking about the Lord and that kind of thing, we were all over that.”

When it comes to campus ministry, Shelton and Cramer certainly have a wealth of knowledge to draw from.

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Cramer arrived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in December 2005, and even though the University of Alabama has the longest continuous running college Huddle in the country, it had fallen on some hard times. Cramer remembers when they were excited to have 30 kids show up to a Huddle meeting. Now, at their first leadership meeting of the semester, they had 32 Huddle leaders present. FCA has representation from nearly every team on campus, and Cramer’s vision is to keep branching out and reaching more and more people.

“A lot of people think chaplains are just for the players,” he said, “but we minister to everybody from the staff, coaching staff, athletes, custodial staff, receptionists and athletic directors. If I were really to be honest, I probably shepherd a church of about 700. So it’s a great privilege that we have to do that.”

Cramer and fellow staff member Scotty Hollins have set up leadership meetings on Sunday nights, larger, more evangelistic gatherings on Monday nights, and a “Thursday Night Live” bridge-building event where athletes come to watch the ESPN Game of the Week. Throughout the week, FCA emphasizes one-on-one discipleship meetings and Bible studies and have a 10-12 person coaches Bible study.

In short, there’s a lot of campus ministry going on.

“We’ve been given a great privilege from all of the coaches to be a part of their teams,” Cramer said. “We had invitations from all of them. We’re at (football) practice every day. We have the privilege of being there. But more importantly, we’re about the discipleship and the growth of these players and equipping them.”

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At Virginia Tech, Shelton is entering his second season as the full-time chaplain for the football team, and his third at the school overall. His situation is a bit less developed than Cramer’s at Alabama, but he’s glad to have a friend he can look to as an example.


Above, from left: FCA's Scotty Hollins, AIA's Jennifer Waddell, and FCA's Gary Cramer
Below: FCA's Johnny Shelton leads the Virginia Tech players in prayer at the 50-yard-line.

“I usually can’t wait to go to Leaders of Excellence to tap into him,” said Shelton, who has roomed with Cramer for three of the last four retreats. “I ask him, ‘What are you doing? What’s working? What’s not?’ We definitely look at him (for guidance). We want it to be more than just a football ministry.”

Shelton focuses a lot on one-on-one discipleship with members of the football team. He leads a coaches Bible study on Thursday mornings, and he’s also set up a “share time” on Friday nights for the players.

In the past, during road trips, Shelton has contacted local FCA staff to get in touch with NFL players to come share their testimony during the Friday night get-togethers. This week, he’s hoping to have some Atlanta Falcons join.

For both Shelton and Cramer, their ministry involves staying in touch with former players who have gone on to the pros. Shelton keeps in contact with former Virginia Tech football players like Denver Broncos wide receiver Eddie Royal, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Justin Harper, Buffalo Bills defensive end Chris Ellis and San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Josh Morgan.

Cramer still talks to Atlanta Falcons QB John Parker Wilson, Houston Texans offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell and 49ers running back Glen Coffee, who all graduated last year.

“In fact, Glen asked me to come out to San Francisco,” Cramer said. “I’ll be flying out Oct. 10. I’m just going to stay with him for a couple days. He wants me to come out and do a spiritual inventory with him, make sure he’s living his life the way he needs to be living it, dealing with the pressures of the being an NFL player.”

When Cramer first arrived at Alabama, he soon teamed with Jennifer Waddell, an Athletes in Action staff member who had been at the school for about 13 years. It’s a true example of two ministries joining forces for an eternal impact. Cramer, Waddell and other FCA staff members have joint staff meetings every week and work together frequently.

Shelton heard about that idea and is now trying to implement it in Blacksburg, Va.

“We’re actually going to have our first meeting this week,” Shelton said, “so we’re real excited about that.”

Regardless of the outcome of the game Saturday night, both teams have strong spiritual leaders in place, giving athletes guidance and direction. And that, more than anything else, is what chaplain ministry is all about.

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Photos courtesy of Devin Fish, Alabama Media Relations; Gary Cramer; Dave Knachel, Virginia Tech Media Relations; Johnny Shelton.

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