Photography by Richard Om
Lakeland’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes works to be a faithful presence on school campuses in order to equip students and coaches on and off the field.
Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), founded in 1954, is a nonprofit organization with the mission of having a transformative impact on the lives of coaches and athletes. Ranging from elementary all the way to college, FCA can be found on school campuses across the country gathering with students and coaches to cheer them on, invest into their lives, and grow in their faith. They operate by partnering with local churches and volunteers, across a variety of denominations, in order to connect the students and coaches with a local faith community. The goal being that the work they’re doing on campus will in turn be able to take root long after a student is done scoring goals or a coach is done running drills.
FCA is experiencing unprecedented growth here in Lakeland and across Central Florida, in large part due to the leadership of Mark Wilson and Terry Green. Wilson has been with FCA since 2011 and has served as the multi-area director for West Central and South Florida since 2014. Graduating from Frostproof High School in the ’70s, Wilson is very familiar with the area. He understands the significant role that both sports and faith play within the community, which has helped him in developing the buy-in of school administrators and coaches, as well as local ministers.
Green, who Wilson says is a “rising star and an emerging leader in FCA,” has been on staff since 2015 and serves as the Polk metro area director. He and his wife, Jill, moved to Lakeland from Washington state in 2012. Like the students he now works with, Green was an athlete throughout middle and high school. However, as he will tell you, he didn’t grow up in church. It wasn’t until Green was in his twenties that he went to a church service and decided devote his life to following Jesus, a decision which eventually lead him and Jill to Florida — and ultimately, to FCA.
Working alongside Wilson and Green are a number of different staff and interns, all of whom also deserve immense credit for their tireless work. Among them is Caleb Konieczny, the area representative for Lakeland. Konieczny played college basketball in Lakeland at Southeastern University (SEU) and came on staff full-time with FCA this fall after interning with them while he completed his master’s degree at SEU.
Martha Valadez, who is currently interning with FCA, is a testament to the kind of lasting imprint FCA can have on a person. She started engaging with the FCA club at her middle school and continued on throughout high school. Valadez says her decision to continue serving with FCA was due to the impact it had on her life. FCA and her sports teams gave Valadez refuge from a difficult home life. Now she wants to return the favor by being the same source of hope and support that meant so much to her life.
Mark Wilson, Terry Green, Caleb Konieczny, and Martha Valadez all sat down with The Lakelander to share about their journey with FCA and to talk about the work they’re doing in our community, on and off of the athletic field.
The Lakelander: Why was FCA started, and how has it managed to have such a significant impact for so many years?
Terry Green: Really, FCA was started because there was a need and a desire from Christians who didn’t want to feel like they had to table their faith when they were on the field or the court. From there, it’s led to a number of different things. For one, FCA has been able to provide a significant opportunity to extend the reach of the local church into the community. Over the years, it has grown increasingly difficult for different organizations to get onto school campuses, so one of the great things about FCA is [that] we are known as a “club,” which has allowed us to get on campus in a way that churches and other groups can’t.
TL: What was your journey to FCA like?
TG: Growing up as a multi-sport athlete my entire life, I was totally unaware of FCA. I grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and there was nothing really like it ever presented to me. So when I first learned about FCA after being here in Lakeland for a little while, I thought it was one of the greatest things I had ever heard.
I initially got involved through my church. I was serving at Highland Park when Mark met with my pastor, Brett Rickey, looking for volunteers for FCA and my name was given to Mark. We met to talk about being a volunteer, and then two weeks later we got lunch and he ended up offering me a job, which I didn’t even know was possible. I thought FCA was all run by volunteers, just to show you the amount of knowledge I had on it at the time.
Where it all made sense for me though, in terms of coming on staff, was when I examined my own experiences. I played sports at a pretty high level, but never once was I able to filter my relationship with my coach. My coach would say, “I’m yelling because I care,” but I associated yelling with failure. So when he yelled at me, I had nobody around to help me process it and learn from it. Which is a lot of what we try to do in FCA. We try to come alongside the coaches to be voices of encouragement and support, as well as an ear for students to talk through their frustrations and issues.
TL: Why did FCA decide to focus specifically on athletes and coaches?
TG: Well sports is, in my opinion, the number-one platform for entertainment across the globe. With that, and with things like social media, there’s this added pressure. And for many young people, sports are all they have. At FCA, we have been given the opportunity to build real relationships with these student athletes and talk about the things they’re dealing with, on and off the field. In doing that, I’ve found that there is an extreme pressure for a lot of these students, especially those who might be coming from a difficult situation at home, who think their only goal is to get a college scholarship. But if you look at the numbers, the reality is the majority of high school student athletes are not going to get an athletic scholarship to play in college. That’s why we place such a strong emphasis on helping these students see life in its totality — beyond the field, beyond the court.
TL: FCA doesn’t just focus on ministering to the students; you place a strong emphasis on investing into the lives of the coaches. Why is that, and what does that look like?
Mark Wilson: Absolutely. We believe that coaches have as much or more influence on a young person as anybody in their lives. “Coach says” is often the two most important words in a student’s life. Coach says to get on the bus, you get on the bus. You don’t even have to ask where you’re going. You do it because coach said so. We know and recognize that reality. We also know that each one of us can’t possibly be on every campus all the time, but if we spend time investing in the coaches and being a resource for them, we don’t have to be.
“We try to come alongside the coaches to be voices of encouragement and support, as well as an ear for students to talk through their frustrations and issues.”
– Terry Green
When it comes to the Xs and Os, coaches have that down. Getting their players bigger, faster, stronger — coaches know how to do that pretty well. We stay out of all that. Most of the time, the things we’re talking with them about is their personal lives. Coaches face the same issues in life we all face, so we spend a lot of time helping them navigate through those issues. To be a good coach, you have to spend a lot of time with your team which can add even more strain. We want to be there to walk with them through all of that.
TL: Caleb, one of your schools is Lakeland High school. What has your experience been with the students and coaches at LHS?
Caleb Konieczny: For me the biggest thing is seeing how much these players and coaches appreciate and value what we’re doing. At first, kids can put up a barrier. They would sort of be tolerating us and then they started to be more cool with us. Once it clicked for them that we’re there to actually build real relationships and to encourage them, that’s everything. And the more time goes by, they see the positive impact we’re having in their lives and within their team, and now they actually want us in their lives. Now students actually ask us, “You’re going to be at our game, right? Is Grace City [the church who has partnered with FCA at LHS] going to be there?” They want us to be there because we’re genuinely a part of their lives.
I consider it all an honor. I’m honored that the principal at LHS would take time during the football team’s state championship celebration to acknowledge the influence and the impact FCA is having at their school. That means the world to know he values what we’re doing in the lives of his students and administrators.
TL: Martha, you were introduced to FCA as a student. What was it about FCA and the people you encountered through FCA that made such a profound impact on you?
Martha Valadez: I first encountered FCA through an area rep named Gloria. She came into my life in sixth grade as my basketball coach before she went on staff with FCA. Once she joined FCA, she continued to be in my life and we continued to develop our relationship. At first, it was really just through basketball: stopping by practices, being at my games. It wasn’t like she was just trying to get me to go to church or trying to tell me about Jesus. She really just showed me who Jesus is through her actions. I didn’t really grow up in church or a good home, so Gloria was the first person who shared with me about faith.
From there, I started going to FCA camps. I went all four years of high school, and I even ended up being a leader for camp later on. Going to my first camp is what really changed things for me. After I went, I began praying more and reading my Bible on a consistent basis — which I never did before — and I started to be more of a leader on my soccer team. All of that started with sports and then a person like Gloria who was willing to be that person to show me love. Now I just want to be available to be that same person I needed when I was younger.
The late Henri Nouwen, a Christian pastor and author, once wrote:
“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.”
Fellowship of Christian Athletes has meant many things to many people, but perhaps Nouwen’s words best capture the heart of FCA: a ministry of presence. Certainly the team at FCA plans and strategizes. But, at its core, FCA is a group of women and men like Martha, Mark, Terry, and Caleb who have devoted their lives to simply being a faithful presence in the lives of the students and coaches.