Don McClanen, who founded Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) in 1954 after enlisting the support of several Christians in sports, died Feb. 16 at age 91.
More than 60 years after its founding, FCA is a worldwide ministry headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., with 1,200 staff members who use athletics as a means of reaching the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Former Major League pitcher Rick Horton, who now serves as the St. Louis-area FCA director in addition to his role as a St. Louis Cardinals broadcaster, said of McClanen, “He’s really been such a great example for FCA over 60 years of what it means to be on a mission and to be led by God to a particular vision.”
FCA President Les Steckel, in announcing McClanen’s death in a Feb. 16 email, wrote, “If you’ve ever wondered what God can do with a life totally surrendered, called, and risking all to follow His vision, remember this 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, The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, is alive and well, influencing lives for Christ across the globe … an amazing legacy.”
One of the FCA staff members who received Steckel’s email was Kellen Cox, whose thoughts immediately turned to a conversation he had with McClanen last year.
Cox normally loved his job with FCA. The organization had been a part of his entire life, with his father coming to Christ in high school through FCA’s ministry and later serving on the FCA board in southwest Missouri. Cox himself had been active in FCA in junior high and high school. He began the FCA chapter at Missouri Southern State University where he played football.
Cox had the opportunity to join FCA full-time after graduation, sensing a clear call from God as he ministered to coaches and athletes. He approached each day with excitement and expectation.
But one day last year, Cox awoke with an unusual sense of discouragement – the first time he had ever felt it in his work. The small pressures and trials of life had mounted, as they often do. The day began with a canceled meeting, leading Cox to become even more despondent.
Then his phone rang.
“Is this Kellen Cox?” the man asked, saying he was calling on behalf of McClanen.
As the area director of FCA for Johnson County, Kansas, Cox knew all about McClanen. A minute later, the 90-year-old McClanen was on the phone, saying how much he had appreciated a letter Cox sent to him and and his wife Gloria a few months before, thanking them for their ministry and the impact they had made on his life.
“Gloria and I get a lot of letters, but yours stood out to us,” McClanen told Cox. “I’ve never felt so courageous in my age. We felt brave again after reading it.”
“I’m not too emotional of a guy, but I definitely started crying then and there,” Cox recounted.
Cox was amazed that in the moment when he really needed encouragement, the founder of the ministry he loved dearly would call from his Maryland home and tell him about the impact he was making. The two talked for about half an hour. McClanen asked Cox if there was any way he could fly out to Maryland for a visit.
Over the next few months, Cox thought about making that trip and wondered if he’d ever get to meet McClanen. Then Steckel’s email came on Feb. 16.
“When we got the email two mornings ago, my heart sank,” Cox said. But, speaking in heavenward terms, Cox said, “… I knew that I’ll be meeting him one day.”
McClanen’s vision for FCA began when he was a student manager for the men’s basketball team at Oklahoma A&M College (now Oklahoma State) after serving in World War II. He noticed that athletes were using their influence to endorse products, and he wondered why that same influence couldn’t be used to reach people for Christ.
“Don was a very humble man, soft-spoken and Christ-like,” said longtime FCA staffer Wayne Atcheson, who now works with the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, N.C. “Only God could take a student basketball manager in college and give him the vision for FCA and the perseverance to organize what became the world’s largest sports ministry.”
After graduating, McClanen became a high school basketball coach and then basketball coach and athletic director at Eastern Oklahoma A&M, when he started contacting high-profile athletes, sending a letter to 19 people in March 1954 that laid out his vision for FCA. Among the recipients were broadcaster Red Barber, New York Giants shortstop Alvin Dark, Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Carl Erskine, Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham, Olympic track star Louis Zamperini and Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Branch Rickey.
Later that year, after Rickey had not replied to his letter, McClanen arranged what he told Rickey would be a five-minute meeting. Rickey was one of the most prominent figures in sports at the time, and McClanen considered his support vital for the success of the ministry. That five-minute meeting turned into several hours, with Rickey pledging to back the effort. FCA officially launched in November 1954.
McClanen moved to the Washington, D.C., area after founding FCA, where he began two other ministries – Washington Lift, an inner-city youth ministry, and Ministry of Money for wealthy Americans to reach impoverished nations. McClanen made regular mission trips to Haiti even into his 80s.
He is survived by his wife Gloria and son Michael.
“God put a fire in his heart to reach the world for Christ,” said Dan Britton, FCA’s international executive vice president. “He was a humble man who had a lot of passion. That’s a unique combination that most people don’t have.
“Being around him, I was always challenged to dream big and to see what God could do through a simple man,” Britton said. “A man with a vision in his eyes can change the world, and that was Don McClanen.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president of university communications at Union University. He is co-author of “Pujols: More Than the Game” and writer of the forthcoming autobiography of Olympic gold medalist David Boudia, “Greater Than Gold: From Olympic Heartbreak to Ultimate Redemption.”)