The Truth... What is it?

Bethel 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 opponent.

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. [now Bethel University]

"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 1993.

"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 improve.

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 tuition.

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 million.

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 hearts."

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 gift.

"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 camp.

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 unengaged.

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 experience.

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 thrilled.

"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 said.

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 temptations?

"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 keggers.

"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" and "darn."

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."


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(posted 11 November 2002)