By Liz Cutler Gates
Crusader Football’s roots are in a challenge issued during a Sunday morning sermon. It has grown into a region-wide program which now involves nearly 300 families and includes a football team, cheerleaders, and a marching band.
But Crusader Football is more than sacking opponents, rooting for a team, and leading the fight song. It’s about encouraging young men and women to develop biblical characteristics such as commitment, honor, and responsibility.
“Pastor Jim Custer preached a sermon where he talked about how not everyone had to be a missionary or a preacher,” recalls Mike Cheeseman, a member of the Grace Brethren Church of Columbus, OH, for more than 25 years. “He said you should take whatever talents God gave you and use them to minister to people.”
A carpenter by trade, Cheeseman accepted the challenge. He wove the concept into his construction business and participated in ministry opportunities where he used his building skills.
Even as his children attended Grace Brethren Christian Schools, a ministry of the Columbus church, he and his wife, Betsy, would go to football games at a local public high school.
“They had a so-so team,” Cheeseman recalls, “but we’d notice how the community would support them.” The couple began to consider how football could be used to preach the gospel, combining a passion for the sport with a desire to minister. “It’s not so much in what you’re saying or preaching, but in how you play the game,” he notes.
Columbus Crusaders are Born
By 1996, Cheeseman and fellow Grace Brethren Church member Tom Ensign decided to begin a football program where their sons could participate. They enlisted two additional coaches and 22 players for a 6th and 7th grade team to play in a Central Ohio club league. They thought the group would be a precursor to a football program at Worthington Christian Schools, where their sons attended. But Cheeseman now knows God had bigger plans – the Columbus Crusaders.
By 1999, they convinced Mike Stanley, who had recently sold his interest in several Columbus area McDonald’s restaurants, to join the growing program as head coach. A former high school coach who had served as running back and defensive line coach at Miami University (Ohio), Stanley brought technical expertise to the playing field.
Now, as the 2005 season kicks off, the program includes widely-respected high school varsity and junior varsity teams, boasting about 60 players, 7th and 8th grade teams, each with about 30 youngsters, and their own 56er league, consisting of four teams of 5th and 6th graders.
The Crusaders are a ministry of the Grace Brethren Church of Columbus. (Stanley bristles at the suggestion of calling it a “club” program.) It is entirely self-supporting through participant fees and fund raising efforts, though the church provides administrative support. The program is led by volunteers, with the exception of professional trainers and a part-time paid administrative assistant, though that may change, as the steering committee has decided to hire a full-time director.
“We have people from more than 40 churches involved in this program,” notes Stanley, a member at the Columbus Grace Brethren Church since 1987. Participants come from all over metropolitan Columbus, and one drives from Zanesville, about 50 miles to the east. They also come from a variety of backgrounds – private and public schools and home-schooled individuals. “It’s a common misconception that in order to be on our team, you have to be a homeschooler,” says Stanley.
The program was begun to fill a gap, Stanley says. “If you go to a Christian high school because you want a Christian education, you don’t have any place to play football.” He notes that only one Christian high school in the Columbus area fields a football team. But the coaching staff has seen more public school students come to play with the Crusaders. “They want to be involved in our program, as opposed to their own,” he says.
The program, thought to be the only one like it in the country, is thoroughly Christ-centered. Stanley points to the organization’s mission statement – encouraging young men and women to use their God-given talents to “honor Jesus,” a slogan that is worn on uniforms and varsity jackets.
The saying sums up character traits that the coaching staff believes should be a part of a biblical life. Based on an acrostic using CHRIST, they stress commitment, honor, initiative, responsibility, service, and truth. The concepts are emphasized throughout the program, including the weekly chapels that are often led by coaches or Grace Brethren pastors.
‘We Work Them Hard’
Crusaders are also serious about football. “We recognize that if you want to attract the kind of guys who will be leaders for Christ, men who understand that a lot is expected of them, then we’re going to have to work them hard,” stresses Stanley.
He also recognizes that a football player who is interested in being part of a state championship team will not play for the Crusaders because the program is not part of Ohio High School Athletic Association.
At the same time, Crusaders has had outstanding team members who have gone on to play at the college level, including NCAA Division I-A Miami University (Ohio). Considering it is a young program (they’ve only played at the varsity level fewer than five years), Stanley is proud of this handful of young men.
“We’ve had plenty of great players play for us because they’ve come out of Christians schools, they’ve been home-schooled, or in some cases they just have a sense that they need to be playing to honor God,” he says.
What if officials at Worthington Christian High School (WCHS) decide to begin a football program? For Coach Stanley, the question is not if, but when. He recognizes that the beginning of a program at the Christian high school would mean a change for the Crusader Football ministry, but he doesn’t see that as a negative.
“If Worthington Christian starts a football team, that’s great, but I don’t think we’re going away,” he adds, recognizing that the Crusaders would probably have to find a new facility. “They (the WCHS team) would be a ministry that would take priority,” he says.
“God has given us a greater vision than simply a high school football team,” he says.
“This could be something special,” echoes Cheeseman. “The sky is the limit.”
For more information see, www.columbuscrusaders.org.
Liz Cutler Gates, a Grace College journalism graduate who is active in the Grace Brethren Church of Columbus, Ohio, is director of communications for the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University.