The football and tennis teams take different approaches to integrating religion and sports.
By Josh Towner
Football coach Steve Johnson doesn’t see faith as a special concept he needs to impart on his team. For him, faith is a part of everything. Integrating faith into football is the same thing as integrating faith into taking out the trash or walking down the hallway. Johnson applies his faith to all aspects of life. He takes the same three core concepts, gratefulness, toughness and devotion, and works them into everything he does. He’s grateful, tough and devoted to being a father, a husband and a football coach.
Johnson has coached football for 39 years at St. Cloud State, the University of Minnesota, Montana State University and Bethel, where he’s been since 1989. The difference between coaching at Bethel and at secular Division I schools, he says, is the people.
“There was nobody around that I wanted to be like when I grew up. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be me but there was nobody that I wanted to be with,” Johnson said. “I need to be sharpened, and I need to be a sharpener.”
Johnson’s favorite part of football is the difficulty. It’s a physical, gritty sport, and only a select few players on the team will actually touch the football. Despite that, the players who handle the ball rely desperately on each other. Johnson sees faith in the same light: Christians depend on each other to grow in faith.
It’s this sense of togetherness that draws sophomore Jake Marsh to the faith aspect of football.
“Faith is the one thing that connects us all,” Marsh said. “It unites us and motivates us to be the best versions of ourselves.”
In tennis, faith is expressed differently. It’s an individual sport. A player stands alone on the court, as opposed to surrounded by other players on the football field.
Accountability in maintaining composure is one of the biggest obstacles players face. “There’s a competitiveness that you don’t want to take control of you, it can be a negative impact on the way you view your opponent and yourself,” senior Mattie Kidder said. “How we play on the court is how we play for the Lord.”
Making sure players stay collected on the court starts with remembering who they play for. “We play for each other and we play for Christ. We’re representing the team, representing Bethel and representing God,” coach Drew Fernelius said.
Fernelius doesn’t find any difficulty in integrating faith into his coaching philosophy. He says faith is such an integral part of his personality that his faith is noticeable in everything he does. Fernelius’ walk with God is contagious. His excitement boils over when he gets to share what he’s been learning in the Bible.
Kidder has been so impacted by Fernelius’ leadership and faith that she considers him to be her spiritual leader. On the tennis team’s spring break trip to Hawaii, Kidder was baptized by Fernelius.
The team went to a rocky beach to hold the baptism. As Kidder looked around she saw dozens of strangers walking around the beach and observing what was unfolding. “This is perfect. People are watching your public profession of faith,” Fernelius said. Despite the water being only knee high, Kidder was baptized.
“It was a great honor and a really neat thing for the whole team to experience,” Fernelius said.