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Grilling for souls

HYATTSVILLE, Md. — Normally the Northwestern High School Wildcats would be out under the Friday night lights somewhere in the outskirts of our nation’s capital, playing another 4A football team.

But on this particular Friday night their opponents had to forfeit. They didn’t have enough players for a varsity team. (That’s just a reality of high school football around here. Resources and manpower are limited.)

Hamil R. Harris

Nonetheless, the Wildcats gather in the parking lot of the University Park Church of Christ for a Friday night ritual. The linebackers, tackles and wide receivers are huddled around a grill.

“Thanks for picking up the cheese,” Ken Roberts tells me as I arrive. The 56-year-old Army veteran and church deacon is working the grill like a soldier. He had 125 slices of cheese ready for the evening but left them at home, so I ran by his house on the way.

As soon as a hot dog or burger is ready, Roberts tosses it onto a paper plate and hands it to a hungry varsity or junior varsity player — even though most have already received their one hot dog and one hamburger quota.

“I love doing this because it’s fun,” Roberts says, “and we are reaching  young people and helping them to get a spiritual nugget.”

For nearly two decades, the University Park church has been feeding the players spiritual food — through the annual Friday night cookout and a Saturday breakfast and Bible study. It has been a mutually beneficial relationship, said church member Faye Spradlin.

“We have planted seeds for almost 20 years, and I have been rewarded by the good conduct of these young men for 20 years, and we’ve never had anything negative,” said Spradlin, whose husband, David, is one of the church’s three elders.

“They are so mannerable,” he says of the teens.

The Northwestern High School Wildcats line up during a team practice.

During football season, the players start arriving at the church shortly after 8 a.m. on game days. There is a Bible study at 8:30 and breakfast is served at 9. The meals range from chicken and waffles to sausage, gravy, biscuits, grits and eggs.

Multiply all that by the number of games and number of players and you get some pretty impressive stats.

“Each football season we use about 1,100 eggs, 15 gallons of grits, 30 gallons of Tang, plus dozens of pancakes, waffles, sausages, 300 biscuits, etc.,” sister Spradlin says.

I ask her why the church was so willing to use its limited resources in this way.

“For most of the boys, it’s their first time in a church,” she says, “and later in life they remember it. In our experience talking to past players years later, what they remember is not just the breakfasts, but who prepared the breakfasts.”

The idea of a pregame chapel comes from the school where I played football — Florida State University. Most of the volunteers who make it happen are dedicated federal workers, from an inspector general for the Department of Agriculture to David Dillard, a senior manager for Voice of America.

After all, “that’s why they call them civil servants,” says Sylvia Shanks, another member of the church.

“Flipping burgers may seem mundane, but nothing is ordinary when done in the name of the Lord.”

In addition to helping at the breakfasts, Dillard, who is also a church elder and a veteran photographer, takes game photos from the sidelines.

The Wildcats aren’t having their best season. (They’re 0-5 so far). But the church’s commitment remains strong, and head coach Bryan Pierre is very happy about that.

“It’s an awesome program,” he says. Later this year, the team will host its annual banquet at the church building. They’ve had some high-powered speakers in the past, including Jake Gonas, former strength and conditioning coach for FSU, and Angela Alsobrooks, State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County.

Why use the church building?

“It’s a tradition,” Pierre says.

In the past two decades, the church has hosted some future football talent. Before he was a starting safety for the Los Angeles Rams, John Johnson was a regular at the church’s meals. During the first game of the season, Johnson’s father came back to Northwestern High with one question: “Do they still have the breakfast at the church?”

They do. And they still do the Friday night cookouts — no matter the turmoil going on inside the Beltway and no matter the score.

As he flips burgers for the players, Roberts tells me how much he enjoys grilling. On Thanksgiving he and his wife, a federal worker, invite about 40 people to their home for food and fellowship. His father taught him about service, Roberts says, adding, “this is my gift from God.”

Tom Leibrand, a University Park deacon who also works for the government, is a frequent griller who provided the hot dogs for the meal.

“It seems to be a universal pattern where drawing people to one another is centered around a meal,” Leibrand says. “Jesus wanted to bare his heart around that last meal. We are unified in Jesus, and it’s clear that our cookouts enrich that unity.

“Flipping burgers may seem mundane, but nothing is ordinary when done in the name of the Lord.”

Filed under: Football Insight ministry Opinion Youth

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