The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) family is mourning the loss of its founder, after the passing of Don McClanen at the age of 91. McClanen died Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.
His dedicated vision for a sports ministry that would touch the lives of coaches and athletes around the world propelled FCA to what it is today. And it began with a spark of passion, deeply rooted in McClanen’s heart.
“Heavy hearts abound at FCA as we mourn the passing of our founder, Don McClanen,” said Les Steckel, FCA President and CEO, “yet we are overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of gratitude and respect for a man who has influenced so many. Don’s unwavering commitment and vision truly enabled FCA to grow to where it is today, encouraging millions of coaches and athletes to lead lives that are dedicated to Christ. For that reason, we celebrate Don’s life and his passion for ministry. Through his humble determination, FCA is able to touch hearts and continue to change lives—all thanks to our founder, who always gave glory to God.
“If there is ever a question about what God can do with a life totally surrendered, called and risking all to follow His vision, we can point to a young basketball coach from Oklahoma, who in 1954 saw the potential of athletes and coaches to share the gospel with the world,” Steckel added. “Sixty-two years later, that vision is alive and well through FCA, influencing lives for Christ across the globe—an amazing legacy. We praise God for the life of Don McClanen.”
Born Feb. 3, 1925, in Trenton, N.J., McClanen was a young athlete and coach in the ’40s and ’50s and wondered why professional athletes endorsed products like shaving cream and cigarettes, but not a Christian lifestyle. That insight became the backbone for one of the largest organizations in the world that seeks to serve coaches and athletes, all while bringing glory to Jesus Christ.
After serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II, McClanen and his new wife, Gloria, headed for Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State University). McClanen had wanted to major in physical education and get his foot in the door for coaching. While he was attending a physical education conference in Oklahoma City, one of the speakers asked attendees to think about how they could lead young people either “up a mountain or down a drain.”
McClanen was challenged to be a better model of his Christian life and told the Lord he would surrender to His will. Inspired by the conference, he began saving newspaper and magazine articles about Christian athletes and coaches. After his college graduation, McClanen started his coaching career at an Oklahoma high school, then took the position of basketball coach and athletic director at Eastern Oklahoma A&M (now Eastern Oklahoma State). All the while, his newspaper clippings piled up.
After reading that 30 million American youth had no religious training, McClanen began posting his articles in the locker room and praying before games. Soon, he was dreaming of a way for well-known Christian athletes to advertise their faith on television and in magazines the way they advertised other household products. But McClanen didn’t know where to start.
For seven years before the birth of FCA, McClanen prayed about what the organization would look like and whom it would serve. Eventually, he joined forces with the other FCA “Founding Fathers”—Dr. Louis H. Evans, Dr. Roe Johnston and Branch Rickey, among others—who made FCA come to life.
Evans had encouraged McClanen to write to Christian athletes who were strong in their faith—greats like football stars Doak Walker and Otto Graham; baseball players Carl Erskine, Robin Roberts and Alvin Dark; Olympians Bob Mathias and Bob Richards; coaching and front office legends Amos Alonzo Stagg, Bud Wilkinson and Clarence “Biggie” Munn; and even broadcasters Tom Harmon and Red Barber. In all, 19 letters were mailed, each carefully laying out McClanen’s God-given desire for what would become FCA.
Fourteen of those 19 men told McClanen they were interested. But Rickey, the then-Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager who had signed Jackie Robinson when he led the Brooklyn Dodgers, didn’t answer the letter. McClanen, however, pressed on for a meeting with him. He promised to drive to Pittsburgh to meet with Rickey on his own dime for a five-minute face-to-face conversation. The meeting lasted five hours, and three months later and with a $10,000 gift from a Pittsburgh businessman, FCA became a reality, chartered in Oklahoma on Nov. 10, 1954.
Backed by McClanen’s passion and persistence, the first FCA National Conference was held in 1956 in Estes Park, Colo.—a precursor to today’s FCA Camps, which are now a staple of FCA’s ministry. Today, McClanen’s legacy has immensely far-reaching effects. And thanks to his vision and commitment to God’s will for his life, millions have been changed for the better through their love of sports.
Over his lifetime, McClanen also founded other influential ministries, including an inner-city youth ministry in Washington, D.C., a church-renewal ministry, and the “Ministry of Money” to help people follow Christ in their financial lives.
McClanen was preceded in death by two of his children: a son, Douglas, in 1947, who died one day after birth, and a 10-year-old daughter, Judy, who died in 1960. He and Gloria, who survives, lived in Germantown, Md., for more than a half-century. They have two adult children, son Michael (and his wife, Amra) and daughter Laurie, along with seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. The McClanen family will honor his life with a memorial service this summer. Visit the special web page paying tribute to Don McClanen. -FCA-