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Becoming Greater, Becoming Less

Published on February 27, 2024

Sarah Freymuth

Bryon O’Brien looked around at what and who was before him, saw a need that could be met, and moved in faith.

Despite the lack of clear-cut direction toward an end goal, directed steps and people and money to make things happen, O’Brien has learned to trust God will make a way. This is what he’s done for years: He’s seen an open space and an unmet need and filled it. He’s figured it out.

This journey began when he felt called to student ministry in his early 20s. As a youth leader at his first church, Bellevue Baptist Church in the Greater Memphis, Tenn. area, he also got involved in the church’s recreational ministry by coaching baseball and basketball, and refereeing. Shortly after, he was introduced to FCA and became a  Character Coach for the urban high school football team.

When he moved to Alabama to take a new church ministry position, O’Brien immediately went to work serving the local high school that was located just across the street from the church. He and his team served pregame meals and connected with the coaches.

When God closed doors in Alabama, O’Brien moved his family back to Memphis and wondered what was next. While he waited on God for a paid position, he supported his church staff and was elected to the school board for Fayette County, serving as chairman from 2008-2012. He got to know the school system and built relationships with-3Bi6HbA administration, coaches and teachers. One day, O’Brien got a call from a friend he went to church with asking if he’d be the football team’s chaplain.

He immediately thought about FCA and all the support and resources it offered. The local area’s staff was stretched thin from covering the surrounding counties between Memphis and Jackson, so he went to FCA’s website and started browsing the devotions and Bible studies for content to help him lead the team and support the coaches.

After two years of connecting as chaplain, Greater Memphis Multi-Area Director Jeremy Wilbur reached out and invited him to join staff. Behind the scenes over these years, O’Brien struggled with feeling called to missions. After much prayer and discussion with his wife, O’Brien surrendered in obedience to whatever God was inviting Him into.

O’Brien worked for FCA part-time by leading Huddles and continuing his chaplaincy with local teams. He joined FCA full time in April 2020 as the Director of Fayette and Tipton County, outside the Greater Memphis area, right when COVID-19 began changing the world’s way of life.

“No fellowship, no athletes—what in the world are we going to do?” he recalled thinking. Like other FCA leaders around the globe, O’Brien pivoted and adjusted to the online realm of Zoom Huddles until in-person ministry could resume.

Then word came of a new FCA initiative called FCA Sports, and O’Brien immediately bought in.

“If we say every coach and athlete, there's so many coaches and athletes that we're not reaching because they're not on the campus, or we lose influence because of the low percentage of athletes that play collegiate ball,” O’Brien said.

“But how many are going to play adult softball, or pickleball? We can reach people up until their 80s! We truly have the missional focus of every coach, every athlete. And with all that encompasses motor sports, outdoors and All Ability, it's endless.”

hx-VQBhQO’Brien’s area was excited for FCA Sports, and they quickly connected with the community for a football league. O’Brien got the insurance and paperwork sorted out and pressed forward. He saw immediate interest and connections, so the group began looking into ways to form more leagues. O’Brien had been on a local parks and recreation board and made many connections. His connections proved helpful in January 2023, when one of the towns didn’t have a director for the upcoming league soccer season. O’Brien and his volunteers prayed for direction and decided to start the soccer league through FCA Sports so kids between ages 3 to 16 had a place and league to play in.

Again, it was extremely grassroots and faith dependent.

“When I opened registration, we didn't even have fields to play on,” admitted O’Brien. “I'm like, ‘God, we're stepping out in faith and going to start, and we're going to figure it out.’”

Within the week, a local church offered their grassy space, and another local church followed. FCA saw 150 kids register, and the league began just a few months later. Several volunteers stepped up to help.

Susannah Henderson, who went to church with O’Brien, happened to be the head soccer coach at Fayette Academy High School. She brought girls from her team who helped coach and referee.

“Our FCA Sports program has been successful, and it has helped our campus ministry because we've married the two—having campus connect with league,” explained O’Brien. “As a high school coach, Susannah recognizes that if we're getting kids touches with soccer at 3 and 4 years old, we’re training them to play the sport well once they get to high school, and this helps the soccer program.”

Not only are the athletes being served through FCA Sports, but so are the coaches, many of them being high school students. O’Brien and his team take their coaches through 360 Coaching and E3 Discipleship. The intentionality has created full circle momentum as the coaches become well-rounded athletes who head into their high school programs already operating in the ways of Jesus.
“Can you imagine having a high school athlete that plays for you that’s been through something like 360 Coach, who not only understands the aspect of playing, but understands what a coach wants to accomplish as a transformational coach?” commented O’Brien. “That changes the relationship with the athlete to the coach to a much higher level.”

Soccer, basketball and cheer leagues, as well as softball and youth football clubs are booming in the Greater Memphis area thanks to God pulling together volunteers and church partnerships. Four churches have offered three gymnasiums for the basketball program with the potential to reach upwards of 500 kids, and there are visions and plans coming together to build even more spaces for coaches and athletes to compete.

But the building of these leagues has not come without great challenges, not only spiritually but also personally for O’Brien. In October 2022, O’Brien scheduled surgery on his hand because of a torn tendon. But when the surgeon went to operate, O’Brien’s hand became paralyzed. He went through rounds of testing to find out why. O’Brien and his family prayed and weighed all the heavy possibilities.

After another surgery to fuse two discs that were thought to be the source of the problem, his hand began cramping out of the blue again, rendering him unable to move it.

Doctors sent him back to neurology where he endured months of testing while steadily losing function in his hand, muscle in his arm, and nerve strength.

After months of testing, he was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called multifocal motor neuropathy and began treatment, but after months with no sign of improvements, doctors reluctantly admitted a progression towards ALS.

Through it all, O’Brien continued to minister, and God continued to do amazing things.

“Going into 2023, little did I know that I was going to live out John 3:30: He must become greater, I must become less,” he said. “God was showing Himself in a massive way, providing all these church partners, seeing 150 kids sign up to play soccer, grow campus ministry and bring people on staff, while I was literally becoming less in my physical body.”

oizPvlTQO’Brien said the disease is slowly rendering him more and more incapable of movement, but that doesn’t mean God’s stopped using him.

“Bryon is a remarkable human being,” said Derek Parks, FCA EVP of League Sports. “I’ve personally been moved watching him pour into ministry while his health is in a really tough situation. He is an amazing leader.”

The tenacity, grit, grace and obedience that has defined O’Brien’s ministry has continued to do a good work in Fayette County, and it continues to grow. For one whose life seems to revolve around the mantra of “Let’s figure this out”, O’Brien is leaning on his faith while trailblazing along new, unknown roads.

He’s actively working on putting sport specific Ambassadors in place who can run with each sports community, finding ways to weave sport and faith together. He’s establishing leaders in the right places to set up Fayette County to be poised for growth in the years to come.

“Early in my Christian life, I said I want to script my life in a way that I glorify God in everything I do, and that I finish the work that He's given me to do, like Jesus says in John 17:4,” O’Brien said. “Honestly, now, Scripture reads differently.

“I want to finish well, I want to finish strong, I want to make an impact. My life group teacher and good friend told me weeks ago that he believes my greatest impact has yet to be seen.”

O’Brien’s again fixed his eyes on what matters.

“The way I live through this will say more than anything and leave a legacy that hopefully will glorify God and point to the cross.”

To help with building costs for fields and equipment for leagues, and to support O’Brien’s ministry, visit FCA Sports Fayette TN. 


Photos courtesy of Bryon O'Brien, FCA Sports Fayette County.