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Jesus Won

Published on June 05, 2024

Joshua Cooley
This article appears in the Spring 2024 issue of the FCA Donor Publication. The FCA publication is a gift from our FCA staff to all donors giving $50 or more annually. For more information about giving, visit here.

When Evan Carter woke up on September 7, 2023, he was in El Paso, Texas, getting ready to play another minor league baseball game. Life consisted of traveling on minor league buses (and some planes) to minor league stadiums, eating minor league food in minor league clubhouses, and sleeping in minor league hotels.

Then, like one of the scores of tornados that strike the Lone Star State each year, Carter was swept up in a wild, two-month experience that forever changed his life. Later that day, he received his major league call-up by the Texas Rangers. The following evening, he was in the Rangers’ lineup against visiting Oakland. Fifty-four days later, he was a World Series champion, playing a key role in the Rangers’ first title in franchise history. All this for a 21-year-old who was only three years removed from high school.

To call Carter an overnight sensation doesn’t seem like hyperbole.

“I felt a little bit spoiled,” he admitted. “People will play their whole careers and not even make it to the playoffs. Then here I was coming in, and we got to do that. So I did feel a little bit spoiled, but at the same time, it was awesome. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

In the midst of Carter’s rapid ascent, a faith-based T-shirt he wore and a related partnership he formed with FCA sparked a powerful, widespread response that is still having ripple effects in Texas and beyond. It’s a testament to God’s active presence in the minute details of our lives and the impact His people can have when they remain open to His plans.

This is the story of Evan Carter’s personal whirlwind.

Rivers Run Through It
Elizabethton, Tennessee is a far cry from the bright lights of Major League Baseball. Shadowed by the Appalachian Mountains, the modest city (pop. 14,015) is nestled in a basin at the confluence of the Doe and Watauga rivers in the far northeastern corner of the state. Dating back to the late 1700s, it’s the first independent American settlement west of the original 13 colonies. A covered  bridge built in 1882 is a particular point of local pride, and much of the downtown district is on the National Register of Historic Places. Future major league Hall of Famers such as Kirby Puckett and Joe Mauer briefly passed through Elizabethton years ago when it was a rookie-league minor league affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. Like the steady flow of the Doe and Watauga, life in Elizabethton quietly ambles along.

This is where Carter grew up, and it’s where he and his wife, Kaylen, have put down their offseason roots. Whatever your stereotypes of a major leaguer are, Carter probably doesn’t fit them. There’s a gentleness and a folksy charm to him. His voice carries some Tennessee twang, and he says “gosh” a lot.

The Carters attend Central Community Christian Church in neighboring Johnson City. So do Evan’s parents, his maternal grandparents, and Kaylen’s parents—a heritage of faith that helped him realize his need for a Savior in sixth grade. Aunts, uncles and cousins on both sides of the family also live nearby.

"I had great role models in my life, and it's great to have your parentsgM8cQglw point you in the right direction," Carter said. "But at some point in time, you've got to say, 'Hey, this is my life. This is what I want to do with it.' And you take the next step [of faith], because they can only point you in the right direction; they can't choose for you." 

Before Carter Mania swept through Elizabethton last fall, the city’s most famous son was former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, a 11-time NFL Pro Bowler who played at Elizabethton High School, Carter’s alma mater. Shawn Witten, Jason’s brother, was Carter’s football coach there.

“Everybody supports everybody, and it’s really cool to see,” Carter said of his hometown. “I would say we’re in the Bible Belt. Everybody goes to church. There’s a church on every corner, it seems like. It matters a lot to people around here. ... Gosh, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Carter earned a baseball scholarship to Duke University, but because the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out his senior season (2020) and he didn’t attend many showcase events, he entered that June’s major league draft under the radar. When Texas selected him with the 50th overall pick in the second round (prompting Carter to forgo college), Rangers fans took to social media to lament.

“I’d say a lot of people were upset when I got drafted,” Carter said.

His first year in the minor leagues did little to quell the noise. Carter hit .236 in 32 games in 2021 for the Rangers’ low-Class A team in Kinston, N.C., before a stress fracture in his back cut his season short.

But he broke out in 2022, hitting .295 with career highs in six offensive categories—including home runs (12), RBI (73) and stolen bases (28)—in 106 games between Hickory (high-A) and Frisco (AA). He also won a minor league Gold Glove Award. The subject of fan angst was now the Rangers’ minor league player of the year—at age 19.

Carter continued to impress in 2023, being promoted to Triple-A Round Rock by late August. The best, however, was yet to come.

Dazzling Debut
On September 6, 2023 in Arlington, Texas, Rangers All-Star right fielder Adolis Garcia injured his knee on a play at the outfield wall in a 12-3 loss to American League Central Division-leading Houston, the Rangers’ third-straight loss in a competitive AL playoff race. Texas was forced to put Garcia—and his 34 home runs and 100 RBI—on the injured list.

The following day, 600 miles west in El Paso, the Round Rock coaching staff pulled aside Carter, the Rangers’ No. 1-rated prospect at the time, and spoke those golden words every prospect wants to hear: “You’re going to the big leagues.” Carter quickly called Kaylen, who started crying.

Starting for the Rangers in right field on September 8, Carter went 1 for 3 with a walk, two strikeouts and a stolen base in his major league debut. He had just turned 21 ten days earlier. Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

Over 23 regular season games, the sweet-swinging lefty hit .306 with five home runs, 12 RBI and an OPS of 1.058. His ability to work the count into his favor (12 walks) earned him the nickname “Full Count” Carter. On September 11 in Toronto, he smacked his first major league home run, launching a 0-1 cutter from starter Chris Bassitt into the second deck in right field.

MBoA9qLt“Gosh, I smiled the whole way around the bases,” he said. “I was trying to play it cool, but that was so much fun.”

When Garcia returned to the lineup on September 18, Carter remained in left field and stayed hot. After the Rangers entered the postseason as a fifth-seeded wild card (90-72), he went 2 for 2 with two doubles and two walks in a 4-0 win over Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the American League Wild Card series. Four days later, he hit another double in Game 1 of the AL Division Series against Baltimore. Then he hit another, and another, and another. His two-bagger in the Rangers’ World Series Game 5 clincher on Nov. 1 helped advance the eventual winning run and gave him nine doubles total in the postseason, a major league record. He set another record by reaching base in each of the Rangers’ 17 playoff games in his first postseason. Overall, he batted .300 with 18 hits, 10 walks and an OPS of .917 in the playoffs.

Defensively, he was virtually flawless in 40 total games with Texas, with only one error in 72 total chances while seeing time at all three outfield positions (primarily left field). His headfirst diving catch on September 16 against Cleveland was sublime. And in the playoffs, he made another diving catch in Game 1 of the ALWC, a sensational leaping grab against the left-center field wall in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series in Houston, and an impressive sliding catch to rob Arizona’s Evan Longoria of a hit in the final game of the World Series.

A few weeks after the Rangers sealed their five-game World Series championship over the Diamondbacks, Elizabethton held a “Parade of Champions” in honor of Carter, and the city designated November 18 “Evan Carter Day.” Months later, he was still struggling to process the dizzying whirlwind.

“I don’t know that I really can [process it], honestly,” he said in mid-January. “You’re in the minor leagues at one moment, and then next thing you know, you’re in the World Series. It all happened so fast.”

The Shirt on His Back
As Carter’s star was rising, so was the visibility surrounding his faith. The day of his big league debut, Carter emerged from the dugout for pregame warmups in a T-shirt bearing the phrase “Jesus Won.” Little did he know the phenomenon that would follow.

The idea for the “Jesus Won” T-shirt started in 2015 with the Grand Canyon University (Arizona) leadership team and GCU Director Kelly Schmidt. Interest in the shirt soon expanded to other Arizona colleges, universities and high schools that have FCA Huddles. Before long, Matt Palmer, The Valley FCA Director in Phoenix, and Kale Garrison, a Valley FCA Board Member, began distributing the shirts to the major league organizations they serve as chaplains during spring training in the greater Phoenix area—the Rangers (Garrison) and the San Francisco Giants (Palmer)—as well as teams in the Class A Arizona Complex League. Those shirts featured the color and font schemes of those respective MLB teams. This is how Carter got his shirt.

Fast forward to September 8, 2023. Because of the buzz surroundingjXy1JEBX Carter’s major league debut, the Rangers splashed photos of him all over their social media pages. Every pregame shot featured him wearing his “Jesus Won” T-shirt.

Sales exploded that weekend on the website hosted by The Valley FCA’s local vendor. Before long, Kaylen Carter suggested that the proceeds of Evan’s “Jesus Won” shirt go toward causes that she and Evan care about, and a new website was launched in early October. Seven hundred shirts sold that first weekend. By the end of November, nearly 7,000 T-shirts had sold, eclipsing $100,000 in proceeds.

On November 29, the Carters presented checks of $35,000 each to Elizabethton High School (benefiting the school’s Cyclone Dugout Club and its FCA Huddle) and their church. The Carters donated another $35,000 to the Valley FCA in Phoenix.

Carter’s boldness inspired other transformative movements. In November, a group from Birdville High School in North Richland Hills, Texas—17 miles from the Rangers’ ballpark—inquired about buying some of the “Jesus Won” shirts for a fundraiser. The group raised more than $6,000 to help their local homeless community, including the provision of housing for one woman and her son who had been living in their car.

“You talk about impact stories!” Palmer said. “This has prompted other opportunities outside of what we did with Evan.”

The Carters continue to partner with Palmer and The Valley FCA to sell and distribute “Jesus Won” T-shirts.

“Evan and Kaylen are going to continue to promote the shirt, and the proceeds will continue to impact a destination of their choice,” Palmer said. “ We’ll keep working through that and see how many T-shirts we can get out there to raise funding support for mission-minded causes and remind people that Jesus won.”

Sixth Grade Sweethearts
As the twister of instant fame swirled around him, Carter found Kaylen to be a calming presence and steadying force. They met in elementary school and became an item in sixth grade. On Evan’s old Instagram page, which hasn’t been active since 2014, his very first post—from November 30, 2013—is a picture of him and Kaylen with the caption: “ At dance with girlfriend. She's so sweet and nice. Best girlfriend ever!"

"They love Jesus. They love people. They love each other. And it’s crazy when you live out life according to God’s will, the joy that comes from that. You can see it in their faces.”
-Matt Palmer, The Valley FCA Director in Phoenix, on Evan and Kaylen Carter
Their first date was a trip to the movies, chaperoned by Kaylen’s mom, to see Bad Grandpa, a crude, lowbrow film that earned every bit of its R rating. Even now, Carter cringes at the memory.

“Oh my gosh. We left the movie,” he recalls. “It was terrible. We had no idea. ... It was not a movie for a 10-year-old.”

The longtime couple married on December 17, 2022. They were both 20 years old, and Evan had just finished his second season in the minor leagues. Since then, Kaylen has accompanied Evan on all his road trips.

The best part of marriage, he said, is that “you’ve always got somebody there for you. Good or bad or whatever, they’re always there. So there’s a lot of certainty. It makes you feel a little bit more secure.”

Palmer, who flew to Elizabethton last November to attend the Carters’ check presentations, said, “You get there and the pace of everything slows down and everybody seems just a little bit nicer. But you’re around the two of them, and it’s not just a show—it’s who they are. They love Jesus. They love people. They love each other. And it’s crazy when you live out life according to God’s will, the joy that comes from that. You can see it in their faces.”

Next Up ...
What do you do when you’re a newly minted World Series champion at age 21? For starters, you recover. The day after the World Series, Carter succumbed to a viral infection and a 103-degree fever that knocked him out for a week and a half.

“I just felt awful,” he said.

Then, when you’re a soft-spoken homebody like Carter is, you attend your sister-in-law’s high school basketball games in Elizabethton. And go off-roading in your old Suzuki Samurai. And spend time with youryf-UpgnL wife; your giant schnauzer, J.P.; and all your family members. You catch up on all the things you miss during the long grind of a baseball season—things that help you “calm down and look at what really matters in life for a little while and appreciate what God’s given you,” Carter said.

In January, Carter shared his story at a large men’s event (2,100 attendees) at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas—one of the largest churches in America—alongside three-time World Series champion Darryl Strawberry and others. But his heart remains in Elizabethton.

“Big cities are not always for me,” Carter said. “I enjoy coming home and just getting away.”

Now a new season has started. Texas looks like a contender again in 2024, but winning back-to-back World Series isn’t easy. No team has done it since the New York Yankees claimed three straight in 1998-2000. And while Carter said that the Rangers gave him no assurances about his playing time in 2024 this offseason, it’s easy to imagine him being a big part of the team’s future after his heroics last fall.

“Obviously, it’s unrealistic to win it every single season,” Carter said, “but with the group of guys that we’ve got, the core that’s going to be there hopefully for many years to come, you’ve got the recipe, you know what it’s like, you know what you have to do to be able to get there. So it definitely is going to make it a whole lot easier to get there in the future and to make it happen again. I think the standard’s been set for us.”

Let the whirlwind begin ... again.


Photos courtesy of Texas Rangers