Evangelist Billy Graham’s view, as articulated last summer to a group of major league baseball players in Kansas City, is that “an evangelical awakening in America actually started in the sports world.”

Howard Hendricks of Dallas Theological Seminary goes a step further. When 100 professional athletes, essentially football, baseball, and soccer players, met last month for five days of spiritual discussion, Hendricks told them: “I can’t think of a group with greater impact for Jesus Christ than you.” Their seminar was conducted by Pro Athletes Outreach at the Dallas Marriott Hotel (Jan. 31-Feb. 4) and it had international significance.

Argentina and Chile sent a delegation of thirty-four soccer players, executives, and journalists to Dallas to mingle with the nearly 300 Americans. The visitors’ objective was to learn how to start in their countries chapel services and Bible studies for athletes.

“A tremendous beginning,” said Eddie Waxer of Miami, whose personal sports ministry involves world-wide soccer and tennis. “The South Americans have learned plenty about what happens to athletes when there is a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.”

Quarterback Terry Bradshaw and six teammates from the Super Bowl champions left behind their Pittsburgh Steeler playbooks, and instead carried Bibles to the conference. The eighty American footballers were joined by ten soccer notables from the South plus half a dozen baseball players, a bowler, and a tennis player or two.

Quarterbacks drew the customary focus. Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys, outmanuevered by Bradshaw in the National Football League championship game, listened to conference speakers along with quarterbacks Craig Morton of Denver and Jim Zorn of Seattle.

“When we played in Seattle,” Morton recalled, “Norm Evans was on the field with the Seahawks for the coin toss. Norm asked me if I was coming to the Dallas conference. He was gentle, not pushy. That’s why we are here. Susan and I have grown in the Lord at this meeting.”

Bradshaw’s wife, skater Jo Jo Starbuck, attended the seminar meetings, and she shared her faith with youngsters attending an indoor soccer exhibition at the hotel.

Pro Athletes Outreach (PAO) is headed by Evans, who earned two Super Bowl rings with the Miami Dolphins before his transfer to Seattle. Evans, a rugged blocking lineman for fourteen professional seasons, now considers ending his career at the age of thirty-six to become full-time president of the organization based in Phoenix.

For several years Phoenix businessman Arlis Priest was the primary financial man for PAO, which he now serves as board chairman. For a nominal fee, athletes and wives receive scholarships covering travel and hotel charges. Many athletes maturing in the faith now contribute to cover the registration cost of others.

“We had joy at this conference,” he said, “and excitement about the lives that were changed.”

The South American budget of $40,000 was raised by Waxer and a close friend, Paul Eshleman, Campus Crusade for Christ executive. Paul is the son of Ira Lee (Doc) Eshleman, whose vision produced the first conference in 1971 in Dallas. It now moves about the country to other cities.

“Eddie and Paul raised the $40,000 to pay the bills,” said Doc Eshleman. “We had thirty-six players and four wives at the first one.”

Athletes in Action (AIA), the sports arm of Campus Crusade, took over the conference for several years in the middle 1970s. Responsibility since has passed into the hands of the players themselves. This group is headed by Evans, and fellow football players Mike McCoy of Oakland, and Jeff Siemon of Minnesota.

AIA maintains close ties with PAO by sending many field representatives to the conference. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) also took part at Dallas through a ten-man staff headed by former football player Bill Krisher. The FCA ministry has centered on college and high school athletes for 25 years. PAO has three conferences a year—one essentially for football in the winter, and others for baseball and soccer in the fall and for basketball and hockey in the summer.

Some forty baseball players received training last October in St. Petersburg, Florida, with another sports ministry, Baseball Chapel, which entered its seventh season in 1979. The organization reached 1,000 players every Sunday last season with services for all 26 major league teams, and in many of the 120 minor league cities.

“The conference objective is to train these pros,” explained Priest, “so that they can use their platform for God’s glory.”

Athletes generally are recruited for the conference through pregame chapel services. Doc Eshleman spoke to both teams before the Pro Bowl game last month in Los Angeles that wound up the football season. Fifty players heard the message, and one, John Hanna of Boston, handed out Bibles instead of cigars on the arrival of a new baby in his home.

Before the Super Bowl in Miami, Presbyterian pastor Lane Adams of Memphis spoke to twenty Pittsburgh players and several visitors. Howard Hendricks, who leads Bible study for the Cowboys in the regular season, conducted Super Bowl chapel for Dallas. Hendricks was the featured Bible teacher at the conference.

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One wife confessed at an open microphone during a time of sharing as the conference closed: “I’ve been a spiritual cripple.”

Kansas City football player Charlie Getty left with this prayer: “God, don’t let me be the same person when I go home.” Leonardo Veliz, Chilean soccer captain, said, “I’ve never felt so close to God before.”

Greg Brezina, Atlanta linebacker, stood arm in arm with place kicker Mike Michel of the Philadelphia Eagles. Michel’s missed field goal at the gun in a game between the two teams allowed Atlanta to make the December playoffs.

“I was in shock on the field,” Michel related. “An arm went around my shoulder and a voice said, ‘I’m Greg Brezina. Having Jesus Christ in your heart is more important than anything that happens in football.’ ”

Many saw this on television without knowing what Brezina said. Michel reported he had received encouraging letters from hundreds of Christians.

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