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Pirate Notebook No. 66
Monday, May 6, 2002

By Denny O'Brien
Staff Writer and Columnist

SPORTS WORK in mysterious ways


'Soul' food for Pirate athletes

Chuck Young is a pivotal piece of East Carolina's winning formula, both on the gridiron and baseball diamond.  In fact, the 38-year old missionary possesses his own playbook, one thousands of years in the making.

Yet, his doesn't describe the nuances of Steve Logan's multiple offense — or how to hit a curve ball for that matter.

But his book — the New International Version of the Holy Bible — does offer instructions on living victoriously.  And it has been a centerpiece for bonding for both the ECU football and baseball teams for some time now.

Over the past four years, Young, along with his wife, Lisa, and two children, Levi (6) and Isabella (4), have opened their home to some of East Carolina's most recognizable athletes, offering a weekly Bible study to go along with a few tasty treats.  During that time, Young has witnessed quite a transformation, one much more significant than the enhancements the Pirates undergo in the weight room.

"There has been a ton of growth," Young said.  "We've seen close to 40 guys give their lives to Jesus over the past four years, and plenty of others have matured and grown.  Continuity within the teams is something that I like to think is because of some of that maturity in Christ.

"There are just a ton of Christian coaches (at ECU) right now.  So, I feel like there is more of a closeness and openness for them to talk about spiritual things."

The groundwork for that foundation began in 1995, when Young's father, Jim, founded SPORTworks, a ministry aimed at nurturing the spiritual lives of student-athletes at N.C. State.  Brad Brown, an East Carolina alumnus and devout Christian, heard about the ministry and wanted to contribute to it financially.

When Brown approached the elder Young, he suggested his desire to see the ministry expand to his alma mater.  The idea was intriguing to both father and son, though the question of feasibility was an issue. 

"At first, my dad said, 'Well, that's not possible, because it's just me,'" Young recalled.  "Then he came back, and we talked some.

"So, we set up a meeting with coach Logan, just to go talk to him.  As it turned out, coach (Steve) Logan had just shut down his ministry with the coaches, and he looked at me and said 'Come on!'"

The timing was perfect, considering Young had just completed a 12-year service with Young Life, a ministry geared toward reaching young people.  It was time for a new challenge, and none seemed greater than reaching out to student-athletes.

He did so first by opening his home once per week to the football team for a relaxed session during which he delivered a Bible lesson and held open discussions with the group.  Food was one of the big draws, as Lisa served up delicious meals, ranging from hearty meatball subs to succulent Mexican cuisine.  Anywhere from 25-40 would attend a given study, and the majority of the team now visits at some point during the season.

Soon, ECU baseball coach Keith LeClair learned about the ministry, and got the Diamond Bucs on board.  The Youngs welcomed them with open arms, adding 40-plus souls to nourish, not to mention mouths to feed.

Although food continues to be a big part of the SPORTworks ministry — $15,000 of the budget goes toward feeding Pirate athletes — the focus, Young assures, is on God.  Over the past few years, he has seen remarkable things happen to these athletes, especially when some have strayed from the Lord.

"We've had less kids in trouble," he said.  "And when kids have gotten in trouble, like Richard Alston, rather than being off the team as a casualty, he came to know Jesus and has really turned his life around.  Now, he is being really productive.  I think there has been success there, where maybe without our ministry, a kid may have been lost."

It is situations like that which bring him a sense of fulfillment.

"The most enjoyable aspect about this has been cases like Richard (Alston), where you see a kid moving one way, and then finally coming to an understanding of what it's all about," Young said.  "They've all become really good friends of mine, and to see them understand the truth and have more joy in their life is just the most fun."

Young has seen the spiritual growth transcend to the playing field, where the football and baseball teams have each achieved a level of consistent success — enough success, in fact, for each of the programs to advance to postseason play the past three seasons.  Much of that, he suspects, is due to the bonds that have been formed among teammates, and the selfless attitudes of each player.

Young is a fixture on the sidelines during football season, and travels with the team for all away games.  On game day, he delivers a devotional to the team, and witnesses the Pirates' growing camaraderie first-hand.

"The more time they spend as a team together outside of normal football or baseball stuff, there is value there," Young said.  "They are getting together, getting to know each other in a different way.  There is a unity that forms.

"It's not only great from a Christian unity, but I think it helps the teams as a whole to have some other place where they come together.  And anytime you've got a team that's praying for one another, then it becomes an unselfish team.  That's something they'll learn to take through life when they leave here."

Peaks and valleys

As with any line of work, the ministry has its ups and downs.  Though most days are good, Young acknowledges there are trials and tribulations in his trade — and the last year has been a roller coaster ride to say the least.

Over the past three years, Young has grown close to LeClair, the Pirates' 36-year old baseball coach.  LeClair's bout with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) has been difficult for him to digest, though the coach's faith throughout his battle has been a source of reassurance. 

"It's been a mixed feeling," Young said.  "You're encouraged because he's been so faithful through the whole thing, trusting God with all the circumstances, but it's always difficult to see someone go through something like that.

"I know that God will have something good for him in the end, one way or another.  So, we're just taking it one day at a time, and trying to be there for these young men who are either going to have their faith strengthened or pushed a little bit through all of this — and they certainly have had that."

Through adversity, the team has grown much closer.  Despite the loss of five starters from last year's team, the Pirates' have maintained their Omaha vision, pledging to land a trip to college baseball's Mecca, and realize their coach's dream.

ECU has somewhat compensated for its lack of power this season, winning 35 games off stellar pitching and timely hitting.  The Pirates have been a fixture in the national rankings, peaking at No. 12 in the writer's poll last week.

"I think (this) has done remarkable things for this team," Young said.  "When you look at this team talent-wise compared to what they've had in the past, it's kind of amazing that they've won (35) games.

"They're a team that has done it because they believe in each other and believe in their coach, and believe they should win.  They desperately want to win for him."

Looking to the Future

Young feels blessed by the way his ministry has flourished, and each day provides new evidence of its growth.  Now, he feels the Lord is leading him to expand further, and the SPORTworks family continues to pray for the means to do so.

SPORTworks is funded through the financial contributions of individuals, as well as a few businesses in the Greenville area.  Young compares his work to that of a missionary, and those familiar can attest that his life isn't one of excess and material luxuries.

He hopes the Lord will bless the ministry with a grill, so hot dogs and hamburgers can become a part of the regular menu.  And he prays for the resources to add new staff members, which would help SPORTworks witness to other sports within the athletic department.

"We would love to get to where we could hire a female to work with the ladies' teams," Young said.  "We'd also like to have an intern or another guy to work with the soccer team, which is interested right now.

"We hope to get to all the teams.  We want to reach all the student-athletes at some point."

For the time being, though, Young has to feel good about where the ministry was, where it is, and where it is going.  It has been a time of spiritual growth for him personally, and a period in his life where he has found as much enrichment from those he serves as they have from him.

It has also been an era during which East Carolina football and baseball have reached new levels, as marquee victories and facilities expansion will attest.  Though he won't suggest that Pirate Power is a direct reflection of his Godly work, he does cheerfully acknowledge that the two do seem parallel.

"I've traveled with the football team for three years, and I've gone to a bowl game all three years," Young said.  "I don't know what it would be like not to go to a bowl game.

"He doesn't promise victories, but I think there are good things that come of it when we're faithful, and wins just may be a piece of it.  God has put some wonderful coaches here."

And a pretty good shepherd, too.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

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02/23/2007 01:46:22 AM

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