State of the Hogs: FCA Road Trip

As is the case in most mission trips, those doing the traveling see plenty in the return.

It was not what anyone expected. That's the take from everyone in the University of Arkansas FCA huddle chapter who rode the bus to the Arkansas Department of Correction-Tucker Unit in March.

"It sure wasn't," said tight end D. J. Williams, one of several players to give his testimony at the facility near Pine Bluff on what turned out to be a long but rewarding Saturday.

To a person, the Hogs thought they were making the trip to provide some spiritual encouragement to the prisoners. They had no idea that they would get back far more than they gave — although most of the prisoners might argue the point.

"I remember the way we were on the bus going down," Williams said. "All of us were unsure and very nervous. There were a lot of us that if we admitted it, we were scared to go down there. On the way back, we all wished we could have stayed longer."

As it was, Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter leader Tyler McMahan, a former UA cheerleader, said the group stayed about three hours longer than had been planned. He had a little chuckle about that.

"Once you go through that last guard unit and you hear that clang of the doors behind you, you know that you don't have any control over what is about to happen," he said. "We all knew that when we heard the gates shut."

It was a highly organized worship event, but it took a little longer than expected to get all the inmates out of their cells and into the prison gymnasium for the start.

"We got to the gym and they were still setting things up, so our guys played basketball with some of the inmates," McMahan said. "During that time, I met with the spiritual leaders from the prison.

"There were six. We stood in a circle, holding hands. It hit me that most of them had murdered someone with those hands. First thing one said, ‘Got any praise reports.' You realized that all of them understood the significance of eternal life.

"I told them about one of our managers from the football team who had just become a Christian. They all said, ‘Cool.' They wanted to hear those reports. They were all looking to me as the group's ministry leader and it was very powerful as the gymnasium was filling up.

"All of it was humbling, starting at the point before we went where we all had to sign release forms. One of the areas you go over is that you release them from liability in case you are held as a hostage. I think all of that was on their minds on the bus trip. Usually, football players are a loose, fun group, lots of cutting up. There wasn't any on the way down for this trip."

McMahan said, "It was a first for me, but I compare it to the summer mission trips I've made with church groups. You think you are going to build something or minister to someone on those trips to Mexico or Guatemala. When you get there, you see what they have and what you take for granted. and you get far more back. That's the way our guys were. Our guys got filled with the Holy Spirit in that gym."

And they brought it back to campus.

"We had been signing up players from the football team for several weeks and had about 20 who said they would go," McMahan said. "When it came time to load the bus, we had 10 players and three managers, plus our FCA support staff and Dean Campbell, our coaching staff representative for FCA.

"But the guys loved it so much. They came back and told everyone about the experience. I was in the Broyles Center on that next Monday and had about 30 or 40 guys tell me they were sorry they didn't go. They asked when are we going again?"

Williams and deep snapper Richardson both had special testimonies that blew away everyone. Williams told about his father, who is in the middle of a 35-year prison sentence. Richardson's father served time and is now involved in ministry work for a hospital.

"Everyone knows the story of my family and my dad," Williams said. "I went down there thinking I was going to say one thing, but once I got in there my message changed. I felt more comfortable and wanted to tell the guys."

Williams has not seen his dad in 11 years — since the day his mother took him and his sister from Dallas with no real destination to flee from abuse. They stopped in Little Rock, where he and his sister eventually graduated from Central Arkansas Christian.

"My sister and mom have been in contact with my dad since we left Dallas, but I haven't," Williams said. "The message that day in the prison was about forgiveness. I realized I hadn't forgiven my dad. Several of the inmates came to shake my hand and said, ‘Tell me you will go see your dad.' I said I would. T-Mac (McMahan) said he will help me."

McMahan said, "We are going to get in a car and go to Dallas and get that done."

Williams, preseason All-America selection, has been active in FCA since high school.

"I've always known it provides a powerful platform for athletes," he said. "It's really an awesome platform, perhaps just one step below what is available to our nation's President. You look at athletes like a Peyton Manning or a Michael Jordan, all eyes are on them. I want to use that platform.

"I tell you what I've learned from our FCA group on our campus, that so many of our leaders in all sports are Christians. I've gotten to know Zack Cox from baseball, Rotnei Clarke from basketball. We are meeting in our Bible study groups and that brought us all closer. It took FCA to get that started. These guys are all giving it up for God."

That's what happened in the Tucker Unit.

"It was impressive," Williams said. "It was real worship. The prison band was unbelievable. I think I had the idea of what the inmates would be like, maybe mad at everything and everyone. Maybe that's what you get from watching TV or listening to the media. It wasn't like that. The only way you'd know they were prisoners maybe would be the clothes. Amazing.

"They were Hog fans, too. Some of them had little notebooks where they'd kept our stats. They called the Hogs." McMahan called it "one of the best worship services ever." He called the band "incredible." Robert Upshaw, an FCA staffer from Little Rock, delivered the sermon. Charles Beale, another FCA leader, did magic tricks when the 300 inmates were getting seated.

"Robert Upshaw delivered the Gospel thunder," McMahan said. "Five men raised their hands for the first time. I'd call it raw and authentic. There weren't any light shows, just Christian brothers sharing the message for the Lord."

The players were stunned by the realization that most of the inmates had never seen high tech phones. They left their phones on the bus, but still fielded questions.

"They asked about iPhones," McMahan said. "Our guys are consumed by technology. They are working their cell phones and iphones all the way down and back and none of these men had ever seen one.

"There was one inmate who came up to our guys on the way out. He said it was his birthday and proclaimed it to be his best ever. That got to them. Ben Cleveland came to sit down by me on the bus ride back. He wanted to know if we could start a prison ministry at the county jail in Fayetteville. We are going to try to get that done."

McMahan is getting a lot of things done. The national FCA magazine, Sharing the Victory, printed a feature on Cox, the star UA third baseman. The headline is Hog Heaven: How Zack Cox is leading the Hogs to glory.

Cox, the first-round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals, shared his testimony in the outfield of Baum Stadium after the Kentucky game on Easter Sunday to high school FCA huddle groups from throughout the state.

"We have a lot going on and a lot of plans," McMahan said. "We have awesome athletes here. They want to spread the Word and they are doing great work. This is our first year back on campus in awhile and to make a trip like this is huge. I am thankful."

The University of Arkansas FCA group visitors were, from left: Dean Campbell, Bill Burnett, Chris Gragg, Tyler Woods, Ben Cleveland, James DeAngelo, Cameron Bryan, Grant Cook, Tyler McMahan, Rhett Richardson, Todd Clarke, Mitchell Bailey, Kail Chambers, Dylan Breeding and D. J. Williams.

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