The Gospel according to James

What follows is a story on James Mitchell, who directs the Fellowship of Christian Athletes program at UT. The article originally appeared in the October issue of Rocky Top News. We're reprinting it here as a service to our website subscribers for two reasons: One, it's an example of the kind of colorful features that grace RTN's pages each month. Two, it's an example of the positive aspects of UT athletics that often go overlooked. We think you'll enjoy it.

James Mitchell was an assistant football coach at Tennessee State University when a single call changed his life.

It wasn't a run. It wasn't a pass. It wasn't a blitz.

It was a call to the ministry that changed Mitchell's life and put him in position to change others'.

The seven years since then have been hectic but rewarding. Upon leaving TSU's coaching staff, he worked with Nashville's inner-city schools and became team chaplain for the NFL's Tennessee Titans. After three years, he moved to Seattle and joined Pro Athletes Outreach -- working with National Football League and Major League Baseball teams.

Ordained as a non-denominational minister two years ago, he recently joined the University of Tennessee support staff. His official title is Campus Director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. His unofficial title is big brother ... really BIG brother. Built like an NFL offensive tackle, he provides advice and guidance to many Vol football and basketball players.

''I'm a relationship builder,'' he says. ''My idea is to be available. Not everybody's ready for bible study, so sometimes you just listen.''

Mitchell is such a good listener that athletes often call him at home to discuss spiritual and personal issues. Sometimes they call him in the wee hours. ''Sure,'' he says. ''I'm available whenever ...''

Mitchell does most of his counseling from an office in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex. His work goes much deeper than that, however. Every Wednesday he and Dave Teggalar hold an on-campus bible study for UT athletes, regardless of sport or gender. Every other Sunday he and his wife, Valerie, conduct a couples bible study for athletes who are married, engaged or involved in a committed relationship. He also holds regular devotional services for the football and basketball coaching staffs.

Because of Mitchell's upbeat nature and genuine smile, athletes find him readily approachable and totally trustworthy. He has no idea how many of them he counsels in an average day, saying only that ''It varies.''

One thing that never varies is Mitchell's devotion to his calling. He refuses to call it a job.

''When it becomes a job,'' he says, ''it's time for me to go do something else.''

Born and reared in Mississippi, Mitchell attended Hickory High School and East Central Community College. He completed his undergraduate degree at Central Arkansas and got his masters from Southwest Baptist in Bolivar, Mo.

Mitchell coached football for the next 14 years, including a stint as an assistant to Ken Hatfield at the University of Arkansas. His co-workers there included strength coach John Stucky, who eventually left to take the same position at Tennessee. When Mitchell wound up at Tennessee State, Stucky invited him to do a few motivational speeches and chapel services for the Vols in 1998 and '99. That paved the way for his eventual move to Knoxville.

''A couple of years ago we lost a great friend when John Stucky had to retire due to medical reasons,'' Vol head man Phillip Fulmer recalls. ''John was sort of the spiritual leader of our football team, and he was around the players all the time. When he had to retire, I felt a void there.

''Several of us coaches believe very strongly in the spiritual aspect of bringing up young people. We don't cram anything down anybody's throat but we try to give them spiritual guidance -- as well as academic, social and obviously athletic guidance. We had a void in the spiritual aspect.''

To fill that void, Fulmer asked the athletics department for permission to offer Mitchell a position as director of the school's FCA program. Permission was granted, and Fulmer phoned Mitchell about a year ago to consummate the deal.

''James has been a godsend for us,'' Fulmer says. ''We're very proud of his influence on the kids. Being kids, they have issues that sometimes are a lot deeper than we can deal with as coaches -- personal, spiritual, family tragedies or whatever.''

Not all of the ''kids'' getting spiritual guidance from Mitchell are athletes. Some are kids who live under Fulmer's roof.

''James does a great bible study every Wednesday night,'' the head man says. ''My girls go to it, along with a bunch of our players.''

Mitchell's message of faith, hope and tolerance is a great tonic for young people struggling to cope with academics, athletics, finances, family crises and other troubling issues. Yet, he thinks he's the big winner in this equation.

''Doing God's will is rewarding for me,'' he says. ''I know I'm doing what God wants me to do. If it was up to me, I'd be coaching football but that's not what God has in store for me right now.''

POST SCRIPT: Because Tennessee's FCA program relies on private funding, contributions are always welcome. Anyone wishing to donate to Mitchell's campus ministry should contact him at (865) 974-5632. Donations can also be sent to James Mitchell c/o UT Football P.O. Box 15162 Knoxville TN 37901-5162

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