Longtime Carson-Newman football coach Ken Sparks died early yesterday morning. He achieved remarkable success as far as football is concerned, but more importantly, he impacted thousands of lives for Christ. Below is a Baptist Press release about Coach Sparks, including material I passed along to Baptist Press to help with the story…
Ken Sparks, among winningest college football coaches, dies
JEFFERSON CITY, Tenn. (BP) –– Ken Sparks, legendary football coach at Carson-Newman University, died Wednesday (March 29) after a five-year battle with cancer. He was 73.
Sparks, who announced his retirement Nov. 14 after 37 seasons, finished his Carson-Newman career with a winning percentage of .7699 — fourth highest in college football history, while his 338 victories stand at fifth best nationally.
However, those numbers — including 99 losses and two ties -– “mattered little to Sparks,” according to a news release from Carson-Newman, which is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. “The Eagles’ head man was far more likely to ask a player, colleague or coach how their heart was and to guide them to a life in the light of Christ.
“Sparks himself lived his life at the foot of the cross, doing everything in his power to honor his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at every turn.”
Carson-Newman President J. Randall O’Brien said Sparks “leaves a legacy that has influenced, and will continue to impact, the lives of Carson-Newman student-athletes for years to come. Ken’s devotion to seeing that his players develop on the field was secondary to seeing them develop as Christian young men off the field.”
O’Brien added that Sparks “inspired us in the way he so bravely fought his battle with cancer — with courage and full of faith. Our hearts are saddened, but we know that Ken is with his loving heavenly Father. Our prayers are with his dear wife Carol and his family.”
Sparks grounded the Carson-Newman football program in a yearly theme rooted in a Bible verse, the C-N news release stated.
For the 2016 team, Sparks’ “me 2 We for HE” theme was based on Philippians 1:27 — “Just one thing: live your (me) life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (He), so (We) will be seen standing firm in one Spirit, with one mind, working side-by-side (we) for the Gospel (He).”
“For a Sparks-led practice, it was a common sight to see the session open and close with a prayer, led by players wearing Carson-Newman gear not adorned by C-N slogans, but with Bible verses,” the university release said. A video tribute to Sparks can be accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ACoFb9JAeEg.
Under Sparks, the Eagles won five NAIA national title games in six appearances. A move to NCAA Division II didn’t hamper his Carson-Newman squads as the Eagles played for the D-II national title three times and were a semifinalist in 2009.
Sparks’ teams recorded 21 South Atlantic Conference Championships, 25 NCAA or NAIA playoff appearances and 104 All-Americans. Most recently, a street was renamed after him that runs through the middle of Carson-Newman’s campus in Jefferson City, Tenn.
Sparks was inducted into the inaugural NCAA Division II Hall of Fame coaches class in 2010 and is a member of the South Atlantic Conference Hall of Fame, the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame and the NAIA Hall of Fame. He has been honored with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Lifetime Achievement Award and National Coach of the Year.
Sports columnist Brett Maragni, also a Florida pastor, noted that when Sparks ended his coaching career last fall “people talked more about Ken Sparks the man of God than the successful coach. Everyone who knew him, myself included, had zero doubts that winning on the field, as important as it was, was not the most important part of his job. No, his main goal in coaching was to impact young men with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Maragni, online at http://www.pastorbrett.com, reported that Sparks said in a January interview with WBIR in nearby Knoxville, “I don’t want to have a legacy,” noting, “Let me tell you what I want, I want an investment in the Kingdom of God that’s lasting. That’s what I want.”
Sparks’ son Chad, now the teaching pastor at Providence Church in Knoxville, chose to play for his dad at Carson-Newman even though he received attention from larger schools in higher divisions of college football, Maragni recounted.
“It was a great experience for me,” Chad said. “I had always wanted to play for my dad. He was and is my hero. When I was growing up, other coaches were about winning. For Dad, winning is priority No. 4, behind No. 1 – bringing players and others to Christ, No. 2 – teaching players how to be good people and No. 3 – teaching players to play great football.”
Chad Sparks said he is proud of the impact his dad had in the lives of thousands. “Not a week goes by when someone does not ask me if I’m related to Coach Ken Sparks when they hear or see my last name,” he told Maragni. “When I tell them that he’s my dad, I am often treated to stories of how their son or brother or cousin — or how they themselves — came to Christ because of him, sometimes with tears in their eyes.”
In addition to his wife and son, Sparks is survived by a daughter, Chandra Childress; stepson Tim Bobo: stepdaughter Kim Hines; and 14 grandchildren.
The Sparks family will receive friends at Manley Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn., from 2-6 p.m. Friday (March 31) followed by a service open to the public. In accordance with the family’s wishes, the burial will be private.
On Saturday, August 9th, 2014 two tragic deaths occurred that sent shockwaves across the country. At one minute after Noon, officer Darren Wilson approaches Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. An altercation ensures that results in the shooting death of the 18-year-old Brown.
That evening, 832 miles east of where Michael Brown had died, Kevin Ward, Jr., was living his dream by Sprint Car racing at the Ontario County Fairgrounds against NASCAR legend Tony Stewart. On lap 14 of the short dirt track, Stewart appears to spin young Ward in to the wall, causing a flat tire and, thus, eliminating the younger driver from the race. Ward breaks protocol and exits his vehicle, walking toward the vehicles circling the track under caution. He aggressively approaches Stewart’s car on the short track and ends up apparently hit by the tail end of Stewart’s car, which results in the death of the 20-year old Ward.
I was saddened this week to read about a young man getting killed in an accident at a coal mine in my home county back in southern Illinois. It brought back memories for me. When most people think about coal mines, they usually think about West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. I’ve learned that many people don’t realize that southern Illinois has one of the richest coal mining veins in the United States.
I can remember as a young boy going to spend the night at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house and Grandpa coming home from finishing the 2nd shift. He’d wake me up so I could join him for a midnight snack in the kitchen: Pringles and a bottle of cold Mountain Dew.
I also remember in grade school getting news of a classmate’s Dad being killed in the mine. One of my Dad’s best buddies had his face crushed in mine accident. Several surgeries were required to reconstruct his face. One of my best friends spent several weeks in a hospital recuperating after nearly dying in a coal mining accident.
Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. In that historic speech, King said:
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
As a nation we have come a long way. Sure, there are still examples of racism in the United States, but as a whole, we no longer judge a person by the color of their skin. Surely Dr. King would be pleased with the progress that has been made in this country.
But the problem is that we have also reached a point where we no longer judge someone by the content of their character. The spirit of the age is to not judge at all, with the ironic exception being judging those who do still seek to judge according to the content of character.
When Dr. King spoke of judging someone by the content of their character, he spoke from an underlying worldview that accepted the reality of moral standards. Our nation has jettisoned those moral standards, which makes it impossible to judge character.
America’s favorite Bible verse is the first part of Matthew 7:1…”Judge not” interpreting it to mean, in essence, “Don’t judge anyone for the content of their character.” Such an interpretation of that command completely contradicts Matthew 7:6, where Jesus says, “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” Here Jesus clearly and strongly calls us to judge content of character.
Jesus fully expects us to judge the content of a person’s character, but He qualifies it with an admonition against hypocrisy and a mandate to be willing to help the person improve, as we see in Matthew 7:5…”First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” For Jesus, it’s not enough to judge someone without hypocrisy, we must also proactively seek to help that person.
Because we have rejected moral standards and because we are misinterpreting, and therefore, misapplying Jesus’s teaching on this subject, we also run the risk of descending back into a nation that judges others by the content of their skin. Both the negative half of Dr. King’s statement (not judging by the color of skin) and the positive half (judging by the content of character) must be embraced for racism to truly be put to death.
Dr. King’s dream will be fulfilled when a person is no longer judged by color of skin but rather is judged by content of character in a way that is loving and redemptive.
One of the really exciting traditions we have established in our early history at Harvest is beach baptisms. There is something truly powerful about taking baptism out of the walls of the church and bringing what we call the “public profession of faith” to a truly “public” venue. Each time we baptize at the beach we have numerous onlookers who are not affiliated with our church and perhaps not at all with Christianity. We bring along printed testimonies of the people who are being baptized that day and distribute them on the beach. These testimonies are accompanied by a simple, biblical Gospel presentation.
Yesterday I checked the local news and was intrigued by the headline story of a Great White shark named “Mary Lee”. It turns out she has been hanging out off the coast of Jacksonville Beach for the past few days. Because the 3,500 pound, 16 1/2 foot Great White is marked with a GPS tracker, one can track her movements. Two nights ago “Mary Lee” came very close to the shore. In fact, according to my calculations she was no more than 20-25 yards from where we stood in October during our latest beach baptism:
Perhaps we should rethink our bi-annual beach baptisms. What do you think? Should we bring the baptisms back into the walls of the local church? Or should be continue “going public” with the baptisms, even if there is a slight risk we will bump into a hungry shark?