By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
This year, however, there’s a new twist on the tradition: It’s become more personal.
“Basically, we wanted to put a face with the spaghetti,” said Derrick Vestal, the offensive coordinator for the 6A McMinn County Cherokees.
“We didn’t want people to just drop off some food and say ‘see you later.’ We wanted it to go deeper than that.”
To foster those potential new relationships, the McMinn County coaching staff developed an “Adopt-A-Cherokee” program, which enables local church members to connect emotionally and spiritually with players on the football team.
Instead of simply supplying food for the weekly team meal, the families who are participating in the program are supporting their “adopted” player in numerous other ways, including:
- Covering the $125 fee for their player to attend FCA camp in Cookeville this summer;
- Sending messages of encouragement via e-mail, phone calls or social media throughout the week;
- Praying persistently for their adopted player;
- Inviting the player to church;
- Making T-shirts, signs and/or banners with their player’s name displayed for each home game.
Vestal, who served as the point man for the innovative program, said the McMinn County community immediately embraced the idea after it was introduced this summer.
“We started off by contacting the 10 churches that feed us, and we also promoted (the program) on the radio and on social media,” said Vestal. “And people really began responding. I was getting all kinds of phone calls and messages from people saying, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of this.’ ”
Like most towns in Tennessee, the Athens community is big on high school football, and Vestal said he has seen that passion displayed through the “Adopt-A-Cherokee” program.
Clearwater Baptist Church, where Vestal is an active member and Sunday School teacher, is one of the cornerstone churches for the program.
Clearwater pastor Danny Singleton said the church’s strategic missions team set a goal of adopting 20 players, and said that he had been “cheerleading from the pulpit” in terms of getting his congregation involved.
“We challenged our people to embrace their (adopted) young man by covering him in prayer and reaching out to him throughout the week,” Singleton said.
The idea for the “Adopt-A-Cherokee” program first began to take shape after the McMinn County coaching staff decided that sending players to FCA camp, which is a voluntary function, would be a high priority.
“At our coaching clinic, we were talking about the things we need to do as a team,” said Vestal. “And going to FCA camp was one of the things that we agreed we really needed to do.”
Before that could happen, though, there was a financial hurdle that had to be cleared.
“It was going to be about $6,000 that we didn’t have in the budget,” said Vestal. “So I began talking to some people and praying about what to do.”
Soon, the “Adopt-A-Cherokee” program was developed and implemented. In no time, things begin falling into place.
A total of 65 players signed up to go to FCA camp, and all 65 were adopted by local families, who covered their payment for camp. (McMinn County has 91 players on the roster, but some were unable to attend FCA camp due to scheduling conflicts or other reasons).
Vestal said the camp had a deep impact on the team, and he noted that 25 players made decisions — either first-time professions or rededications — during the week.
“The kids are different now,” he said with a proud smile. “I mean, it wasn’t like we suddenly had better players (talent-wise) after camp. But there was a definite change. We’ve got guys now that are more encouraging. The language has changed. It’s a different environment.”
Vestal said he hopes those who are participating in the “Adopt” program will realize that providing the money for camp was only the beginning.
“Writing the check for camp — that’s the easy part,” said Vestal. “The key is making sure the involvement in the player’s lives continues.”
Added Singleton: “We want our people to develop relationships (with the players) that go beyond sending them to camp.”
The main lesson for the players, Vestal said, is to know that “God is good to us, whether we go 0-10 or go 15-0 (and win the state championship).”
Vestal noted that the challenges of the school year, such as peer pressure and the rigors of juggling athletics and academics, are what make the support of the adopted family so vital, especially for the players who come from tough circumstances.
“Some of these young men don’t have a family and don’t have that structure at home. They don’t get hugs, they don’t hear ‘I love you’ and they don’t have someone in the stands cheering for them,” he said.
“So for them to see this happen — where strangers are suddenly taking an interest in them and coming to the games on Friday night to cheer for them — that’s the type of thing that can change your life forever,” he said.
“And these families aren’t just making an impact on these players for one Friday night,” he said. “They are making an impact for all the Friday nights for the rest of their lives.”