When Mike Sanfratello steps off the plane he starts with a prayer. “Lord, help me to get out of the way …” he whispers as his feet move quickly through the airport terminal in Utah. “Let me find you here and let me join you in it.”
The cab door slams. The scent of gas fumes linger and the journey begins. Sanfratello, the vice president of Field Ministries/Rockies Region for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), is on a mission: to share the gospel through athletics from one corner of Utah to the next.
With a statewide population of 2.8 million people, Utah is home of the Weber State Wildcats, University of Utah and the Utah State Aggies, three of the state’s largest colleges. The three colleges educate nearly 80,000 students and 1,000 student-athletes.
Since 1999, Utah is where Bill Schorr calls home. A native of Albuquerque, Schorr played in the College World Series at Arizona and later signed with the Texas Rangers, before blowing his rotator cuff his first season. Baseball career: over.
“My God was baseball,” said Schorr in a phone interview.
So what now?
After leaving the game, Schorr attended a Sunday worship service at Calvary Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He sat among a small group of friends and a young lady named Erin. The pastor, Skip Heitzig, spoke God’s word. “I sat in that church the first time and heard the gospel message and I said, ‘where’s this been all my life?’” Three months later Schorr committed his life to Christ, and Erin? Today, they are married and live in Utah with their three children.
Sanfratello and Schorr met last year when FCA was searching for a new state director in Utah. Sanfratello was searching for strong leadership, vision and the ability to serve; a local person who understood the culture and community. Sanfratello wanted a person who had the heart of a pastor and had sports and business experience.
“It’s so important that at the front end of our ministry that we don’t come in looking at this as a business,” said Sanfratello. “We’ve got to immediately do ministry. I think you’ve got to show them what you’re doing and you need someone who has ministry experience.”
Sanfratello was describing Bill Schorr. In fact, when he shared his vision of the candidate, you’d think he was reading aloud from Schorr’s resume. Local, understands community and culture? Utah is in Schorr’s DNA. He’s called it home for 13 years. Check. Heart of a pastor? Schorr had been a campus pastor in a Utah church for six years when they met. Check. Sports and business experience? Schorr played college and professional sports and later was a successful sales and marketing guy. Check.
“Bill, if this isn’t you then I don’t know who it is?” said Bryan Dwyer, senior pastor at Schorr’s church. “This is right up your alley.”
A small team of Fellowship of Christian Athlete supporters and employees gathered in the Cliff Graham’s living room last summer. Graham, a renowned author and speaker, was joined by Schorr, Sanfratello, Dwyer, Ron Goch and Ernie Mecca. It has here at the group’s “first pitch” meeting that Schorr felt led to FCA.
“It was fun to watch the Lord prompt him (Bill),” said Sanfratello. “I think it was a release for Bill because he felt God was calling him and now He was confirming it through his pastor.”
Sanfratello, too, was also coming to the realization that Schorr was the guy for the job.
“Bill (Schorr) understands the mind and the heart of an athlete and a coach,” said Sanfratello. “He knows business. He’s gone to areas where he’s had to go and start something from scratch. He understands the business side from a long-term approach.”
The formalities were completed in the days and weeks after the meeting and, last fall, Bill Schorr was named the new Fellowship of Christian Athletes state director for Utah.
The first time Joy Nakaishi heard the words Fellowship of Christian Athletes she was 423 miles beyond the state line of Utah, coaching her high school team, Layton Christian Academy, at a tournament in Colorado. She visited the FCA booth and picked up cards explaining the athletes and coaches mandate.
“What is this?” she asked. “I started reading it and I was like, what? I didn’t even know it existed. I thought, ‘this is really cool.’”
Nakaishi took the card and left. The seed was planted.
Nakaishi accepted a position as an assistant women’s volleyball coach at Weber State last year. That’s where she met the new FCA state director Bill Schorr. She remembered Colorado. She remembered the cards. She felt God’s calling.
“The next thing you know I’m part of FCA,” she said. “Now I’m having bible studies. I’m talking to athletes about God.”
Schorr kicked off a coach’s bible study at Weber State and, like a chess game, pieces of the athletic department began shifting. God began to move. Nakaishi was re-introduced to head football coach Jody Sears, who coached Washington State when she was a student-athlete at the same school. Sears introduced Nakaishi to other Weber State coaches – who were Christians. The 30-minute coach’s devotional created a new synergy between Christian coaches within the athletic program at Weber State.
“It brought together in the same building that didn’t even know they were believers,” said Schorr. “To hear these coaches talk about how the volleyball coach can now go visit with the football coach, the basketball coach and the track coach, is amazing.”
“The coaches are the centerpiece to how the FCA model is built,” added Sanfratello. “When we get coaches at any of the major universities in Utah who stand up with that logo on their chest (and endorse FCA), it immediately gives you credibility – in the church world, sports world, the local community. The exciting thing is, we can go down the list and say we have 20+ coaches that have a faith in Christ and have had an experience with FCA. This gives us instant credibility in telling our story because these coaches all have an FCA story as a part of their background.”
“God has put that all in order,” said Nakaishi. “He is so faithful.”
Under Schorr’s guidance, the coaches huddles spread to include sister schools. The numbers multiplied and word continues to spread. The student-athletes have started asking about FCA. Weber State has quickly built a huddle that draws about 20 student-athletes each week. Schorr says the University of Utah huddles started when a couple of student-athlete transfers from Arizona got ambitious and started organizing a huddle by texting friends. Within a few weeks the group was organized and the huddle that started with 15 student-athletes has tripled, now pulling 50-60 college athletes to hear the gospel weekly.
Jay Brossman is the Director of Operations for University of Utah baseball. Like Schorr, he dreamed of playing baseball. A former four-time all-conference at Utah, Brossman was drafted in the 36th round of the 2007 MLB Draft by the Los Angeles Angels. Again, like Schorr, injuries derailed his professional career. Brossman wasn’t involved in the program until August 2012, after returning to Utah as a coach.
“We have student-athlete leaders who are really on fire for the Lord,” said Brossman. “Seeing them step and be firm and bold in their faith has been really encouraging.”
Utah State University, Director of Athlete Academic Services, Jason Thomas said the presence of FCA on campus is adding credibility and awareness to a college athletic culture with 14 NCAA Division I men’s and women’s programs. The word is spreading to the 354 student-athletes and 28,000+ at large college students at Utah State.
“The relationships that you build are key,” he said. “When I was here (as a student-athlete) we built a really strong core of guys who, to this day, still hold each other accountable. Now, it’s great to see those relationships develop and to see that transformation.”
Thomas remembers his first touch with FCA; it came in high school when a friend invited him to a pre-game bible study.
“It’s funny because I opened my mouth that day and said, ‘God will allow things to happen to you to get your attention,” remembers Thomas. He went out later that night and tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) – or, in sports talk – the permanent disabled list. The hope of being offered a scholarship and playing big time college football disappeared faster than you can say ACL.
“Do you trust Him?” his mother asked in the hours after the injury.
“That’s all you can do,” she said. “Trust in God. Put your faith in God.”
He grew up in the church. Mom sang in the choir. Dad was in ministry. Thomas heard of FCA, but still wasn’t involved. Despite the injury, Thomas was offered a scholarship at Utah State University. By his sophomore year at Utah State things changed.
“I grew up in the church, but I didn’t find Christ in the church,” said Thomas. “I found Christ out in the world in my sin, broken, living the life contrary. That’s how I found Christ. I didn’t find him in a pew, in a church. I recognized the need to not be on the fence, but to be on fire for Christ at all times.”
When Schorr and Sanfratello visited him at campus last summer, Thomas remembers walking away the meeting “really fired up.” He knew the impact FCA had on him as student-athlete and how it was at the center of building life-long relationships, now, with FCA in Utah he could continue his ministry through the program.
“It was an answer to prayer,” said Thomas. “The harvest is ripe and it’s the right time.”
Schorr and Sanfratello have set some ambitious goals for FCA in Utah. Priority One: awareness. Schorr said the strategic vision is to establish awareness in the state, then engage, empower and encourage coaches and athletes through the program.
“The students who come (to Utah state colleges) from out-of-state schools and hear FCA, they say, we’re in,” said Schorr. “But, for example, when I introduced this at church a few months ago people will say, ‘Now what is that CFA, that Christian …?’”
Sanfratello is starting his 21st year with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a career that started in 1992 as a part-time as an area representative in Arizona and like the other states under his direction today — Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming — Sanfratello said Utah’s field ministries will implement a three-phase growth strategy:
- Build awareness and educate the community
- Establish relationships and trust with people in the sports world
- Implement FCA program overlay: The “four season ministry” including coaches, campus, community and camping
“We are not a fly-by ministry; we are not an event ministry; we’re a relationship ministry,” said Sanfratello. “I coach people to establish belly-to-belly relationships. Relationships equal networks, networks equal expansion into new relationships. You’ve got to spend time there. The strength of our organization is the relationships we’ve built.”
For Fellowship of Christian Athletes supporters, Utah will be a state to watch. The state is growing and developing, but the even more compelling storyline is the 500-pound pink elephant that sits in Utah. You know, the Mormon faith – or LDS as it’s often referred to by those following the subject.
“Utah is a mission field,” said Schorr. “We did some research and three percent of the three million people here attend a Christian, Bible-believing church. It’s a place where God’s word needs to be spread.”
“Living in Utah is definitely a challenge, especially for non-LDS student-athletes, minority student-athletes, you name it,” added Thomas.
Challenge, not impediment, is how most coaches and student-athletes refer to matters of Christian vs. Mormon faith in Utah. It’s a “different culture” added Brossman, a Utes baseball coach. Instead, FCA is focused on serving God and his people.
“Every time I’ve come to Utah I feel like the Lord has gone so far before and has been doing so many things prior to us showing up, it’s just a matter of trying to follow His lead,” said Sanfratello. “All we’ve had to do is show up and people were coming out of the woodwork.”
Since taking over on January 1, Schorr has been on the move, visiting high schools and colleges across the state. He’s been shaking hands and sharing FCA opportunities with people – and he’s having a blast.
“God is moving before us … before we ever had boots on the ground,” said Schorr. “You’d think in a state that is as unchurched as far as the Bible, it’d be tough and we’d be running into some hurdles,” said Schorr, who quickly paused after the statement, before restarting. “I don’t want to jinx myself. As an old baseball player it’s kind of like saying, ‘Hey, this guy’s got a no-hitter in the eighth inning,’ but I have not run into any walls yet. We’re trying to encourage coaches and resource their heart to empower coaches and athletes so they can fulfill the FCA vision. It’s so fun.”
Sanfratello is back on the plane. He returns his seat to its upright position. Sanfratello takes a deep breath and fastens his seatbelt. God is in the cockpit and all is well in Utah. Prepare for takeoff.