Don McClanen, who founded the Fellowship of Christian Athletes more than six decades ago, died Tuesday at age 91. The organization, which is dedicated to Jesus, has been headquartered in Kansas City since 1956.
As the basketball coach at Eastern Oklahoma A&M in the mid-1950s, Don McClanen couldn’t help but notice the elevated status of top athletes through advertisements and thought their popularity and influence could be put to another use.
“It occurred to me that nearly everybody was capitalizing on the well-known social phenomenon of hero worship,” McClanen told Sports Illustrated. “I knew that if guys like Otto Graham or Bob Feller told kids to eat a certain kind of cereal, the kids ate that kind of cereal.
“I wondered why, if sports stars could endorse breakfast foods, cigarettes or sportswear, they couldn’t endorse Christianity.”
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In that spirit, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was formed. McClanen wrote to major sports figures of the time, received an enthusiastic response, and in 1954 McClanen resigned as a coach to become the FCA’s first full-time director.
Before he died Tuesday, McClanen lived in Germantown, Md.
The FCA established its national headquarters in Kansas City in 1956, and the home remains on Leeds Road, overlooking Interstate 70 across from Kauffman Stadium.
“Don’s unwavering commitment and vision truly enabled FCA to grow where it is today, encouraging millions of coaches and athletes to lead lives that are dedicated to Christ,” said Les Steckel, FCA president and CEO.
FCA’s website, fca.org, reported 94,505 attendees over 619 camps throughout the world in 2015.
For more than six decades, athletes and coaches have participated in FCA events such as camps, volunteerism and community outreach.
Over the years, sports figures crossing all sports have connected to the FCA. One of its biggest supporters in the earliest years was Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers and broke baseball’s color barrier.
Some of sport’s greatest names — Tom Landry, Bobby Bowden, Tom Osborne, Tony Dungy, Roger Staubach, Reggie White — have been connected to the FCA, as have current stars like Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It started with McClanen, who thought sports heroes should recommend something other than products.
“Sixty-two years later, that vision is alive and well through the FCA,” Steckel said.