One thing nearly every city in America — regardless of region or climate — can connect fall with is football. Come September, those living within shouting distance of a high school don’t even need to leave their houses to know how their local team is playing. The roar of the crowd is as good a scoreboard as any.
This past fall, the roar could be heard about 30 miles southeast of Phoenix, Arizona, in the town of Queen Creek. It is there the Canyon State Academy Rams prepared each week to do battle on the gridiron, like so many other teams around the country.
Except the Rams aren’t like most other teams.
Most teams don’t have an entire church in their backyard. But through a sponsorship program established by Sun Valley Community Church, the stands don't just roar at each Canyon State home game. They shake.
From sponsorship to mentorship; from connection to love
Founded in 1948, Canyon State Academy is one of 40 programs nationwide operated by Rite of Passage, a Nevada-based organization focused on rehabilitating at-risk children and adolescents. The campus houses around 400 youth, about 350 of whom are boys, and provides educational, career and vocational training, in addition to offering athletic opportunities for its youth.
In January 2017, Sun Valley opened the doors of its new Queen Creek campus — one of five locations the church operates — next door to Canyon State Academy. One Sunday that summer Tiffany and Ricky Jordan, who had been attending church at the new campus, noticed several high school boys outside the auditorium wearing football jerseys and passing out schedules.
“We wanted to interact with the boys,” Tiffany said. “So, we asked about the football program and eventually connected with coach [Kyle] Sager and [campus pastor] Mo [Grimm].”
Before long, Tiffany had a table set up in the church's courtyard, where she began encouraging Sun Valley attendees to commit to “sponsoring” a member of the football team. Sponsors would attend games, hold signs, leave encouraging notes for players and bring them snacks.
Around 250 people signed up to be sponsors for the Rams’ first game in September, and the program only grew from there, with sponsors traveling to Phoenix and even Glendale, a suburb more than 50 miles away.
As the season progressed, connections grew between families and the nearly 50 kids on the roster, some of whom were experiencing their own personal cheering section for the first time.
“There was a sense of accountability, to do their best for their sponsor,” Sager said. “Especially for out-of-state kids, this was huge. Just somebody to be there.”
Grimm said the program has evolved to include other sports. The sponsor/athlete relationships evolved as well, leading to at least 12 athletes being baptized and others regularly attending services at Sun Valley.
“We’re now seeing sponsorship moving to mentorship,” Grimm said. “Families are meeting with athletes, spending more dedicated time, talking and building relationships.”
Sager and Grimm estimate that about 25 percent of the sponsors work at Canyon State.
“The church integration gave us a focus to how we work with these kids and how we bring everything together,” said Sager. “We get kids from all areas of life and help them know they are loved regardless. And the love is not just coming from their coaches — it’s coming from their church, it’s coming from their community.”
"If you don't have a healthy view of family, who cares?"
Though Sun Valley is a multisite church, its mission to help people meet, know and follow Jesus permeates each of its campuses. The sponsorship program with Canyon State, Grimm believes, fits the church's vision perfectly.
“It’s totally hand-in-hand,” he said. “We want to give the students a healthy sense of what a family looks like. When we talk about God, when we talk about Christianity, when we talk about a family, if you don’t have a healthy view of your family, who cares? Our sponsorship is giving students a healthy view of a family, a healthy view of community.
“When student-athletes can look up in the stands and see families, it’s incredible. Quite frankly, when I came to games two years ago, even a year ago, the players would come out on the field and [after the game] leave. That was it. There weren’t a lot of people there. Now, the players are coming through a tunnel of people, on and off the field.”
Among those shaking the bleachers each week are Jared and Crystal-Star Fleming, who were looking to get involved at the Queen Creek campus. The Flemings sponsored three boys, regularly taking them to church and to lunch next door at the café Canyon State owns and operates, employing their students.
“The football games are awesome,” Jared said. “The church's kids would make signs and cheer the team on. It's our own little community.”
Also, players are able to experience a family who loves Jesus through their love and actions.
“They get to see Christ in action," Crystal-Star said. “We pray with them, be an example to them, and just show them what a normal, fun family looks like.”
The Rams may only have won three of the eight games they played last season, but Sager doesn't measure the rewards in wins and losses.
“To watch the process from when we get new kids in April, and then nine months later through a football season, and see how they’re ready to face those challenges that got them here, is rewarding,” the coach said.
“The text messages, the Facebook messages and three, four years down the road when they come back for homecoming, that’s when I collect my paycheck — when I see the kids again.”
Players are able to experience a family who loves Jesus through their love and actions. "They get to see Christ in action. We pray with them, be an example to them and just show them what a normal, fun family looks like."
Tiffany and Ricky Jordan have found a way to connect with a population they have always wanted to impact.
“I just think your life is enriched when you get to know other people’s worlds,” Tiffany said. “I’ve always believed that to love is greater than to be loved. It’s just addicting. You just want to keep getting to know these kids because you just love them.”
Less than a year into the program, Tiffany says her goal is for every kid at the school to have a connection with a family. Though football tends to be an easier way to attract support, she wants to support other sports throughout the week, as well as other clubs and activities that don’t typically draw as much attention.
For Grimm, the experience with Canyon State has brought everything full circle.
“Sun Valley's Queen Creek campus started on a football field at Canyon State. For it to kind of be our rallying point, it’s so fitting,” he said.
Football practice will start up again in May. Coach Sager and the rest of the team will look to build upon last season. No doubt he will have his work cut out for him, integrating new players into an ever-changing roster. He won’t be alone, though, and neither will his boys.
That sound they hear from the stands? It’s the roar of a family, loving its own.
Troy Emenecker, Guest writer
Troy Emenecker is a freelance writer for Converge. He attends a Converge church in Mesa, Arizona.