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Football coaches take on a Hail Mary mission to Portugal
Hall County men share their love of game and God with Portuguese players
Flowery Branch High School head football coach Chris Griffin has the players run through practice drills during training sessions in Porto, Portugal.

Many a prayer has been offered up under the brilliance of stadium lights on Friday nights.

Fans and players plead for divine Providence to have a Hail Mary pass be caught for a touchdown to win the game, for the well-being of an injured player, for the success — or failure — of a play.

With the idea that sports can bring people to their knees, a group of rival Hall County coaches took the almost exclusively American game of football to Portugal.

For one week in February, rival head football coaches Bryan Gray of East Hall, Chris Griffin of Flowery Branch, David Bishop of North Hall and former North Hall head coach Bob Christmas put aside their competitive history and conducted training camps for adult men in Porto, Portugal.

In the traditionally Catholic country, many people have stopped attending church. The coaches’ mission was to reintroduce the Gospel to the people in the area.

“They were just hungry to learn football,”Christmas said. “So when we had an opportunity to share our faith with them as football coaches, they were very open. ... It’s traditionally a Catholic country, but they’re more secularist. Their traditions are founded in the Catholic church, but most of them don’t go to church anymore. But they were open to Christianity because of their roots.”

The mission trip was a partnership between Gainesville/Hall County Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Riverbend Baptist Church and the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. The trips were paid for in part by the FCA East-West Classic fundraising game at City Park in Gainesville last December.

Jason Lester, FCA director of Gainesville and Hall County, said “football is the hook in this ministry.

“Soccer, of course, is king in Portugal,” Lester said. “But a lot of those guys are wanting to learn American football. It’s very popular in Europe and it’s growing in popularity. But they have nobody there to coach and instruct. They’re learning on their own from watching the NFL and YouTube videos.”

Lester said the ministry-through-sports model of the FCA is very effective.

“I don’t care where you go, anywhere you go in the world, if you roll a ball out you’re going to get an audience,” Lester said. “Whether it’s football, baseball, basketball or soccer — of course, being the worldwide sport — if you involve a sport you’re going to gain an audience.”

The coaches, along with 11 other FCA leaders, set up training camps and practices for adult men in the city who were interested in learning the game. Many who attended the sessions play the game regularly on local teams in an amateur American football league.

“Their knowledge of English was very good,” Bishop said. “They were very, very interested in learning and tried to do everything we showed them. It’s not part of their culture there. I think because it’s a part of ours we may take (experience with the game) for granted. For me, it was an eye-opener. These were guys age 18 to 41 hanging on every word we had to say.”

Between practices and a weekend football camp, the players transported the coaches around the city, showing them sights they might have missed had they taken the typical tourist routes.

Bishop said he was overwhelmed by the city’s depth of history as he and the others visited several historic locations, including a church built in 1100 A.D.

“You’re talking about a 900-year-old church that still stands, that still looks amazing,” Bishop said. “Nothing in America is that old. This was built more than 300 years before (Christopher) Columbus. It was mind boggling to me, just the history is amazing.”

The coaches admit they had a bit of culture shock, especially when trying to grab a bite to eat in the evening. Dinner is typically served around 10 or 11 p.m.

“The food culture was very shocking to me,” Bishop said. “When they ate, how much they ate, what they ate. I had basically french fries with every meal.”

Bishop laughed and said he often asked the players how they stayed so thin when they ate so much.

Having never been overseas before, Griffin didn’t know what to expect.

“I thought the language would be a barrier, that there would be things they just wouldn’t understand,” Griffin said. “But it didn’t take long for me to realize they’re very similar to us. They’re very family-oriented. They have a lot of the same life principles. They work hard. They’re polite. I was very humbled.”

While the coaches enjoyed the sightseeing and sharing their love of football, they relished the time riding around the city with the players because it provided an opportunity to talk with one another.

“All we really did as coaches was go and show the camaraderie of football,” Gray said. “People really kind of latched onto it as kind of a bonding thing. At the same time, they saw Christ through it and the bond with that in general. Interacting with us and their teammates helped to reinforce it.”

Friendships, however, weren’t limited to coaches and players.

Christmas said it’s easy to develop an “us against them” mentality when coaches find themselves competing against each other on Friday nights. But spending the week together teaching other men about their shared love of football and the Gospel created lasting friendships.

“You don’t ever have time to hang out with the people you compete against,” Bishop said. “For me that was awesome because I got to build some relationships with some of the other coaches. That was neat in itself.”

Gray said he was struck by the significance of the trip while on the flight back home.

“People want to belong. People want to believe,” Gray said. “Football gives an avenue for people to belong to. When you belong to a group, you’re much more adept to letting down your guard and really assessing yourself and being open to things and discussing things with people. I think that’s beauty of this thing with football. Who would have thought that a sport that’s played in a very small percentage of the world would open these kinds of doors.”

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