FCA celebrates student athletes, leaders

Mar. 29—More than 30 student athletes from throughout East Mississippi were recognized for their contributions on and off the field Friday as the Greater Meridian Fellowship of Christian Athletes held its annual Jackie Slay "Breakfast of Champions."

Marking its seventh year, the breakfast looks to honor student athletes who show integrity, leadership and faith in their daily lives. The 30 "Champions of Character" were chosen from 15 high schools and two community colleges throughout Kemper, Lauderdale, Clarke and Jasper counties.

Dalton Smith, director for the Greater Meridian FCA, said the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was founded in 1954 when a coach in Oklahoma saw the potential for athletics to spread the word of Christ. Since then, he said, the program has exploded into the ministry that it is today.

"We're in over 100 countries today all around the world," he said.

Coach Mac Barnes, who coached at Meridian and Lamar for a combined 41 years before retiring in 2021, said FCA is able to reach students in the schools and help them build and establish their faith early so that they can grow and help others.

"I realized this when my first grandchild was born, I can't change the world. The only thing I can do is prepare him for the world," he said. "And FCA is one the few things that gets into the schools and provides the only answer, and that is a relationship with God."

Also recognized Friday were the Mark Bryan Character Award Male and Female Athletes of the Year, which were Raif Long and Alana Nixon. The Athletes of the Year are chosen from among the 30 champions. Meridianite Trey Long, who presented the awards, said those chosen for the award are making a noticeable impact in the schools and communities.

"The people that are getting this award are daily making difference in their peers' lives, making a difference on their campuses and making a difference for Christ," he said.

This year's recipient of the Mac Barnes Coach of the Year award was coach P.J. Graham of Stringer. Graham, Barnes said, has been instrumental in helping both players and his fellow coaches find their faith.

Graham said he was honored to receive the award and be recognized for his efforts. However, he said he has simply been trying to be a good disciple of Christ and follow God's commandment to spread his message to others.

"For the last several years, I've heard people say real positive and encouraging things about what we're doing at Stringer," he said. "And the reality is we're not doing anything special. We're just being Christians."

Guest speaker for Friday's event was Scott Berry, who retired as the University of Southern Mississippi's head baseball coach as the winningest coach in program history. A former coach at Meridian Community College, Berry ended his career with a 46-20 season record.

When scouting players, Berry said, coaches look for certain qualities. Are the skills there? Is the athlete coachable? Are they a good teammate? Are they a leader? Do they put in the work academically? How do they deal with failure?

"You're going to fail. A good batting averages is failing seven out of 10 times, hitting 300, and how you deal with that failure, particularly in our sports when we're evaluating, is so important in how we deal with it and how we handle it," he said.

The players that perform at the highest levels understand failure is a part of the process, he said, and dwelling on it takes focus away from the next play or next game.

"You have to be able to deal with failure in a way most people can't," he said.

As coaches, Berry said, men and women have the opportunity to make enormous impact in their communities. Lessons will stay with players, who will pass them on in their personal and professional lives, growing and spreading that influence to any number of people.

In 1954, a coach in Oklahoma saw the potential for athletics to spread the word of Christ and founded FCA, he said. In 1978, a coach from Kansas brought the FCA to rural Missouri where it helped Berry, then a sophomore, to take his faith from a Sunday morning routine to a full-fledged relationship with God.

In 1997, Berry moved from Missouri to Meridian to be assistant baseball coach at Meridian Community College, mentoring athletes such as Dusty Culpepper, who was involved in organizing Friday's event. Culpepper, Berry said, has gone on to mentor others, serving on the school board, FCA and a number of other community organizations.

"When you have the ability every year to help mold and shape a group of young people, then as they leave you they have the ability to mold and shape young people, it just continues to grow," he said.

FCA, Berry said, gives coaches and players the tools they need to use the platforms they already have to share the message of Jesus Christ.

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