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Coach Bobby Bowden: ‘I try to tell them about Jesus’

Coach Bobby Bowden is the fourth winningest coach of all time in college football. But even after 57 years of coaching, Bowden’s heart is not wrapped up in football. It’s consumed by a passion for Jesus.

Bowden spoke Thursday night at the nearly sold-out “Banquet with Bowden” hosted by the Lincoln County Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The event’s focus was to promote the ministry and honor those who work with coaches and student athletes. With a new leadership board over the past 14 months and a new District 7 area representative in Chris Huffman, Lincoln County FCA is working to bring Christ to every athlete, coach and their families in the area.

Bowden, through his testimony, is a big part of that.

For years, Bowden has made no secret of his love for God and his desire to bring other people to know him. His main goal today is “the same thing: just getting the word out.”

Bowden, now 87 years old, may not walk as fast or stand as straight as he did in his heyday, but he is still a noticeable presence in any room. He takes advantage of his notoriety to speak to anyone he can.

“I try to tell them about Jesus,” he said.

He doesn’t know of any better avenue to do that than through FCA.

“I look at so many young boys who have parents who don’t get them to church,” said Bowden. “Where else are they going to hear it? FCA.”

Bowden took a break from signing footballs and copies of his newest autobiography to speak to The Daily Leader. “Rev. Billy Graham said, ‘A coach can influence more people in a year than a preacher can in a lifetime,’” he said. “And, for the most part, I agree with that. But it can be a good or bad influence.”

Since he retired nearly seven years ago, Bowden said he doesn’t have to work. He has a vacation home on the beach and could just stay there. “But I want to do something,” he said, “and I can’t think of anything more important than speaking.” He’s spoken to various types of groups and organizations, but said his favorite group is FCA.

Sammie Smith, a former Florida State running back who was coached by Bowden, drove three-and-one-half hours from Florida to be a part of the program Thursday.

“Any time I get the opportunity to be a part of something with Coach Bowden, I want to go,” Smith told The Daily Leader.

Smith has worked with FCA for five years and wanted to be a part of the fundraiser for two reasons — to spend some time with his former coach and to help bring support for FCA in Lincoln County.

Smith said of Bowden, “His accomplishments on the field speak for themselves. When I look at my journey and my calling, and working now at Ole Miss, I know it’s due to the influence of him on my life, his mentorship.

“He was my coach, but it’s because of what this relationship, his friendship means to me. Now, to be able to call him a friend, and it has nothing to do with football …,” Smith said. He smiled and shook his head.

When he took the podium in the auditorium of Easthaven Baptist Church, Smith said one quote has resonated with him more than any other, and he repeated the statement from Billy Graham that Bowden had mentioned off stage. Smith recounted watching The Bobby Bowden Show as a young teen, and attending Bobby Bowden Football Camp as a high school athlete.

Although other schools actively recruited Smith as the No. 1 high school running back in the country, picking Florida State was easy. “None of them had impacted my life in such a short time as Bobby Bowden.”

“I would’ve played anywhere for this man,” he said. “That’s how much I respected him. He’s still impacting my life today. He’s still influencing me.”

It’s because of that influence that Smith works with FCA, and is a spiritual leader in his home. With a proud smile, Smith pointed into the crowd at his wife and daughter and said, “My 10-year-old daughter accepted Christ last night.”

The crowd applauded more for this moment than when Bowden took the stage minutes later.

As Bowden stood to speak, he couldn’t help ribbing his former player, once one of the fastest men on the gridiron, about how big he’d gotten in recent years. “Now he’s a tackle,” Bowden said and Smith laughed. “I could outrun you now.”

But in the middle of funny stories and memories, Bowden said, “I’ve had a lot of boys who accepted Christ. I preached to them. They say you can’t talk about this in school. The heck I can’t.”

“FCA started in 1954 in Oklahoma,” he said, “but I didn’t find out about it until ’63, when I went to FSU as assistant coach. I got involved and have been involved ever since. I have always supported it and always will.”

Bowden said the large church he once attended in Florida had people get saved or make public decisions for Christ every week, sometimes one person, sometimes a whole family of seven. But at one FCA camp, he saw 250 boys make commitments at one time. “Is FCA more valuable than a church? No. Nothing, no institution is more valuable than a church,” said Bowden. “But now, these boys could go and join a church and get the training they need.”

“I admire these men who work for FCA. Would you take a job with no pay? They have to raise their own,” Bowden said. “I’m sure they’ll be rewarded, once they get into heaven.”

“God doesn’t need your ability. He could’ve gotten somebody else to speak and be a whole lot better than me,” he told the crowd. “What does he want? Your availability. Is that tasking too much? Make yourself available and God will use you. Ask God, ‘Tell me what to do,’ and then shut up.”

After a young FSU player was shot and killed at a party one year, Bowden pointed at his empty chair the next day in a team meeting. “Where is Pablo?” he asked. “That gave me a chance to witness to my boys about heaven and hell and how to be saved.”

“I don’t care about politically correct,” he said. “I care about spiritually correct.”

After his talk to the team, one of his assistant coaches entered his office and asked Bowden to explain what he’d been talking about. Coach Mark Richt, who is now head football coach at University of Miami, gave his life to Christ in Bowden’s office that day.

Bowden closed by saying he’d been inducted to the Alabama Hall of Fame, Florida Hall of Fame, South Georgia Hall of Fame, National Hall of Fame, and would be inducted to the Samford University Hall of Fame in May. But God’s Hall of Fame was the only one that mattered to him. “I’ll see y’all up there, OK?

“I’ll do it as long as I have good health and can do it,” Bowden said. “I have no intention of quitting.”