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December 10, 2010

UNDER CONSTRUCTION - Football team chaplain Johnny Shelton is helping Tech's student-athletes build solid foundations for their futures

By: Jimmy Robertson

Team chaplain Johnny Shelton

When Andre Smith got to Virginia Tech, he expected to go to his classes, attend football practices and participate in games.

A quiet young man, the tight end from Maryland never expected to be taking a portion of his sparse free time and speaking publicly about anything, certainly not his Christian faith.

But when Smith saw Tech’s football team chaplain, Johnny Shelton, organizing groups of players to visit places like area churches and homeless shelters as part of an outreach ministry, he felt moved to go and speak. He put himself out there – to a place where his football uniform and helmet couldn’t hide him.

Like a lot of players these days, Smith is finding it hard to say ‘no’ to two people – the Lord and Shelton.

“We have guys of complete character and good people on this team,” Smith said. “But sometimes it takes that extra push. For me, it took a little bit to get out of that comfort zone.”

Defensive tackle John Graves echoed Smith’s thoughts.

“We do have some great guys on this team, but having Johnny around makes it a lot easier for the guys to say ‘yes,’” he said. “He’s been such an impact on so many players.”

It’s been nearly three years since Shelton moved from Greensboro, N.C., to Blacksburg to continue his work for Fellowship of Christian Athletes and to serve as the football team’s chaplain. Tech head coach Frank Beamer saw a need to bring someone in whom the players could discuss their Christian beliefs and someone who would be a tremendous off-field role model for the players. He convinced Shelton to leave Greensboro and his position as the area director for the FCA, and the impact on Tech’s program has been stunning.

The weekly “share” times – one night a week in which the players pick a topic to discuss and Shelton selects a Biblical verse related to the topic – have been packed. The chapel services before each football game also are jammed. More and more players are participating in outreach visits as well. In fact, more than 20 players went to the Roanoke Rescue Mission in August to eat and meet with the homeless and others struggling in their lives.

“Initially, when I first got here, what surprised me was how quickly guys responded,” Shelton said. “They trusted me, and that surprised me. But since then, nothing really has surprised me. It just confirms why I’m here.

“I’m just being transparent. I’m authentic. I’m real. I tell them the truth. I don’t tell them what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to hear and a lot of guys have responded to that because they don’t get that. As football players, people talk to them according to what they think they want to hear and not necessarily what they need to hear. But they’re craving it. They want the truth. That’s why I think they’ve responded to me.”

Shelton instituted a theme for the football team late this summer entitled “Men under Construction” and based it on Matthew 7, verses 24 and 25 in which Jesus said that “whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who builds his house on the rock: and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.”

He wants players to focus on their foundations, their core beliefs. As with any building, the foundation is the most important part.

“We talked about our foundation being our hearts and our roots and our core values,” Shelton said. “What makes us do what we do and say what we say is our foundation. Whether it’s good or bad, that’s where our foundation comes from.

“Now, we may have some cracks or we may have to dig out the whole thing and put down a new foundation. So that’s the premise of what we’re doing.”

Shelton’s message has resonated with several of Tech’s prominent players, such as Smith, Graves and Tyrod Taylor. All are actively involved, and as the leaders of Tech’s team, their words, but more importantly, their actions carry a lot of weight within the team, particularly Taylor, who is probably the overall leader of the squad.

“He had the foundation coming out of high school,” Shelton said of Taylor. “He chose to keep that, but he also learned along the way. He knew that this was something that he wanted and needed to help him stay grounded.

“Now, when he leaves here, he’s still going to be under construction. He’s still going to have to do the right things. He’s going to have to read his Bible and pray and do outreach. Whether he does those things is up to him.”

Some players think Shelton’s impact has affected the Hokies positively on the field – “When you have someone like that on your team, it’s no coincidence that you’re winning,” Graves said – and there certainly may be a correlation, but Shelton’s goals aren’t really centered on wins. He wants God to work through him to get the players to hold each other accountable, and once they leave Virginia Tech, to get them to become spiritual leaders publicly. He wants people to be able to be around these young men and never be able to doubt their faith.

That appears to be happening, and not just with football players. Shelton, who hopes one day to see a team chaplain with every sport, has been meeting with student-athletes in other sports, and also coaches and athletics department staff members.

“It’s been fun,” he said. “We’re branching out to anyone in the athletics department, and I don’t mind that at all. It’s a privilege to be available to so many people.”

“A lot of people can say that they don’t know where their life would be without the impact he’s made on their lives,” Smith said. “I wholeheartedly can tell you that I’m a prime example.

“Johnny is a guy who is very spiritual and has such wise words and has taught us life lessons in the short amount of time that he’s been here. He’s a guy of utmost character and he’s been an amazing blessing to this team.

“He’s made a crazy impact behind the scenes that most people don’t even realize.”