Faith Drives KU’s McClinton
As a junior deacon at the Ninth Street Baptist Church, James McClinton wants to look sharp. He shows no rust from his predawn wake-up call, sporting a stylish black suit and blue dress shirt.
McClinton trudges clumsily through the Sunday morning snow. He totes a notebook and a Bible. Most of the Kansas campus is still asleep when Deacon Marcellus Jones greets the Big 12 defensive lineman of the year at the church’s front door.
“Hey, teacher,” Jones says.
Teacher. There it is. Did Deacon Jones really have to bring that up? A few days before, he had caught McClinton by surprise when he called and asked him to teach that week’s Sunday school lesson. McClinton had never taught class alone before. He did it once with KU teammate Gary Green, and Gary was the talker, not James. It was similar to his role on the field. James was more comfortable leading by example at church, too.
McClinton threw out a few excuses to Jones. He said he didn’t have a lesson book. He said he didn’t have a car (funny, but that never stopped James from attending every Sunday). Finally, he just said OK. Still, McClinton didn’t know what to do. He was many things, but he was not a good public speaker. James did the only thing he could do. He got down on his knees and prayed.
Turns out, the lesson was one McClinton already knew well. It was about the birth of John the Baptist, who was called to prepare the way for the birth of Jesus Christ. Of course, some people back then thought John was crazy. James McClinton knew the feeling. His KU teammates used to laugh at him when he’d drop down in the middle of the weight room and pray.
In the Bible, many of the same people who refused to hear John’s words eventually would come around. And, as far as McClinton could tell, it had played out the same way with the Jayhawks. As KU prepares for the Orange Bowl on Jan. 3, there are a growing number of players who believe the Jayhawks are “God’s team.”
So maybe McClinton can teach this lesson. He sits down in the middle of a group of young men and women and opens his Bible.
McClinton says that God told him to follow the outline in the lesson book. A simple plan, really, which is fine by him.The lesson focuses on John’s father, Zechariah. He had been shocked when an angel came to him and said that he and his wife, who had previously been unable to have children, would bear a son. Because Zechariah didn’t believe the angel, he was muted for the nine months until John was born.
McClinton asks the class to recall a time that they were shocked or scared and turned to God. A few offer their answers, and then McClinton tells his own story.
During his senior year of high school, McClinton was falling to peer pressure. His friends would talk about having sex, and he was still a virgin. McClinton, eager to fit in, had intercourse with two different girls. He started to see one of them often.
One day, his mother called him into her bedroom. James was scared. The bedroom meant that Rose McClinton knew something. James sheepishly walked into the room.
“Have you been having sex?” Rose asked.
James was, well, shocked. How did she know? He had always been careful not to fool around in the house. So he lied.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
Rose began to explain. She was a praying mother, always had been. And one of her friends had a dream, prophesizing that James was going to get a girl pregnant.
Now, James was really shocked.
“It was awkward, rare, unusual,” McClinton would say. “I said, ‘Man, this has to be from God.’ ”
He left his mother’s room and walked straight into his own. He shut the door.
“I committed my life to Christ,” McClinton says, “to give my life to the Lord and give up sex.”
At that moment, James’ relationship with God stopped being a habit. Like any child of a religious family, he had often gone to church out of obligation. Now, he could feel his life changing. He read the signs. They told him to leave Garland, Texas — a suburb of Dallas — to play football at Kansas.
Four years later, the sun breaks into the classroom at Ninth and Ohio streets. McClinton finishes his testimony.
“We all got somewhere the Lord wants us to be,” he explains. “Either we’re going to go willingly, or he’s going to shake us up.”
James McClinton is thankful for his shake-up. He shares a final thought with the others.
“You know there’s going to be haters,” he says. “Don’t let the world affect you. Please Him, not the people around you.”
When class is dismissed, KU teammate Darrell Stuckey says the closing prayer. McClinton kneels as Stuckey asks God to “give us the strength that moves mountains.” While the rest of the class starts getting ready to leave, McClinton stays on the ground, his head buried under his arms.
Deacon Jones calls McClinton a “prayer warrior.”
“The Bible talks about praying without ceasing,” Jones says, “and he really does that. You see it in his life. He prays before he does anything.”
Before practice. During practice. After practice. Walking through the middle of campus. McClinton’s line is always open.
“That constant communication with God is his driving force,” Jones says.
Jones played football for KU during 1998-2002. He was a fifth-year senior on coach Mark Mangino’s first team. When he played, there was nobody like McClinton on the team. The believers kept it to themselves. They were afraid to stand out. That’s why McClinton took so much ribbing when he arrived in Lawrence.
In the weight room, players would laugh and coaches would sigh when McClinton took a knee, as he often would. In football, taking a knee is seen as a sign of weakness. The coaches assumed James McClinton was tired.
Gary Green would take up for James. He felt for him. Green grew up in the church like James, but he wasn’t outward with his beliefs.
“I’d go somewhere secluded,” Green says.
Despite James’ very public spiritual life, he did things he wasn’t proud of during his first two years on campus. He was a college athlete. The temptation of alcohol and sex were as constant as his communication with his higher power. Several times, James was on the verge of having sex again. Once, he was going to, but the girl said she didn’t have sex on a first date. James was almost relieved.
“The Lord didn’t let it happen,” James would say.
McClinton was caught between two worlds that couldn’t be more different. A teammate once made fun of him because he devoutly gave 10 percent of his scholarship check to his church. Eventually, the misunderstandings would make him angry.
McClinton began to close himself off to his teammates. He stopped going out. He stopped having casual conversations with them. It seemed as if every conversation with a nonbeliever turned into McClinton witnessing. He had become judgmental, and before he knew it, he was not James at all.
Green saw all of this happening to his friend. James had helped Gary become stronger in his faith. It was Gary’s turn to help this time, only it seemed that James needed to be toned down instead of fired up. So late last summer, Green approached McClinton with a scripture he had read in the book of Ecclesiastes. It advised not to be overly righteous.
McClinton heeded those words. He decided that he had been going about it all wrong. His high horse wasn’t going to help anybody find God.
“The Lord brought me down from that,” McClinton says, “trying to live all uptight. If I’m talking the Word and all that stuff, people aren’t going to understand it. I’m talking in a different language.”
McClinton started going out again every once in a while. No drinking, but he would work security at fraternity or sorority parties. In dialogue with his teammates, he spent less time on the pulpit and more time talking like a normal college kid. It made a difference.
“Who am I to judge?” McClinton says. “I’m a sinner, too. I can still have fun. I can still be in the world, but not of the world.”
Just in time for the season, James McClinton had returned.
McClinton had a feeling things were going to be different this season for KU. But he knew it on a steamy Sunday afternoon in August, when Mangino approached him and Green during a two-a-day practice.
Mangino told them that former KU football player Dan Coke, a religious speaker, was coming to speak to the team later that day as he did every year. But this time, Mangino wanted to take it up a notch. He asked McClinton and Green to pick out a hymn that the whole team could sing together. They were stunned. Mostly, though, they were excited.
They picked out a praise hymn that they often sang at church and handed it to someone on the football staff to make copies. About a hundred were made, and when the team gathered in Hadl Auditorium — a room normally reserved for meetings and film watching — they were handed out to all the players. McClinton and Green led the team in singing.
He’s worthy to be praised
To McClinton and Green, it felt as if every player and coach were singing in unison. For the first time, their faith felt accepted, not tolerated.
That was just the beginning. Throughout the fall, more and more players and coaches began participating in post-practice prayer. More players attended Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings, which used to be held in McClinton’s dorm room before the group grew too large and moved to the Burge Union.
Mangino didn’t forget his team’s newfound spiritual bond either, using a Bible verse in pregame speeches. Like this one from the book of Matthew: “A house divided against itself shall not stand.”
The Jayhawks had no such problem. In past years, according to Green, a divide did exist between the believers and the nonbelievers.
“If someone didn’t believe,” Green says, “(we) didn’t communicate because it was too awkward. That’s now how it is this year.”
Now, there’s acceptance on both sides. KU running back Brandon McAnderson gives a lot of the credit to McClinton.
“It’s really a great thing,” McAnderson says. “Individually, it’s led by J-Mac. A lot of the guys, when they got here, weren’t as religious, but he’s helped them get there.”
Mangino, the consensus national coach of the year, may have made one of his best play calls of the year on that Sunday in August.
“When you have so many guys on the team that believe in something and want it to be an integral part of the season, Coach can either accept it or reject it,” Green says. “To see him realize the spirit of the team and go with that was so powerful to me.”
McClinton says: “It had to take faith from coach Mangino in order to do that. That pleased God. That’s why I say this is God’s team.”
On Wednesday nights in Lawrence, students can break the routine of the week with a plethora of cheap drink deals. At Brother’s, it’s $3 pitchers. At Fatso’s, it’s $1 mixed drinks. At Sandbar, it’s $3 margaritas.
Every Wednesday night, James McClinton attends Bible study. On this night, KU players Chris Harris, Olaitan Oguntodu and Green join him in the sanctuary. The scripture again is one James knows well: David and Goliath.
All season long, as James tore up the Big 12 from his defensive tackle spot, becoming a second-team All-American, he thought of himself as David. See, McClinton is small for an interior lineman — “I’m the smallest starting defensive tackle in the Big 12,” he’ll say with a sense of pride.
James stands 6 feet tall and weighs 279 pounds. He identifies with the part of David’s story when David turns down King Saul’s armor. David sticks to what he knows and gathers five stones for his slingshot.
“I compare him slinging those stones to my quickness,” McClinton says. “That’s what I’m good at. I’m not the strongest or the biggest, but I can get off the ball.”
He developed that quickness by becoming the team’s hardest worker. The team has Mondays off, but players aren’t surprised when they see James in the indoor facility pushing the blocking sled by himself. You could call them McClinton Mondays. James never walks anywhere when he has pads on, and he never takes a play off.
“I’m focused on giving God the glory,” McClinton says. “When I’m tired, he gives me strength.”
All of that, translated into football speak, is called “having a motor.” As his KU career wraps up, McClinton hopes that motor will be enough to have his name called on draft day. He has been invited to play in the East-West Shrine Game on Jan. 19 in Houston, where NFL scouts will decide whether McClinton is too small.
McClinton wants to play in the NFL because of the greater platform to spread the Word. After four years at Kansas, he better understands how to do that.
“He’s one of the cornerstones in the change of the spirit of this team,” Green says. “J-Mac is a necessary vessel that God used to get this team headed in the right direction.”
Deacon Jones imagines that McClinton would have a similar effect on an NFL locker room or any other place that James’ road takes him.
“He has a very warm spirit,” Jones says. “I think James is one of those people that he’s not a chameleon that is going to adapt to the environment. The environment is going to adapt to him.”