Christian group changed star athlete’s course

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 20, 2011

Ken Hatfield’s start in football nearly ended before it began, the former University of Arkansas standout told a gathering of Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Vicksburg this week.

When the seventh-grader and his older brother hit the field for tryouts, they and the other 83 prospects were told to run five laps around the long practice field.

“I told my brother I wanted to quit,” said Hatfield, who has coached for Air Force, Arkansas, Clemson and Rice. “I was here to play football, not to run laps. But my brother told me I could quit later — he was going to drag my butt around that practice field for five laps.”

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletter

Receive daily headlines and obituaries

The Mount Helena, Ark., native survived, going on to bigger and better things — a national championship win at Arkansas and a 27-year coaching career at four schools, wrapping up at Rice in 2005.

His religious conversion happened in 1965, when his playing days at Arkansas were over. After leading the NCAA in punt-return yards and teaming with future Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and future University of Miami and Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson to help the Razorbacks take the 1964 national championship, he was at a crossroads.

“On Jan. 2, 1965, I picked up The Dallas Morning News and it said, ‘Arkansas, national champions.’ Greatest moment I had ever experienced,” Hatfield said. “But I threw it down when I read that because I knew, at that moment, my god had died — and my god was football. I had always known there was going to be another game, another play, another season and that’s what kept me going. I knew when I read that headline, I was never going to play another down of football. I didn’t know what the heck to do.”

His coach, Frank Broyles, urged him to go to an FCA camp in Estes Park, Colo. Hatfield jumped at the opportunity to talk about his accomplishments.

“I remember this one driver who asked what God was trying to say in this one book in the Bible,” Hatfield said. “Here I was, hoping to get in a conversation about myself, and this man is talking about Jesus Christ and the interpretation of the Bible. I knew I was in the wrong place. I felt about this (motioning with his fingers a few inches apart) big.”

The speakers at the camp spoke to his soul.

“I remember there was this guy who spoke, this NFL head coach who had five losing seasons in a row, yet he still had a job,” Hatfield, 68, said. “I couldn’t believe they hadn’t fired that guy. He said the only way to have success in the National Football League was to get men of character. He said the only way to train a man of character was to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I later found out his name was Tom Landry and he won several Super Bowls and was still a man of character.”

Hatfield later declared himself for Christ, and his life hasn’t been the same since.

An issue he pulls no punches on is college football.

“Everything is money-driven and that means television-sets driven,” Hatfield said. “Your stadiums have gotten so big, bigger than the pro ones, and I’m afraid that many fans don’t care if players graduate. It’s almost a semipro-type thing. College football is the most exciting thing out there, but I don’t think I see anyone out there voicing concerns for the good of the game. It’s in flux, and I don’t think it’s through yet.”

The FCA is a nondenominational Christian organization for athletes.

Players from the Warren Central, Vicksburg, St. Aloysius and Porters Chapel Academy chapters attended the rally, held Sunday at First Baptist Church.