Did Somebody Say Team?

Nineteen Bethel University football players are serving local city high schools and their football programs as part of a desire to build long-term friendships with young athletes. The relationships are proving to be life-changing—for the high school athletes and the Bethel players alike.

By Michelle Westlund '83, senior content specialist

November 23, 2021 | Noon

Football FCA

Members of Bethel’s football team mentor local high school players through Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Bethel University Head Football Coach Steve Johnson can be very persuasive. Just ask any of the hundreds of players he’s recruited to Bethel over the years. But this is the story of a recruit who said no—and how that decision eventually became a “yes” to something far bigger than just one football player.

Jordan Dornbush grew up in Shoreview, Minnesota, and played football at Mounds View High School, just down the road from Bethel. Though he sparked the interest of Bethel football coaches, Dornbush thought Bethel was too close to home, and ended up playing football at a college in Chicago. He’d always had a heart for missions, and during his college years, he joined a missions trip to a maximum security prison in Louisiana.

It was there that he found his calling. Talking to inmates imprisoned for serious crimes, he heard their stories of trauma, obstacles, and pain. He was struck by a vision of these men when they were young teens making choices that would result in lifelong consequences. If someone could provide the right resources—love, acceptance, opportunity, mentoring, friendship—in those critical early teenage years, he wondered, maybe things could turn out differently.

Dornbush found a place to act on his calling with Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), which offered ministry opportunities on Chicago’s west side. “The heart of FCA in the city is loving and supporting young athletes who are coming from backgrounds that include childhood trauma, poverty, racism, and fatherlessness,” he says. In inner city Chicago, he formed friendships with young athletes and led Bible studies of up to 30 guys at a time. He was responding to his call and energized by the work, but it was impossible for one person to mentor 30 kids. He needed a team.

Did somebody say team? Enter Bethel football. Dornbush felt God leading him to return to the Twin Cities, where he reconnected with the coaches who had recruited him at Bethel. He became a Bethel assistant football coach and continued to work for FCA, eventually becoming the FCA area representative for Minneapolis. It turns out the two roles provided just the right connection for the passion that drives Dornbush. “I want to coach football,” he says, “but my heart is ultimately for training players to connect with inner city kids.”

And that’s what he’s doing. Seventeen Bethel football players completed background checks and discipleship training in order to serve young athletes at Minneapolis North, Henry, Edison, and Roosevelt high schools in 2020, many adjusting to virtual meetings when schools closed during COVID-19. This year, 19 Bethel football players are in training, and they’re joined by six additional players from the University of Northwestern in Roseville, Minnesota, where Bethel alumnus Kyle Kilgore ’19 serves as an assistant coach and connection.

The college players serve the needs of the high schools and their football programs, helping with practice or in the weight room, and are committed to building relationships with the high school athletes, serving as friends and mentors. The process takes time, since it involves trust-building with young people who have experienced challenges, hardship, and broken promises. “The college players are godly guys who can be trusted, caring mentors,” says Dornbush. “The goal is to see each of them enter life-on-life relationships with students, and through that, to see students grow to become followers of Jesus Christ.”

“I’ve learned that even though my background may be radically different than the guys at Minneapolis North High School, we’re similar in so many ways and need to be loved and cared for regardless of where we came from.”

— Danny Kulus ’22

As the relationships grow, the students participate in small group Bible studies and retreats, but the real ministry is done in real life. “The best moments of ministry aren’t at Bible study,” says Dornbush. “It’s just doing life—in the weight room, in the car, sitting at Taco Bell having a meal, and all of a sudden a kid starts opening up about what’s going on at home, what they’ve experienced, and you realize this is ministry, this is ministering to the heart of a student, their hurts and their needs. This is the messy stuff and the beautiful stuff of life.”

The high school athletes say they’ve bonded with their mentors and each other, been challenged to try new things, and opened up to talk about their lives more. “I’ve learned that God will always accept me no matter how much I’ve messed up,” says Mario. “Thanks to all the Bethel guys for keeping us accountable to things and having fun with us,” says Dom. Dornbush notes that the strength of the relationships was particularly evident at a recent Bethel football game, attended by a number of high school athletes in the mentoring program. “The kids came to see the game,” he says, “but they barely watched it. They were too busy looking at the sidelines to see their mentors.”

The kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from the mentoring relationships. The college football players are growing and changing too. “It’s powerful to see the Bethel guys grow,” says Dornbush. “Most of them had little previous exposure to the city and city kids, and their perspectives have been formed by news stories and statistics. Now their eyes have been opened. They see that, just like all of us, these kids have had positive and negative experiences that form who they are.”

Defensive back Danny Kulus ’22, a biokinetics and business major, is one Bethel player who was motivated to get involved with FCA. “The mentors and coaches in my own life, especially from Bethel, have had an impact on me,” he says. “Through FCA, I’ve learned that even though my background may be radically different than the guys at Minneapolis North High School, we’re similar in so many ways and need to be loved and cared for regardless of where we came from. There are so many young men with unbelievable hearts and potential, and having a person they can look up to and lean on can be life-changing for them, as it was for me.”

Defensive lineman Michael Judd ’22, a biblical and theological studies major, says the FCA mentoring experience has shaped his career trajectory. “My involvement with FCA has revealed to me how much I care about these inner city kids,” he says. “I cared about them before I started mentoring, but I didn’t realize the true depth until I actually interacted with them, talked with them, and did life with them. It has made me want to seek a career where I can continue to love them.” That career, it turns out, is as a police officer, a call Judd has felt since high school. Now his hope is to serve as an officer in the inner city. “There is no better opportunity or profession for me to love and interact with the inner city community,” he says. “Being involved with FCA has further confirmed my conviction that this is what I’m meant to do.”

Bethel Athletics—Transformation through Sports

More than 25% of Bethel students participate in intercollegiate athletics, and that experience is life-changing. Student athletes help shape Bethel’s culture through their hard work and dedication. As alumni, they use the life lessons they learned in sports to lead and serve in world-changing ways.

Learn more