Every college student faces challenges when they leave home for school. The challenges are intensified for student-athletes, who add workouts, numerous team meetings, and practices to their already hectic student schedules. It can be overwhelming at times, and when it is, South Carolina’s character coaches are there.
They can be seen quietly talking with a group of players as they work out in the weight room, or one-on-one with a player who is facing problems at home. In the hectic atmosphere of a game, after an injured player is carted off the field and the medical personnel have determined the player is stable, he would be left all alone if it were not for the character coach at his side.
The USC football character coaches, also called team chaplains, are Adrian Despres, Frank Hester, and Kris Clark. All three are part-time. Jack Easterby is the campus director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes who oversees the character coaches program, and he personally works with the basketball team. Hester and Clark are both former Gamecock football players. Hester picked up the nickname “Bullet” from former USC coach Joe Morrison, and the moniker has stuck.
Hester talked about what their goal is in helping the players: “Our goal is to provide those guys with what a lot of us got around the kitchen table growing up: someone there to love on them, encourage them… to be there in the good times and the bad - you know, speak the truth to them and encourage them to be young men of character and to just live it out on a daily basis. So many of them, it's such a tough time for them. College athletics is so demanding on their time and all different areas. So we’re there as a support system for them. We try to equip them for the game of life.”
The rest of the USC football staff appreciates the efforts of their spiritual counterparts. Head Coach Steve Spurrier says of them, “Adrian and his staff are a vital part of our football program, and important members of our coaching staff. He does a super job every Friday night with his sermon, and counseling our players during the week. Bullet is his assistant. We see him around often, and he does a good job.
"Our goals, for all our players, are to do their best in school, on the field and in everyday life. We want our players to represent our university in a first class manner every day. The spiritual life of each player on our team is extremely important, as we strive to accomplish our Carolina football team goals,” Spurrier concluded.
Few days go by without a news story about a college football player somewhere who has gotten into trouble. It happens sometimes at USC too. When character issues arise with a player, the character coaches are there working with players right where they are at, whether it be helping them stay out of trouble, or helping them face the challenges after a troublesome incident has occurred.
When one of the players has to deal with where they are after having made a mistake, Hester said, “We first of all get in touch with them and try to encourage them - you know, just love on them, and sit up and try to listen. That's the thing, not try to preach to them. There is a time and place for that, but when you're hurting, the last thing you want someone chewing on your ear.
"We try to love them where they're at. When the whole world is looking at them and condemning them for this or for that, or whatever, we just slap them on the back and say, 'Love you man,' and 'We're there for you.' Some of them take advantage of it and some of them don't, but at least we give them the opportunity.”
Hester says they don’t sugarcoat a player’s transgressions. “We're not going to give them a pass when they make mistakes, we're going to speak the truth to them and encourage them, but we're not going to condemn them or beat them over the head with it. They know what's right and they know what's wrong, and they know when they've messed up. So, we're here just to love them through it.”
Former USC running back Cory Boyd said, “This ministry did so much for me during my time at Carolina. They prayed for me, and taught me so many life lessons. Things like: We need to put God first in all areas of our life, that there is much more to life than football, and when we are weak He is strong. Now, even though I’ve graduated, they are still there for me.”
Place kicker Nate Spurrier: "The thing I like about Adrian is the opportunity he gives us to help the South Carolina football team improve its image. Whether it's speaking to a group of middle schoolers, attending a church block party, or visiting a big Gamecock fan in the hospital, Adrian enables us to use our football status in a way that improves how people think about the team, and also gives us a chance to bring a smile to people's faces."
During a game, if a player gets hurt, Despres stays on the field with the team and Hester will accompany the injured player. “There are 80 thousand people out here, and when you just got hurt, it's one of the loneliest places,” Hester said. “You're surrounded by 80 thousand, but you can't hear a sound (in the training room.) It's a very lonely place, and so that's where we love on them, encourage them, pray for them. We're just there for them.”
Hester said the most gratifying thing for him in what he does is “to see how lives are transformed, to see a guy grow in his faith, and just to know that we're making a difference. Whether it's encouraging somebody when they lose a loved one, or if someone has surgery, we'll go pray for them before they have surgery. We ask, 'Hey man, can I pray for you?' You know, we don't just walk up and start praying.”
He shared that the job can go from a low to a high in an instant, often in a game setting: “One guy may be going through a tough time and you're there ministering to him, and then you turn around and the guy you just prayed for scores a touchdown.”
One of the best known players on the team is kicker Ryan Succop, who shared about Despres, “Adrian brings us closer to Christ and helps grow our relationship with Him. He brings the team together, helping us focus on playing for God instead of playing for our own selfish ambition.”
Herbert Adams, the outgoing chairman of the USC Board of Trustees, is a strong supporter of the program. “We have at Carolina kids that are from 18 to 23 years old. They’re still kids. I heard one athlete who had gotten into trouble, he did some things that he shouldn’t have done, but I heard him testify to what Adrian Despres had meant to him, and had stayed in touched, and made him know that he was loved. And it got him through some really dark moments. I realized, 'You know what? That happens to a lot of kids.' The sad part about it is, many of them don’t know that anybody loves them. They never hear it, and the FCA does try to do that. That’s why I’m in this outreach.”
Adams and Coach Spurrier are heading up an event to support the character coaches program at USC. The event will be held in “The Zone” at Williams-Brice Stadium at 6 pm this Tuesday, July 22. If you are interested in attending the program, please call the FCA office at 803-798-1142. The meeting will be followed by a tour of the stadium facilities, including the weight room, meeting rooms, trophy rooms, etc.