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How’s your heart?

by David Needs

If you have had the pleasure of knowing Ken Sparks or who we all respectfully call “Coach Sparks”; you realize that his concern was who you were on the inside. His professional and personal conviction was to reach the heart of those he coached. Ken Sparks the football coach reached the summit that all coaches wish they could: National championships, conference titles, halls of fame, and wins…..lots of wins. But to his assistant coaches and those who knew him well he would famously say as he approached another professional milestone: “I don’t think when I get to heaven God is going to ask me How many wins do I have; but instead he will ask how many lives did I impact for the Kingdom.”

I first met Coach Sparks in the fall of 1988. I was a freshmen quarterback, 600 miles from my Delaware home, not knowing a soul on the team. In fact, my recruiting coach left before the season started – so I knew not a single coach either. I had played for my father in high school and knew that there was a “right” way to do things. I learned that faith mattered from a young age. Feeling homesick and nervous wondering what I had got myself into, I sat in Gentry Auditorium and I heard Coach share how the 1988 team’s theme would be “No compromise.” By honoring God with our actions, not just on the field, but in the classroom, the dorm, and our personal life, we would be a team of substance. From that moment I knew was home. Shortly, I learned not only did he speak the right words, but he really lived them to.

I have often said that I have been blessed to have been a Political Science and History student at Carson Newman because I learned from some of the greatest teachers ever, educators who challenged me not just to learn facts but think critically. I was also blessed to be a football player because Coach was such an amazing teacher too. He didn’t want me to only gain intellectual knowledge, but to apply it–not just with football but with life, too. He knew if I learned to sacrifice my interest for that of my teammates that I would someday be a better husband and father. He knew if I cared more for corporate success I would see the big picture instead of a narrow self-serving view of what I could gain, I would become more Christ-like. So, when given the opportunity to work for this educator in 1996 as a coach, I came home.

The historian David McCullough, in describing the brilliance of George Washington and his leadership ability, said Washington had a “keen eye for talent.” Men of ordinary background and circumstance with special gifts had a voice that could be heard, because he observed the potential greatness of these individuals. Coach had that gift. In both players and assistant coaches, he would see often what they could become and created an environment for them to grow. The success of the football program over the years can be attributed to the fact that he saw unique talent in men who shared in his vision of a Christ-centered football team that wanted to compete for championships. He was rigid in his expectations of the “right way” to do things; issuing commands at practice like “pitch it from the numbers” or “100-yard dash.” He would begin each practice for his quarterback and running backs with the Tape Drill. Here he would challenge his players by giving them the hardest read possible; thus making them accustomed to a challenge. Yet at the same time he was receptive to better ways to communicate and meet with his coaches individually to hear their thoughts, ideas, and pray.

Carson-Newman was admired in the coaching profession because of staff loyalty. But it was easy to be loyal to a man that cared about winning but cared about the families more. He expected those who worked for him to work hard and invest in players’ lives. And yet, in a profession where some will brag that they sleep at the office and never go home; Coach expected us to go home to be with our families, even encouraging our families to come to practice. He expected us to not work on Sundays. He cast the vision and provided direction and a watchful eye to make sure the “Carson-Newman Way = God’s Way.” Each staff meeting was opened and closed with prayer. Under this guidance his coaches were free to use their unique talents to make an impact, too.

It has been said that a great leader must possess three things: courage, intellect and good health. Those attributes summed up Ken Sparks the man. An avid reader, but one who read little about sports, he focused on faith, life, and leadership. He was never afraid to voice his concerns on a wide range of topics, chief among these his commitment to a Christ-Centered university. He hiked and loved the outdoors. He loved running and challenged himself each year before football season by running the Cades Cove Loop, an 11-mile section in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When his health began to fail in 2012, – the man who prided himself on remaining fit learned new ways to show courage and be a leader. Through his intense battle with cancer he showed strength and an unwavering faith. In the end his body may have failed, all of ours do. But his love for Carson-Newman never stopped. He worked up to the very end. Finding ways to help the University and teach. His last conversation with me just days ago was to encourage me “with some things God laid on his heart.” So in the end if asked the question “How is your heart?” Like countless others impacted by the ministry of Coach Ken Sparks: My heart is full.

David Needs serves as head coach of Carson-Newman’s track and field team. He coached football for 18 full seasons on the sidelines with Coach Ken Sparks.

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