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‘Doing sports God’s Way’

by Kirk Wessler | Photos by Ron Johnson |
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At Peoria’s Christian Center, athletics is about way more than winning

Hall of Fame basketball coach Bob Knight was typically blunt about the notion of friendly competition.

“You have competition, you take out good will,” Knight said during an interview with a young reporter 40 years ago.

The folks who run the youth sports programs at Christian Center in Peoria beg to differ. Their philosophy might be best summed up by the title of their discipleship and development program for coaches: “Doing Sports God’s Way.”

Chad Bailey of The Christian Center holds the Bible and talks with young players before their baseball games
Chad Bailey of The Christian Center holds the Bible and talks with young players before their baseball games

More than 2,200 boys and girls, ages 5-18, will participate on a Christian Center sports team this year. They’ll practice and compete in T-ball, baseball, softball, soccer and basketball, learning more than basic fundamentals of each sport.

“Parents want somewhere to go where they feel it’s not just all about winning,” said Chad Bailey, Christian Center managing director. “It’s about developing their kid not just athletically but spiritually, with focus on the kid versus focus on wins and losses. It’s about Jesus loving you and you loving your neighbor, who happens to be a teammate or maybe someone on the other team.

“Hopefully, we are Jesus with skin on to these kids.”

As for Knight’s take on competition?

“The word competition comes from the Latin ‘competere,’ which means to strive together,” said Joe Monahan, director of coaching and program development at Christian Center. “Today’s culture seems to strive against, but competition should be more about making each other better. I bring my best to help bring out your best, and you do the same for me.”

‘No Litmus Test’

Christian Center was founded in 1948, the realization of a vision by Dan Demmin to provide a place for young people to enjoy wholesome recreation. A year later, the Peoria Christian Center was incorporated as a non-profit, a constitution was ratified, a board of directors elected, and Demmin was named managing director.

The non-denominational center opened in a house near downtown Peoria, then moved to a larger facility on the East Bluff. The current headquarters, on 7.5 acres at 4100 Brandywine Drive near Northwoods Mall, was built in the early 1960s and features offices, meeting rooms, a bowling alley and other indoor recreation space. Outside are a playground, batting cage, two youth baseball/softball fields (one with artificial turf) and a smaller diamond for T-ball.

Joe Monaghan of The Christian Center coaches young athletes in the soccer program
Joe Monaghan of The Christian Center coaches young athletes in the soccer program

A baseball little league was formed and quickly grew. Over the years, softball, soccer and basketball were added, far outstripping the center’s physical resources. But partnerships with various churches, schools, businesses and the Peoria Park District provide gymnasiums and more green space to accommodate the demand.

“There’s no litmus test to participate,” Bailey said. “We allow everyone to play. We have a registration fee, but we also have scholarships for anyone who can’t afford it. If a parent signs their kid up, he or she is going to play.”

A Unique Environment

Those young people are also going to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Participants are given Bible verses to memorize. Practices and games include group prayer. Coaches, officials, players and parents are encouraged to share their Christian faith, in words and actions.

It’s impossible to know how many children and parents alike have been changed, or more specifically, how many have made a first profession of faith in Christ due to Christian Center sports programs. Hundreds? Thousands? Over 75 years, certainly more than a few.

Tom Williams, 52, is serving a second term on the board of directors. He began playing Christian Center baseball in little league.

“I accepted Christ on the lawn out there during award ceremonies when I was 12 years old. It was a big moment in my life,” Williams said. “My wife and I have 10 kids and we live in Washington now. They have great sports programs there, but the Christian Center had some things we were looking for, an environment not replicated in youth sports in very many places.

“They provide competitive experiences for kids in a way that honors the Lord. It permeates the culture. It’s about honoring God with how we compete and how kids compete and how coaches compete.”

Professional Touches

The competition is real.

Shaun Livingston, the Peoria native who won three NBA championships with the Golden State Warriors, played Christian Center high school hoops when he was still in grade school. Ben Zobrist, the Eureka native who was named MVP of the 2016 World Series won by the Chicago Cubs, is an alum of the Christian Center pony league.

Brian Shouse, a Bradley University alum who pitched for 10 seasons in the Major Leagues, learned about Christian Center from his wife. Trisha Shouse is the younger sister of Traig Whitaker, who preceded Bailey as the center’s managing director. Brian learned more when he became teammates with Zobrist on the Tampa Bay Rays in 2009.

The hookup with Zobrist led to them conducting annual winter baseball clinics, Play With The Pros at Christian Center. Today, Shouse volunteers mowing the soccer fields at Bethany Baptist Church and helping coach the center’s 15-under and 16-under travel baseball teams.

“It’s amazing how God works in this, building character and morals,” Shouse said. “You’ve got to build that Christ foundation from the ground up. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. But with that strong foundation you can have the mental toughness to handle adversity the right way.”

Competition provides adversity in numerous forms. Might be a tough opponent, or a mistake by a teammate, or a disagreement with an umpire or referee.

“You have to find a way to deal with that,” said Matt Moorman, Christian Center athletic director. “Here, if we have a misunderstanding, we know we still have common ground in the Gospel.”

Kirk Wessler

Kirk Wessler

is a former newspaper sports editor who has turned his attention in semi-retirement to a new passion as a singer/songwriter