Coaching for the Long Game

Six years ago, Coach Willie Jenkins came to ECS on a path few saw coming. But perhaps no one was more surprised than the coach himself.

“Coach Willie” as he is known to everyone, was biding his time during the offseason, waiting to return to play professional basketball overseas. His discipler Roy “Soup” Campbell, executive director at local Eikon Ministries, hooked him up with a gig teaching basketball skills at Memphis Athletic Ministries (commonly known as “MAM”) in the inner city where he charged neighborhood kids admission to his clinics with a memorized Bible verse instead of money.

ECS dad Travis Slater caught wind of this local talent charging Manna in lieu of dough, and asked if his daughter and her teammate could train under him too. After the training camp that summer, Slater admitted that he knew Coach Willie wanted to play overseas or coach young men, but he asked if he would consider coaching his daughter’s eighth grade school team.

Initially, Coach Willie bristled at the idea of coaching middle school girls. But his wife, Eryka, knew better.

She knew her husband enjoyed watching women’s basketball on TV because they are fundamentally sound.

Mrs. Jenkins said, ‘You are always watching it. It will help you become a better coach.’”

So he conceded.

“In Memphis, basketball is an idol for a lot of kids. That’s what they find their identity in. They think basketball saved them or will save them. No, it’s Jesus who saved you. That’s it. There’s not more than that. It’s Him and Him only, and nothing is added.”

“Those young ladies at ECS changed my life,” Coach Willie said. “That year, there were a lot of tears, and a lot of prayer. My wife and I, as well as Chip and Holly Hudson, led Bible studies with them. I realized that basketball is just a tool to share the gospel, and I fell in love with it again.”

Those eighth grade girls have all graduated now, but he still keeps up with them in a group text and frequently asks how their spiritual life is. “If they get boyfriends, they know their boyfriends have to come talk to me first.” He laughed, “It is great!”

Discipleship had come full circle. Coach Willie was passing along what Soup Campbell had done for him a few years before.

Soup, whom Coach Willie initially loathed, pursued a young lost Willie and discipled him. A coffee shop in Binghampton is where the showdown occurred:  Willie told Soup, “I don’t like you” to which Soup responded an even, “I don’t like you either. So are we going to fight? Or read God’s Word?”

That began a beautiful disciple-making relationship between Soup and young Willie. “He led me through the Fall of Man in Genesis 3 and showed me how Adam tried to blame the Lord for his fall. But God sent His only begotten Son. I had never heard the Bible broken down that way.

“He is more than a discipler for me. He is a father, grandfather, my brother, my best friend, my adviser. He is a model and it’s not him: It’s the Spirit that is inside of him and the fear he has for the Lord.”

Now Coach Willie follows in his mentor’s footsteps, sharing the gospel and building godly young men in his role as Head Varsity Basketball Coach at ECS.

“Boys need to see the difference between a male and a man. Find young men who want to be discipled, and model for them what it looks like to follow the Lord. Their actions don’t just impact them but their community. And hopefully they will impact the others.”

Coach Willie, a basketball star in his own right, was recruited out of high school to play at the University of Massachusetts then transferred to Tennessee Tech where he became an All-American Honorable Mention, the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year, a two-time Male Athlete of the Year and was later inducted to the Tennessee Tech Hall of Fame. Following college, he played professional basketball overseas for seven years. It was when he was playing in Saudi Arabia that Soup’s words gained new meaning, and Coach Willie surrendered to the Lord. “I told God, ‘I don't know anything about you, but I will read your Word before my feet hit the ground every day.’”

Then, his perspective completely changed. “I won a lot of trophies, and they are all at my mama’s house gathering dirt. It’s about God’s kingdom. People think I love basketball. I love what basketball can do for God’s kingdom.”

One such young man that Coach Willie has discipled through basketball and his upper school discipleship group is Marquette University freshman guard Kameron Jones, ECS’ All-Time High Scorer, whose jersey was retired at the end of last season. But their relationship had a rocky beginning.

“It started off, he couldn’t stand me,” Coach Willie recalled. He remembered watching Kam play in the ninth grade and being impressed with his talent but saw that his discipline needed to improve in order for him to be successful at the next level.

“Kam had a lot of things in him that he was gifted with. He is a kid that can score 40 points every game.” But Coach Willie saw the need for this young talent to consider how his gift benefits others and ask himself whether he is using these gifts for God’s kingdom or for his own gain. Coach Willie explains“In Memphis, basketball is an idol for a lot of kids. That’s what they find their identity in. They think basketball saved them or will save them. No, it’s Jesus who saved you. That’s it. There’s not more than that. It’s Him and Him only, and nothing is added.”

“It started off, we bumped heads.” Kam said, so the young freshman wanted to transfer.

Coach Willie had a meeting with Kam and his dad. He told them to follow whatever decision God told them to do, but whether he played basketball at ECS or another school, he needed to work hard. “Kam’s dad sat his son down and said, ‘So you want to leave ECS because he’s asking you to be excellent on the court and off the court?’ Mr. Jones told his son, ‘We aren’t going anywhere. You are staying right where you are.’”

Later, Coach Willie benched Kam for one of the biggest district games of the season. “He didn’t play varsity because he wasn’t ready to practice that week. I told him ‘I love you, but I’m going to tell you the truth.’ Jesus does that. He tells us the truth and it hurts.”

Kam reflected on his relationship with Coach Willie, which after the rocky beginning, he describes as “all love” now: “He is a good coach on and off the court. He pushed me to be the best player I can be. He really changed my work ethic. He taught us not to be passive, to speak when necessary and keep God first.”

Coach Willie said, “Now, we talk almost every day. It’s real talk, about life and basketball. I was honored when his dad asked me to ride with him to take him to college.”

After practicing at Marquette for a few weeks, Kam penned a letter to his ECS basketball teammates. In it, he wrote, “Playing at ECS prepared me for what I’m going through here, and even attending school there did as well. I had to take constructive criticism, I had to keep my head up after making mistakes, I had to lead, I was held to a high standard, I was held accountable for my actions, my maximum effort was demanded out of me, nothing less.

“Playing at ECS has put me ahead of my classmates, mentally, physically, and most importantly spiritually. Playing basketball for ECS even prepared me for the challenges I’ve already faced off the court at college. How to step away from things, how to approach situations, how to talk to people, get to know people before you judge them. Playing for ECS and attending ECS absolutely prepared me for what I am facing now at Marquette, on and off the court.”

Coach Willie often minimizes his impact on others. “The goal of a Christian is to obey the Lord. That is the blessing. That’s all I’m doing. I’m just trying to obey the Lord, which is to make disciples of all nations. I live in Binghampton, and I teach at ECS; all nations are there."

"That’s what it’s about. It is about his kingdom and He uses sports to teach the gospel.”

Recently, Coach Willie asked Kam what God was teaching him.

Kam answered, "Patience is a virtue.” Then as mentee became mentor to his former ECS teammates, he added, “Have your guys read Hebrews 12:11,” which is, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

In awe, Coach Willie said, “When a young man texts you that, that's the trophy. Not that (Marquette’s) Coach Smart loves him, not that we went to the Final Four two years in a row, not that we retired his jersey. He texts you a Bible verse.”

Coach Willie reflected, “Everything else is just part of the journey.”

Editor’s Note: Since this article was published in FLIGHT magazine, Coach Willie has accepted an assistant coaching position at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. We are grateful to Coach Willie for his service to ECS where he used basketball as a platform to disciple young men in Christ. This legacy of discipleship in athletics is in the DNA of ECS and will be continued by newly appointed varsity head basketball coach, Amory Sanders. Listen to Coach Sanders explain his vision for coaching on ECS’ Equip podcast.

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