Playing At A Higher Level
By Paul Alexander
There was something about this
fourth-string tackle at Penn State. He always had a smile and a kind
word no matter what was going on around him.
Ron Coder, then a junior guard,
decided to find out why Rod Bratton had such an inner peace about him.
It was in 1975 that Coder learned Bratton was a Christian - and soon
after Coder began playing football for the glory of God. He has committed
his life since to trying to lead athletes in that same direction.
Currently Ron Coder is a fixture
at the University of Pittsburgh through his ministry with the Fellowship
of Christian Athletes, leading game day Chapel and Thursday night bible
study. He was there for the team when a night of drinking ended up in
the tragic death of wide receiver Billy Gaines.
"It definitely affected everyone,"
Coder said. "But while you would think it might have a huge impact on
the other players' lives, life goes on and people gradually return to
their old ways."
He has been welcomed with open
arms and has developed strong relationships with many of the players.
Former running back Brandon Miree said that if he was having a bad day
and Coder would walk through the door, he would immediately think differently.
His presence can change everything.
Head coach Walt Harris is always
front and center for the service Coder conducts before Pitt home games.
"Assistant coach Bob Junko told
me that ever since I came, Pitt started winning," Coder recalled. "He
said I had given the team a spiritual direction."
Coder says that playing football
"for the glory of God" completely changed his approach at Penn State.
As demanding as Joe Paterno was, Coder felt he was playing for an even
greater power. He says that he wants the athletes that he comes in contact
with to notice something different about him.
"I want to let them know that
my faith is irresistible," Coder said. "They need to know that there
is a rude awakening out in the real world and the only way to handle
it is through Jesus Christ. It's so much bigger than me. I want them
to see my faith and where it has taken me."
Drafted by the Steelers in 1976,
Coder was traded to Seattle where he earned a starting job in his second
year. He was slowed by back surgery, but battled back to regain his
starting position in his fourth season, crediting his faith for motivation.
He also had stints in St. Louis
and Denver in the NFL, and finished his playing career with back to
back USFL titles in 1984 and 1985 - as one of several former Nittany
Lions playing for Jim Mora's Philadelphia Stars.
With his playing days behind him,
he returned to Seattle and Pro Athletes Outreach, a Christian group
trying to help athletes become better role models through Jesus Christ.
The events in New York in September
2001, though, triggered something inside of Ron.
"When 9/11 happened I just knew
I had to do something that made a difference in people's lives," Coder
said. "Sports and Christ were my passions, and former Steeler Jon Kolb
told me about a position in Pittsburgh. I came here in November of 2001."
No one can be sure what direction
a kid may chose in life. Coder wants to make sure he is there to offer
an alternative to the lifestyle many high school and college athletes
can't seem to resist.
While most football fans are concerned
with wins and losses, it should be comforting to know that at least
one guy on the sideline cares about much more. While his football career
makes him profoundly qualified to tutor kids on the finer points of
football, Ron Coder is also trying to get them to understand that the
next level isn't necessarily the NFL.
Paul Alexander has a sports
talk show 6-9 pm weekdays on KDKA NewsTalk 1020.