From the Ground Up
How one Florida school brought football to campus with the help of its basketball team
For years, Tony Medina wanted to start a football program at Faith Christian Academy, a K-12 school of 600 students in Orlando, Florida, that is affiliated with the Assemblies of God. All he needed were a few good men: Coaches who understand there is more to life than football and who treat the game as a launching pad for boys to lead stronger and fuller lives.
Enter Andre Dobson, a seasoned high school football coach who doesn’t mind starting and ending practices with a prayer or benching his starting tailback until his grades improve.“Once we interviewed coach Dobson, I knew he was the right guy,” said Medina, FCA’s athletic director and the school’s varsity basketball coach.
So Medina and the rest of the FCA community took a leap of faith. In 2013, the school fielded the first football program in its 35-year history. With only 30 players — just three with any prior football experience — the Lions scheduled and played games independently, winning their final three and finishing the season at 6-4.
FCA opened the 2014 season with 40 players, despite having lost seven seniors to graduation, and a huge 29-14 win against St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School in Austin, Texas. The Lions would go on to post a 5-5 record this past season, finishing in the middle of their division in the upstart Sunshine State Athletic Conference.
But, as Medina stressed to Dobson from the beginning, football at FCA is about much more than wins and losses.
“Coaches lead by example,” Medina said. “We’re not perfect, but we might be the only people who lead these young men to Christ.”
You get the sense that something significant is happening at FCA when you watch one of the videos posted on the Lions’ football website.
“The coaches are awesome because they push us physically on the field,” said Andrew Bertalan, a junior wide receiver and linebacker during the first season. “But everything they push us to do on the field also goes off the field into our spiritual lives, so it’s really great to have both aspects from our coaches.”
Why start a prep football program in the midst of so many safety concerns that have derailed participation in the game at schools around the country? Because football is part of the American high school experience.
“I’m a firm believer in not giving kids an opportunity to miss out on something,” Medina said. “Otherwise, we’re doing them a disservice.”
To that end — and in an effort to give Dobson and his hand-picked staff of like-minded coaches a jump on building a football foundation — Medina encouraged his basketball players to consider making the leap from the free-throw line to the goal line. And given that Medina has a lifetime 239-97 coaching record, offering his players an opportunity to focus on another sport was no small sacrifice.
“Having the guy who is the head coach of a very successful basketball program get his players to go out for football was the key to making this happen,” Dobson said.
That first season’s football team, not surprisingly, consisted of several athletes 6-foot-3 and taller mixed with skilled and quick point guards. “I figured I’d work with that and see who else we could get from the student body,” Dobson said, adding that a few freshmen even started on the offensive line.
Dobson, 40, took over as FCA’s first head football coach on May 1, 2013. That gave Dobson the summer to search for assistants he actually wanted to coach with, rather than just find bodies to fill positions.
Today, Dobson has five full-time assistant coaches, all FCA teachers, and six part-time off-campus coaches. He also teaches physical education and life management classes at the school.
At the same time Dobson was building a high school varsity program, he began a middle school football program at FCA for boys in grades six to eight. “That wasn’t easy, either,” he said.
But that strategy is expected to pay off, as more players enter FCA’s football system. Meanwhile, participation continues to increase at the high school, where enrollment is around 160. The full-time coaches have become a major presence in the school’s hallways and classrooms, encouraging boys to play for the Lions.
In 2015, the team loses a core group of seniors — many of whom took a chance on themselves and their coaches with their first-time commitments to football — but the middle school program has developed some strong incoming freshmen.
“Football has changed our school,” says Shawn Hardiman, one of the first assistant coaches Dobson hired. “We have more male teachers than ever, because we have football.”
The Orlando community has noticed FCA’s presence on the gridiron, too. In the beginning, “the state’s powerhouses wanted to play us, and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Dobson recalls.
The Lions often were scheduled as homecoming opponents by schools looking for an easy win. That notion may have been laid to rest, though, when FCA beat The Master’s Academy, 45-42, in the Oviedo school’s homecoming game this past season.
Other changes also are afoot. While FCA played its “home” games in 2013 at a dilapidated field near the school, the Lions moved the action to a field located on FCA’s 96-acre site last season.
With four sets of portable bleachers and rented lights, along with spectators who bring their own chairs, the environment is not unlike that of youth sports events. “It all makes for a pretty neat atmosphere,” Dobson said, adding that home games draw anywhere between 300 and 600 fans.
A new on-campus stadium, possibly with synthetic turf, a track and seating for 1,000, is likely by 2016, and Hardiman is working on starting a booster club and a concessions operation.
“They spent 20 grand on our weight-training facility before they even had a football program,” Hardiman said. “They just believed something was going to happen. And it’s happening.”
“I felt like this was an opportunity to build a program and put my own stamp on it,” Dobson said. “I wanted to build it the way I would have liked to see a program develop. I knew there would be tremendous support from the administration. It was just a matter of getting the program running. I’m excited beyond blessed with the opportunity I have and the staff I’ve put together.”
Hardiman echoes that sentiment, even using the same term as Dobson to describe football at FCA.
“If you look at where we’re at now, we’re very blessed,” he said. “The impact I can have on a kid — who wouldn’t have an opportunity to play football anywhere else because he’s not good enough — is tremendous. I want to invest in these kids’ lives.”