About once every six months, I think it’s good to sit down with Tyler McMahan to find out what’s going on in his world. It could be a trip to Guatemala City with a bunch of Arkansas athletes to tour a prison.
There’s nothing like a day in a third world country’s prison to perk up your perspective. Before that, McMahan told me about a trip to an Arkansas prison. I now look back at that as nothing.
The latest offseason trip for UA athletes took place in Fort Collins, Colorado, as part of McMahan’s ministry with Athletes In Action, the sports ministry of Campus Crusades for Christ (CRU for short). Now that’s my type of summer trip. After all, I’m headed to Walden, Colorado in two weeks, right through Fort Collins. Would I be interested in any of the things McMahan’s bunch did?
As it turned out, not really -- unless grueling workouts make for a nice summer vacation. It would have killed me. McMahan, not too far removed from a high school football career as a stud strong safety, stayed clear of this deal.
Well, he was there to pick up the pieces for any of the four members of the UA team at the Ultimate Training Camp.
Footballers Tevin Mitchel and Cameron Bryan along with swimmers Bekah Harvey and Erika McGovern joined 150 other college athletes at UTC on the campus of Colorado State in one week of intense training designed to incorporate faith in their sport.
Bryan will join McMahan, who works alongside wife Angela, on the AIA leadership team this fall. He was a kicker/special team cover man last fall for the football team.
Mitchel, junior from Mansfield, Texas, is one of the potential stars for the 2013 Razorbacks. He is the returning starter at cornerback after battling through a concussion and gall bladder surgery last fall.
McMahan thought he was going to have as many as 20 athletes until a quirk in the UA summer school schedule -- classes started a week earlier than past and future years -- knocked out a chunk of potential campers. The list of football hopefuls for the camp was huge after head coach Bret Bielema encouraged his players after seeing what it did for his team leadership at Wisconsin.
McMahan had been told by the AIA ministry at Wisconsin that Bielema would be helpful and that’s exactly the way it turned out. Bielema gave his Arkansas players the phone number of a former Wisconsin star, Seattle Seahawks safety Chris Maragos, as a reference for UTC.
“Coach saw how (Maragos) developed as a leader after going to UTC,” McMahan said. “He knew he would sell them on the benefits of the camp and what it would do for them as a college player and their role as leaders on the team.”
UTC is a ministry within AIA. McMahan said the camp has had stunning results in developing leadership within those ministries.
“I know next year we are going to have a much bigger group from our campus to go to UTC, just because of the week that it’s going to fall within our schedule here at the UA,” McMahan said. “We had several more that were committed to go, but it overlapped into summer school. It just didn’t work as far as schedule logistics for a lot of our athletes. Jonathan Williams had to pull out at the last minute.”
McMahan said the intensity of the physical aspect of the camp is incredible.
“The Bible study leads up to an actual 20 hours of athletic competition,” McMahan said. “It’s designed to break down elite athletes so that at some point their bodies shut down. Some of the things they’ll put you through are continuous crab walks, wall sits and a run up a mountain road with a 2x4 on your back. You will shut down. They would have carried me away on a stretcher.
“I know the four we took are going to do incredible things as far as leadership within our athletic department and what others are going to see in them will help send a lot more to UTC next summer. All four said it was the most difficult thing they’d ever done as an athlete.”
The testimony from the athletes is powerful. McMahan smiles as he relays it. He said he knew it would be a great week, but difficult. He said he didn’t tell them how difficult for fear of scaring some off. Here’s a sample of Mitchel’s writing on Facebook after returning from UTC:
"I've never been in so much pain and hurt so much in my life until I came to this camp in Colorado. (There was) 20 hours of competition against 19 other teams and it was not easy. The whole point was to get everyone to bring God closer in their life when things get hard. I've learned that I cannot do anything without Christ.
“I also learned that whenever your playing your sport that you love you have to think about God and know that he's the only audience you need, no one else. The people in the stands do not matter, only God. Bring him into your game and have him get you through tough times but do not only call him when you're weak and can't go on any further, talk to God when things are good and constantly communicate with him like you do on the field, court or even swimming pool.
I realized just because I am a good athlete, it means nothing if I don't have God in my life.
“There was 20 hours of pain as we competed, I was hurt and legs were weak and I called on to The Lord because I couldn't do it by myself.
“Tears are falling from my eyes as I type this. I just can't believe how great God works. The last event we did was right here in this picture and that is me running a mile up the mountain road with a 2x4 on my back, people are behind me and in front of me but as I look down I see my shadow with the cross and throughout the run I realized Jesus did so much for you and me and this 20-hour competition is nothing compared to what he went through, I have a lot of respect for the man above."
McMahan’s insight into the football team is interesting. He sees players on a weekly basis and hears their stories on the relationships being built with the coaching staff. It’s things like encouragement to attend UTC that he thinks will make a difference down the line on the field.
“I have been told by a lot of our players that they had never been in the office of the head coach until the last eight months,” McMahan said. “I’ve always thought there were three ways to motivate athletes -- love, fear and praise. It’s clear that this head coach does it with praise. The athletes say they get a call from the head coach when they make a good grade. They never heard from a coach on a good grade before, but this one does it all the time.
“He’s a players coach with a great gift of encouragement. I’ve talked to him several times and it’s always the same. He is a pretty cool guy, incredibly cool. He has a genuine heart for his athletes. Guys love him to death and they keep telling me they can’t wait to lay down their bodies for him. I firmly believe that love begats love.”
McMahan has more interesting stories about mission work within AIA.
“I think it’s how you develop leaders on campus,” he said. “We have great mission stories on all of the teams -- football, basketball, track, swimming -- all of them. We have three swim girls about to head to the Congo. They will ride in on bush planes. Baseball players are going to the Dominican Republic. Next year, there will be UA athletes all over the world.”
I finished the interview with a question for McMahan on future mission trips. Any more trips to third-world prisons like the one in Guatemala City from a few years ago?
“None,” he said. “We won’t ever do that again.”
Bekah Harvey pushes up a hill at UTC.
The UA athletes at UTC were Tevin Mitchel (from left), Bekah Harvey, Erika McGovern and Cameron Bryan. Tyler McMahan, AIA staffer, is far right.