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It only looked like Danny Vernon's basketball career was over when plans to walk on at Murray State University were derailed by a back injury.
Don't look now, but the Anderson County resident is coaching an undefeated team early in the season.
A one-time high school player from North Carolina whose career ended when he hurt his back in a pick-up game at Murray, Vernon has been heading up the basketball program at Fox Creek Christian Church for the last eight years, expanding its horizons far beyond the traditional recreational church league.
“We are 6-0 right now,” Vernon said of his high school team last Wednesday.
He was not talking about winning in the local church league.
What makes the Fox Creek team unique is that it is not just playing against other church-related teams. It is a group of young men, most of whom attend public schools, who have come together to take on many smaller private schools. The Knights have even been on the court against a Kentucky High School Athletic Asssociation team.
“We scrimmaged Piarist,” Vernon said of the tiny Catholic school, located in Floyd County. Piarist defeated a Fox Creek team that was without some of its players that day.
In real games, however, Fox Creek has been solid, playing schools who compete in the Kentucky Christian Athletic Association and the Kentucky Christian Schools Athletic Association. No one claims the competition is on par with teams vying for a spot in Kentucky's Sweet 16, but it is organized basketball and is a place where some kids get noticed.
Last Tuesday, the Knights rallied from 14 points down in the third quarter to slip past Danville Christian School. Fox Creek finally took the lead with 10 seconds to go, according to Vernon. The team will also play Frankfort Christian and Somerset Christian, among others.
Vernon also expects to schedule Christian Academy of Lawrenceburg, which has been an opponent in the past.
The Knights will also participate in a Christmas tournament at Cannelton, Ind., where they will play several school teams.
Vernon believes the Knights and their opponents might have athletes good enough to compete at the small college level , but have fallen through the cracks in traditional school-based programs. Some NAIA-level coaches have been known to scout the league, looking for that diamond in the rough. Vernon says he is happy to help a young man get that chance.
“If they want to put the work and effort in, there are opportunities,” he says.
But the Fox Creek team is about much more than 3-point shots or getting noticed by a small college. Those aspects are, in reality, secondary.
“We look at this as an outreach,” says Vernon, who believes he was led by God to expand the church team's influence. “It is a ministry.”
The ministry started taking shape with the completion of the church's life center, which includes a regulation-sized, high school basketball court. That was five years ago.
The team continues to participate in the local church league at First Baptist Church while expanding to playing school teams. It's all about using basketball to change lives.
“It is a ministry and the kids are required to participate in the church here (at Fox Creek) once a week,” Vernon explains.
Currently, there are about 30 boys involved on four teams. The church sponsors teams from grades 5-6, 7-8 and high school varsity and junior varsity. There are no girls' teams. “We would love to have a girls' team but we don't have enough participation,” Vernon says.
The participation in the church, however, is very tangible, but sometimes open to criticism when some drop out of church at the end of the season only to resume when it is time to dribble again.
Vernon acknowledges that invariably happens, but he chooses to focus on the good. “The way I look at it, you have to try to reach kids somehow,” he says. “We have a Bible study before every practice and talk about some of the pitfalls in life out there.
“I say, 'You can (play basketball) but you can also learn about Jesus. It is a great outreach. Some of those kids will attend church and then they will start asking questions.”
Vernon says Fox Creek has “maybe a dozen” regular attendees who were not involved in church anywhere but are now active at the church. He says some have started their life of faith and were baptized as a direct result of the basketball program. The influence is unmistakable.
“We have prayer in team huddles before and after practice and at away games, and will lead a prayer before all our home games at half court,” Vernon says. “I am always trying to get kids to step up and lead the prayer, and of course I do it when no one volunteers. However, we have kids now who before would never think of doing the prayer, even at practice with just the team there, who will now go to half-court and lead the prayer before games, with sometimes dozens of people there in the stands. I think that’s great and shows how much some of the kids have grown in their faith and how much their confidence has grown as well.”
Putting together a competitive team is not easy. Vernon, who has worked for the Kentucky Labor Cabinet for 17 years, must juggle his work schedule along with trying to find practice time for the four teams.
Another local resident, Cliff Land, also helps coach in the program.
Vernon feels “lucky and blessed” to be able to work with the young people who have gone through the program and that his church is also blessed “to have the facility that we do to help make it all possible.”
The current team started practicing in August, but with some players involved in football or other fall sports at the high school level, the full team did not come together until November.
Winning or not, the effort is worth it.
“Our primary focus is to get kids in church,” Vernon says. “The more you can get a kid in church, the more you can get them involved. That is what this is all about.”
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