Teen Challenge Football Team Takes Championship Title
The story reads like a script of a feel-good movie. A high school football team in Disney, Oklahoma, with a dismal 1-6 record last year soars to 7-0 this year and goes on to win the state championship.
That championship occurred Nov. 10, 2023, and that team is The Cross Christian Academy Crusaders. The players are unique, but not just because of their perfect season. They are at-risk teens enrolled with Teen Challenge of Oklahoma and working through trauma, addictions, and other issues.
Even more amazing, most of them had never played football before.
Every staff member at the school will tell you the many aspects of this miracle season composed a script only God could have written.
The Crusaders have a troubled football history. As members of the Heartland Christian Athletic Association, they play Class 2A eight-man football, where the field is smaller and the scoring higher. Whenever the opposing team is up by 45 points, the game ends. Several of the Crusaders’ games never made it past halftime.
The Cross Christian team also had a reputation for folding when pressured. Players dealing with tough personal issues often couldn’t handle the high expectations of coaches and of the game itself. This would result in meltdowns during those times. With so much stacked against them, it came as no surprise that they won few games.
Change came in 2023. Michael Lokey, administrator of The Cross Christian Academy and executive director of Oklahoma Adolescent Centers, interviewed Jason Barnes for a teaching position. Lokey, 53, learned that Barnes had won championships as a football player and had some coaching experience. Would he coach the Crusaders in addition to teaching?
Barnes accepted the job — with one stipulation.
“When we win state,” he told Lokey, “I want you to commit to me that you will buy us state championship rings.”
Recalling that conversation, Barnes uses Romans 4:17 to explain his response. “I call those things that be not as though they already were.”
Lokey agreed to the rings. But knowing the team’s past implosions, he secretly passed off Barnes’ faith as a rookie dream that would likely never come true.
Barnes, 48, didn’t doubt the team. But he and his assistant coaches, Grayson Blankenship and Kevin Boldra, faced unexpected challenges. Of the 16 players on the squad, only four had played high school football. Of the remaining 12, eight or nine teens had never played at all. Precious practice time was spent explaining things like how to put on a helmet and pads and how to do a two-, three-, and four-point stance.
Despite the odds, the Crusaders won their first game against a public school they had never beaten before. At that game, Lokey saw a fresh competitiveness in the team and something he hadn’t seen in previous players.
“They didn't bicker,” he says. “They were helping each other off the ground. They were helping the opposing team off the ground. They were engaged and they were out there having fun and enjoying each other.”
The first practice after that first win, Barnes, also a pastor of a small church, spoke truth to the boys that they hadn’t heard: “You showed me what you have inside of you, and my job is to pull that champion inside of you out. You all have it. You're created in the image of God. You have a champion inside of you. I believe in you. Do you believe?”
They did — and proved it with six more wins and, ultimately, the championship.
The players’ elation after their final win is something Lokey won’t forget.
“They've been kicked out of schools and have felt from the world that they weren't good enough,” he says in tears. “To see these kids thrive at something and win week after week, and to win a state championship, for a brief moment, they were on top of the world. The world had no say so in their life anymore.”
There’s yet another aspect of the Crusaders’ story. The Cross Christian Academy doesn’t have its own football field. Years ago, Lokey and Rachel Nicholson, the school’s dean of students and athletic director, heard of nearby Spavinaw.
This small town had endured hard economic times and was forced to close its K-8 school. Nicholson connected with Spavinaw’s mayor, Amanda Miller, and together they worked hard to convert the school’s old baseball field into a football field for Crusaders’ games.
The boys gained much more than a playing field, however. The parents in Spavinaw embraced them as their own. Every football Friday night they grabbed their lawn chairs, headed to the field, and cheered their boys on. The players gave back to them through community projects.
To the boys, Spavinaw is home. To Spavinaw, their boys are winners in every way.
A trophy now sits in The Cross Christian Academy, and a donor has pledged to pay for the championship rings. These are rewards of faith, Barnes would say, but to Lokey, reminders of God’s lessons in doubt.
“We're never too old to learn,” he admits. “I think that was God telling me, ‘Hey, don't ever say impossible.’”