What is it like coaching a game of violence through a Christian perspective? For Carlton, that is what embodies his career.
Coach Carlton grew up in the church. Embodied through Christian philosophies at a young age, his grandfather was a pastor. He attended service twice a week. He considered himself strong in faith even from his earliest memories of growing up. But college, for Carlton, was a period of asking hard questions.
“The rubber hit the road. I was saying ‘man, is this really what I believe? Is this how I want to live?’ Some things just weren’t fully making sense. It was an incredible period of faith transformation for me,” he said.
While a period of philosophical questioning might wear down a religious individual, Carlton found a tool that turned that into an essential component of his faith journey. That tool was the game he loves – football.
“It was my coaches and the peers of my football team that helped foster that spiritual growth. APU was a place that built me in that way,” Carlton said. He learned that, indeed, there can lie a relationship between football and the teachings of Christ.
Many argue, however, that this sort of relationship between the two is impossible to come by. That there simply is an unhealthy juxtaposition between the two philosophies. Football teaches to inflict pain, Christianity teaches to care for others. Football asks for you to seek dominance, Christianity begs for equality. These ways of thinking are a major reason for the lack of football programs within local private Christian universities.
All of the private Christian universities that are considered APU’s biggest athletic rivals including Biola, Cal Baptist, Concordia Irvine and others do not have a football team. The PacWest Conference, which represents all of these departments, does not sponsor football. Currently, football is the only sport on Azusa’s campus that is associated outside of the PacWest. Instead, they are affiliated with the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Not to mention there lies a culture in the sport collegiately, one that embodies an element of priority over other programs. This perception has become so relevant to the point where questions have arisen on if football or education is more important to some of our country’s most popular academic institutions. Could this passion for football sustain within a university that applies God as their highest priority? Carlton would argue yes.
“I believe that God put that warrior mentality in every man in multiple regards to life,” he notes. “That’s why I love football, and I think that’s why most of our guys love football. We notice that our abilities on the field which represent our warrior mentality, when balanced correctly, is God-given.”
And this belief is spread throughout his entire staff, who are a group of men who have expanded his understanding of how the game can personify Christ and his existence even further than what he originally perceived.
“Coach Beatty [the linebacker coach] always talks about how we serve the ultimate winner,” Carlton said referring to Christ. “There was nothing passive about Jesus. The gospel explains his ability to love and heal, but there are also stories of him flipping tables out of anger, declaring certain temples as houses of prayer that have turned into dens of robbers. And, ultimately, he died the most brutal death of any human ever.”
These sort of examples are meant to show that while, yes, Christianity is revolved around a figure in Jesus that presented the importance of living for a caring God, his life also encompasses one of violence, passion and sacrifice. Those are three elements that football players always engage with while competing on the field.
Placing these sorts of values in his players puts Carlton in an interesting position. He is being asked to coach a football team, something that thousands of people do across the country. But he must do it with, as he described, a “pastor’s heart.” What this means to Rudy is to place more of an emphasis on building the morale of men rather than the wins and losses of the sport.
“That is what draws me to this place, to reprioritize the way that you are taught to coach. We are building the champion. We are building the young man. We develop them spiritually. We support them in the classroom. We want to support what kind of man, husband and father they want to be. And the byproduct of that is not only allowing them to acquire wins on the field, but in life.”
It is clear that Carlton, and nearly every head coach and staff member that has come before him, believes that football is meant to be used as a vehicle to do more. The foundation of this program has never been to exhibit championships or acquire money for the school, but to allow their players to grow as individuals and manifest Christ in their actions. And according to Carlton if these convictions are truly engrained, then a football program can not only be withstood among a Christian environment but could even encourage it.
Nevertheless, the game is not often coached this way. Carlton has grown critical of the trend that a majority of collegiate football coaches solely focus on the logistics of the sport rather than the morality.
“Our mission statement is ‘Build champions while pursuing championships.’ I would argue that for the majority of college football that is flipped the other way around. Those types of coaches are solely about pursuing titles,” he stated. “For some, players have become means to an end. The approach that ‘hey, he is a good quarterback that will win us a lot of games and I’ll get to secure the next job that I want.’ When in reality it should be ‘we value you as a person and who you are.'”
Being able to flip the script on the philosophy of coaching, and being supported by a campus community that encourages such a transition, is precisely why Carlton loves being a Cougar. Yet, he realizes the diversity of a community like APU. That not all of the players on his roster have the church-centered background of his childhood, and that some of the guys are simply there to just play under the program because they like the way it is constructed.
“You’d be shocked by how many kids have gotten their first full and clear presentation of the gospel through our football program, and we’ve even had the opportunity to baptize players. These occurrences sort of represent the most important component of our program. Yes, we hold that level of competition just as everyone else does. But we are also using the game to potentially introduce these guys to the Lord. And ultimately there is space for anyone, no matter where they fall on the faith spectrum, to grow,” Carlton said.
There is a level of unselfishness that encapsulates Rudy Carlton’s program. He does not try to hide or prioritize his staff and players from the rest of the student body with hopes that this will lead to victory. Rather, he encourages his players to learn from outside parties and to interact with the unique environment that APU has built. He wants his team to be a part of the Christ-driven community.
This is why the program has been sustainable for several decades; they understand what is paramount and what is trivial.
“It is what excites me most as a coach here, to see that life transformation.”