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Running With the Lord

The race is not always to the swift, but Pastor Tom ensures a godly effort.

USA Track and Field sanctions about sixty private clubs in Colorado, which compete throughout the summer in half a dozen meets. Depending on their success, individual athletes then progress through a series of local, state and regional tournaments. The best of the best converge on the nationals at summer's end.

Each year, the Flames have sent kids to the regionals. In 1998, in the team's second year of existence, Donald Duvall Jr., a bantam long-jumper and the only Colorado kid in the event, won at the national championships, held that year in Seattle.

In fact, travel is a major part of the Big Plan. "Taking them all over the country, staying in hotels, seeing things twenty and thirty hours from home, eating together in a restaurant, wearing the team uniform -- it's a thrill and a joy to me," says Pastor Tom. "Oklahoma, Texas and Colorado -- that was it for me until I was an adult. I never got to do things like this."

"My daughter, she has this dream," says Sally Williams, mother of twelve-year-old Tacole, a willowy runner. "She wants to be a star, go to the Olympics. But this team helps me, too. I never dreamed I'd go to California. And last year I did."

In recent years, Flames traveling to track meets have veered far enough from the cinders to see the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and Disney World. And since the team drives everywhere, in vans and borrowed cars, they've seen plenty of points in between.

It's safe to say that many of these young athletes wouldn't go nearly as far without the team. Pastor Tom has staked out an area southeast of Denver, in a neglected section of the Cherry Creek School District. "It's a way different environment than most people think of when they think of Cherry Creek," confirms Clifford Hendrick, athletic director of Prairie Middle School in Aurora, where Pastor Tom recruits many of his athletes.

In all, Prairie's student body speaks 26 languages. "We have three English as a Second Language classrooms going all day long," Hendrick says. Four in ten of the children receive free or reduced-price lunches. For many of these kids, he says, running track is a tough test and, when taken seriously, an important self-revelation.

"There's a ton of kids here that want to be football and basketball players and just walk around and do the thing," he says. "In track, you gotta work."

On a recent afternoon, the Flames are put through their paces by the Adams family. Several moms watch from the stands, laughing and making jokes about how they could run plenty fast. Lawrence Neal, a tall, fit dad, stands to the side and watches his twelve-year-old daughter, Lauren, work on her sprints. She's a straight-A student, but he'd been urging her to get involved in sports, too, because he believes strongly that there are things that sweat and competition can teach a child that books cannot.

"These days, there's fewer and fewer things for kids to do within a structured environment," he says. "They have too many things to distract them. They lose social skills and discipline. So I tell my kids it'll be more difficult for them than it was for me. I did track, football, baseball -- all year round, I did something."

Erone pushes the runners on 200-meter sprints. "Pick up those legs," he says. "You tired?" he asks gasping kids afterward, more of a prod than a real question.

"In sports and religion, you learn discipline, self-control and patience," he says. "These are things you're gonna need later. Nowadays, we notice that kids don't respect adults. They don't look you in the eye. We try to get them to make eye contact -- to be assertive but also disciplined.

"We've had some kids with troubles," he adds. "But we're not here to make somebody into something they don't want to be. We're here to provide a platform."

Nearby, another group prepares to practice an event by putting the shot over the football goal posts. Xavier, a powerful-looking twelve-year-old, starts dragging a track bag full of shot puts toward the field. "Pick it up, son," says Pastor Tom. "Don't be lazy."

He looks out at the children sprinting in a great giant curve around the track. "Church, to me, is not just four walls. You gotta get out to the people." Besides, he adds, "In church, the children have to be quiet. Here, they can run."

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