Running With the Lord

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

You feel like cussing? Want to toss off a few F-bombs, take the Lord's name? Don't do it on the HCF Flames Track and Field Club's time.

"Members (which includes both parents and athletes) are expected to act in an orderly and respectful manner, maintaining Christian standards of courtesy, kindness, language, morality, attitude and honesty," the team's standard pre-sign-up contract reads.

In case any of that is too ambiguous, Clause Two clarifies: "Members of this club are expected to refrain from any activities that would involve immorality, cheating, the use of foul language, name calling, and the wearing of 'gang gear.'"

Clause Four intends to head off any potential etiquette problems: "Every youth member is required at all times to address ALL adults and their spouses by Mr., Mrs., Coach or Pastor. No adult is to encourage the youth members to use first names when referring to or addressing adults."

"There was this once, when a relative of a runner used foul language while sitting in the stands," recalls Kay Adams, a founding member of the team. "We just told her to take it to the car. We know some of the parents smoke, too. But when they're with our group, we tell them to take it someplace else."

"The coaches don't swear and yell at the kids," says Karyn Truitt, a mother sitting in the stands by the team's practice field at Overland High School. She shades her eyes against the sun as her eleven-year-old son, Kyle, practices the long jump across the track oval. "We come from a small, very conservative Christian school, so he likes that."

Truitt knows this is not always the case. "My older son swam on a USA swim team, and the coaches there yelled all the time," she says.

The initials mostly stand on their own these days, but everyone knows that HCF stands for Home Christian Fellowship, the church where the Flames' president and head coach, Tom Adams, has pastored for two decades. "It's a small church," Adams says. "In fact, we don't have a building right now."

Pastor Tom believes that within running and jumping and throwing are important lessons; that there can be more to coaching track and field than showing a kid how to approach a high hurdle or explode out of a set of blocks. "It's a different way to reach the kids here," he says. "In church, the ministers do the work. Here, [the kids] do all the work. They are responsible for their own actions, and that's gonna show up in competition. Each one has something to prove: How do they want to represent themselves? Plus, they can see me out from behind the pulpit, in shorts and sweats, not a shirt and tie.

"We don't push the religion on anyone," he adds. "But we live the life."

He didn't always live the life. A native of tiny Elk City, Oklahoma, Adams ran the mile and threw the discus in high school. After high school, he couldn't wait to hightail it out of the sticks: He bolted for Oklahoma City and enrolled in barbering college.

"Of course I didn't finish," he says. "I came from a small town; Oklahoma City was real fast. I got into trouble, making wrong choices." Eventually, he made his way back home and started working with his father at a local dairy factory. In 1973, after a short spell in Texas, he moved to Denver. A few months later, he and his new wife followed an old path to the church.

"I'm from a very religious family, so I just returned to it," he says. "Like the prodigal son -- a 'comin' back' kind of thing." He became more and more involved, and so, when, a few years later, he "felt the inspiration, the calling," it seemed natural to take the next step. He began studying Scripture at a local college. The school went out of business, and so once again, he missed out on a degree. But Pastor Tom started the Home Christian Fellowship.

By the mid-1990s, he felt another calling tugging at him. Denver had just stumbled through a brutal period of senseless gang bloodletting -- the so-called Summer of Violence. "I had been doing youth ministries since the mid-1970s; I really felt compelled to do something," he recalls.

Around the same time, a small group of kids from the Home Christian Fellowship found themselves feeling uncomfortable with their school track team. "They were displeased with certain things -- cursing, things like that," Pastor Tom says. "So they came to me and asked if I'd start a team at the church. The parents also said they wanted a team that was associated with the church because of the moral value."

He didn't have any experience beyond his high school competitions. But he read up on the sports, watched the Olympic athletes on television. And he had his sons. Pastor Tom had done well with his boys: Vashon played professional football in the NFL for a couple of years; Erone was a runner and a sculpted rock of a man, a deputy sheriff with Denver County. The boys agreed to help out. The first eight members of the team, eight to fifteen years old, voted on a name and designed a logo, and in the summer of 1996, the HCF Flames were born.

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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