NORTH NEWTON, Kan. — Sheldon Nunnally would likely never have come to Bethel College if it weren’t for the chance to play football.
The senior, who transferred to Bethel as a junior from Compton (Calif.) Community College, is completing a major in social work and finding that, as an African-American male, he is highly sought after in what turned out to be his chosen field.
For many, this is the hallmark of the Bethel tradition.
“Bethel [has] remarkable success with students who came to this institution unaware of their own true potential,” said President Perry D. White.
A healthy proportion of those students have come to play sports, especially football.
“One thing football has always done at Bethel,” said Bethel graduate George Rogers, a football player who went on to positions in coaching and administration at the college, “is give a place to both Mennonite and non-Mennonite students who didn’t have [another] place on campus.”
Bethel’s relationship to football has historically been an uneasy one. Nonetheless, the game has persisted for 100 years.
The 2014-15 school year marks the centennial of Bethel’s first program of intercollegiate athletics.
Rachel Epp Buller graduated from Bethel with degrees in art and art history and is associate professor of visual art and design. Sports is not and never has been one of her driving interests.
Yet she successfully applied for a “Hometown Teams” grant through the Kansas Humanities Council and Smithsonian Institution, with the goal of exploring “ways sports build and unite communities.”
It was “the stories of the ways community is built through sports” that attracted her. She is putting together an exhibition to open in the fall at Bethel’s Kauffman Museum, consisting of sports artifacts from Bethel and the Newton community that tell those kinds of stories.
One item from the museum’s collection is a lumpy pigskin football from the game in 1924 when Bethel notched its first varsity win, against Friends University of Wichita.
The achievement “is about overcoming adversity through perseverance,” Epp Buller said. “It took 10 years to get that first win, on top of the opposition to starting football in the first place.”
For Rogers, football was a means to an end. He came to Bethel from Chicago because his best friend was there and played football because he enjoyed the game, but he always had coaching as a career goal.
George Leary chose Bethel sight unseen after the coach recruited him at a football showcase in his native Florida.
Two losing seasons later, Leary admits he felt discouraged and thought of leaving. But he had developed relationships with peers and professors that convinced him to stick it out.
Both Rogers and Leary ended up meeting their spouses at Bethel and have lived in Kansas, mostly the Newton community, ever since.
Both Rogers and Leary cite camaraderie as an important aspect of being part of a sports team.
“It’s different than in a class,” Rogers said. Collaboration, essential in team sports, is “much more rare in the classroom.”
Wynn Goering was a born-and-raised Moundridge Mennonite who pretty much always knew he’d go to Bethel.
“For me, football was about diversity,” he said. “I did a lot of things at Bethel with a lot of people, and I enjoyed most of them, but football brought me into contact with people I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise, and it led me into a life and career I probably wouldn’t have had.”
His all-white Moundridge high school gave him no experience with other cultures, but playing football at Bethel did. He credits it with helping him adapt to his job in administration at the University of New Mexico more easily, after coming from an administrative position at Bethel in 2000.
Goering points to the obvious — “Football is an enrollment driver at all small colleges” — while noting there’s more to it than that at many of them, including Bethel.
“As a community, we embrace the value of also embracing these kids and helping them become something they weren’t destined to be,” he said. “They are not born to succeed. All the demographics are against them.”
He notes most don’t come from families and high schools where college was the experience or the expectation.
“It isn’t that we wouldn’t want to recruit an average ACT score of 28, but we’re not Stanford, and we don’t,” Goering said. “What we do is help students succeed at the part that flows naturally out of them.”
For President White, it’s about students discovering, and fulfilling, their potential.
“In a day and age when colleges across the country compete so vehemently for students who bring with them an elite profile, either academic or otherwise, I firmly believe Bethel’s true legacy has been and will always be its remarkable success with students who came to this institution unaware of their own true potential,” he said.
“That task of nurturing, encouraging and empowering those students is our true mission.”
Sheldon Nunnally’s two years at Bethel have brought out gifts he says his mother saw in him.
Football drew him to Bethel from a culture where “school wasn’t important and sports was the main thing” — and he’s found a vocation.
“I’ve come a long way,” he said, “from where I was.”