Football coach who came under fire for prayer finds home at new school

Aug 18, 2017

Chris Wells, wearing camouflage shorts and a blue T-shirt, certainly didn’t look like a high school football coach as he sat in his Middletown living room.

As Wells comforted his 18-month-old son, Gideon, who was fighting a cold, an open Bible, a football playbook and scribbled notes sat on his lap.

Woody Hayes never was portrayed this way.

But the more you know about Wells, the more you realize he was right at home, surrounded by family and faith. Football, at least on this morning, was a distant third.

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Wells isn’t afraid to share his religious beliefs, a trait that haunted him when he coached football for three seasons at Madison High School, then for two seasons at his alma mater, Middletown High School. In his first season at Middletown, Wells was told to eliminate his religious discussions with his players.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Wisconsin, sent a letter dated April 17, 2014 to the Middletown City School District saying Wells “crosses the line” because he “endorses and promotes his religion” when acting as a district employee.

Wells was told to quit talking to his players about religion and he agreed to follow the district’s rules, Sam Ison, the district’s then-Superintendent, said at the time. It seems Wells has learned his lesson.

“In the public school setting,” he said, “I’m going to interact with kids in a different way than with kids in a Christian football program.”

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Now 44, Wells has found a home, a place where pigskin and preaching can coexist. He still teaches in the PRIDE Academy, an in-school suspension program, at Middletown High School, a job he loves.

“Middie for life,” the 1991 MHS graduate said.

But now after teaching at MHS, Wells drives across town and coaches the Middletown Christian club football team, a ministry of Grace Baptist Church.

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In his first season, the team was 9-1, improving his six-year career coaching record to 30-30, and he’s looking forward to this season, though the schedule is tougher with the additions of Lockland, Dayton Meadowdale and Cincinnati Western Hills.

Wells, though, believes he won’t be judged by the wins and losses. At least not those on the football field. For him, the most memorable victories are those taught not under the Friday Night Lights.

“Our No. 1 focus is on Jesus Christ,” he said of coaching a club football team that draws half its players from Middletown Christian and the rest from surrounding districts. “We can use football as a way to share the gospel. And teaching Biblical principles to young men. You can’t do that in every situation. We’re a combination of competitive football and also a place where we put Jesus first, where He belongs.”

Then he added: “I’m where I’m supposed to be.”

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Some would say Wells has fallen a few rungs down the coaching ladder. His first head coaching job was at Madison, then he was hired at Middletown, a Division I. Now he’s coaching a club team. But for him, it’s football, whether at a packed Barnitz Stadium or before a handful of fans.

He still wants to win.

“You want to win because you strive to win,” he said. “I make no apologies about being competitive. You can be tough and be a Christian. It’s a tough and rough sport. The thing that separates Christian conduct is not that you hit any less hard — you’re going to hit that much harder — but after the play, the trash talk, no. If we do in the heat of the battle, we make a cheap hit or something like that, it’s about maybe apologizing to that guy.”

Besides football, he tries to instill life lessons and character development in his players. He wants them to be good football players in high school and better men after they graduate.

“I know what a man should do,” he said. “We tell our kids about a man’s responsibilities. If you got kids, you should take care of them. If you got bills, you ought to pay them. Like I said, I fall short. My grass out there is high. We should strive to take care of our responsibilities. We tell the kids that’s what is going to define them. Not how much weight they can lift, not how hard they can hit, that all will end one day. Nobody will care how high you can jump if you don’t take care of your children. A lot of times they’re getting the opposite message out there. Media and all that they’re seeing, the guy and how big his muscles are, and how many girls are around him.”

He was asked if he cares what others think of him.

“I don’t even care,” he said with a laugh. “As long as I’m pleasing God and taking care of my family. I think those are what’s important. I can’t control what others think or say. If I just try to do right, I can’t worry about what everybody else thinks. I’d be spending the whole time worrying about it. You’re never going to make everybody happy. That’s a fact.”