by Melanie Zuercher
NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – George Leary came to Bethel College to play football, and it changed his life.
“It wasn’t that I was in such bad shape that playing football at Bethel ‘saved my soul,’” Leary told the groups who gathered for his seminar at the Mennonite Church USA biennial convention in Phoenix, July 1-5. “I had a good life before I came to Bethel to play football.”
Nevertheless, he’d never have picked a Mennonite college in south-central Kansas were it not for the game. A cradle Catholic who grew up in Florida, Leary had never heard of Bethel.
As a high school senior in 1981, Leary said, “I knew nothing about Mennonites, Kansas or Threshers.” He learned about Bethel by attending a football showcase for Florida high school players, where he met the Bethel coach and liked him, and decided on Bethel sight unseen.
“My advice is not to pick a college without a campus visit,” he told his audience of mostly teenagers. “I arrived to culture shock for me and, I suspect, for many of the people meeting me.
“However, the next four years shaped the person I am today.”
At Bethel, Leary met a cradle Mennonite, Jeanette Voran, whom he later married. Their son Kevin graduated from Bethel this spring and their daughter Megan is a Bethel senior.
After graduating from Bethel in 1985, Leary went on to teach and coach in western Kansas. He earned a master’s degree in education administration from Kansas State University and will start his 24th year (his 20th in the Newton public schools) as a principal this fall. He is a long-time adjunct faculty member in education at Bethel and the Learys are active members of Bethel College Mennonite Church.
One of the first lessons he learned as a student-athlete at Bethel was persistence and commitment.
Leary was a linebacker for a successful high school team, the Taylor Wildcats of Pierson, Fla. In his senior year, the team made the state playoffs.
The first thing that happened to Leary when he arrived at Bethel was he discovered that the coach who had recruited him was no longer there.
Bethel’s record in Leary’s freshman year was 1-8. “I did consider leaving,” he admitted.
“I was 1,500 miles from home. I wanted to go to school, but I wanted to play football, and that’s the real reason I came to Bethel. It hurt to have that losing season.”
The next year, the Threshers improved a bit, to 3-6. In Leary’s junior year, they were 6-3.
In 1984, Leary’s senior season, the Threshers went 9-0 and won the first conference championship in Bethel’s then-70-year history of football.
The expectations football placed on him, he said, were to play at a high level; to learn the playbook; to make healthy choices (exercise, nutrition and personal habits); teamwork; and leadership.
Those same expectations, he said, applied to academics and have carried over to life in general.
Joining Leary in the Phoenix seminar were current and recent Bethel football players Leland Brown and Michael Unruh.
Brown’s path to Bethel resembled Leary’s in many ways.
The current junior from Galveston, Texas, came from a town, school and general culture where “football was king,” he said. The self-described “Baptist Catholic” also attended a football showcase as a high school senior.
“I chose Bethel because I went for a visit,” he told the seminar audience. “When I visited, something told me: Leland, this is where you need to be. Even though I doubted it some after my first semester, I have no doubt now it’s true.”
Brown’s first year at Bethel was “pretty much a disaster. My roommate was expelled, my computer was stolen, I couldn’t wash my clothes because I was so low on money and I got Bell’s palsy, which meant one side of my face wasn’t working.”
Plus the Threshers were 2-8, one of the wins coming on a forfeit.
The support of his coaches and teachers, his host mother (part of a Bethel program for students who live far from home) and his own faith convinced him to stick it out.
“After my first year, I had to ask, God, is this where you want me to be? And the answer was yes.
“Today I’m a football player, a Concert Choir member, a forensics team member, a student ambassador and a student chaplain.”
Unlike Leary and Brown, Unruh is a Kansas native, a lifelong Mennonite and a graduate of a small, rural high school, Peabody-Burns in Peabody.
However, like the other two, his only reason for coming to Bethel was because he wanted to play football.
And like them, he emphasized that Bethel football changed his life not in the sense of helping him escape something bad but in terms of its profound impact on the person he’s become.
One way that happened, he said, is because being on the football team forced him to “encounter a lot of other cultures – black, Hispanic, East Coast, West Coast, urban,” not found in his small-town, mostly white high school.
“It was a little overwhelming at first,” he told the seminar audience. “I wasn’t resistant – I just didn’t know, so it was a big learning curve.
“Probably the most important thing I learned was not to judge someone based only on my first impression of them,” he said. Some teammates whom he initially thought “weren’t good fits and would be gone after the semester or the first year” went on to prove him wrong.
Unruh played four seasons, including 2007 and 2008 (his senior year) when the Threshers were co-conference champions.
After graduating in 2009 with a degree in biology, he did two years of Mennonite Voluntary Service and is beginning his third year as a Bethel admissions counselor.
“Students who come to Bethel to play football, from someplace completely different than Bethel, can be changed by the campus community – by faculty, staff, other students,” Unruh said. “But by helping break down stereotypes that some of us have, they can change the community as well. It’s a mutual benefit.”
Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the 2012-13 Forbes.com analysis of premier colleges and universities in the United States and ranks in the top five “Best Baccalaureate Colleges” in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2012-13. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.