Reeltown football coach Matt Johnson has never hidden the fact he’s a Christian man. He uses the principles instilled from his religion to guide his student-athletes to not just become better football players but, more importantly, to become better men.
So when members of his football team wanted to be baptized at Nix-Webster-O’Neal Stadium last month, Johnson didn’t think twice.
“Let me start first off by saying our community is based on those values overall,” Johnson said Wednesday. “Everybody is not the same obviously, and we’re fine with that. But the way we run our program, the way I run my program specifically is based 100% off Christian values.”
Johnson and Reeltown are now under scrutiny for a baptism of 26 players held Nov. 21 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit group which writes its purposes are “to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.” FFRF is the same group which brought attention to Opelika delivering a prayer over the loudspeaker before a game. Opelika City School superintendent Mark Neighbors later announced the district will hold a moment of silence instead.
Now, according to a press release, the group has written a letter to Tallapoosa County Schools superintendent Joe Windle asking the school district to “take the appropriate steps to ensure there will be no further religious rituals, including baptisms, during school-sponsored activities.”
My question is, why can’t people just leave well enough alone?
After talking to Johnson, I can say with full faith he — or anyone with the Reeltown football program, for that matter — did not force this on his kids. Rick and Mick Ministries had a presentation at Reeltown, which was not mandatory, and following the presentation, 26 football players stood up and said they wanted to commit their lives to Christ.
“My duty is to follow up with that, as a Christian,” Johnson said.
After giving the boys time to think and process, Johnson met with his team and the team chaplain, Tim Smith, and again asked if the boys were serious and did in fact want to be baptized. The 26 boys once again stood up and said yes.
Johnson did not promote this ceremony, which took place on the football field prior to practice. He did not advertise it. He did not ask permission.
“I didn’t want to make it an event that took away from what they were doing,” Johnson said. “I wanted it to be about them and their salvation. I didn’t want attention on me and I didn’t want the attention on football. I wanted it to just be between those guys who made that decision and that relationship.”
No one was forced. In fact, there was a near equal number of football players who chose not to participate. In all the things seen as religiously based done within the Reeltown football program, nothing is forced. Johnson even said, “It’s not like I’m going to make them run hills if they don’t pray.”
Now this group, which is located in Madison, Wisconsin and admittedly has just 30,000 members and only hundreds in Alabama, wants to come out of the woodwork nearly a month later and try to scrutinize Reeltown for giving its kids the option to accept Christ into their lives.
Again, no one was forced into a tub of water and said he must have a relationship with Jesus Christ. No one looked down upon the players who chose not to participate. And Johnson, for one, isn’t worried about what the FFRF thinks.
“(This) will never ever change as long as I am here or as long as this place is open,” Johnson said. “This is a community thing. This is not a football thing or a coach Johnson thing. This is about these kids making a decision and us following through with it and a standard for how this community is built.”
Johnson stands by making his kids into better men, however they choose to do so, and so do I. The Freedom From Religion Foundation needs to leave Reeltown well enough alone.