This story appears in FCA Magazine’s July/August 2018 issue.
Jason Parr thought he was done coaching. At the end of the 2016 academic year, after a decade of impacting entire student bodies across a few different states through cross country, track and field, physical education and sports ministry, he was ready to focus on teaching, and he also wanted to pursue his own athletic goals as a distance runner for FCA Endurance.
In Wichita, Kansas, he was all set to begin his new job as a physical education teacher at Maize South Elementary School. But then tragedy struck. The high school’s cross country coach tragically died of a heart attack following a preseason practice.
A few days later, without even asking if Parr was interested, the school’s superintendent scheduled an interview with him.
“I wasn’t even looking to get back into coaching,” Parr said, “but I went to the interview anyway. Afterwards, they told me they would decide in two weeks.
“They ended up calling me 10 minutes later to offer me the job.”
In that moment, Parr surrendered the situation to God. He knew God already had everything planned out, and soon he accepted the position.
Just like all of his previous stops, Parr hit the ground running by starting an FCA Huddle. There were 10 kids at the first meeting. That number quickly swelled to more than 80.
“We were changing the hallways,” Parr said. “It was life-changing. That’s why FCA has had such an impact on my life. I’ve seen it change kids’ lives.”
Parr also sparked a new attitude in the cross country program. In just a few weeks, the roster doubled from 32 to 64 athletes. That season, both the boys and girls teams won the 5A state championship for the first time in school history, and the boys and girls track teams finished as state runners-up.
“He was like the Pied Piper,” said Curtis Klein, athletic director at Maize South. “Those kids almost instantly bought into him as a coach and as a person and how he led his life. He was infectious. The kids would do anything for him; they’d run as hard as they could.”
Former Maize South cross country athlete Graycee Meyer lived that reality firsthand.
“I’ve had a lot of different coaches, but there is something truly special about Coach Parr,” she said. “He invests not only his vast running knowledge into his athletes, but also a spiritual factor that I had never before experienced. His No. 1 priority was making sure we knew we had a God who loved us, and we owed all the glory to Him. This changed the dynamic of our team tremendously.”
Parr’s accomplishments at Maize South weren’t a surprise to anyone who had followed his career. At previous stops in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lexington, Kentucky, he used a similar blueprint for success in both coaching and ministry.
However, some might be surprised to learn of the myriad events that occurred prior to Parr’s professional career. A miraculous physical healing, an improbable discovery of athletic talent, and a life-changing spiritual awakening are all pieces of the story of a man who has been an inspiration and motivator to so many.
• • •
Parr was born and raised in Great Bend, Kansas, a humble Midwestern town a couple hours northwest of Wichita, but his upbringing was anything but ordinary. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth. Doctors said he would never walk or talk, and he would be confined to a wheelchair for his entire life.
Remarkably, Parr’s grandfather, Harlan Parr, wasn’t discouraged. Every week at First Assembly of God Church in Great Bend, Harlan took Parr from the nursery and brought him down to the altar during prayer time.
One night, when Jason was three years old, Grandpa Parr again took him into the sanctuary for prayer during a revival service. Afterwards, he was convinced his grandson had been healed. The evidence wasn’t immediate, but Jason eventually defied the experts by walking and talking.
“We all wonder why we go through what we go through, and why we experience this or that,” Parr said. “We ask the ‘why’ questions. I don’t know why I got healed, and other people don’t. That’s a hard question to answer. But I always tell people God wants to work through them, no matter where they’re at.”
Although Parr’s cerebral palsy was miraculously gone, other problems were just beginning. His father was virtually non-existent for the first nine years of his life, which led to his parents’ divorce and forced Parr into numerous homes throughout elementary school.
“My life was a mess,” he said. “Our home was broken. I was in trouble all the time. I was constantly on probation. I wanted to do whatever I wanted to do. I’d stay out late. I’d get into fights. I was failing my classes. I was making my teachers’ lives miserable.”
It all came to a head in fourth grade. After getting in trouble for vandalism and breaking and entering, which resulted in more than 1,000 hours of community service, the local police intervened in a last-ditch effort to set the troubled pre-teen straight.
They put Parr in a squad car and drove him to a juvenile center, threatening to lock him up in a nine-by-nine cell.
“I was scared,” Parr said. “That was a pivotal moment for me. I realized that’s not who I wanted to be.”
When he returned to school, the physical education teacher, Tracy Thessa, informed him they were running the mile for fitness testing. Parr, as usual, didn’t want to participate.
“Just give it a try,” Coach Thessa prodded.
When he was finished, no one was quite sure what had just happened.
“Do you understand how fast you just ran?” Coach Thessa asked.
“No,” Parr said.
“You just ran a 5:36 mile.”
“Is that good?”
As a fourth-grader, Parr had beaten not only his own peers, but all the fifth- and sixth-graders as well.
Coach Thessa handed him a flyer for an AAU summer track program. Parr had his typical excuses (no money, no ride, no shoes) for why he couldn’t do it, but she promised to take care of all that, as long as he promised to show up. Parr still hasn’t forgotten when she picked him up the first day and handed him a shoebox with a pair of brand-new blue Reebok running shoes.
“Everything changed for me after that,” Parr said. “I got more focused. I showed up to practice every day. She quit picking me up, because I fell in love with running and got there on my own. It was freeing. It was liberating. I didn’t feel strapped down. I didn’t feel like I was going to disappoint anyone.”
Parr’s athletic career took off from there. In eighth grade, he met coach Jack Bowman, who invited him to run with the high school kids.
“He’s the foundational piece to why I do what I do today,” Parr said. “He bought me my first brand-new pair of track spikes. They were black and gold. He showed me what a father was like. He loved me. He never judged me. I always wanted to do my best for this man. It’s because of him that I coach today.”
• • •
Parr had experienced physical healing and had discovered his athletic gifts, but he still lacked a sense of spiritual awareness.
The final piece of the puzzle fell into place during his junior year at Great Bend High School. Coming full circle, one night at First Assembly of God, Parr went down to the altar and realized he was broken. A man he’d never met before came down and started praying for him.
Jason Parr was named Head Cross Country and Assistant Track & Field Coach at Friends University in 2007.
“Jason, do you understand what God is about to do in your life?” the man asked. “Do you have any idea where He’s about to take you?”
Parr was confused. He didn’t understand what the man was saying.
“You’re going to do great things,” he said.
Parr thought the man was crazy, but that didn’t stop him from making the most important decision of his life. He surrendered his heart to Christ that night, sparking a transformation that continued throughout his remaining time in high school.
Parr caught fire. He started an FCA Huddle his senior year and served as president.
“I knew what Christ was doing in me, and I wanted to share that with my teammates and the other students,” he said.
He also had a strong desire to continue his athletic career in college, but his teachers and counselors had told him college wasn’t a realistic opportunity, and he should instead opt for a vocational school.
“I was told I wasn’t smart enough,” Parr said.
But, thanks to help and encouragement from his girlfriend (and future wife), Rebecca, Parr competed first at Barton County Community College in Great Bend (where he won a national championship) and then at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri.
“At Evangel, I learned to integrate my faith with everything,” Parr said. “I learned to not be scared to promote Christ in a public school, to not be afraid of what people were going to say.”
• • •
At his first job, Parr took that fearless, bold attitude to Park Hill High School in Kansas City, where he made good on his promise to God to immediately start an FCA Huddle.
“My athletic director wasn’t for it. He didn’t believe in it,” Parr said. “I didn’t go down without a fight.”
Parr found a group of five kids who were already meeting as part of a Christian club. He encouraged those students to launch and lead FCA. The next week, there were 20 students. The week after that, there were 30 students. The athletic director was nervous, but Parr remained resolute. Unflinchingly, he told the athletic director they’d need the auditorium the following week because “we’re going to have 60 kids show up.”
Parr was wrong. Seventy-five kids attended.
Three years later, Parr organized the school’s first Fields of Faith, a student-led event where 700 students attended, 34 of whom accepted Christ. The following week, seven of those 34 kids were baptized.
“That’s when I knew the power of what FCA had brought to the entire community of Kansas City,” Parr said. “That’s what FCA is about—influencing students for Christ and making Him known through all that we do.”
By the time his seven-year tenure at Park Hill had ended, more than 200 kids were regularly showing up for the Wednesday morning FCA meetings.
Tari Garner, the head track coach when Parr first arrived, immediately knew there was something special about the enthusiastic newcomer.
“He was on fire to get involved,” Garner said. “His energy was contagious. He impacted our entire program because of his passion for the sport and his love of God and his willingness to share that with kids through FCA. So many kids followed him and became a part of FCA. That spilled over into all of our programs at Park Hill.”
• • •
In 2014, Rebecca’s career as a pediatric dentist led to an opportunity in Lexington, Kentucky. Parr didn’t immediately land a full-time job, but he started working as a substitute teacher at The Academy For Leadership At Millcreek, a school that serves three housing authorities with students who come from challenging circumstances.
Parr was determined to not let his part-time role prevent him from having a full-sized impact.
“When he was in the building, he brought this joy and peace,” said Greg Ross, the school’s principal. “He was a ray of sunshine for our school. Our kids fell in love with him. They called him ‘Super Sub.’ They thought he was like a superhero.”
The following year, in a no-brainer decision, Ross offered Parr the physical education teacher position. Parr jumped into action.
First, he brought back the presidential fitness program. Then, he started a cross country team. He also started a boys lunch group every Friday, where his goal was to mentor the most poorly behaving kids using Scripture-based material from legendary basketball coach John Wooden.
“Jason went from having six kids to having every male student in the fifth grade attending his lunch group,” Ross said. “The demeanor of these kids changed. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been in education for more than 20 years.”
In addition to his coaching career, Jason Parr is an endurance athlete representing Team FCA.
Parr organized a screening of the film Woodlawn where 150 students and their families attended. At the end of the night, nearly 90 students gave their hearts to Christ.
At the end of only his second year, another opportunity for Rebecca brought Parr and his two young daughters back to Kansas. Ross said the moment he learned Parr was leaving was “one of the worst days” of his professional career.
“You can’t replace what Coach Parr brought to us,” he said. “Those kinds of people are angels on earth. Jason is just an unreal human being. I hate that I don’t have him in my life on a daily basis. He’s probably the most impactful man I’ve ever been around. Jason has the ability to change an atmosphere, no matter who he’s dealing with—white, black, rich, poor. People literally loved that man, and it’s because He was truly a representation of Christ.”
• • •
After his brief nine-month stint at Maize South High School, Parr accepted an offer to be the head cross country and assistant track and field coach at Friends University in Wichita. In his first year at the NAIA school, he took a program not traditionally known for cross country and lifted the women’s team to a national ranking.
Kelly Thorne, Central Kansas FCA Area Director, first met Parr when he took the job at Maize South, and she has high praise for the popular coach.
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and I’ve experienced FCA in 25 states,” she said. “Jason is hands down the most influential coach I’ve ever been around. He has crazy energy and just leaks Jesus everywhere. He’s always sharing the gospel, and he’s never afraid to take a stand for the Lord.”
People often ask Parr how he’s been able to accomplish so much through FCA on such a wide array of public school campuses. In response, he often recites Matthew 10:32-33: “Everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But everyone who denies me here on earth, I will also deny before my Father in heaven.”
“That verse haunts me,” Parr said. “It has been the building block, the foundational piece for why I do ministry. Days are lost when we’re not intentional about what we should have been doing because we were caught up chasing the prize of being victorious and winning. It rips my heart to know that we have this platform, but we don’t live up to it. That used to be me, but now I just want to live for Christ every day.”
Photos courtesy of Jason Parr and Friends University