Before video surfaced of a now-controversial mass baptism of several Villa Rica High School football players and a coach, a west Georgia minister had clear instructions for one of the team’s leaders.
“We were talking about baptism and doing this at the church,” First Baptist Church of Villa Rica pastor Kevin Williams told WXIA-TV, known locally as 11Alive. “Because of [the coach’s] love for football and passion, he said, ‘Can I do it on the field?’ I said, ‘As long as we followed the rules.’”
“It can’t be during school, and it can’t be at a practice,” he said. “It has to be independent, and it has to be voluntary for the kids. Everybody involved knew that, and we thought we were doing what we needed to do.”
Though participation was voluntary and the ceremony took place after school and before the start of football practice, the Aug. 17 baptism on the practice field drew the ire of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in Wisconsin.
The foundation sent a letter to the Carroll County School System and said the church posted a video of the event online. That video, which has been removed from the church’s YouTube channel, showed several members of the Villa Rica High School football team and one of their coaches being baptized in a large tub fashioned into a makeshift baptism pool. The video was accompanied by the message: “We had the privilege of baptizing a bunch of football players and a coach on the field of Villa Rica High School! We did this right before practice! Take a look and see how God is STILL in our schools!”
The foundation asked the school district to instruct coaches and school staff “that they cannot participate in religious activities with students while acting in their official capacity.”
Williams defended his actions, but said he would do one thing differently.
“If there’s anything I could go back and change, I would probably talk to the school board because they had no idea this was happening,” he said. “If I had talked to the school board and the school board or anybody from the school asked me not to do it, I would have obliged.”
The pastor said some of the coaches and football players attended a summer football camp at the University of West Georgia that was sponsored by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and the church helped pay the camp tuition for some of the students with financial hardships.
“Twenty-three of the Villa Rica football players gave their life to Jesus Christ at the evening session,” Williams told the station. “We followed up with that, and 13 of those that made the decision at the camp got baptized at our church on a Sunday morning.”
The church later held a “Gridiron Day” service, inviting players, cheerleaders and band members from Villa Rica and Temple high schools, and Villa Rica defensive coach Andy Szatkowski was among 50 people who professed their faith at the end of the Sunday morning service.
After that service, the coach approached him with the idea of the practice field baptism, Williams said.
While some players came to the ceremony, “some didn’t,” he said. “Some were on the field playing football, some were in the weight room, some were in the locker room. Nobody had to be there.”
Williams said Szatkowski was baptized by his father-in-law, an ordained minister.
“After that, there were some players that had already made decisions at camp or that Sunday service that said, ‘We want to be baptized out here,’” Williams said. “We thought there was going to be three or four. Turns out, there was 18.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.