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HomeGrown: Ken Sparks, Carson-Newman head coach

Ken Sparks is only the 11th man in college football to win 300 games, but that's just one of many highlights in his career.

With more than 300 wins, five national titles, 20 plus conference championships and countless accolades, Ken Sparks is a coaching legend in college football.

"If I didn't have a heart of gratitude I'd be wrong," said Sparks. "And, if it didn't humble me to my knees to say 'thank you, Lord,' I'd be wrong."

But he's much more than Xs and Os. Coach Sparks is a pastor with a play book.

"I tell our guys, 'Hey, I'm a Christian and I'm going to coach you that way.'"

His greatest concern is success off the field.

"We've had a lot of guys play professional football out of this little ole program, but more importantly, we've had guys be successful in many challenges of life as husbands as dads and professionals."

His football philosophy may be a little unorthodox in the world of sports. But, if you're only as good as your record, 318 wins to 86 losses, Sparks' "divine" game plan speaks for itself.

"I think it proves that the Lord can take anything, anybody, any person and do a whole lot more if we just trust him."

Coach Sparks hasn't always been a man of faith. In fact, his early life was quite the opposite.

"I was not a very nice person and was doing some crazy stuff."

He helped in the family business, which was a beer joint.

"I was 8 years old and one of my main jobs was to clean up the bathrooms where drunks had thrown up."

He discovered football, baseball and boxing in high school and found faith, thanks to a local pastor and fellow teammates.

"I knew they had something in their life that I didn't have."

During his freshman year at the University of Tennessee, Sparks was asked to coach a midget league football team.

"I think I was 19 then and I said, 'You want me to coach 13 year players?'"

It was a life changing experience.

"I walked down the aisle after I coached this little team and said, 'I believe the Lord is calling me to coach.'"

Sparks transferred to Carson-Newman.

"I can remember thinking, 'there goes my getting rich.' I wanted to be a rich businessman."

In order to coach, he believed he needed to play. Sparks started every game at Carson-Newman as wide receiver.

"I got hurt my senior year and they said 'why don't you come and coach with us.'"

Sparks scouted opponents.

"It developed me really fast as a coach."

And, before he received his diploma, Sparks became the head football coach at Gibbs High School. From there, his coaching journey took him to Tennessee Tech, Morristown East, Carson-Newman, Farragut and back to the Eagles as head coach.

This year is his 35th season with the Eagles.

"Somebody asked me the other day how many division 1 job offers I've had. I think I've had nine since I've been here. Then, I talked to an NFL team once about being an assistant coach."

Those jobs all sought him, but Sparks felt called to stay at Carson-Newman. And, what a ride it's been since that first national title in 1983.

Sparks is a member of six coaching halls of fame and has been named "Coach of the Year" dozens of times. He's also received several lifetime achievement awards, but perhaps his most meaningful honor came in 2013. Former NFL Coach Tony Dungy's presented his "Uncommon Award" to Sparks.

"I have such a high regard for Tony Dungy," he said.

The two first met years ago. Sparks was Dungy's huddle leader at the Fellowship of Christian Athlete's National Conference.

"When he gave me that award he said, 'I've patterned my coaching career after Coach Sparks ever since then.'"

The honor came a year after Sparks' toughest opponent yet-- prostate cancer.

"The ole "c" word is an ugly word. I waited so long to get some help with it."

Even with surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer continues to spread. So, Sparks is undergoing another new treatment.

"I've got 14 grandchildren and I wanted to coach until I was 103. It's a humbling experience when you realize you're not going to be able to do some of the things you thought you would."

But he refuses to give up.

"I've have a saying with our football players, 'If we're breathing, we're fighting.'"

Sparks hopes God can use his battle to inspire other cancer warriors.

"My new year's resolution is today, to live today the best I can live today."

And right now, today doesn't include retirement.

"I've asked the Lord to make it real clear to me. He called me into this, so when he wants me to quit, he's got to call me out of it."

Ken Sparks. Born in Knoxville. HomeGrown in TN.

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