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Meet Your Neighbors: A different kind of strength coach

Douglas Fritz • Oct 1, 2017 at 7:18 PM

Witten is the name most closely associated with Elizabethton football, but for the last 20 years another person has been very familiar to the players and coaches: Preacher Mike.

The pastor at Southside Christian Church, Mike Koruschak, has been the Cyclones’ team chaplain for two decades. He’s not a coach, but on the sideline for every game and attends almost all practices.

“I go to practice every day unless I have ministry work,” said Koruschak. “I typically work with the kickers and the quarterbacks.

“I don’t consider myself a football coach. I am called ‘Coach’ on occasion, but everybody knows me as Preacher Mike. That’s the title I like to have. I consider myself the spiritual strength coach.”

The postgame huddle

Koruschak said he won’t take credit for starting it, but after each game he gathers players from both teams at midfield and they kneel to say The Lord’s Prayer.

“I lead it every Friday, home or away,” Koruschak said.

The prayer didn’t happen recently at Tennessee High because of a postgame confrontation between the coaching staffs, marking only the second time in two decades it was missed. The other time? It was when the opposing coach made an obscene hand gesture when Koruschak asked him about praying after a Cyclones’ victory.

Road to Elizabethton

Koruschak was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1951. His dad was a Navy man, so the family moved around. Koruschak said he remembers a winter in Bainbridge, Maryland, where the snow drifts came all the way up to the second floor of the family’s apartment.

It was a different climate for Koruschak in his teenage years as he attended Lake Wales High School in central Florida. Ironically the school colors were orange and black.

For many years after high school, Koruschak worked in the juice plants that were plentiful back then. He said he wanted his children to grow up in church, so he became deeply involved with the youth group at a church in Lake Wales. In October 1985, he went to Johnson Bible College in Strawberry Plains as a sponsor for high school days. On a Friday night, Koruschak was walking to the chapel by himself and it was raining.

“I found a $20 bill, and it was sopping wet,” Koruschak said. “I picked it up, and I decided to put it in the offering plate. I heard a voice in my heart that said, ‘It’s time to do the Lord’s work.’ ”

In April 1986, Koruschak enrolled at Johnson Bible College — which is now Johnson University — and he graduated in 1991. He earned a major in Bible, and a minor in counseling and preaching. His ministry path would take him to Kentucky, Louisiana, and Cleveland, Tennessee.

In May 1995, he and his family settled down in Elizabethton when Koruschak became the pastor at Southside Christian.

Connecting with the Cyclones

“I sought it out for a reason,” Koruschak said. “One thing Southside Christian wanted was for the minister to be involved in the community.”

So one day in 1998, Koruschak told his wife he was going to ask Cyclones’ head coach Dave Rider — who attended Southside Christian — to breakfast and see if he could be a part of the football team in some way.

“Coach Rider asked me to be involved with the team before I even asked him,” Koruschak said. “I told him, ‘Dave, I know about sports, but I’m no football coach. But there’s a lot I can offer in support and spiritual help for the players and the coaching staff as well.’ ”

Before the first game, Koruschak told Rider he didn’t want to just stand around.

“I asked him if I could share a prayer before the team goes out on the field, and he said yes,” Koruschak said.

Right time, right place

When Koruschak joined the Cyclones’ program, it was taking off. Elizabethton reached the state semifinals the previous season in 1997, and made the semifinals in each of Koruschak’s first two years.

Koruschak got an opportunity to work with Shawn Witten, who was a senior, and junior Jason Witten. His relationship with Rider and the Wittens led him to the University of Tennessee when Jason was visiting there. Koruschak was in Coach Phillip Fulmer’s office with Rider, Jason, and others.

“Coach Rider piped up and said, ‘Coach Fulmer, Preacher Mike is a Gator fan,’ ” Koruschak said. “I didn’t know what to do. Coach Fulmer put his arm around me and said, ‘Preacher, you need prayer.’ ”

Sore thumb

Koruschak said he know he stands out as someone different when he’s with the team, but he’s fine with it.

“I think just as a Christian I would want to stand out in the work for the Lord,” Koruschak said. “I have to be aware my actions and my words are going to be seen and read in a different light than someone else, because I give the claim of Christ as my Lord.”

Over the years, Koruschak has baptized, buried, married and visited in the hospital with players and coaches.

“For me it is like having a miniature church,” Koruschak said. “I have never had a parent come to me complaining that I’ve prayed with their child. I say this humbly that I’ve had dozens of parents come to me and thank me for praying with their child. This ministry is quite important to me.”

The church

Southside has over 200 people on a given Sunday. Koruschak said the youth group is very strong. There is outreach in the community and abroad with missionaries.

“I have been here a long time,” Koruschak said. “I think we have to pay back to the community.”

The family

Koruschak and his wife, Eleanor, will celebrate their 46th anniversary in October. They have two sons, Randy, 35, and Eric, 33. Both are married, and Koruschak has a granddaughter named Aubrey.

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