Presbyterian minister Jim Rayburn’s heart ached for high school students in Dallas, Texas, who had never heard the gospel. In 1941 he founded a club called Young Life, whose outreach model targeted popular suburban high school students and invited them to club meetings to hear about the gospel in a welcoming environment with friends. Among the first students to attend club meetings was Sam Adams, ’52, who went because Rayburn was a different kind of minister: he showed up for Adams’ football games.
Several Whitworth students heard Rayburn speak at a conference in California, and one of the students wrote Rayburn and expressed interest in forming a Young Life club at Whitworth. About that same time Whitworth President Frank Warren visited Rayburn and invited him to come to Spokane to discuss the establishing a Young Life connection. Rayburn did so, and then made an appeal to Adams and his football buddy Pete Bennett, ’52, to attend Whitworth and plant a Young Life ministry in Spokane.
Though Adams and Bennett had never heard of Whitworth, they “headed toward the Rocky Mountains and turned right,” arriving at Whitworth with about 50 cents between them. “Next thing I knew, I was at Whitworth, living in a room with two guys from Dallas,” Adams said. He and Bennett started a Young Life club at Central Valley High School while studying and playing football at Whitworth.
Other Whitworth students joined in the effort, including Jim Hardie, ’49, and Colleen Pickert, ’51, who later became Sam’s wife. Adams and Bennett were on a gospel team and spoke at various churches on Sunday evenings. On Fridays, they attended high school football games to meet with coaches and talk to the players, eventually recruiting the students for their Young Life club. They promised the club would be fun, with skits and songs, but most of all, they wanted to introduce these kids to Christ. “They seemed to be quite enthusiastic,” Sam recalled. “One reason [is that] we had established a friendship. The kids knew we were interested in them and we liked them.”
In the meantime, Adams excelled on the Whitworth football field. As a freshman, he led the nation’s small colleges in touchdown receptions, and he set a Whitworth record for career touchdown receptions. After graduating, he played three seasons with the Canadian Football League as an offensive end for the Vancouver, B.C., Lions. He returned to Whitworth in 1956 as an assistant football coach; he was named track coach a year later, and he became the Pirates’ head football coach in 1958.
During his tenure, Adams consistently coached athletes who were named to all-conference teams, with 11 All-America first- and second-team awards. A high point for Whitworth football in those years was being ranked fourth in the nation in the 1960 NAIA polls. That year they played in the semifinals of the Holiday Bowl, against Humboldt State (Calif.), but the Bucs lost 13-7.
Adams coached at Whitworth until 1965, then went on to coach and teach at Washington State University. Whitworth still bears his mark – through the annual Sam Adams Classic track meet and the Sam Adams Young Life Scholarship for student leaders, and in the lives of those he mentored through Young Life. He was inducted into Whitworth’s first Heritage Gallery Hall of Fame cohort, in 1990.