Keiser University goalkeeper and Southside High graduate Grace McClellan celebrates Keiser’s NAIA National soccer championship victory in 2020. Photo courtesy of Grace McClellan.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
The phrase “faith over fear,” is often easier spoken than accomplished, a feat few truly achieve in the face of adversity. For Etowah County athlete Grace McClellan, faith over fear proves greater than empty words: such a mantra reiterates a lifestyle enriched with inspiration, illustrating a strength that supersedes all circumstances.
When three-year-old McClellan rested on her father’s hip as he coached her older brother in soccer, she unknowingly watched the game that would transform her life. McClellan’s earliest memories are rooted in a fascination of the sport, an indescribable magnetism that pulled her closer and closer.
While McClellan dabbled in other sports, attempting gymnastics and basketball, she discovered nothing compared to her drive for success in soccer. She shared that when she battled adversity in those sports, she lacked motivation for continuance – yet when it came to soccer, no obstacle could hinder her determination. For McClellan, there was never an alternative, never a second option. Though she would face detours throughout the years, nothing could prohibit her arriving at her destination…a course she charted as a child attending a local camp.
“There was a girl at the camp, and she was a college soccer player,” said McClellan, describing the moment she recognized the image she wanted to become. “That just stuck with me. As I got older, I started to realize soccer is what God called me to do.”
The path toward college soccer proved a narrow, cumbersome road for McClellan, with obstacles arising at every turn. With recruitment beginning her sophomore year at Southside High School, she traveled to Birmingham and Atlanta as a member of soccer clubs, playing on teams that enhanced her skills and sharpened her strengths. Despite the inconsistency and grueling schedules, McClellan found that her belief in someone stalwart, and the purpose He gifted her, proved the reason behind her achievements.
From McClellan’s first moments scoring goals spanning to her most recent talents today, God’s unwavering faithfulness and love empowered and encouraged her to pursue His promises. Early on, He gave her hope for continuance, illustrating how if she would rely upon Him, He would grant her the desires of her heart.
One of those desires aligned with the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program, which featured four region teams consisting of state players evaluated on technique, tactics, fitness and athletic ability and attitude. The ODP offers athletes development and quality instruction with beneficial competition, even providing opportunities for teams to travel abroad.
One night, McClellan dreamed she stood on a field in a foreign country. She could recall who surrounded her as she prepared to start in a soccer game; the entire environment flourished around her, and she beheld something so real it was as if she were awake. At the time of the dream, McClellan – who was previously cut from the ODP state team level – was unaware that the new roster was released, her name missing from the list yet again.
Despite what seemed intangible, the upcoming weeks would transform McClellan’s dream into a reality. McClellan received a call signifying that she was selected to play in London England for the ODP region team representing the southeast.
“The trip was amazing and the first game they picked me to start,” said McClellan, sharing how she soon learned her prophetic dream symbolized something greater, alluding her future. “We do warmup and we’re in the huddle, then I walk out onto the field. When I turn around, it was the same picture from my dream…exactly the same thing. I knew it was from God. He was showing me the plans He had for me, that I had to trust Him. Even though when He’d given me that dream, I wasn’t on the roster, so something had to happen behind the scenes to work that out. From that moment forward, I knew this is going to be a faith journey for me. God was showing me what He was going to do for me, and I just had to continue to trust Him.”
McClellan’s collegiate soccer career sparked a semester early. Following her swift graduation from Southside, McClellan packed her bags for Baton Rouge in January of 2019. McClellan’s commitment to excellence and her faith in God manifested in a scholarship to LSU, where she would play for a team that won the SEC championship. While McClellan envisioned LSU as the perfect fit, three months following her arrival, all of the coaches left the university – prompting several of her teammates to walk away as well.
As the university tended to its losses and patched up holes, McClellan witnessed three different coaching staffs in just two years on campus. As the program deteriorated further from the successful culture McClellan once enjoyed, she found herself discontent, incapable of growing in a stagnant environment. In November of 2020, McClellan took a true leap of faith. She entered the transfer portal, signing away her scholarship to LSU and any possibility of further involvement with the university. With no inclination as to what God held in store, McClellan plunged forward, clutching to the peace that God would provide.
NAIA National Champion Keiser University reached out to McClellan, expressing she signified the missing piece to their puzzle in order to win back-to-back championships. As a smaller school in West Palm Beach, Florida, McClellan found Keiser the missing piece to her own puzzle in the next chapter God would write for her. Straightaway, she received confirmation that transferring to Keiser was the right move.
“At the end of my first season [at Keiser], I was able to come in five months later from leaving LSU and win a national championship,” said McClellan, who acted as goal keeper when No. 3 Keiser defeated No. 1 William Carey to win the 2020 NAIA National Championship title. “That feeling of winning was so unreal…the best feeling in the world. But I trust God to leave LSU, and it was full circle. [I realized] this is exactly where God wants me.”
McClellan dove into training and practice to appease her endless hunger to improve, though 2021 brought its own collection of obstacles. Keiser went undefeated in its regular season, winning the conference and entering post-season. During the first game in the conference tournament, goal keeper McClellan caught a ball and landed on her right leg. She fumbled the ball, lunging forward with her left leg to grab it and felt the bones in her knee shift.
McClellan sat down and waved the trainer over. Though the trainer cleared McClellan, when she stood up, her knee gave out. An MRI proved an unimaginable nightmare and relayed devastating news – a torn ACL and needed surgery.
“Tearing your ACL is literally everyone’s worst fear in soccer,” said McClellan. “The doctor said I needed surgery, but I’d heard recently sometimes people would wear a brace and play with a torn ACL. I wasn’t in any pain walking around, so that was the first thing my mind went to. I talked with my trainer, doctor and parents about the idea. I’d just gotten done with prayer and fasting, and I really felt like the Lord was saying he had more – He was going to do exceedingly and abundantly above in the near future. Though I was really curious as to what He was talking about, because it looked like my season was over. But then I thought, what if it’s not? What if I needed to play and He’s going to do something through that?”
McClellan limited her training, taping her knee and wearing a brace. Of all McClellan’s athletic talents, perhaps her most exceptional is her natural ability to kick a ball an incredible distance – 70 yards. Being right footed with a torn left ACL, it was essential for her left leg to remain stable so she could balance. McClellan fought the physical pain of her knee giving out, warring against doubt in her mind. Yet her resolute nature endured, and she refused to surrender.
“I’m super stubborn,” said McClellan. “When I put my mind to it, I’m going to do it. I knew I couldn’t give in to the fear or the pain, because this is what God has called me to do. I had every reason to say I couldn’t finish the season…I almost pulled myself out. All I had was that little bit of hope I was holding on to.”
A devotional McClellan’s parents gave her reminded her of a similar scenario someone faced thousands of years before her. The devotional discussed the Biblical story of David and Goliath – describing the narrative of a young man whose unwavering belief in God resulted in a victorious outcome, destroying the adversary that towered over him. McClellan shared that she could do one of three things: focus on her weakness, focus on the Goliath before her or focus on the Lord and what He promised her.
She chose the latter.
“This is where it takes that great faith,” said McClellan. “I believed if the Lord wanted me to continue playing with my torn ACL, He was going to make that really clear. If he didn’t, He was going to make that clear too. I also know that it’s hard, because He wants me to lean on Him. If it was easy, everyone would do it. The Lord showed me a lot about Himself. When the Bible talks about that mustard seed of faith…I had a big cloud of doubt and just that mustard seed of faith I was holding on to, to carry on. But it was worth it, and hopefully I’m able to use this and my story to help others, whatever they’re going through.”
Though McClellan could not even walk before playing, she was able to perform during three games and complete the season. The strength she lacked off the field was restored once she began playing, and while Keiser did not win a third consecutive National Championship, McClellan grapples with zero regrets. Despite her injury, McClellan achieved national merit, being named NAIA All American, United Soccer Coaches 1st Team All American and United Soccer Coaches Scholar All American for her 4.0 GPA.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever necessarily been in a situation like that,” said McClellan, reflecting on how she also combatted people criticizing her decision and questioning her. “I learned a lot about obedience and I grew so much mentally. I learned in life, it will take a lot to knock me down. The accolades are nice, but who I became and what I learned was far greater – that was the real reward.”
McClellan attested to the countless opportunities she already experienced in sharing with others God’s outworking in her life, demonstrating His incredible influence. While most individuals growing up in the South possess an awareness of Christian values and prominent stories in the Bible, McClellan’s perspective broadened as she realized several of her international teammates and friends were unfamiliar with those foundational pillars McClellan relies upon for strength each day.
“I explained to [my teammates] how the Lord has given me the strength to carry on,” said McClellan, illustrating how the challenges she faced dwindled in comparison to God’s promise for her. “On the sideline of soccer practice, I talked about the story of David and Goliath [how it related to my life]. Hopefully, the Lord gives me opportunities to continue to play and have a national outlet to bring people to Him that don’t know Him…but right now, it starts with the little things.”
God’s guidance in McClellan’s life is an ever-present force, as it is for all who believe and prove themselves obedient to His purpose for their lives. Following her successful ACL surgery, McClellan is currently undergoing rehab for her knee, working with American household name Tom Brady’s TB12 Performance & Recovery in Tampa. TB12 co-founder and Brady’s trainer Alex Guerrero offered to assist McClellan in rehabbing her in just six months, another goal she set for herself post-surgery. McClellan remains in Tampa for the current weeks, until returning to TB12’s new facility opening in West Palm Beach…another sign she believes God provided for her.
As McClellan continues to excel athletically and perfect her talents, she treasures the wondrous vessel God established for her in soccer. From injuries on the field to rehabilitation to deafening noise filled with doubt, McClellan’s faith enlightens her to a greater understanding of life, exemplified through countless metaphors soccer produces. After obtaining her degree in Exercise Science, McClellan plans to further her education to achieve her Master’s. Her ultimate aspiration is to play soccer professionally, shining as a light for the Lord wherever she walks, proving time and time again that the testing of her faith produces perseverance.
“I have a passion for soccer, and I really feel like God has called me to continue to play soccer, but more importantly soccer is just my platform I use to glorify Him,” said McClellan. “I’m blessed He has given me soccer as a way of doing something that I love and teaching me life lessons through that. It’s about being a light for Him while I’m playing. Winning games is cool and so is getting awards, but truly being able to witness to those around me about the Lord and what He’s done for me is what – at the end of the day – I want to walk away from and say, ‘I’ve been able to do that.’ There are a lot of impossible situations people could see themselves in, but if you truly lean on God for your strength, He will provide. That is something I’m going to continue to carry with me. It can translate so much into life.”