Lennie Nugent usually goes to a couple of high school football games on a Friday night in his job as an area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
A night in 2012 was a little different. Nugent had received an artificial heart, and he showed up for the Meadowbrook-Prince George game carrying a portable pump in a case about the size of a briefcase, with tubes leading to his midsection.
As the national anthem was about to be played, Nugent posed a question to a friend, Robert Livesay, who was standing with him on the sideline.
“Lennie looked at me and said, ‘Robert, what do I do? I don’t have a heart,’ ” Livesay said. “I said, ‘Well, I guess you could put your hand on that machine. If I were you, I’d just put my hand across my chest.’ ”
There are coaches and volunteers who work with Nugent who will tell you they know where his heart is.
Nugent, who had a heart transplant a few months after that game, has been putting his passion for faith and sports into Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a nonprofit organization that seeks “to see the world impacted for Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes” using ministries with coaches, on campus, in camps and in communities.
As director of the Appomattox Basin area, Nugent works with 67 ministries at 25 middle and high schools, plus Richard Bland College near Petersburg.
“We raise all of our own funds for all of our ministries,” he said.
Nugent and his wife, Lynn, an administrative assistant, are full-time employees. There’s one part-time employee.
“He has gone over and above his calling trying to meet those needs that they have,” said Livesay, senior pastor at Oakland Baptist Church in Prince George County. Livesay has served on Nugent’s board and has been a volunteer “character coach” for Prince George High School’s football and basketball teams.
“These kids, he has not only their physical welfare but he has their spiritual welfare (in mind). He and his wife are constantly doing something for FCA. These kids are at the center of their lives, trying to get them to be better adults when they leave high school sports.”
Nugent, 69, sold commercial floor covering for 25 years. He was intrigued when an FCA representative stood up in church and thanked the congregation for giving the organization some office space.
“He said he needed some help,” said Nugent, a Colonial Heights resident who played basketball and baseball at Matoaca High School. “I figured sports, Jesus, it didn’t get much better than that.”
Nugent volunteered for three years before serving as a full-time area representative for six years. He has been the director of the Appomattox Basin area for nine years, with a territory that includes parts of Chesterfield County, the Tri-Cities, and Prince George, Dinwiddie and Brunswick counties.
“I don’t have an area that doesn’t have Title I schools” that get federal funding for high numbers of children from low-income families, Nugent said.
“The areas I represent, kids are really in a cultural battle. We’re able to get the coaches to buy into helping these kids grow into the person God intended them to be.”
Among the things the Appomattox Basin FCA facilitates are pregame meals for high school athletes, and pregame meals and a food bank that provides additional meals for athletes at Richard Bland. The food for the food bank is provided by Regenesis in Petersburg, Nugent said.
Scholarships to an FCA sports camp in Richmond also may be provided, and Nugent started a tradition of watermelon feasts for his high school football teams during preseason practice in the summer.
“You just admire guys like that, their dedication to the young people in our region,” Hopewell High School football coach Ricky Irby said of Nugent.
Nugent said the attention should be directed to the volunteers. Those include “character coaches” who assist a coaching staff with character development. Nugent’s duties include identifying those volunteers and training them on what they can and cannot do under the Equal Access Act.
Nugent sometimes fills in as a character coach for a school until he can find one.
In addition to his FCA work, Nugent volunteers to talk with patients at VCU Medical Center waiting for heart transplants.
He almost died when he went into cardiac arrest with his natural heart. He believes there was a reason he didn’t.
“My wife and I agree that’s why I was left here, so I can help,” he said.