Ryan Lajeunesse found a calling that makes a difference on and off the field

By Donna Lampkin Stephens

Ryan Lajeunesse knew God was calling him to be a missionary. He just didn’t know his field would be football.

Lajeunesse, 39, is director of player development for the University of Central Arkansas Bears. Unofficially, he’s known as the team chaplain. His duties are part of his job as a UCA collegiate rep with the Arkansas chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).

David Walker, TaMuarion Wilson, Jake Golday, Jamal Mull and Luke Stringer. Middle row: Mary and Ryan Lajeunesse. Front row: Owen and Jase Lajeunesse.

Lajeunesse came to UCA in 2003 to play football out of Jacksonville High School. He recalled giving his life to Christ at the end of his senior year through a couple of his coaches, Johnny Watson and Mike Risher, who are now at Little Rock Christian.

“I didn’t really come to study anything,” he admitted. “Early on, I didn’t have plans other than playing ball.”

While he eventually earned a degree in history, he got involved with the Chi Alpha campus ministry early. After his freshman year, he joined that group on a mission trip to Spain and Morocco.

“At that moment, I felt like God was saying, ‘When are you going to make me lord of your life instead of football?'” he remembered. “As an 18-year-old and a believer for just a year, I didn’t know what that meant — ‘When are you going to quit running and do what I’ve called you to do?'”

But upon his return, he told his offensive line position coach that he was through with football.

“I didn’t know how to do both,” he remembered. “But that’s the cool thing now in my position. It actually feels like God has brought me full circle, to be able to walk along these guys who are gifted and talented in the game of football.”

David Walker was baptized “on the stripes” of the UCA football field in February 2023 because he wanted his peers to know about his profession of faith. Photos by Jhude Dizon.

Through Chi Alpha, he met his future wife. Two years younger, Mary Lajeunesse had grown up in the Assembly of God church. She earned her undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s in counseling. They married in 2008 and remained involved in the campus ministry as he took on a couple of coaching stints at Little Rock Christian and his alma mater.

Eventually, though, he joined the Chi Alpha staff and spent 13 years with that organization before making the recent move to FCA.

“I was a missionary on a college campus,” he said. But he had the desire to work with the football program. “I had played for Coach (Clint) Conque, and I asked to be around practice and the guys to try to build relationships,” he remembered. “After he left, I talked to Coach (Steve) Campbell, offering to travel with them and be a chaplain. His response was, ‘If you’re reaching guys, I don’t have a problem putting you on a bus.'”

After Campbell left, Nathan Brown took the head coaching position, moving from offensive coordinator. He and Lajeunesse had been at UCA together.

Brown said Lajeunesse had been an important part of the Bears’ success. “He brings so much consistency and love to our program,” Brown said. “Ryan and Mary truly invest in our student-athletes. He has the ability to push the men to their highest potential, not only on the field but also in life. Ryan and Mary open their home to our young men and treat them like their own. I look forward to working alongside Ryan for years to come. He is a special person and a great friend to me.”

Photo by Jhude Dizon with UCA Athletics

Lajeunesse has an office in Estes Stadium to be available to players and coaches. A typical day might include meeting players for one-on-one lunches, attending workouts to build relationships and encourage players and coaches, or running a weekly leadership class for all freshmen, “just growing the man,” he said.

During the fall, he travels with the team and attends practices and meetings.

“I love going to work every day,” he said. “I love being able to live life with guys where they’re at, whether that’s having a conversation about working through relationships with a girl to answering questions about who the Lord is, to challenge men in my house to be not just hearers of the word but to take it to their life and challenge them to see what God can do for them.”

On Wednesdays, he and Mary host a Bible study group where “we make a meal and study the word.”

Mary is all-in, as are their sons Jase, 9, and Owen, 6. “It’s fun and kind of overwhelming,” she said. “There are so many guys you can’t remember all their names and their girlfriends. Last year, we had a lot of guys graduate and move on, which was bittersweet, but you know they’re going on to do amazing things. We don’t just see them at football. They come to our house, and we go to their weddings. We stay in their lives. 

“Even when I post photos on Instagram, their parents comment, ‘Thank you for feeding my kid.’ Now that I’m a mom, I can see the family side of it. We go to recruiting dinners and tell parents, ‘You can send your kid here. We’ll take care of them.”

Ryan said that in looking back over his faith walk, he has tried to follow the Lord. “I feel like I’ve found what God has called me to be and do what He’s called me to do.”

Donna Stephens