Missionary Athletes International’s Urban Ministry is a relational ministry operating in Charlotte, Chicago, Los Angeles. The program teaches sports ministry to college graduates, using youth soccer team coaching and a 24/7 residential presence to build long-term, character-building, mentoring relationships with underserved inner city youth (ages 5-18).  MAI does this by recruiting, training, supporting, and placing college graduates like Jessie Niemi into these at-risk neighborhoods.

Although Jessie recently finished her second season as a solid contributor playing with MAI’s Charlotte Lady Eagles, it is clear that her best contribution has been off the field, as a volunteer residential sports minister and a youth soccer team coach with MAI’s Charlotte Urban Eagles while living with two other Lady Eagles in East Charlotte’s Birchcroft Apartments alongside many recently arrived refugee families.

Jessie grew up in Swartz Creek, Michigan (pop. 5700), where she excelled in both soccer and basketball at Swartz Creek High School. Jessie knew she wanted to play soccer collegiately, and chose Marygrove College, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Detroit. Jessie was a star defender on the Marygrove Mustangs’ women’s soccer team, helping her team win the 2009 USCAA National Championship as a freshman. She went on to become the only four-time USCAA first-team All-American in conference history.

After graduating in the spring of 2013 with a degree in Social Work, Jessie attended MAI’s Chicago Eagles Summer Academy, an intense three-month program where collegiate soccer players from across the country train and compete in the U23 Division of the Illinois Metro Soccer League while gaining invaluable sports ministry training in Brazil and then applying that training coaching more than a thousand youths attending Chicago Eagles soccer camps throughout the summer. The Academy gave Jessie a much clearer idea of what sports ministry is and how she could become a sports minister.

“The Academy blew my mind,” Jessie says. “I went to college with idea this of playing soccer for the Lord. The Academy showed me how. I was just blown away that sports ministry training actually existed and that other people had the same idea that I did. I learned so much about sports ministry and it set a fire in my heart to experience a deeper walk with the Lord.”

Jessie found out about MAI’s Charlotte Lady Eagles while she was in Chicago and joined the team for the 2014 season.

“The loving relational community I found in both Chicago and Charlotte is what I think really drew me to MAI as a whole,” Jessie says. “MAI understood what I experienced in Chicago so it was really engaging going to Charlotte knowing that MAI’s Charlotte Lady Eagles are on fire to do sports ministry too.”

During Jessie’s first season with the Lady Eagles she improved as a player, but Jessie says: “My real growth came spiritually through my relationships with my teammates and the further sports ministry training MAI provides through its excellent Lady Eagles’ coaching staff.”

“It’s like a family,” Jessie says. “You spend so much time training, and then off the field, between team dinners, Sport Ministry Training, traveling for game and everything in between, you really bond with the team and with the girls. I’m able to pour into my teammates’ lives and they’re able to pour into mine and we’re just walking and growing together in Christ.”

After a successful first season with the Lady Eagles, Jessie decided to stay in Charlotte to work with
Urban Eagles as a volunteer in Birchcroft, where she has lived and served as a sports minister and coach for the U13 Urban Eagles girls’ team for the last ten months.

“It’s been the coolest thing ever,” Jessie says. “I think probably the most unique thing is just learning how to be a neighbor. Kids from refugee families are always knocking on our apartment door to learn something or we’re outside playing. By just being present living here, I’ve learned the importance and value of actually being a neighbor getting to know my neighbors by serving their children almost every day.”

“I’m not just their coach” Jessie explains. “I’m their friend, their neighbor, their tutor, and kind of a mentor as well. It’s cool because you’re just kind of walking through life with them. As things happen in the neighborhood, we experience the same things as they do and can help them deal with stuff as things arise. So it’s not like I’m coming in once a week or a couple times a week and then leaving.  Thankfully I’m integral part of the community. All of us at MAI like it that way!”

MAI Begins Its Fourth Decade of Ministry
In December of 2013, Missionary Athletes International celebrated its 30th anniversary as a non-profit organization. As we head into our fourth decade of ministry, we want to take a moment to take a look at how the world and MAI have changed before sharing our direction for the future.

Thirty years ago (1984)

  • Apple introduces the Macintosh computer
  • Sony and Phillips introduce the first commercial CD players
  • The first .Com domain name will be registered a year later
  • The first 1G cell phone network is in its first year of operation. 
  • MAI hires its first full-time staff member in its second year of ministry featuring soccer camps, an international tour and the Orange FC Seahorses men’s amateur team. 

MAI Statistics

  • Nearly 3000 people have gone on 188 international tours to 36 countries on six different continents, including former and current communist countries of Czech Republic, East Germany, Laos, Russia and Ukraine.
  • This summer, we will register our 1000th player on an MAI team.
  • Over 52,000 boys and girls have attended MAI summer soccer camps. 
  • Income exceeded $3 million in 2013 
  • Offices in each major time zone in the USA with 37 full and part-time staff members.

The first generation of kids who attended our soccer camps are now playing on our adult teams. We want to transfer the experience that we have gained during the last thirty years to that next generation. With this in mind, we have identified the following vision:

Our vision is to generate teams of influential coaches and players who inspire people to flourish in and for Christ wherever they are planted. 

Be watching our updated website as we highlight and celebrate some of the people and stories that have been a part of MAI’s development as well as sharing about what is currently taking place. The world has changed significantly during this period as has MAI and the sport of soccer but we believe that we have a timeless message of God’s love to deliver through the most popular sport in the world. What a great time to celebrate that as we prepare to send five ministry teams to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup!


Patrick Stewart


Missionary Athletes International


Paul and Robin Shedd will begin their 15th year of ministry with MAI in 2014. Both Paul and Robin grew up on the mission field in South America and speak fluent Spanish. Prior to joining MAI, the Shedds lived in Florida where Paul taught Spanish and coached soccer. The Shedds started their tenure with MAI in California with the Southern California Seahorses as the ministry leader for the PDL team and leading international tours as well as doing outreach in the Latino community. 

Paul and Robin moved to Charlotte about five years ago to continue to be involved in international tours, local outreach and sports ministry training. Paul has been involved in international ministry in Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. He has a special interest in ministry to the Indian tribes living in the Amazon basin. People will often travel for several days by dug-out canoe to participate in the soccer tournament hosted by the church in Pucalpa. The photo below is from 2008 when Paul led a group from Grace College (Indiana) on a trip to the Amazon. 

“Robin and I have been with MAI since 2000. In terms of an MAI memorable moment it is very hard to pin one down. I would say that GOD's constant guiding hand has been one continuous memorable moment. He placed us in just the right home in CA-six blocks from the office; 5 blocks from where the Seahorses' Amateur teams trained on Thursday nights. We had the opportunity to have several players stay with us; have team members over for meals and game nights. Some very special times!!! Upon moving to Charlotte in 2009; we left CA not knowing where we were going to live. We arrived on a Tuesday; that Friday, our daughter, her family, Dave and Mitch Sanford were helping us move into our home. He has constantly provided for our every need. He has brought so many special people into our lives: co-workers, Seahorse and Eagles' players, Urban Eagles' children and their families and many more who have been and continue to be a blessing. We have seen lives changed because of how Christ is transforming them. MAI Retreats, visiting our faithful support team and going internationally for Sports Ministry missions and trainings are also very special to us!!!
We are truly blessed to have good leadership in MAI. With God's guidance I see a very bright future for MAI where Sports Ministry training of coaches and leaders is taking place both locally and internationally in a systematic, sustainable and reproducible manner.”

Psalm 115:1: "Not to us, O LORD, not to us; but to You be all the glory for your love and faithfulness."

Read more about Paul Shedd and his story with MAI HERE


Tapestry Threads
The threads that GOD weaves in our lives are absolutely amazing!!! We wanted to tell you a story of what that started many years ago and continued in Charleston on the weekend in late March 2014.
Several years ago Travis and Jessica had a youth leader, Dave Evans in Columbus, Ohio.. Dave and his wife Kristen were instrumental in mentoring and discipling Travis and Jessica. Fast forward-currently Travis and Jessica Jones lead the Urban Eagles Albemarle Road Ministry. The Evans now live in Charleston. Dave and his son, Austin, coach a Coastal Christian's ladies' soccer team.
Bhim and Arjun grew up in Nepal.  In the last few years God brought them to Charlotte. Their families are Hindu; however, they have decided to follow Jesus. They are our team captains.
Dave and Austin invited us to do a soccer clinic for their team. Accepting the invitation;  last Friday we traveled o Charleston to have a leadership retreat with Bhim and Arjun. They were nervous about helping lead the Saturday clinic but open to doing it.  They were prepped on what they needed to do and the LORD helped them! They did a great job helping lead the soccer skill sessions, sharing their stories with the girls, and interacting with the young ladies.
Other activities over the week-end included a Servant Leadership teaching, attending church together, going to the beach, being spoiled by the Evans who took us  to eat to some nice places, and seeing the sights of Charleston.
We are so thankful to GOD for the threads that He puts in our lives as He weaves our own personal tapestries. 

Rick and Janice have been in full time sports ministry since 1986. Between earning his bachelor’s from Indiana Wesleyan in P.E. and Health and his master’s from Wheaton College (M.A. Educational Ministries), Rick taught and coached for 3 years as a missionary in Puerto Rico. During that time, God gave him a real vision of how effective sports ministry could be.

Rick is currently the senior director of MAI’s Chicago office. He began with MAI by serving as MAI’s National Camp director in the late 1980’s while at the original MAI office in southern California, operating soccer camps on both the East and West Coast. In 1991, Rick and Janice moved to Charlotte, to assist Brian and Chris Davidson in opening the new office for MAI, the Charlotte Eagles. During their time in Charlotte, Rick’s primary focus was in working with collegiate athletes and in developing sports ministry training materials, as well as directing soccer camps. 

In 1997, the McKinley’s, along with their four children, moved to Wheaton Illinois, to open MAI’s Chicago Eagles office.  Janice has worked for a doctor’s office as a registered nurse for the past 12 years.  She recently resigned, hoping to be more involved in the Chicago ministry. Rick and Janice have raised four children and are currently expecting their second grandchild!

Rick has traveled to over 20 countries, experiencing first-hand how effective sports ministry can be in every language and culture in the world. The specific memories over these many years are far too many to mention – relationships with brothers and sisters in Christ around the world, several trips to the former Soviet Union in the ‘90’s, sharing Christ with people in southeast Asia who had never heard the name of Jesus, seeing hundreds come to Christ in Africa, breaking his ankle in 2006 and spending 5 days in a German hospital – and the list goes on and on! Deepest memories, though, have come from being able to work alongside what Rick describes as the God-honoring and gifted friends that make up Missionary Athletes International.

After 28 years on staff, I am still amazed at what I see God doing through sports ministry! Far beyond the methodology, sport is a tool that God uses to dissect us at the core of who we really are. The great thing is that as He does this, the process of transformation takes place in our lives.  We become instruments, used for His glory.  And sport takes on an incredibly redemptive value!

I can honestly say that I have never been more excited about the direction and vision of MAI!  God has blessed us with tremendous leadership, and a vision that is Biblically sound and eternally relevant. As we continue to live out our core values – submission, faith, community, transformation and love – it will be exciting to see how God works through us to proclaim His glory among the nations! Janice and I are grateful and honored to be a part of this growing sports ministry movement!

I remember as though it was yesterday the day my friend, Tim Conrad, founder of MAI, came to my house in La Mirada and told me he was going to start a new ministry based on the platform of soccer. He asked me if I would join him and be on his Board which I did. I must confess as a guy with an administrative mind and not being a visionary person like Tim is, the thought of starting a soccer ministry in the USA in 1983 seemed a bit of a reach! Since that day amazing things have happened through Missionary Athletes International by the grace of our Lord!

Debby and I officially joined MAI in 1993 as staff going to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to be a part of the headquarters of MAI. This took place after being with MAI as a Board member since the start of the ministry.

In the course of 30 + years with MAI there are many outstanding moments in the ministry. One of the most recent ones has been going to Cuba, a place that man has purposely kept the doors shut from allowing the gospel to be brought in and shared with its people.  I thought I would find very few believers who are timid and reserved in their faith since they have to guard themselves from persecution. Instead I find every time I go there believers that are a huge blessing to me because of their fervor, passion and sacrificial spirit for making our Lord Jesus known. And among them is an amazing sports ministry taking place in this country. It is truly a blessing to partner with the believers in sports ministry there!

Work in the office is very necessary for the ministry to run smoothly but it can be very uneventful we could say. Since taking over the PDL GM I realized that having a fulltime coach would solidify the PDL ministry and enhance it versus continuing with a part-time coach and the limitations that it brings. I’ve been praying and looking for that man, and when Johnny Jackman came into our office to start as our new fulltime PDL coach, I was truly delighted and blessed. And those blessings have continued!

As I look forward to the future of MAI, my prayer is that our present staff grows in their walk with the Lord and their expertize as sports ministers. Sharp, knowledgeable sports ministers are what we need to influence our sports world. On the material side of things it would be awesome to see each of our ministry sites having their own facilities with soccer fields! We have seen our God do miracles through the years and we will continue praying for His will to be done in our ministry! 

Meet Paul Gizzi

Paul & Vickie Gizzi will begin their 23rd year of ministry with MAI in 2015.  Paul grew up on the mission field of Japan and speaks fluent Japanese.  He met Vickie while attending Biola University where he was a PE major and played soccer.  After graduating from Biola University, Paul & Vickie moved to Seattle, WA., then San Jose, CA. where Paul played with the Seattle Sounders & the San Jose Earthquakes of the North America Soccer League (NASL) for four years. Following professional soccer, they both were involved in education, taught school and Paul became the principal at a Christian HS in Walnut Creek, CA.  The Gizzi’s started their ministry with MAI and the Seahorses in 1992 when Tim Conrad, (the Founder of MAI) asked him to take over as the Director of the LA office of MAI.  Tim went on to establish the Colorado Springs location of the then HQ office.  Paul’s role in the LA office involves office leadership, Japan Outreach, Fundraising, PDL related Marketing & Sponsorships, and Community Relations.  Vickie has worked for the HQ side of the MAI ministry doing bookkeeping and payroll and now works as the Seahorse office manager. 


Back in 1996, Board member (Larry Strand) met with Paul to consider soccer outreach to Japan.  As a result of that 1996 venture to work with Campus Crusade for Christ, they have continued the ministry to other locations for the past 18 consecutive years.  One of the biggest blessings has been the birth and growth of Japan Seahorse ministries operated by Masa & Chie Yokota.  They are technically a separate organization but offer a soccer school that uses the teaching of high level soccer skills along with English to connect Japanese families with the local sponsoring church.  The below picture is of the school and the 2014 Seahorse trip which has partnered with this venture for the past 4 years. 

“One of the most memorable and defining moments in my missionary career occurred in 2012 to see God answer a very specific prayer to see fruit in a very “hardened to the gospel” Japan.  Upon arriving in the first of three ministry locations, I was introduced to a family  that had become believers from our very first outreach to Northern Japan back in 1996.  How ironic that they were now attending this church in Central Japan. I was reminded that God answered my prayer and there was fruit I didn’t even know about.  In the second location, a young lady that had given her life to the Lord back in 2004 gave her testimony to our girls & her own parents for the very first time.  She had also been “discipled” for two years through the Charlotte Lady Eagles.  Her countenance had changed dramatically.  She now plays on the Japanese National Futsal team.  Again, I was reminded of the “fruit” of our labors.  In the third location I was thrilled to see one of our tour players lead a young camper to the Lord.  I now felt complete and that the Lord has answered my specific prayers for fruit and did it in such a complete yet different manner in each location. 


But God was NOT DONE.  He decided to make a HUGE “OVER THE TOP” STATEMENT to me.  Once we returned to the USA, two weeks later two of the girls went to a Japanese church in Anaheim (near Disneyland) to fulfill a class assignment at Biola University.  One of the church members asked what organization and who they gone with.  When they responded, the Seahorses and Paul Gizzi, he let them know that he had become a believer in 1997 following our soccer outreach to his University. This family had the same name as the other couple but not related. The girls were so taken by this apparent coincidence, I call it a “GODINCIDENCE”, that they were amazed and quite excited to tell me.  Once I heard, I knew that the Lord had answered my prayers & reminded me that it is our privilege to spread the gospel, water, and cultivate, but it is the work of the Holy Spirit to change people’s  hearts.   We may never know what fruit is being born, but our job is to be faithful to His calling.