Woronoff: In all his roles, pastor/coach Jeff Gatlin impacts people’s lives

BRENT.WORONOFF@STAUGUSTINE.COM Jeff Gatlin stands in front of the pews inside Freedom Church in St. Augustine.

Jeff Gatlin is a man of God. He is also a people’s person.


Both qualities drive him through his many activities as pastor of St. Augustine’s Freedom Church, head softball coach at Menendez High, community educator for Betty Griffin House and even in his lifelong hobby of drag racing.

“I take everything I do and turn it into opportunities to minister,” Gatlin says.

For Gatlin, to minister means to help people, in any way he can.

That includes helping prepare team meals for the Falcons’ football team and leading community service projects for students.

“He’s the kind of guy who will step up and do whatever he can to help,” says Menendez athletic director Terry Sapp, who was Gatlin’s JV baseball coach at St. Augustine High in the early ’90s.

The pitcher and outfielder was not the most talented player on the team, but he loved the sport.

“I remember him being very passionate about the game and wanting to pass his passion onto others,” Sapp says. “He was very competitive. He’d stay late and do extra things, and he worked his way into the lineup.”

His edge as a pitcher was a nasty changeup. He learned it from Randy Johnson.

When he was in fourth or fifth grade he attended a Jacksonville Expos game. In pregame warmups he was drawn to an unusual sound coming from the bullpen.

“You could hear the ball, the laces cutting through the wind,” Gatlin says. “I had to go down and watch.”

The pitcher, of course, was the 6-foot-10 Johnson, whose fastball was clocked over 100 mph in the majors. After watching the young Gatlin gawking, mouth agape, the future Hall of Famer invited him down and gave him some advice. He told him not to throw a curve until he was older and taught him how to throw a circle change.

“His hands wrapped all around the ball,” Gatlin recalls.

Growing up, the Gatlin family sport was drag racing. Jeff’s father, Dave, raced for 41 years. Jeff began racing when he was 16. At his first race, a film crew was wandering around looking for a kid who was just starting to race. Of course, they chose Gatlin. Apparently Gatlin always had a Forrest Gump quality about him.

“My first three races they had the cameras on me,” Gatlin says.

Gatlin has won six track championships at Gainesville Raceway and one at Orlando Speedworld Dragway, driving his 1969 Camaro. And it’s still a family sport. Jeff’s oldest daughter, Alexa, the pitcher on his softball team, won a race at Green Cove Dragway (now closed) in the GTO she drives to school.

Having three daughters is the reason he became a softball coach, starting as an assistant at St. Augustine for two years and then helping at Flagler College for a season before getting hired for the Menendez job seven years ago. Next season he will coach two of his daughters, as rising freshman P.J. will join junior Alexa on the team.

Softball season is particularly busy for Gatlin, who works 40 hours a week at Betty Griffin House, a shelter for victims of domestic abuse, and is more than just the pastor at Freedom Church. He also fills the roles of youth pastor and maintenance man.

His favorite part of being a pastor is meeting people’s needs, such as making hospital visits and officiating funerals and weddings. He came to the church in 2007 when it was about to be closed down. The numbers who attended his first services were in the single digits, Gatlin says: his wife, Tara, his parents, Dave and Tommie Jean, his daughters, and that was pretty much it, he says.

Now the church has 80 members, but more importantly, he says, its influence in the community has grown.

To be able to take on so many roles, Gatlin has learned how to take advantage of every free moment. Early mornings he prepares his sermons. At lunch time he tries to watch softball videos.

“I try to to do something every day to get better at each aspect of life,” he said.

But it’s not like Gatlin wears several different hats. He wears just one at different angles. Because when it comes down to it, everything he does is connected by the people he impacts.

Brent Woronoff is sports editor. Contact him at brent.woronoff@staugustine.com.