Thursday, October 5, 2006
My "Season of Life" under Friday Night Lights
Joe Ehrmann, former NFL star and volunteer coach for the Gilman High School football team, now an ordained minister, spoke (with the author of his recent biography, Season of Life, Jeffrey Marx) at my daughter's high school last year. His remarks, though shared in the Spring, spiraled me back, like a well-thrown football, to the previous grid-iron season. I have never been a big (or little) football fan. I cheered with the rest of my girlfriends for our high school football team in the late 60s with all the perky vigor required of a cheerleader, but I didn't understand the game, didn't care who was doing what or how well they were doing it. I was there because it was the thing to do and the uniforms were cute (ours, not theirs). If the points on the scoreboard were weighted on our school's side at the end of the fourth quarter my boyfriend, Number 80, was in a great mood and the rest of the evening would be fun...if not....depression set in and my weekend was ruined. That was my last real encounter with the sport until last Fall.
Last year I learned about football. I was asked to provide spiritual support to a high school football team from the earliest hours of training camp through the last game of their district playoffs and the awards banquet. Anyone who knows me knows that I no longer just "sort of" do something. I dig in with my entire being....mind, body, spirit. I watched every practice I could, I read books, studied plays, researched opposing teams stats, studied the scriptures and other spiritual texts to find inspiration to share, and loved, loved, loved that team. I stood on the sidelines for most of the games and as player after player would come off the field wounded, exhausted, beaten and bruised....I would put a smile on my face, tell them that they had a job to do, that God was there on the field giving them the courage and the strength, the flexibility and wisdom to do it without harm to themselves or others, and to go back in with confidence and cheer. All the while my heart and mind scrambled for the bedrock of my confidence, digging my mental toes deeper and deeper through the shifting sands of doubt and fear to the hard core of what I knew to be true....God is All-in-all and on every field. That He was the Great Choreographer moving those boys around on the field with the grace and strength of a beautiful ballet.
Week after week, I watched young men find greater peace, endurance, strength, confidence, well-being and witnessed countless healings of fatigue, self-doubt and physical hurts....but the scoreboard repeatedly left them feeling like they could have done better. My prayers were for their realization that what they were learning about themselves....their spiritual strength, flexibility, grace, and inner peace...could not be scored in lights on a Friday Night scoreboard. The measure of this growth....this winning....was found in the stillness of their own hearts, their confidence in God's presence and power in the details of their every move through life.
Jeffrey Marx, in his biography of Joe Ehrman, shares an experience he withnessed at the first game of the season with Joe and the Gilman High School team Joe was coaching:
"At the age of fifty-two, Joe was no longer fazed by the specific circumstances of any single game. No victory or defeat, no matter how glorious or excruciating for his team, would ever eclipse the only reason he was there. What do points on a scoreboard have to do with teaching boys how to be men of substance and impact? And that explained the absolute calmness with which Joe walked toward his huddled team for final comments just before the start of the 2001 season.
Joe initiated his standard question-and-answer sequence.
"What is our job as coaches?" he asked.
"To love us," the boys yelled back in unison.
"What is your job?" Joe shot back.
"To love eachother," the boys responded.
What I witnessed last year with that Panther football team of 2005 was unequivocable love. It was a winning season. They won eachother's respect as they picked themselves up off the bench and went out time after time to defend their brothers. They won eachother's love as boy after boy helped their fellow teammate remember that they were not alone on that field....a pat on the back, a hand proffered to someone who had had the wind knocked out of him, twenty-one men on their knees in prayer when a fellow teammate or an opponent was injured. They won our hearts when at the end of loss after loss they came to the edge of the field and applauded their fans...mothers with tears in their eyes, girlfriends beaming with pride, fathers whose dreams had come true in these remarkable young men of honor and dignity....who had begun the season as boys.
Football season is in full swing this year. Each crisp Friday night, and cool Saturday afternoon, I stop and remember one of the best "seasons" of my life. The autumn I spent on the sidelines of a football field watching boys become men. I try to remember that for every winning team, there is a team that will return to the locker room to discover something new about themselves as men of humility and grace from the experience of not scoring the most points. The Panther men of 2005 will always be precious and dear to me. The other night I was at the college a number of them attend as Freshmen. They were coming off the football field after a mid-season practice. Tears lept to my eyes...there they were....men of substance and impact. They had had an impact on my life so profound that I will never be the same.
One night stands out with great clarity. After beginning the season with a handful of wins their star quarterback was sacked in the endzone and carried off the field to a vehicle that would transport him to a local hospital for surgery which would (though no one knew it at the time) keep him from playing for the rest of the season. I sat in that van next to him, with my hand in his, singing hymns with another player, his best friend, who was going along to give him suppport. As we pulled off the field and looked out the back windows of the the van, there, under the Friday Night lights were twenty-one boys becoming men before my eyes. On their knees in humble prayer for their brother they were discovering something of what it meant to love unconditionally...they knew what the loss of this player meant to their team and yet their concern was for his well-being. Over the course of the next few days they came to the hospital one at a time or in small groups to encourage, support, joke with, and love, love, love their friend.
For some of these boys this season was the culmination of 18 years of playing and practicing together in anticipation of their final year of high school football. Boys who had grown up with one another since they were in diapers were finally seniors. Their friend left the hospital later that week in a cast, and although he couldn't play for the rest of the season, he never missed being on the sidelines cheering them on through scoreboard loss after loss....but spiritual win after win.
For the Panther Football team of 2005, and its amazing team of coaches...coaches so strong and kind and full of grace that I can barely think of them without feeling a clutch in my own heart... I owe a deep debt of gratitude for allowing me to walk this journey with them. I am humbled by the window on grace it afforded me.
Last week I asked the men I ran into at their college how their season was going. They cited how grateful they were to be working with the same coach who had been the head coach at their high school the year before....they said, each in a different way.....he works us hard, but he loves us....he demands the best of me, but he loves me...
Over and over again...it all comes down to love....
Joe Ehrmann has it right....so does Coach Bart...love grows men (and women) of substance and impact, and when I look at the news each evening or read the newspaper each day it is so obvious that what we need more than ever is men and women who know how to love. We will never find world peace by scoring the most points, but by loving, loving, loving enough to heal, transform and inspire hearts....These young men of substance and impact will contribute much to making the world a better place for future genenrations, their coaches have given them an example of grace and the tools to make it happen...thanks guys...you've definitely had an impact on me.
Your biggest fan,