Just a Game?

There are occasions when football is more than just a game; times when it reminds us of our better selves. Visitors from Oregon took the time to write a letter to the News-Sentinel expressing their kind regards for the hospitality they received while visiting Knoxville for the Tennessee/Oregon game. They were particularly impressed when The Pride of the Southland turned to face the section of the stadium where most of the visiting Oregon fans were sitting played the Oregon fight song.

That impresses me as well. Every time that I am in the stadium, hearing Tennessee’s band play the visiting team’s fight is one of my favorite parts of the game day experience. When you think about how much “Rocky Top” means to Tennessee fans, you have to consider that other fans appreciate their fight song just as much.  There is nothing quite as comforting as hearing something familiar when you find yourself in a strange and new place. One could argue that the band is doing too good of a job at making guests feel welcome, but I don’t think so. I think their playing the visitor’s song is a kindness and courtesy that speaks well of the University and the State.

What is also interesting to note is what does not happen after the band plays the visitor’s fight song. The Tennessee fans remain Tennessee fans. No one takes off their orange and starts putting on the other team’s colors. The band definitely does not forget how to play “Rocky Top.”  In other words, it is possible to be kind and respectful to people who are different from us without ceasing to be whom we are. We do not sacrifice our loyalties by being thoughtful and courteous to those whose loyalties are different from ours.  In a world that seems excessively prone to the darkness of division and discord, a little thoughtfulness can be a great light.

Still another instance of football pointing us toward our better selves occurred when Ike Ditzenberger scored his first varsity touchdown. Ike is a seventeen year-old junior at Snohomish High School in Snohomish, Washington. What makes Ike different from his teammates and most every other high school football player in the country is that he has Down syndrome.  Every day at practice, on the last play of practice, Ike’s coach calls his play. The quarterback hands the ball to Ike and he runs it in for a touchdown.

Last week with ten seconds remaining in the game and Snohomish trailing Lake Stevens by a score of 35-0, Ike Ditzenberger entered the game to run his play. Run he did, fifty-one yards all the way to end zone. At the end of his run, he was very happy.

Yes, I know that the only reason he scored was everybody on the field wanted him to; and that if the opposing team had wanted to, they could have easily tackled him. But they did not. Because they did not, Ike was able to realize a life-long dream. Sure, his team lost; but they are not losers. People who help other people achieve long-held dreams are winners. People who create experiences of great joy in the lives of others are winners. People who share the bright lights of Friday night with one who some might think has no business being there are winners.

These two events could have taken place anywhere, and they could have involved most anyone. What makes them special to me is that they just seem to ooze Christ likeness. If Jesus was the drum major at the University of Tennessee, I can easily see Him playing the visiting team’s fight song. If He was a high school football coach, I would not be at all surprised to learn that He found a way to get a player with special challenges onto the field.  Christ came into the world to heal brokenness and to reconcile division. There are times when we are reminded that He is still at work doing just that. There are times when those reminders come from unexpected places, even football fields.

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Ain’t That America!

It is 8:20 EST on 3/20/10. March madness is in full swing and there is not a brighter star in the world of college basketball than Ali Farokhmanesh. That may change tomorrow or even before the night is over, but right now this son of an Iranian Olympic volleyball player has captured the spirit of what makes March madness such an exciting sporting event.

Six feet, one hundred and ninety pounds, his feet confidently planted behind the three point arc, less than thirty seconds to go in the game, he nails the trey. His ninth-seeded University of Northern Iowa Panthers hold on to defeat number one seed Kansas.

It is Football Time in Tennessee!

Giving thanks to God our Father at all times for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is not hard at all when you are sitting in Neyland Stadium watching Knoxville Orthopedic Clinic Kick-Off Classic. For fifty years now this event has marked the beginning of high school football in East Tennessee. This year’s edition featured 20 schools from the Knoxville and the surrounding area.

It is a glorious time of year when young men step onto the gridiron. This year is special because my youngest son is a freshman at Karns High School. His role in tonight’s contest was minimal. He stood next to offensive coordinator and helped signal in plays. But he did it while standing on the sideline of Shields-Watkins Field with Eric Berry’s eyes peering down at him from the new jumbotron high atop Neyland Stadium.

Football, especially in high school, middle school and youth league is a wonderful game. The same could be said of all sports that young people play. Unfortunately, the same thing cannot always be said when adults are playing sports. All too often the headlines for the major professional sports include notices of behavior that we do not tolerate from our young people. Somehow we have arrived at the point in our society where exceptional athletic ability excuses everything from breaking rules to criminal activity. Some athletes make choices that reflect poorly on not only themselves but also on their teammates and the sport they play. That is all the more reason for us to be thankful for those athletes who live their lives in such a way that we are happy for our youth to look up to them.

Even still the best football is played on Friday night by young men who take the field in front of family, classmates and neighbors. Sure they may dream of playing in college or even in the NFL, but on Friday night they play for the fun of the game, school pride and for a chance to a part of a team. May God bless and keep them.