Things didn’t work out the way Paul Oliver had planned.
He was supposed to go off to college to be a football star. That much happened.
He was supposed to go to the NFL where he would make a big name for himself and a lot of money. That never happened.
Oliver made it to the NFL but the fame and fortune part of his plan didn’t materialize.
So, for reasons none of us will probably ever know, Paul Oliver took his own life. He left behind a wife and two sons. He also left behind a lot of grieving teammates from the University of Georgia where his football career climaxed. Someone else on that campus was grieving too.
Oliver’s old coach – Mark Richt.
But Coach Richt did more than just grieve. He decided to do something for his other players. The ones still playing for him. The ones who used to play for him. Even the ones who he had to kick off of the team for disciplinary reasons.
Here’s how Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herlad describes Richt’s actions after attending the funeral of his former star defensive back.
“A week later, Georgia football coach Mark Richt huddled with some 40 or so former Georgia players after Oliver’s funeral at Burnt Hickory Baptist Church in Powder Springs. Richt vowed to make good on a promise he made to them when he recruited them, that he would take care of them while they were in Athens and afterwards.”
They call it the Paul Oliver Network. It’s a tool for former Georgia players to learn how to handle life after football. It’s a system where they can get connected to businesses seeking employees. It’s a fraternity where guys who have just had to give up the game can find encouragement from guys who stepped away long ago and thrived.
Listen to what Coach Richt says about the Paul Oliver Network. His words are a stark contrast to the usual “One game at a time,” “It is what it is,” coach speak that we’ve all grown so accustomed to.
“I’m not going to be presumptuous that if Paul had a good job waiting for him afterwards or if he had hope for a good job or he was on the path for a good job that he would be here today, but maybe. I want that to be one thing to check off the list. I do know this: A man, I think he is divinely created to provide for and protect his family. I think if he’s not doing that or doesn’t feel capable of doing that, I think it hurts his spirit.”
I have two sons. They don’t play football. Futbol is their sport. Or soccer, as we like to call it here in the states.
As they continue playing, I hope that they get to grow under the leadership of coaches like Mark Richt. Too often, coaches are at odds with what parents are trying to do in the lives of their kids. Good parents are thinking long term. They’re thinking about developing their boys and girls into men and women of integrity who will one day develop their own boys and girls into men and women of integrity. Some coaches only care about developing a boy into a quality fullback who, when his time is up under that coach, will remain a boy.
It’s good to see that Richt is doing things differently.
I love sports. But they are an idol in our country. You could even make they case that sport is one of the leading religions in our nation. As a result, kids are being sold a false gospel. Work hard. Start as a freshman. Impress a college scout. Make the jump to the league. Find a place to keep all of your money.
But what they are not told is that there will come a day when they will not play anymore. It may be in high school or it may be in the NFL. Either way, their time as an athlete will end.
Good parents will work hard to provide the best possible answer to that question. A few good coaches will too. Mark Richt is one of them.
I’ve been a Georgia fan all of my life. The Bulldogs won a national title in the 1981 Sugar Bowl when they beat Notre Dame 17 to 10. I was five years old. The commemorative Coke bottle sits on my desk as I write this. The Georgia football team hasn’t won any national titles since then. Friends who cheer for other schools like to remind me of that.
That’s okay with me.
Because something bigger is happening at the University of Georgia.
A coach is doing what he can to develop more than just linebackers with speed and strength. He’s trying to build men. Men who are ready for that question that every athlete must answer when his playing days are over.
And go Coach Mark Richt!