Unintentional Lessons On Grace From Coach Roach

I can only remember two sentences that Coach Roach ever spoke to me.

Coach Roach was his real, given name. Well, Roach was. Coach was just a title. I guess when you have a last name like Roach, you just have to go all in and find a career that gives you a rhyming title. That way, thirty years later, people will still remember you and at least two sentences you said to them.

Coach Roach was my seventh grade football coach. I played for the Adamson Indians. We were terrible. More specifically, I was terrible. But we had nice uniforms. Mine was especially nice.

One day, on our way down to the field from the locker room, I asked Coach Roach how my uniform looked. I have no idea why I did this. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the first and only time I ever asked a grown man to evaluate my looks. On top of that, Coach Roach was legally blind. No, I’m not making that up.

I still remember what he told me in his thick accent that I thought sounded like something straight out of Brooklyn.

“Ya look like a million bucks, son.”

Man, I was so proud. Coach Roach thought I looked like a million bucks! But my pride faded by the time the game was over and I was walking back up to our locker room. I still looked like a million bucks. There were no blood or grass stains on my pants. My jersey had no rips in it. The other team’s helmet paint wasn’t smattered across my helmet.

I looked like a million bucks.

It’s just too bad that I didn’t play that way. Come to think of it, I barely played at all.

I think that I still remember those words because they give a perfect assessment of today’s church. Many people who claim to be Christians look the part. They listen to radio stations with words like Fish and Love in the title. They live by a strong moral code. They are good boys and girls.

They look like a million bucks.

But they aren’t in the game. In many cases, they aren’t even on the team.

The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable from Luke 18 was this way. He was good. And in case God forgot, he was willing to let him know.

“I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” Luke 18:12 (ESV)

But there was another man in Jesus’ story. He barely felt worthy to put on the uniform, much less to ask Coach Roach how he looked. When he prayed, rather than running through his stellar spiritual résumé, he asked God for his mercy.

And Jesus gave a stunning assessment of the two men.

The sinner who asked for mercy was made right with God, not the man who looked like a million bucks.

For all of his shortcomings, the sinner in Jesus’ story understood something that the Pharisee and many of us do not. Being right with God has nothing to do with our performance or how well we look while performing.

That brings me to the second sentence I remember Coach Roach saying to me.

“Sandaz, ya gonna get crooooooooo-suh-fied!”

That’s what Coach Roach would say to me during tackling drills. I was too small and too scared to do well at those drills so usually I ended up looking more like a frightened ballerina than an actual football player. But hey, at least I made my coach think about Jesus. That’s got to count for something.

No matter how good you think you are, your sin was so great that it took the death of Jesus to make you right with God. Only through faith and repentance, not fasting and tithing, can you be made right with God.

My football career came to an end after that season with Coach Roach. But I’m thankful for him, if for nothing else, because of those two sentences that he spoke to me. I didn’t know it at the time but I was learning something about grace.

I wasn’t able to fake my way into a right relationship with God.

God did not accept me because I looked the part.

I am right with God because the crucified and risen Lord had mercy on me.

A sinner.

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More Than Just A Coach

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When I was younger, I spent some time covering high school sports for local TV stations. The experience taught me something about coaches. Coaches are influencers. When all of the plays are over and the screaming is done, one of the few things that remains is the influence that a coach has on his players. A coach has just as much, if not more, influence over the life of a young man as a pastor does.

Walking up and down sidelines with a camera in one hand and a microphone in the other, I saw that play out in a couple of ways.

Some coaches are scoundrels. They treat their players like slaves who exist for nothing more than that coach’s job security. No racist remark, no amount of verbal or even physical abuse is off limits for these types of coaches on their way to a bigger paycheck or a better job.

Still, the influence of these coaches is powerful. And it’s usually not very pretty. It produces a culture of win at all cost athletes who are coddled into their young adult years and hit their 30s with nothing more than an arrest record and a few boring stories about that touchdown in that one game in a time that has long since been forgotten by everyone else.

But there are other coaches. These are the coaches who have integrity. They pile kids who would otherwise have to walk home after practice into the back of their trucks. They support their players by showing up at events that have nothing to do with football because they know that there is more to life than a game. Sure, they push their players to excel but they also remind them that everyone will play their last game someday and it’s what goes on in those days that far outweighs any touchdown or championship season. In some cases, coaches like this change the culture, not just of their team but of the entire community that they represent.

Mark Richt, the head coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, is one of those coaches.

Everyone agrees that Richt is a nice guy. For some, it’s that niceness that will keep Georgia from ever winning a national championship.

I say, so what.

I was five years old the last time Georgia won a national title in football. Since that time, there have been many teams who have won multiple championships. Some of them have won with players that Mark Richt kicked off of his team. Georgia has come close a few times in the Richt era. But the ultimate victory was always just out of reach.

In 1982 and 1983, I cried when Georgia lost their bowl games to Pitt and Penn State. For the better part of three decades now, I’ve been saying, “We’ll get ’em next year.” Next year hasn’t come yet.

On Saturday, Georgia will play Alabama. Even though Georgia looks stronger, most people are saying that Alabama will win. And if they do, people will blame it on Mark Richt having too much character for his own good. Some will call for his job.

I still remember the last time Georgia played Alabama. It was in the SEC Championship Game in 2012. The victor was a lock for winning the national championship against a very overrated Notre Dame team. Georgia had no business winning that game. But they almost did.

Almost.

When the final whistle had blown, my six-year-old son cried. I thought about watching Georgia lose when I was his age. And then I almost cried too.

Almost.

I want my sons to be around winners. I want them to be shaped as men, husbands, fathers, leaders and athletes in a culture of winning. But that’s kind of hard to do when their dad cheers for the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Falcons. So I give them some breathing room. In the NFL, they cheer for whoever won the Super Bowl the previous year. In the NBA, they like LeBron’s team. I’m okay with that.

But Georgia is different.

I want them to cheer for Georgia.

Mark Richt is the reason why.

He may not have any national championship rings from his time at Georgia but he’s still a winner. He’s a winner because, imperfect as he is, integrity means something to him. He’s a winner because he sees the guys on his team, and even the ones on other teams, as men in training rather than mere athletes fighting for his job security. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to see Georgia win it all but there’s something more important than that.

Influence.

Positive, godly influence.

Mark Richt has that and it makes me proud of the Georgia Bulldogs.

But that’s all pie in the sky, right? Who cares what happens to these kids after they leave school? That’s the mentality of the typical college football fan. They get all worked up every year in February when an 18-year-old, they otherwise would not care about, decides where he wants to play college football. But when he is gone or if he doesn’t quite measure up like they wanted him to, he’s nothing more than sports memorabilia. Use him while you can and then forget about him. It seems as though many college football fans are a lot like some of those scoundrel coaches I met over the years, minus the influence.

But Mark Richt is different.

I’m thankful that he’s at Georgia and I’m honored to watch him with my sons. No matter what the scoreboard or a drunken fan on the Internet says after the game, we are all watching more than just a coach.

We are watching an influencer.

We are watching a winner.

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