For The Crimson Tide, The Price Is Always Right

My first sports memory is running to my room and crying after Georgia lost a bowl game in the early 80s. Against my will, I’ve relived that moment pretty much every football season of my life since then.

On Saturday, December 1, 2012, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray stood eight yards away from victory. There were nine seconds left on the clock and Georgia had no timeouts. They were four points behind Alabama. A field goal wouldn’t do the trick. Georgia needed a touchdown and if they got it, they would play and likely defeat an overrated Notre Dame team for a national championship.

Murray threw the pass and it was deflected. Fortunately, Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley was able to grab the ball before it hit the ground. Unfortunately, Conley went down on the five yard line. The clock ran out and Alabama won the game along with yet another national championship a few weeks later. Georgia won the right to play some forgotten team in some forgotten bowl game.

As the defeated Bulldogs walked off the field, my son looked at me and cried. I wanted to do the same thing but I held it together, gave him a hug, told him that we’ll get ’em next year, and sent him to bed.

We didn’t get ’em next year.

On Sunday, February 5, 2017 the Atlanta Falcons were beating the New England Patriots 28 to 3 at halftime. My son was sitting next to me as we tried to come to grips with the fact that our team was actually going to win a championship. I saw two things on my phone while I waited for the third quarter to start. The first was a video of people at the Atlanta airport celebrating the soon to be official Atlanta victory. The second was the ESPN app on my phone that said the Falcons had a four million percent chance of winning. Eventually it would say that our beloved team had a 73 percent chance of winning. And then 40. And then zero.

The Falcons lost 34 to 28.

As the confetti fell, my sons looked at me and cried. I wanted to do the same thing but I held it together, gave them hugs, told them that we’ll get ’em next year, and sent them to bed.

On Monday, January 8, 2018, the Georgia Bulldogs were dominating the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Dogs were winning 13 to 0 at halftime and Alabama pulled their starting quarterback to begin the third quarter. Their new quarterback was a freshman who hadn’t played in a game for a few months. By all accounts, it looked like our next year had finally come. We were finally going to get ’em.

But it turns out that Alabama’s freshman quarterback who hadn’t played in a game in a few months was the second coming of Russell Wilson. He threw the game winning touchdown in overtime. As people in crimson and white stormed the field, I turned the TV off. I turned and looked at my son but this time he spoke before I could get out my old familiar saying. He was tired. Not physically, though the hour was late. He was emotionally tired. Tired of the same thing happening. Tired of falling just short. So was I. We both went to our respective beds where we tossed and turned and hoped that we would wake up to find that this had all been a terrible dream.

If they had a Price Is Right for sports fans, the Roll Tide contingent would be the guy who gets called down, nails the right price on the first try, gets to play Plinko where he wins $48 million, and then ends the day by guessing the price on the nose and going home with the new car from his showcase and the trip to Paris from the other guy’s.

My sons and I, on the other hand, are the guy who comes on down with tons of promise only to continually get snubbed by those evil souls who bid $1 or $301 just after our bid of $300. It’s like we’re forever destined to stay in the studio audience. No meeting Drew. No Plinko. No spinning the wheel. No Showcase Showdown.

But in a way, I’m thankful for this. Don’t get me wrong. I want our teams to win. I want to experience that joy with my sons. But they’re learning a lot from coming in second place. They’re learning how to deal with disappointment, they’re learning that their identity and hope are not found in a sports team, and they’re learning that the trophies worth having aren’t handed out. They’re earned.

I have a friend who went to a taping of the Price Is Right. She even got to come on down. But she never got to play Plinko. She didn’t win a new car. She didn’t make it to the Showcase Showdown.

But whenever I ask her about her gameshow experience, she lights up. For her, the experience was enough.

For my sons and I, watching good games and cheering for our underachieving teams is enough. For now, the experience will have to do.

Until next year.

Because next year, we’re going to get ’em.

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That Would Make It All Worthwhile For Me

A while back my son got one of his toys stuck in a tree. Being the resourceful type, I threw his favorite football into the tree to knock the toy down.

The football got stuck too.

I took this as a challenge. Not from my son. From the tree. My son had to see his dad show the tree who’s boss. So I grabbed another football.

That’s about the time my wife came outside with a BB gun. She was going to shoot the toy and the ball down with my son’s air rifle. I didn’t say anything but I didn’t want that to happen. I had to be the hero. The only rifle saving the day would be my left arm.

I won’t tell you how long it took me or how bad I was sweating or how tired I was or how bad my arm was hurting or how goofy I looked. It’s none of your business. But I eventually got the ball and the toy out of the tree. Score one for dad’s rifle arm.

I was the hero.

The end.

Or so I thought.

While I was taking my victory parade into the house, I heard crying. It was my son. And these weren’t tears of joy flowing from his proud eyes because he got to witness the greatness that was his dad’s throwing clinic.

These were tears of sorrow. Deep sorrow.

The ball that I rescued from the clutches of that tree had been hit by a BB. It was losing air. And fast. This was my son’s favorite ball. We never walked out into the backyard without him touching it. And now it seemed to be disappearing right in his hands.

It was time for dad, the resourceful hero, to step into action again.

I told him that I would get him a new ball but that we wouldn’t get rid of the old one. There was an Atlanta Falcons game that weekend – a divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks. I told him that when the Falcons won the game, we’d write the score on the ball, and do it again the next week, and again when they won the Super Bowl.

Just like that, I was the hero again. The now deflated ball had become a trophy. My son’s tears dried. But there was only one problem.

We were building our hopes on the Atlanta Falcons.

The Falcons are my team. With the exception of a few seasons during my middle school years spent admiring the work of Joe Montana, I’ve cheered for the Falcons my whole life. I’d seen enough Falcons games to know better than to pin the hopes of a small child on their ability to win the Super Bowl. I would have been better off promising him a hot air balloon ride to Narnia.

But the promise had been made. There was no going back and there was no saving the day. This one was completely out of dad’s hands. There was the very real possibility that my son’s kids would one day ask him why he has a deflated football that has Seattle 73, Atlanta 6 scribbled on it.

The Falcons went on to win the game against the Seahawks and I wrote the score on the ball. 36 to 20. The next week, even though the kind folks at ESPN didn’t think that they could, our team beat the Packers in the NFC Championship game. With joy, I wrote 44 to 21 on the ball. The Falcons were going to the Super Bowl. I felt like Hannibal from the A-Team. I love it when a plan comes together.

Later that day we learned that the Falcons would be playing the New England Patriots in the big game. The irony of writing their name on my son’s deflated football was not lost on me.

Sunday night, about midway through the second half, my plan started to unravel. The Falcons stopped doing everything that they were doing right for most of the game. They started looking more like the Falcons I grew up with. For some reason, the Patriot’s historical comeback didn’t really surprise me. My teams have been in games like that many times, usually always on the wrong end of the comeback. But I was worried about my son. He was right next to me. How would he take it if the Patriots actually came back and won?

Apparently, pretty well.

He was fast asleep.

As far as he knew, the Falcons were still destroying the Patriots. I was taking it harder than he was.

The next morning, I went into my son’s room to wake him up for school. His first words were exactly what I had expected.

“Who won the game, dad?”

“The Patriots.”

The word Patriots had never been spoken with so little enthusiasm.

He had a puzzled look on his face. He didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to. His face said it all. Right before breakfast, ESPN was on our television. Both of my sons watched in agony as the experts praised the Patriots for valiantly coming back to beat that other team.

My son asked me to change the channel.

My hand was already on the remote to do just that. The hero strikes again.

When my sons left for school I grabbed a marker and wrote the score on the deflated football.

ATL 28

NE 34

OVERTIME

I’m looking at that ball right now. When I pick it up and shake it, I can still hear the BB that started all of this. I don’t know what my son will end up doing with that football. I hope that he keeps it. And whenever he looks at it, I hope that he remembers that things don’t always end the way we want them to end. I really wanted him to be able to look at that ball a few decades from now and remember the time when he and his dad watched the Falcons win the first of their fifteen Super Bowls.

It didn’t work out that way.

I hated seeing the Falcons lose that Super Bowl. I hate that my plan didn’t come together. But maybe one day my son’s kids will ask him why he has the score of Super Bowl LI written on a deflated football and he’ll just smile and say, “Because my dad loves me.”

That would make it all worthwhile for me.

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Playing The Game Like A Child

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When Cam Newton scores a touchdown, does a dance and grins, people like to compliment him by saying that he plays the game like a child. He’s just having fun, they tell us. But when Cam Newton fails to score a touchdown and thus has no reason to dance and grin, it turns out that he still plays the game like a child.

He pouts.

At a press conference after his team’s Super Bowl loss on Sunday night, Cam Newton was visibly upset. That is to be expected. But what should not be expected is his, well, childishness. Cam gave short answers to the questions asked of him by the same media that spent six months praising him and then he just walked away. Right in the middle of the press conference.

I’m not writing to take a shot at Cam Newton. If I was his age and had his talent, money and fame, you can be sure that my behavior would be infinitely worse than anything Cam Newton has ever done. However, Cam’s behavior can serve as a reminder to parents.

We need to do what we can to help our kids win. But we need to do just as much to help them lose.

Parents spend a lot of time driving their kids back and forth to practices, games and even specialized training. We want to see them win. I get that. And kept under control, there’s nothing wrong with it. The struggle that comes with preparing to win can give our kids more than another trophy. It can help mold them into responsible and productive adults.

But that won’t happen if we neglect the other side of winning. Everyone loses. And when our kids lose, we shouldn’t expect them to laugh and do dances. Again, kept under control, not liking to lose is healthy. But like it or not, it’s going to happen. And if parents put all of their attention into the victories, their kids will only be half prepared at best.

I’ve heard parents talk about never letting their kids win anything. They delight in beating their three-year-old in basketball. On the other end of the spectrum are those parents who want their kid to have a trophy for everything he’s ever done. So Billy has five very large trophies from five very below average seasons of baseball. Neither of these approaches are helpful.

Sometimes we need to give our kids a break. Letting your kid win the occasional game of Connect Four doesn’t make you a helicopter parent. He needs to know the joy that comes with winning and he needs to know how to win with grace. But his need to learn how to lose is equally as important. When your kid’s team gets embarrassed, he doesn’t need a trophy to make the pain go away. He needs instruction from you to help the pain make sense.

The next time your kid loses, embrace the opportunity. If his bottom lip pokes out or he starts kicking over coolers in the dugout, have a talk with him. Such behavior will not correct itself. When the Bible tells fathers to train their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord, it does so because it doesn’t come natural for kids. They need a guide, not just a cheerleader, agent or defense attorney.

No matter how much time you devote or money you spend on your child’s athletic endeavors, two things are true. He will lose and, some day, he will quit playing. When those two things happen, he can either respond like a child or like an adult.

How he responds has just as much to say about the way that you trained him as it does about his character.

They always say that sports builds character.

But what they don’t tell you is what kind of character it builds.

Moms and dads, a lot of that depends on you.

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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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A Theology of Losing

We’ve had a rough stretch at our house.

It was looking so good there for a while, like maybe things would be different this time.  And then Andrelton Simmons was called out because of a peculiar interpretation of Major League Baseball’s infield fly rule.  Well, that and the fact that the Braves, like they do every other post season, forgot about the importance of hitting and pitching.

So much for enjoying a Braves World Series win with my sons.

They handle losses differently.  My youngest son always asks who won.  In this case, when I said the Cardinals, he announced his undying support for the Cardinals.  My oldest son takes it hard.  To him, a loss is a personal insult.  I use theology to help him cope.

“Son, even if the Braves lose, Jesus is still Lord.”

The Lordship of Jesus Christ is proclaimed a lot in our house.  This approach seems to be helping but he also likes to look at things from another perspective.

“Yeah, and at least we still have the Georgia Bulldogs to cheer for.”

Fast forward to a cold night in December.  The Georgia Bulldogs were yards away from beating the mighty Alabama Crimson Tide and earning a spot in the national title game.  With no timeouts and just seconds left on the clock, Aaron Murray completed a pass a few feet from the goal line.  As the Bulldogs hurried to the line to run another play, the clock ran out.

Alabama won.

That’s when my youngest son pledged his undying support to the Crimson Tide.

My oldest son wanted to cry.

I wanted to join him.

Instead, I told him that Jesus is still Lord.

“Yeah dad, and at least we still have the Falcons to cheer for.”

Fast forward to a cold Sunday afternoon in January.  The Falcons were down by four points and just a few yards away from the end zone.  A score here would send them to only the second Super Bowl in team history.  On fourth down, with just a minute or so left in the game, a Matt Ryan pass fell harmlessly to the ground, effectively ending the game for the Falcons.

My youngest son then pledged his undying support to the San Francisco 49ers.

My oldest son was upset but not as much as I expected him to be.  He was getting used to losing.  But I still told him that Jesus is Lord.

“Yeah, and dad, we still have the Atlanta Hawks to cheer for.”

He’s got a lot to learn.

It’s a good thing that Jesus will always be Lord.