Merry CHRISTmas! God and Football: A Reading List to Consider

Last week I shared a reflective moment about our season. It led me to ponder on the relationship between football and God. In the last week, I have read a series of books I would never have read in the past despite my interest in the game. I thought that this grouping would help me to understand how the correlation is so strong. Each of them deal with the aspect of football and the notion of faith in their own way. Conversely, each of them are also Christian based. This both bothers me and intrigues me.  I’m a tolerant person. So much so that I hate the word tolerant due to the connotation that to embrace and accept someone of some difference requires acceptance of uncomfortable force.  I would say that I am accepting but that may suggest that I have loose convictions, which I do not.  I would also say that I am open-minded without suggesting that I do not keep to narrow paths in my own life. In the end, I love people. I don’t just love people who are just like me. I don’t love people who worship the same as me. I don’t only love other football fans or other coaches wives or others who embrace and consume my lifestyle as truth.

My husband, Charlie, coaches the offensive line. This year, I began a tradition that I have longed to do since he first started coaching, victory dinners. Every two wins, I cook for the boys on a Monday night and we watch a little Monday night football or film together and discuss life and goals and stuff. The meal has found its way to being chicken and dumplings. The boys can blow through five crockpots if we let them, and we normally do. All in all its fellowship. Thomas Foster, English professor at the University of Michigan – Flint, wrote a book titled How to Read Literature like a Professor and he writes “anytime someone shares a meal, it’s communion.” He would say that this is an act of communion. He would be right. We fellowship with the boys. We pray before the meal. However, there is one player – I will call Bob – who isn’t Christian. He is not without faith. He is Hindu and I make him mushroom dumplings as part of his faith keeps him from consuming meat. One evening, I noticed that he gathered hands and bowed his head during prayer with us. I later approached him and let him know in private that he would not offend anyone in the home if he did not participate in that portion of the evening, or had another blessing ritual for food. His response, “Aw, thank you so much. But really Mrs Coker, the boys would ask questions. I will be okay. Standing there with my head down holding someone’s hand doesn’t get me in trouble.” How easy it must be to be a Christian in football. How deep must your faith be to choose another path. Bob really made me reflect on the depth of my faith in a world without challenges to it.  These books that I share with you today also caused me to consider a few things about religion, ritual, sport, family and belief.

In my first post on the coach’s wife, ideology, and privilege, I commented pretty heavily on Carolyn Allen’s book The Coach’s Wife as it represented ideological privilege that was explored in Louis Althusser’s theory and Shannon Sullivan’s book on whiteness. While the book situated itself well in that triangulation, it probably is better represented as a book on biblical marriage for the coaching/coach’s wife. In her book, she begins her chapter on faith with a statement about prayer:

“Nearly every wife who responded to my survey wrote about her faith and how it has been impacted by the profession. They told of the uncertainties of a job that’s dependent on performance, even th moods, of players, the firings and the hirings and all the relocations. Their conclusion: prayer. they turn to the One they believe is there to help them” (Allen, C 141).

In the quest for this post, I was excited to see that she used the “One” here to represent who I know for her is the Christian God that I also believe to be the One. I was wondering if the chapter would reveal for me the voice of a coach’s wife that believed in another form or variation of that God, one that I was not familiar with as a Christian believer. I was disappointed that none of the wives who responded to the survey mentioned a different religion. That is okay, I suppose. The rest of her chapter pointed to things like FCA, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Coaches Outreach, a Christian based ministry through coaches and their wives. I love both of these organizations. Charlie and I attend CO conference every summer and reset our focus on each other, our faith, our mission and our family. They are so beneficial. They are all Christian based.

I was interested to see how her book fit into the ideas in the partner book by her husband, Randy Allen, on coaching. His book, Coaching by the Book, has been a go-to guide for young coaches entering the profession. It is composed of 14 chapters. His first chapter covers the 2005 state championship battle between Highland Park and Marshall in Tyler, Texas. He went through the game and how the town reacted and what that game meant to his career. The second chapter focuses in on his faith and his mission. Allen writes, “a coach who feels called to his profession lives within a framework of priorities. He puts God first, his family second, his players third and himself last. He sees the bigger picture and the undeniable bottom line – Coaching means more than winning” (Allen, R 25). However, this statement comes right after a whole chapter about his state championship. During that chapter, he praised the character of players like Matthew Stafford and told of involvement from his community from people like Neal Jeffrey, former Baylor All-Southwest Conference quarterback who led the optional chapel the morning of the game. He embedded God in his program but also hooked readers with the story of the state championship win before talking openly and bluntly about faith. From this point to the end of the book, he explicitly describes how his faith impacts his relationships with players, coaches, community, character, marriage, children and dream. It is a narrative construction that I find in the books by Bobby Bowden, Art Briles, Tony Dungy, and Chad Gibbs.

Bobby Bowden, retired Florida State University Head Coach, titled his book Called to Coach: Reflections on LIfe, Faith, and Football. His first chapter opens with an explanation of his morning scripture reading, his prayer time with his wife, his blessings as a father, grandfather, and then a coach. He writes that “God also blessed [him] with the wonderful career He chose for [him]” (Bowden, 1). However, on this morning he wakes up for the first time in 48 years NOT being the head coach of a college football team. Bowden starts his book with a purpose to spread God’s word and to make sure that he retells stories of his trials and tribulations as a head coach, the decision to leave and the way that his faith in God led him through the years. He remains humbly focused on his faith throughout the book.

As a wife of a faithful coach, Bobby Bowden’s book seems more accessible to me than Randy Allen’s book does when I read it. There is an uninhibited voice in Bowden’s narrative that speaks deeper and more authentic that I found in Allen’s words. I know why this is there for me. Randy Allen wrote his book while still in the role of head coach at Highland Park High School. As much as our circumstances would seem to be far from that of Booby Bowden as the face of a major college program, they were not. Highland Park is nothing like any town or team my family has been a part of during his career. We have never been a part of a community with the resources you find in Highland Park, Texas. For this reason, it is often hard for me to connect with what I read to be the ‘politics’ in Randy and Carolyn’s books. Undeniably, the pressure of their community is great and the more high-profile a place understands itself to be, the higher the expectations. Bowden’s book seems to be more of a handbook to life than a handbook to career choices. This is expected. One man writes in the middle of his career during a high point where others are looking for directions and guidance in their own career. The other writes at the end of his career in reflection on what guides him in his retirement as well as his previous years. Both of them use football as a vehicle to represent God’s place in their life.

Bobby Bowden’s book opens with a foreword from Tony Dungy, who enters the conversation on faith in the football life with his series of books about being Uncommon. Of all the books I read this week, his was by far the most nonfootball book of the bunch. Unlike the other men, Coach Dungy works through bible verses and the life of Christ as a way of living as an extension of belief and faith. He rarely uses football as an example of glory. Rather, he uses times from his life and his marriage to exemplify the way God has worked in his life. Dungy’s approach is more holistic and about life outside of football. I suppose in this way, it is uncommon among the reading list here. His choice to write about faith, in spite of football, rather than inside of football does set him apart from the bunch. Perhaps also this leads me back to another coach who keeps from sugar-coating the role of the coach: Art Briles.

In Art Briles’ book, Beating Goliath: My Story of Football and Faith, he tells about the loss of his parents in a car accident, his struggle to understand the path God placed him on and ultimately how his purpose seemed to be that of a rebuilder. He found that he often found himself in communities and programs that needed a new purpose, new focus or new approach to find success. As a read, I can’t help but think that this is the man who leads BAYLOR football. How in the world can he remain so matter of fact and blunt about things? Isn’t he worried about the political backlash? Almost as soon as I think of this, I read page 178 where Coach Briles writes, “As much as I am a strong believer in my faith, I don’t see my role as being an orator of that faith. I’m here to coach and the way I use my faith is by example. I want to show the young men the right way to do things and be an example of how you should treat people and live your life.” YEEEESSSS! I get that! I get that faith is such a part of this football life that you just want to live it, not preach it. I think Bob would like it too. Just a guy who wants to do things right, treat people with respect, love, and encouragement as a reflection of what you learn in your faith. Interestingly, Art Briles is the face of Baylor University, the face of “Southern Baptist” living in Texas football. However, he reminds readers “the way I conduct myself on the sideline is not because I’m at Baylor. That’s based on my standards” (Briles 179).

This brings me back to Bob, the lineman who bows his head at prayer time in our home, and how worship seems to be more about the heart than the action. It also reminds me of Chad Gibbs’ opening words in his book, “Welcome to the American South, where God and football scrimmage daily for the people’ hearts and minds” (11). If there was ever an enjoyable read about the dynamics of faith in football it his humorous take on the subject. One that I think for everyone, from the most faithful to the lost (I kind of hate the connotations of that word too), will find an interesting story about the collision of God and sport. One thing I know to be true and have experienced – though not in the current community we live – is the actual meshing of God and football. A telling part of his book starts with first chapter that I will share here:

“So we’ve established that God and football are both pretty big down here, but which is bigger? Well, I’ve got a theory. When you attend church here, you will almost certainly hear people talking about football. Worshippers will gather before the service and discuss in reverent tones what went right and wrong the day before. The pastor will usually reference Saturday’s happenings by either praising a team’s win or mourning its loss, while oftentimes a playful dig at the misfortunes of a rival school. Churches sometimes encourage this blending of faith and fanaticism with “wear your team’s colors’ day or by having viewing parties for big games – with halftime testimonies, naturally. Conversely, God doesn’t get a lot of play in SEC stadiums, unless a player injures his neck or your team is lining up for a last-second field goal” ( Gibbs 13-14).

**edit: my preacher used our local football hero to make a point in sermon the Sunday morning after this post was published. Interesting, yes?***

It was this book, that really brought me back to thinking about Bob. He is probably very alone in his world juxtaposed to the family and brotherhood of football. Bob is a huge part of our family and I think of him often. I make sure to personally invite him to the dinners and to make sure that his dietary needs are met. I speak with him about his religious practices so I do not offend or interfere with his practice. Yet, when I am at school and I walk through the cafeteria after athletics, I notice him eating alone. Many times he is behind the pack leaving the field house. I have never heard a player speak ill of Bob and believe me that I have had to correct them about talking ill of people. He is, by all accounts part of the team. Yet he is still misunderstood. I suppose the only way to understand him is to love him where he is and to embrace him. I am envious of his calm and shining spirit. Bob is ridiculously grounded and such a gentle soul. I am blessed to be able to know him and I thank God for him everyday. Interestingly, I have no desire to change him nor do I feel convicted to do so. However, I do hope that treating him with respect and love will show him that Christ guides me and our home. I can’t preach; it’s not me. But we can, like Art Briles, lead by example.

As we share the holiday with our family, many of us will also celebrate the birth of Jesus. My hope is that as we open presents we remember that love heals all and that football builds family. Most of all, I believe that many things in the world are provided as ways to knowing and influencing people for good. Football is one way, God is another. Together they seem to build nations. I just hope that any way that I work in that world will be guided by desires that are not mine, but are desired for me. I just hope that men who lead teams and pray with them represent the love of Christ in the best way they can while also helping to find growth themselves.

Merry Christmas y’all!!

Moorea Coker teaches AP Literature and adjuncts at a Junior college in Texas. Follow her on Twitter @polypel88 or reach her by email: mooreacoker@gmail.com

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