Walking around the new Giacosa Stadium at Father Ryan High School last week, I felt the excitement of high school football under the Friday night lights. It reminded me of playing football in the Stone Castle for Bristol Tennessee High School.
As a junior transfer from northern Illinois, I quickly learned about the school’s winning traditions. Just two years earlier, the Vikings capped two consecutive undefeated seasons with another AAA state championship.
This team from a small town of 23,000 people rolled over the big city teams in Tennessee and was named the 1972 National Champions of high school football. Really.
But for all the championships and hard work to prepare for a new season, the community knew when to stop for something more important.
We were in the middle of a morning practice and Coach Johnston was pushing us hard on the blocking sleds. “Drive your legs, move it, move it” he bellowed.
Suddenly Head Coach Bingham blew his whistle. “Helmets off,” he told us. Strange, he never stopped practice in the middle of a drill.
All the coaches turned to face Edgemont Avenue, which ran alongside our practice field. My teammates and I removed our helmets and stood silently at attention. We bowed our heads and paid our respects to the hearse and the funeral procession driving by.
On this day I learned that no matter what I am doing on this earth, there’s always time to stop, pray and glorify God.
Coach Grant Taylor learned the same lessons in the inspirational film Facing the Giants.
With six years of losing seasons, his coaching career at Shiloh High School in rural Georgia is at its lowest level. After losing the first three games of the current season, he is close to losing his job and the support of the community.
At home, it isn’t much better. Coach Taylor and his wife struggle to make ends meet and take care of a smelly house, a bad stove and an unreliable car. To make matters worse, their efforts to start a family are unsuccessful, even after four years.
Outside on a walk, Coach Taylor prays: “Lord Jesus, will you help me? I need you Lord. I feel that there are giants of fear and failure just staring at me, waiting to crush me, and I don’t know how to beat ‘em.”
“Be not afraid” was a favorite phrase of Pope John Paul II, which he used many times to inspire the faithful. Referring to the pope’s book “Splendor of Truth,” columnist Larry Kudlow writes that John Paul II taught us to “be not afraid in pursuit of a life of faith. Be not afraid to trust God. Be not afraid to stand for the right values. Be not afraid to be faithful to your spouse, or unselfish to friends, or diligent in work and the many duties of everyday life.”
One day Coach Taylor gets a visit from Mr. Bridges, a man who regularly prays for the students by walking down the halls and touching the lockers. “Coach Taylor, the Lord is not through with you yet.”
He inspires Coach Taylor to create a new purpose for the team, a purpose they can use every day. The coach tells his team “Life is not about us—how we could look good, make money, get glory and then die—it’s about honoring God. Jesus said the best thing you can do with your life is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.
“Football is just one of the tools we use to honor God. If we play our best and we win, we honor him. If we lose, we still honor him. That’s how we’re going to play our games. That’s how we should live our lives.”
The team adopts Coach Taylor’s philosophy and good things start to happen. They overcome their giant emotions of fear and failure and reach the state championship game, where they must play a team of giant players.
Not settling for the satisfaction of just reaching the final game, Coach Taylor implores his team to give it all they have. They must be a stone wall to stop the other team and use their smarts to outwit them.
At the end of the game, with only the slimmest of hopes left to win it, Coach Taylor puts his faith to the test and sends in his young field goal kicker for an impossibly long field goal. He reminds his team to play their best, for in God, “all things are possible.”
He remembers the story of two farmers who prayed to God for rain. Their crops were dry and sorely needed the water. After they finished praying, one farmer sat back and waited to see if the rain would come. The other farmer got up and worked his fields. He pulled weeds, loosened the soil and did everything he could to prepare the ground and his crops for the blessed rain.
Which farmer had more faith in God? Which farmer are you?
First published in the September 5, 2009 issue of The Tennessee Register.
© 2009 Christopher Fenoglio.