I Need Another Linebacker
By JIM NICHOLS
This is not really a sports story, although a sports comment was the stimulus for it.
As I am writing this, it is the college football “bowl season.” Teams have played their regular season games and the supposedly best teams now have a bonus game, a bowl game. When I was younger, there were just a few of these games and they were all played on New Year’s Day; it was an exciting day for a youth who liked to watch football, but not play it. Today, the number of bowl games is well over forty and they have unpredictable commercial names according to the sponsors of the game. For football fans, the bowl season has been significantly lengthened although diminished in importance.
My first experience with a major college football game occurred in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when I was a graduate student at the University of Michigan. We had season tickets on the 50-yard line, thanks to my wife’s friendship with a fellow teacher who was married to the team’s last year’s captain (a Rose Bowl team). The stadium held 100,000 fans and we were two of them. Sometimes it snowed so hard during the game we had trouble seeing the field. More than once, we were so cold when we returned to our apartment after an afternoon game that we got in bed and held on to one another.
Subsequently, we moved to the University of Missouri and encountered, first-hand, football coach Dan Devine. Besides having a wonderful name, I was prepared by my father (a Missouri graduate) about what an unusual coach Devine was. My father lauded Devine for being able to get generally regular players to perform in exceptional ways. I saw and heard for myself during our years there.
Besides attending the games, Devine and I had a regular Saturday night meeting on a local radio station; I listened while he was interviewed. By that time, the game had been over for several hours, and this program was the “coaches summary and comment” time; it was unlike any coach presentation I had heard or have heard; it was incredibly honest. Every Saturday evening, I encountered someone who spoke carefully about not only football X’s and O’s, but also what was occurring to him about the people involved during the game. He commented on individual players with accuracy, kindness, and concern; he also reflected on decisions he and the other coaches had made. Listening to him those evenings became part of my education as a young man.
I particularly remember one evening when, I think, Missouri had lost because of some poor defensive plays on their part. The interviewer was pushing the coach some, searching, I think, for the coach to blame someone. This was before professional football had become popular as it is now; college football was the best game fans could find.
This is what I remember Dan Devine saying to the interviewer: “There is no doubt that our defense today was not very good. The truth is that we need another linebacker or two plus a couple of big linemen. But, you know, I play with the players I have. If I were an NFL coach, I could ask my owners to go get me some linebackers, but I use the young men I have. They are fine players.”
These are the “Devine” words I heard: “You don’t always have a choice as to how to accomplish your goals. You have been given a remarkable set of gifts as well as a background of people who loved you. You currently have a whole set of people who not only love you but will support you whatever your performance in the eyes of strangers (fans). There are no substitutes for you waiting on the sidelines.”
Dan Devine (despite his name) did not speak about God, but I heard God’s message. You and I sometimes are working essentially by ourselves, but, often, we are working with others—on some sort of team. As I look around at my “teammates” in my job, church, class, or any other group, it is helpful to tell myself to play with the players I have. It is a simple sports analogy, but a necessary one as someone trying to be God’s person.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current hospice chaplain