Go crazy when something awesome happens for your friend; but be prepared to suffer with others as well. Do it together; with grace and understanding. – Romans 12:15-16a (RSV)
As a part of my education, I attended a pretty small Division III school in the west suburbs of Chicago. While it was in every way a college, some of my classmates and friends attended high schools that had more students. There are lots of reasons students attend the school ranging from the academics, to the music program, or the general attitude and philosophies on campus. I, however, like many of my friends used athletics as a primary reason to attend.
Now, while sports are a pretty big deal there, on the grand scheme of things, they are also put in their place. Teams win conference and regional titles. Even national champions and all Americans are crowned. And yet, every athlete knows that when the last match is played as a senior, it’s time to move on. Have you seen those NCAA commercials? There are such and such number of college athletes…and most of them will be going pro in something else. Well the reality is, all of these student athletes will be going pro in something else. The percentage of athletes to graduate and go on to get paid for their sport is so small it may not even show up in a statistical analysis.
And yet recently there has been one. One recent graduate has found himself playing sports for his job. While the rest of us are throwing on suits and carrying briefcases, he is throwing on football pads and carrying a water bottle. After a dominant campaign in college, he was drafted into the NFL. After a TON of hard work and some opportunities, he found himself in an opening day 53-man roster.
The vast majority of his work was on special teams as he was positioned behind a long time veteran; one with several pro bowls to match his equally impressive Super Bowl rings. And yet, something happened. The veteran got hurt. His knee became a problem, and this student from a small, division III school was going to get his shot. But not just any shot…He was going to get to start against last year’s Super Bowl champion.
On this particular Sunday, I found myself in a bar downtown with a good amount of alumni friends; most of whom had played with this newly named NFL starter. As the game started there was an obvious buzz surrounding our tables and we all clapped as our classmate took the field. He looked big and fast, and most importantly like he belonged. He got in on some tackles and even created an opening to score on a kick off. But then, the unthinkable happened. As a pass came across the field, it was tipped by the opposing team. As it floundered in the air it settled directly into the arms of this one time division III athlete. 70,000 fans in the stadium went nuts; the noise only dimmed by the 17 or so people screaming in a bar outside of Chicago.
The game wore on and this down and out squad were giving the defending champs a battle. But it seemed clear that eventually this game would get out of hand. As the Pro Bowl quarterback marched his team down the field, his team found themselves inside the twenty-yard line, destined to score at least 3 points, and more likely 7. As he dropped back to pass, lineman swarmed in to make a play. As he scrambled outside of the pocket to make a throw, he was off balanced aiming for a teammate in the end zone. As the ball floated toward the middle of the end zone, a different pair of hands snagged it.
I started to stand up…
As I looked around I simply couldn’t believe the number of people in this small church there to celebrate the life of this man. He had died pretty young. And certainly it was unexpected. He played college football and loved to run around with his kids. And yet, as people poured out of the church the reality set in; my friend’s dad was not coming back. I had just sat through his funeral and was still in disbelief that this had happened. He was seemingly a healthy man and this was undoubtidly the furthest thing from his families mind.
Being a doctor, I had seen him for treatments in season and was always laughing as he shared a joke after one of our baseball games. A general jokester, he always had a smile on his face, and usually caused you to have one as well. He loved sports and he loved his kids.
The outside courtyard filled with friends and family, all dressed in black. My friend and his siblings sat nearby on a bench. Although the service was over and people were expected to leave, nobody did. The greeting line time period had passed and yet we sat there. Some cried with the family, others sat and fielded questions of why? And what next? Others just stood and looked kinda silly. It was odd though, no one seemed out of place. My mind drifted actually; back to the first century. I had read that at funerals mourners were usually hired. Most times, they were paid individuals who led the procession of the body. As they wailed above and beyond, it allowed the family to weep without worry, to grieve without embarrassment. In one sense, it seemed like my friend and his family had an entire group of mourners around. Friends and family who without saying such whispered, “It’s ok. Let it out. Don’t feel a shred of embarrassment. We’re here for you. We’re doing this together. All of us are sad.”
As the player headed out of his own end zone we could all see. It was him. The former captain of the ‘little all America’ squad was running for the opposite goal line with his second interception of the day. Every member of our little group was on their feet screaming at the top of their lungs, “GO! Common!” I found myself literally standing on top of a table, yelling at the top of my lungs. It was our friend who was tackled at the 8-yard line and yet we were all hollering and high fiving as if he had just done the same for our small town college. In the days to follow, reports were written and videos shown of this new player. Everyone around town here asked if people had seen it, lifted up their chests when they spoke about it. Everyone was just so happy.
And there seemingly lies the beauty of this community. Re read Paul’s letters; most of them are written to groups. We were never meant to do this alone! We are to exclaim and celebrate greatness as it happens within our walls. And likewise, we are to bear each other’s struggles, to be there for each other, to enter into their sufferings as Christ did ours. As we enter the Christmas season, hopefully this reminds you of the amazing humanity of Jesus. That he might literally ‘put on flesh and dwell among us,’ is the greatest example of entering in we can imagine. May you be blessed and you recall the best community rejoicing in the history of mankind.