Wednesday, April 23, 2014

When Football is More than Just Football

Adam and I might be the least likely couple to start any sort of sports program. It has certainly never been a part of the plan. I mean, I suppose Adam is athletic enough in lots of ways – from scrambling to the tops of trees and rafting down rivers, to launching the football and slamming a tennis ball. But I personally loathe most forms of physical activity if I’m honest. My sports knowledge mainly begins and ends with my forays into a love for college football born and nurtured in the rich soil of four years at the University of Georgia.

And yet, here we find ourselves; not only coaching sports teams, but also starting an entire football league comprised of four teams from our neighborhood and a few surrounding ones. Which, of course, only increases in un-likelihood when you consider our decided lack of organizational prowess and follow-through gumption. Still, here we are. And truthfully, I cannot take responsibility for the whole endeavor, since I found myself decidedly on the now-might-be-too-soon side of the fence. But Adam prayed and persisted, and so we find ourselves spending Wednesday evenings in the park while the boys yell and pull flags and my own children run themselves ragged on the sidelines and on the playground.

When we first moved into our neighborhood nearly three years ago, we brought a commitment to not starting anything until we had lived here for at least six months. We wanted to get to know our neighbors, to introduce ourselves, to spend time in the park, to learn who they were and what they valued and cared about, and what they needed. And we had to do that separately from any agenda involving “fixing” the things that we determined were broken. I thought about my own life and emotions, and how it might feel if someone I had just met offered to help me parent or budget, when what I really needed was someone to be a friend, or possibly clean my house (obviously). And so Adam bought chickens, and we ate popsicles on the front porch. We planted a garden and built a fence that was anti-privacy. We exchanged favorite movies with the teenagers who lived behind us, and pushed our children on the swings. We walked around the block, baked cookies, and played games.

And when a boy we had befriended got shot, we visited him the hospital. And then his friends asked Adam if he could start something to keep them out of trouble. To which we answered, of course. And so football began. And then they begged for basketball, and we begged for help coaching a sport we know nothing about. And then there were basketball teams that spilled into three whole rosters full of teenage boys eager to play and practice and eat-all-of-the-things. And again and again I am staggered to discover the power of belonging. Because every time I really listen to these boys, I hear their hearts and a desperate longing for a piece of something worthwhile. To be on a team, to be part of a family, to belong. And sometimes this manifests itself in gangs, in getting caught up in the wrong crowd or following in footsteps that lead down dangerous paths. But at the heart of it all lies an innate need for community, for belonging, for a place to call home. I know this has to be true, because it’s the “worst” boys, the ones who find themselves in the most trouble and occasionally call their coach to pick them up from jail so they don’t miss the game; these very boys lean hard into the most commitment. They show up for every single practice, and I find them on my front porch hours before game-time making sure they wont be late.
And now they can play in their own neighborhood park. Their mom and siblings and cousins can come watch and cheer. The younger kids drink all their water and beg to play too. I grin at them, snap a picture, and promise we will try for next year. The sun shines bright, softening and sinking over the trees, and folks from different churches and neighborhoods gather and laugh, while older brothers help keep score and referee. We feed them all and I chase my kids around, meeting new friends and laughing with the other coaches’ wives. The boys’ uncles and friends cluster and ask when they can play too. I pick Ashton up from work so he will be in time for the game, and bring an extra pair of shoes for the boy who plays barefoot.So I suppose the whole football thing makes a lot more sense as something we wax passionate and poetic about when we recognize it cannot only be about the sport. Because it’s actually about the heart. About a place to belong and a place to play safe. To laugh and connect and build community. To change stereotypes. To bring wholeness and unity to a slowly gentrifying community, even in the smallest of ways. To make friends and bridge gaps. To see Jesus in the midst of it all, because rest assured He has been there all along. We just need the eyes to see Him.


  1. man.
    i totally love what y'all do and the heart from which everything is birthed.

  2. I love how you became integrated into the neighborhood and when the timing was right God moved through you. The pictures of you all actually being His hands and feet among these boys brings tears - and joy.

  3. I love how you minister : )

    Now, if I may, also be on the lookout for kids that don't play sports.

    I work with so many that have been absolutely changed because of sport programs. I LOVE IT! I work with others who are not into sports. They are so special too. Often they are forgotten. I was just trying to help a little boy (well, 15 isn't so little I suppose) think of a summer plan when he is not into sports in the least. We found an awesome arts program that would be right up his alley, but it is $1,400 and I am sure you can believe our camp budget for kids is $60. I told him I will help pay for this program myself if we can't find anything else. It does make me sad to see kids that are not into sports forgotten from time to time.

    1. I totally agree :-) we pay a couple of the art-loving kids to video and photograph the games for us -- also a few boys ref, some keep statistics and help in other ways too :-) we do our best to include them all!!


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