Friday, September 4, 2009

Down But Not Out

"We are knocked down, but we are not knocked out." (I Cor. 4:9, NIrV)

My son Noah joined the football team in middle school this year. Not because he wanted to play football, but because the school he attends is an academic magnet school and requires that each student play a sport when they enter the 7th grade.

Let me say this about my son - he is above all a great kid and he has a really big and tender heart. Noah loves to laugh, he loves to learn, and he loves to play. But he has never expressed any desire to play any sport whatsoever, at any level. His older sister Hannah played youth soccer, youth basketball, ran track, and even was a cheerleader for a year. Noah was never interested in playing, though he was involved in martial arts for a while. And were it not for the school's requirement, I doubt he would be on the football team. While very competitive at say video games, Noah is not particularly athletic (like his father) nor is he particularly aggressive (unlike his father). Having played football myself at his age, I knew how demanding it was and wondered if he would finally raise the white flag and try something else.

The season began with a week of football camp, where the players learned the fundamentals. I was out of town the week camp began but anxiously called home every afternoon to find out how Noah had done in camp. On the phone he excitedly told me all that he had learned for the day. "I really like football," he said. I was thankful for his enthusiasm but wondered how he would handle it when he put the pads and helmet on and it wasn't long before I found out.

The coach scheduled a play date with another middle school, where the team could get some experience blocking, tackling, and running plays. I ended up taking that day off and accompanying Noah to his first experience of what the games would be like. His team at that point consisted of 14 7th and 8th graders, about half of whom like Noah had never played football before. As the other team took the field that day I started to count how many players they had and I stopped counting at 50. My heart sank as I looked at those boys, most of whom were much taller and heavier than Noah or anyone else on our side.

Noah ended up in a group that was practicing offensive and defensive line drills, 5 on 5. Because the other team had so many players, they would rotate players in and out. Our 5, which included Noah, stayed in for the entire drill. Over and over again they would line up to practice blocking or tackling. Each time the player opposite Noah was always taller or heavier or both. Again and again Noah ended up getting knocked flat on his back with the larger kid on top of him. To his credit, Noah kept getting up, kept lining up for the drill again though he soon learned he was going to end up on the ground again. As a parent it was difficult to watch, especially as it continued to happen.

After enduring a few hours of this punishment, Noah finally asked the coach if he could sit out for a while. From far across the field I could see my son with his helmet off, holding a cool bottle of water against his face trying to fight the effects of the summer's heat. I hoped he was OK - physically of course - but also concerned about his spirit and how he was going to process this experience. Mercifully the time of 'play' finally ended, we loaded his gear up in the back of the car, and began the long drive back home.

Unsure of what exactly to say to him, I asked him how he felt he had done. Noah said, "Those guys were huge! I kept getting pounded over and over again! This is really hard!" Thinking he was on the brink of giving up being a part of the football team and also trying to be encouraging, all I could muster in response was, "I thought you did really well. Every time you got knocked down you got right back up again. Yes, they were bigger, but remember the story of David and Goliath?" Noah looked out the window silently, certainly not in the mood for any biblical examples from Dad the pastor. I thought to myself silently that his football career was going to end today. I finally took a deep breath and said to him, "If you really want to give up being on the football team, it is OK, that is your decision to make. But I am afraid if you do quit now, you might regret it someday and wish you had not." I emphasized that he should give it a few more weeks, maybe see how the first game went, before he made his choice. Later that day Noah told his mother that he would keep going and see how the first game went.

Amazingly his team - which won their first and only game in four years of play last season - held on to win their first game of the season 28 - 26. It was one of the most exciting football games I believe I ever got to watch! Noah did not play much but when he did, he again often ended up knocked to the ground by a larger player. And he always got back up and however reluctantly, always went out and lined up for the next play.

Many of Noah's teammates are better at football than he. Some because they are larger, some because they are more athletic, and some just have a whole lot more experience playing football than he does. Despite his frustrations, Noah has not quit. While there may be more accomplished players on his team, I'm not sure there are any who have more courage and perseverance than he has displayed over the past few weeks.

Noah's perseverance and determination inspire me. In my work as a pastor and in my own walk with Christ, there have been many times that something has knocked me down. And more than a few of those times I wanted to just lie there on the ground - weary, hurt, and depressed - and give it all up, to quit the 'team' and even quit the 'sport'. In II Corinthians Paul writes that while we might get knocked down, we are NEVER knocked out. Watching Noah has reminded me how important perseverance is. It is not a sin to get knocked down - or even to fall down - but it is critical that we keep getting back up.

How thankful am I for my son - the reluctant athlete - who has reminded me that what's most important - not that we are knocked down, but that we keep getting back up. Thanks be to God for the lessons that #70 of the Merrol Hyde Hawks has taught his father!

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