On Monday, I made a trip to my hometown to visit my family. As with most of my family gatherings, we each took turns going back down memory lane. For some reason, this experience brought back a memory of my first time playing an organized sport on the football team of my elementary school. We were the Purple Panthers. Though at the time it made sense, none of us ever gave a second thought of how silly a purple panther looked. I guess anything makes sense to you as a child.
I went to the practices and immediately began to hero-worship the older players who were legends of the neighborhood. There was Jimmy, the great quarterback, Stevie, the lighting quick, scat-back, and who could forget Jason, the left-handed All-American preppy kid who was untouchable in the eyes of the coaches.
As you might imagine from the stiff competition ahead of me, I didn’t stand a chance of playing. So I sat on the bench for most of the season. I loved football and fortunately for me, I made the team and Daddy was proud of me. But I didn’t have the heart to tell him that everyone made tryouts since the coach decided at the last minute to change his plan and not to cut anyone. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this was my first experience of everyone gets a trophy! I didn’t tell Daddy about it since I figured it would destroy the one moment where I received affirmation from my Daddy.
When it came time to pick out our numbers for our jerseys, I decided on number 33, in honor of my favorite player: Tony Dorsett. I had followed Dorsett's career from winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Pittsburgh to his Super Bowl-winning performance with the Dallas Cowboys. Every year following this, while playing football, I chose a number after a professional football player, hoping that by wearing his number, that somehow I would inherit his football talent. Ok, so it was wishful thinking, but at the time, it seemed like a good idea— mainly through a 5th grader's eyes.
I understood that since there were twenty-five 9-10-year-old boys on the team, everyone wasn't going to play. I also realized that the coaches’ sons had to get their playing time—even though deep down inside of me, I knew that this wasn’t fair. I was the youngest and the shortest player (4’9’’) on the team.
I spent most practices in the back of the playing field away from the action watching the so-called superstars perform. Every day after practice the stars of the team would brag about how dirty their practice uniforms were and laugh at me because my outfit was squeaky clean. So when I thought that no one was looking, I would pretend I was running after a play and accidentally fall in the dirt to get my uniform dirty so that it looked like I was in an actual game. I did this so much in practice that I got good at falling.
One week one of our star players became sick and was absent from practice. To my surprise, the coach asked me to fill his position. I was thrilled. I went home to begin practicing this position (and stopped my falling routine). I believed that I was finally getting off of the bench to get my uniform dirty—the official way. I was wrong. On game day, just minutes before the game, our star player showed up. I can still see him jumping out of that 1978 Chevrolet station wagon. When the coach saw him, he immediately turned to me to say he would not need me to play. I was devastated. I had hoped to play in the game only to find myself fighting back the tears at the end of the bench.
That’s when my friend Junior came to my aid. He was a star on the team. The coaches nicknamed him "Willie" in honor of the Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Willie Stargell, since he was the best baseball player in the school. Junior could also play football. He played defensive back, and there wasn't a runner in the school who could get passed him. Junior decided to fake an injury and sit beside me during the remainder of the game. I never did play in a game that year. In fact, I didn't get to play much until my ninth grade year of high school.
Sitting near the end of the bench taught me two critical lessons that would help me later in life: misery loves company, and true friendship helps to relieve pain. I discovered that it’s good to have a friend when the chips are down. It’s good to have a shoulder to cry on and a listening ear to share your hurt.
I'm glad that Junior cared. I'm also delighted that we all have a FRIEND IN A HIGH PLACE that will never leave us or forsake us, even when we are sitting near the end of "the bench of life." I hope that during your disappointing times, you experience that true friendship helps to relieve pain. I hope that you befriend someone when the chips are down.
On the Journey,
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