7 Ways Football Discipled Me

I had the privilege of playing varsity football for the Climax-Scotts Panthers in high school under the leadership of Kevin Langs. Five years before I started on varsity, we didn’t have enough players to complete a football season, four years before our record was 0-9, but the year I graduated things looked a bit different. The 2004 Panthers averaged 45.1 points a game (the twelfth highest record in state history), went a perfect 14-0, and took home our school’s first State Title in history by defeating our opponents 42-8. In the final game we accumulated zero penalties and zero fumbles.

The turnaround for our small town football program wasn’t something in the water and certainly wasn’t one bubble of talented teens (from 2005 – 2015 the CS record is a cumulative 109-16). So what was it? If you take a look at the history of the program you’ll see that Coach Langs came into the picture in 1999, and along with him an entirely different set of values. In his own words, “We march to the beat of a different drum.”

I couldn’t have told you then, but since becoming a pastor I have realized the values Coach implemented were discipleship values–things that help conform our lives to be more like the life Jesus lived.

So here are seven ways I was formed spiritually without even knowing it–seven ways football discipled me.

1. Those who have more, give more.

My guess is that in most high schools the freshman pick up after practice. There are pads, dummies, water bottles, and other equipment that needs to be put away. But not at CS.

“Those who have more, give more.”

That often meant the seniors, and of course anyone else willing to pitch in. There was never a sense of entitlement–no room for the abuse of positional authority. Instead, the higher the status you achieved, be that age, popularity, or talent–the more responsibility you gained.

Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
Luke 12:48 ESV

2. Even if you didn’t make the mistake, you can learn from it.

This is an obscure lesson, and one easy to miss. There were many times during offensive drills that a play would fall apart and whoever had the ball would get smoked. When that happened, somebody needed to be held responsible so we could learn and get better. More times than I can count, I would get chewed out by a coach for not having taken the right steps, even though I knew I did. 

When you are faced with being corrected for something you don’t need correcting on, what do you do? Most would speak up nice and loud saying “Actually, you’re wrong. I did do it correctly.” It’s a pride thing. But at the end of the day, what did that gain you? It will probably frustrate the superior, make you feel awkward, and raise up a defiant, frustrated spirit inside you. 

Here is the alternative: Take false correction as a free reminder. I will think about my footing next time I line up to play and all will be well. 

Whoever ignores instruction despises himself, but he who listens to reproof gains intelligence.
Proverbs 15:32 ESV

3. Yes sir, no sir, or nothing at all.

When you are under authority, you have no need to talk back. We often want to explain how we are right and others are wrong, about how stupid a leadership decision is, or just mumble a few words under our breath about a superior.

But this does nothing but put strain between you and those placed over you. On our team we had a saying “Yes sir, no sir, or nothing at all.” Was that frustrating for a seventeen-year old guy? You better believe it, but in the long run it made everything more efficient.
Listen, leaders are going to make mistakes, leaders are going to have bad attitudes, and sometimes you are going to have a better idea, or a better way of implementing an idea. But by circumventing leadership, you do injustice to your team as a whole for the sake of raising yourself up in your own eyes.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.
Romans 13:1 ESV

Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.
Matthew 5:37 ESV

4. Coaches do bear crawls.

One of the most powerful lessons I ever learned was that the most powerful must be the most humble. When we were in trouble for something we were punished with bear crawls–running like an animal on all-fours for the length of a football field each time. I would imagine most coaches sitting on the back of the tailgate, sipping some Gatorade yelling “Keep it up boys!” But that wasn’t Coach Langs’ way.

Instead, as I was feeling the lactic acid build up in my triceps and hamstrings I would look over and see coach on the ground bear crawling with us. Coach didn’t consider his authority as a ticket to comfort, but a ticket to sacrifice. Let’s be honest, how do you not want to give your all for a leader like that?

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Philippians 2:5-8 ESV

5. We have a lot of love at the end of practice.

If we were doing a lot of side-talking, goofing off, or purposefully-slacking, coach would simply say “Men, you’ve earned yourselves some extra love at the end of practice.” Those new to CS would scratch their heads and wonder what love had to do with football–but the rest of us knew it meant discipline. It sort of kept things in perspective for us, remembering that coach wasn’t punishing us out of pettiness or personal issues, but for our good.

My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
Proverbs 3:11-12 ESV

6. This cannot be the highlight of your life.

After we won the state championship in the Silverdome we went back to the locker room where any number of hall-of-famers and NFL-greats had passed through (It was the Visiting Locker Room… no offense to the Lions!) and huddled up. Coach had us bring it in tight, with him at the center so we could all hear him clearly.

“Listen”, he said with a pause, “This cannot be the highlight of your life. You cannot hang on to this moment as the one great thing you ever accomplished. You need to leave this place and become great men in all aspects of life… Now with that said, This is pretty cool isn’t it?”

I think most people walk through life without much hope. Because of that, any time something good happens–whether a nice girl or guy comes along, you win a state title, your kid lands a big job, or you meet a celebrity–you hang on to that feeling of significance for dear life. But what coach was asking us to do was to let go of the moment as if it would be our only moment of purpose and accomplishment. He wanted us to hope for even greater things for the future.

But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:13-14 ESV

7. Will your program be successful this year?

A newspaper reporter once asked coach “Will your program be successful this year?” to which he replied “I’ll let you know in fifteen years, when these young men are good doctors, good lawyers, good husbands, and fathers.” You might need to read that again.

You see, the purpose of many football programs is to win games. But the purpose of the CS program is to build young men (and sometimes women) of great character. This really begs the question for many organizations, and maybe your personal life, “What is the true purpose?” 

I know this has been powerful in my ministry as a pastor because for many ministers a growing attendance or growing offering is the measure of success–“winning football games”. But Jesus called us to make disciples who 1) Follow Him, 2) Become like Him, and 3) Make more disciples who follow Him, etc.

Will my church be successful this year? I’ll let you know in fifteen years when these people know God, make Him known, and have “spiritual children” of their own. 

The scripture below illustrates this principle because we often measure success by how much salt we have, but instead Jesus calls us to measure success by how “salty” our salt is.

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.
Matthew 5:13 ESV

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