THE NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Sitting across the big empty harvest table from each other, one of us says over breakfast, “Do you want to go?” And the other one says, “Let’s do it.” The Virginia Cavaliers were playing in the NCAA Championship for the first time in school history and our connection to the University runs deep. Two generations to be precise.
The last time the Hoo’s played in the Final Four my husband was a 3rd year student there. This time we have two sons at UVA – the oldest graduates this May and the youngest is in his first year. After the Elite Eight win, my boys immediately bought student tickets to the Final Four game in Minneapolis, Minnnesota, leaving my husband and I feeling even more abandoned in our empty nest.
So when the Hoos won the Final four, earning them (and my boys) tickets to the NCAA Championship game, my husband and I decided to do the next best thing and make the 2 hour drive to Charlottesville to watch the game with 14,000 of our closest friends. “Really?,” my husband searched my eyes, “we won’t get home until 2am on a weekday…”
While our Runaway Bunnies were at the Real Deal in Minneapolis, 1148 miles away, we got as close to them as our middle age lives would allow. Team Welch got up, put the dishes in the dishwasher, folded the laundry, walked the dog and made the age appropriate trip to watch the National Championship Game on the big screen at the UVA basketball arena.
I see how sports can be like a religion for some. It’s not overstating it to say that sitting in that arena was like a spiritual experience. The story playing out in front of us transcended basketball and everyone knew it. After last year’s historic loss and epic end to the season, this year’s game represented something far larger than what it appeared to be. Redemption. We felt it and gratefully accepted and participated in it. Just sitting in the stadium was a sweet reprieve from the madness that is not limited to March.
Maybe I’ve been to one too many youth rallies but it reminded me of Mass. No joke. Sitting in the darkness, the light from cell phones across the arena danced in choreographed unison across the black chasm that separated us from one another. The sight compelled me to pull out my phone and return the light in synch with the strangers (new family) that surrounded me.
I was reminded of the Responsorial Psalm at Mass. God’s Word, the Light of the World, reaches me from heaven and I join in the celebration. Returning the refrain, I am caught between the kiss of heaven and earth. For a few fleeting moments, I am one with the angels and Saints on cloud nine while simultaneously sitting in uncomfortable seats with my brothers and sisters on earth; and all is well with the world.
Similarly, every Sabbath I have a free pass to enter the eternal dance, seeking out signs that I am participating in something more than meets the eye. It is here that I will feast on a Divinity that promises get me through whatever the week will bring. How do people do it without this kind of weekly nourishment?
NOW BACK TO THE GAME
That’s what we all felt at the stadium. Connected. To something transcendent. To one another. There were rituals and prescribed colors. We responded to the action by lifting our voices, repeating refrains. There was a spirit of unity in the midst of an undeniable diversity. We were strangers all on the same team, in an epic struggle against our adversary--which Kyle Guy (UVA guard) will tell you is really nothing more than the enemy within, after all.
There were experts leading the way. People clothed in authority…referees we love to complain about, coaches we look up to for guidance, and players gifted with special graces. We marveled at the young men, “made little less than a god.” Ps 8:6. Human beings who appeared to defy gravity and soar through the air in front of us. Even on the Jumbotron we could tell that these were men who had sacrificed much, disciplined their minds, their bodies, and their wills. It was admirable to behold.
Spectators in stadium seats were caught up in the action. We jumped up together with joyous jubilation, bowed our heads and buried our faces in our hands in lamentation, and occasionally were all but brought to our knees. Yes, this is how Mass is meant to be experienced. Imagine being in a worship experience like that.
I once had the pleasure of sitting next to an adult at her very first Mass. “Well, “ I asked her afterward, “what did you think?” She looked pleasantly perplexed as she searched for the words to describe what she had just witnessed, “It was…like…a beautiful drama...” How I longed to see the Mass with her fresh eyes.
REDEMPTION -- FROM WORST TO FIRST
It was that kind of season, reaching its climax in a heart stopping game that ended, yet again, exultantly in overtime. A beautiful drama unfolded before us. It was the end of an unbelievable run for victory, a true tale of resiliency and redemption.
There is already talk of a book and a movie. “Hollywood couldn’t script it any better,“ many are saying, while wondering aloud which famous actors will best portray the cast of characters. Who won last night?” one morning show news anchor asked the other, “America did,” came the reply.
Sitting in the stadium we wanted to believe that it would end well for us, we were invested in the outcome, but there was a very real doubt that such an incredible comeback could actually happen. There had already been so many miracles after all, just to get to this point. It felt almost greedy to ask for more. But it didn’t stop us.
I admit that I pray for sports. I stop short of praying for a win. When I taught high school, my daily prayers for our athletes were that they would “play to the best of their God given abilities, or beyond, for God’s glory.” What Father could deny that petition? One day after prayer we had a class discussion about whether it was appropriate to pray for sports. One of my sparkly-eyed students, who also happened to be an amazing athlete and whose gifts were helping him rise above some pretty dire circumstances, schooled his teacher and the rest of the class: “If it matters to us, it matters to God.” Homerun, son.
PUT ME IN COACH, I’M READY TO PLAY…
In the final minutes of the NCAA Championship game I found myself in an arena praying with an intensity I should apply more often to things much more important. But still there were doubts that history could be made; that an epic loss could be flipped upside-down and transformed into a win that will be retold for the ages. It was a story that spoke of a truth we crave: that rising from the depths of despair to secure a place at the perfect peak is not just a real possibility, but in fact our very destiny. The Hoos Rising is a fundamentally Christian story. At its core.
And the best part about it? Coach Tony Bennett acknowledges it. Publicly, unapologetically and matter-of-factly. In testosterone filled media rooms littered with cameras and microphones. “Let me clarify,” he responds with a rare hint of irritation to a question that attempts to assign it more value that has: “It is, after all,”…gasp…”just a basketball game.”
Making him infinitely more attractive is his grateful acknowledgment that Jesus is his Lord and Savior; that his life is not anchored in fleeting wins and losses or even in the permanent record book of National Championships. Instead, Coach Bennett has moored himself securely in Christ, and the unconditional love of his parents, his wife and his children. What a witness he is to a weary world that has lost its way. God save him from the temptations to come as the world mistakes him for something less than he is. May he stay true to his game plan.
He describes to the huddled masses, those both attracted to and confounded by him, that his coaching is built on five Biblical pillars that are boldly proclaimed at the entrance to the team offices. Don’t be fooled, this is not mere wall décor, this is the foundation of their program: humility, passion, unity, servant-hood and thankfulness. This is their goal. “Whoever is most faithful, wins,” Coach Bennett often prophesizes.
Watching a game at my house is a commitment that includes not just the game, but any and all pregame and postgame interviews, analysis and commentary, both professional and profane. There’s a lot out there. So I’ve heard, again and again, Scriptures roll off Tony Bennett’s tongue like they have come from somewhere deep inside of him. He is not reciting them. He is embodying them, living them:
- “Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up.” Galations 6:9
- “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” 1 Peter 3:15
Coach Bennett refers to last year’s historic loss as a “painful gift.” He speaks into my own sorrow as he quotes with conviction from a TED Talk he shared with his team earlier this year: “Adversity, if used properly, will buy you a ticket to a place you couldn’t have gone otherwise.” Preach it, brother.
His most recent advice to his NCAA Championship team as the media circus closes in around them: “Let the light that shines in you be brighter than the light that shines on you.” Amen.
SPIRITUALITY AND SPORTS?
My boys will tell you that I can and will make a theology lesson of almost anything and this season I’ve learned a lot from the UVA basketball team. Thank you for your witness, Cavs! Go Hoos!
See y’all at Sunday Mass – Let’s worship like we’re competing for a crown that will last for all eternity!