Over the last two evenings I have enjoyed dinner with a number of our football players (American Football) who have completed their college playing careers. Ten of them had been training for the last twelve weeks to prepare for their “pro timing day” in hopes of attracting an offer from a professional team and another eight who are not pursuing that goal.
The ten who were training for pro day invited me to attend their final dinner together in the twelve week process of preparations. I was honored by their invitation as it was just the players, their strength and conditioning coach and me at the dinner. They had arranged for two meals a day from a local hotel’s chef during their weeks of preparation. Some were paying for the meals from their pockets and others had sports agents paying for it. Two or three of the ten had realistic shots at being offered contracts, but the remaining seven or eight were chasing their dream of playing professional football with singular focus.
I could sense their anxiety about next day’s tests of height, weight, reach, strength, agility, speed and explosiveness. They talked a lot and loudly as they tried to manage their nerves and load up on carbohydrates with lots of pasta. As the evening was wrapping up I was asked to pray for them. I assured them of their value to the program, the university, their coaching staff, to my wife and to me personally. I challenged them to take their best shot at tomorrow’s tests and to leave the results to the scouts. I then prayed for them to be at their best, to have favor with the scouts and with those who would analyze the statistics and those who would watch the videos and for them to be at peace with the results. As they left the room I either shook hands or hugged each one.
The following evening I met all eighteen of them for dinner at a lodge in a beautiful Southern Illinois State Park. The forest and rustic atmosphere coupled with the excellent food made for a tremendous evening. The Head Coach, my wife, a Saluki Football alumnus and I accompanied the players for the annual senior dinner. Some of our football alumni have endowed a fund for such dinners to occur each year with the senior players to acknowledge their investments in the program and for them to enjoy one more evening together. They didn’t seem to be aware of it, but this was probably the last time some of them will ever see the others. Some will graduate in May and move away, some have already graduated and are in graduate school, some are a bit adrift and we just hope they can finish at the university.
As the players gathered the natural topic of conversation was the results of the day’s pro timing. Some marveled at their teammates’ times, distances, repetitions of bench pressing 225 lbs. (one linebacker did 24 reps.) and more. Others were kidded for their less than stellar performances. They joked about how the pro scouts did things and teased each other about stumbles and clumsy comments made to excuse poor showings. Their anxiety from the night before the testing had now become anxiety about whether or not they’ll receive invitations to work out for individual clubs who have interest in them. They still talked too much and too loudly. Some things never change.
As we waited for dinner to arrive, our alumnus from the 1972 Saluki Football team told the story of one of his teammates and his passion for players and their continuing involvement in the program. He welcomed these players into the fraternity of former players and informed them of how difficult this first season of not playing will be for them. Much of the normal rhythm of life seems just a little off during the season when there are no practices, meetings, training sessions or games to be played. He understands the loss of identity that comes with the end of a career, even though he would not express it in those terms. The Head Coach made some comments of his own and then gave me the opportunity to speak to them as well.
As dinner was wrapping up, each of us, the alumnus, the Head Coach, my wife and I all went around the room speaking to each young man and thanking them for their investment in our program and in our lives.
Such ceremonies, even those as informal as this one, help players and those who lead them finish careers well and offer opportunities to speak into the lives of those we lead. They help the difficult transition from player to former player go more smoothly and with a sense of purpose and intention. Let’s be mindful of such critical moments in the lives of coaches and players. Let’s watch for the opportunities to speak into their lives and to share the love, grace and mercy of Christ Jesus with them. In such moments, they can hear us clearly and their hearts are open to our message. Take full advantage of such days to love extravagantly and to serve selflessly.