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Possibly the Worst Pre-Game Speech Ever

February 21, 2014

1aThe players filed out of the bus and trotted across the parking lot toward the football field, their cleats clicking on the tarmac as they ran in a cadence.

I stepped off of the bus and jogged behind them, my clipboard in hand.  I shielded my eyes from the afternoon California sun as I looked up at the bleachers and noticed a group of children leaning over the side, watching our team’s entrance.

One of the little boys leaned over and sneered.  “Hollister’s gonna lose.”  I glanced up and got an especially wicked glare.  Our fans were just arriving in cars and vans behind us.  The site was readying for the big game. This was it.

I couldn’t believe that in just my second year as a Bible teacher, I was looking at a chance for a football title.  Our boys had finished the season undefeated.  We were going to play Gilroy for the high school football championship for our league, a conglomerate of small schools in central California.  And believe it or not, I was their head coach.  In fact, I was their only coach.  We were quite a small team, but we were tough enough to roll over every opponent in our schedule, winning by an average of three touchdowns … and amazingly enough, it seemed as if our guys were just now hitting their stride.  Here we were, little Calvary Christian School, playing for the title at a neutral site in Salinas.  The reason the site was neutral was because neither Gilroy nor CCS had a football field on their property.  Yes, I said we were all small.

But what I liked especially about our fellows was that we had a team of Christians who were, well, themselves.   Throughout the year I saw neither pretense nor ego in any of the teammates.  If I needed to rotate a starter with a third stringer, they were willing and able to come to the bench.  Guys helped each other on the field and off.  It was refreshing to see Believers who didn’t lose their testimony whenever they went into the field of play. Especially teen Believers.

Believe me, I’ve seen enough of Christians who compromise their testimony in the way they cheat, push or speak whenever they get engaged in a sporting contest.  These young men were different.  Even in the worst of situations, the players maintained a self-control that was reminiscent of Jesus’s instruction in the Sermon on the Mount:  “Blessed are those who keep their strength under control, for they will inherit the earth.”

The football players piled over onto one side of the field and sat on the far end of the bleachers (there were no locker rooms).  I could see a nervousness in many an eye.  Shawn was biting his nails and fidgeting.  Ron was clicking his teeth.  Jay spit on the ground but missed and hit his shoe.  Kevin, our quarterback, looked up at me expectantly.

One often wonders what kind of pre-game speech a football  coach prepares on the day of the great game.  Should you get emotional and yell?  Should you be quiet and utter few words?  Should you write this stuff down?

Dave nodded.  “Speech, coach.”

I hadn’t prepared.  I knew that many of the players would remember at least part of what I would say.

So I decided to have fun.

“Men,” I said, setting my jaw.  “This is the day that you put forth your best efforts in a game will stay in your memory to the day you die and go to Heaven, and for all I know you’ll probably brag about it in Heaven as well.”

Jay raised his eyebrows at me.  Shawn, the valedictorian of the school and a deep thinker, put his chin in his hand and thought about this.

“There are those across these bleachers that think you’ll go down to an embarrassing defeat. They want nothing more than to see you grovel in defeat, to whine all the way home.  But look, men!  Look at those folks.”  I pointed at some of our families playing in a park nearby.  “You’re playing for them!  You’re playing for the fathers who work in a dull routine every day, just to bring home a paycheck – you’re playing for a bright spot in their lives, bringing back joyous memories of their youth.  You’re playing for the mothers who must drive countless hours across the asphalt highways, taking their loved ones to soccer games and violin practice and mushy meals at a McDonald’s drive-thru … you’ve given them respite for a few hours.”

Samuel snorted.  Dave covered his face to keep from laughing.  But Shawn sat still, pondering.

“But most of all, good men, you are playing for those little ones,” I gestured towards some kids throwing a ball.  “That is the future, right there.  Those kids need a role model.  They want an example.  And you, my friends, are going to give it to them today by winning this game and winning it big.”

“Yeah,” said Kevin.

“Gentlemen, there are two things I want you to remember as you take that grassy field in a few minutes.  First,” I pointed to the sneering kid in the stands, “do you see that child up there who is gesturing at you and sticking his tongue out at you?  He wants to see you go down.  Men, you must disappoint that boy.  You must bring a tear of regret to his eye for ever doubting your superiority.”

Jay stopped giggling and looked at the kid.  “We must make that child cry,” he said, setting his jaw behind a half-smile.

I was hitting my own stride.

“And men, the second thing I want you to know is that there is reward in winning,” I continued.

“Yes,” said Dave, ” a trophy.”

“Oh, more than that, more than that,” I said.  “You see, my quaint little mother who lives back on the Eastern Shore plains of the Chesapeake Bay region sent me an entire box of cookies.  Oatmeal raisin cookies at that, men.”  I strolled to one side.  “I find great delight in having a quiet time and supping on my mother’s homemade cookies lovingly made with tender hands and a virtuous heart. Yet… I am willing to give them up – to you – as you excel on the field of play.”

“I want one of Mom’s cookies,”said Ron.

“And you just may have one, sir, if you will perform spectacular feats of strength and skill to lead us to the title,” I folded my arms in as serious a gaze as I could muster.  “You must remember these two things today.”

“Cookies and tears,” said Ron.

“Make the children weep,” said Shawn.

That’s when it started.  It rose from within the ranks of the football players on the bleachers.  A growing chant…

Cookies and tears

Cookies and tears

MAKE the children WEEP.

Cookies and tears,

Cookies and tears,

MAKE the children WEEP.

The people in the stands glanced at each other, raising their eyebrows and shrugging their shoulders. It got louder.

The Hollister boys went through warmups.  They gathered on the side.

Cookies and tears,

Cookies and tears,

MAKE the children WEEP. 

The team lined up for the kickoff, still chanting. As the other team played their first offensive series, on the very first snap, Ron stunned the crowd by bursting through the line and sacking the quarterback for an eight-yard loss.  He was brutal.  During a momentary lull in the crowd noise, he stood up next to the pile of players and raised his hands, facing me, shouting loud enough so virtually everyone in the bleachers could hear:

“DO I GET ONE OF MOM’S COOKIES MADE LOVINGLY WITH TENDER HANDS AND A VIRTUOUS HEART???”

I smiled and nodded.  Both sides of the field pondered this new secret code.

We won the game, 30 to 0. What a fun day.

Over thirty years later I sit and chuckle when I remember the simple and pure joy of Christian young men who carried the load of written exams, project deadlines and household chores. They were hard workers, every one of them.  I was so proud.  For the win, yes, but mainly for the simple sheer pleasure of seeing this tight-knit group of teens playing a game with joy and unity.

We all just wanted to be a little off-the-wall.  The boys made a memory in playing hard, but in having fun.  The goofiness went all through the game.

They had no scholarship hopes.  They had no self-promotion intent.  These guys simply wanted to play and enjoy the life God gave them.

How I wish there were more teens like them today.

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