A long time ago, in a land far, far away, I was a coach, and a very bad one.
"Dribble!" I'd yell to my girls.
"What for?" they'd yell back.
Most games we'd lose by 40, which felt like losing by 140. We often didn't get past half court. We made more turnovers than pastry chefs. Refs would let the clock run, out of compassion.
During those seasons, I prayed. A lot. For mercy. Patience. A 6-foot center. Someone to cut power to the gym. Memory loss.
Never, though, did we gather as a team to pray at half court, kneeling together, with stands of fans looking on (obviously, we didn't have stands of fans looking on).
Yet tonight all across the area, football coaches, their players, cheerleaders and fans will do just that: pray. Boldly. Unapologetically. At the 50-yard line.
"This is the South and that's the way it should be," Sale Creek coach Ron Cox recently told Times Free Press reporter Stephen Hargis.
Why are prayer and high school football so wedded together?
Both are part of the Southern experience, and when so many of us gather together on Friday nights for football, prayer becomes a natural extension of that.
Perhaps, as the Florida Georgia Line song goes, it's just what we do.
But why is Friday night football the cultural arena where we take our stand?
Why don't we gather together to pray so boldly at, say, girls' cross-country meets? Or volleyball tournaments? We don't even pray as dramatically at church on Sunday as we do Friday night.
Sure, no other sport brings so many people together. If golf matches had the same drawing power (or potential to cause such injury) as football, then I guess we'd pray there too.
But I think there's a deeper reason:
High school football mirrors an evangelical religious experience.
Football has a crusader-esque quality to it. Banners, fight songs, helmets, a desire to vanquish the foe before us. It easily slides into place with a theology that also wants to conquer evil in the world.
Football's strategy of gaining ground (or conversely, not losing it) matches the same struggle within the culture wars between religions and secular society, as evangelicals battle to win ideological turf.
Abortion. Marriage. Family values. To fight culturally for such things is to don shoulderpads and helmets -- or, as St. Paul said, to put on the full armor of God -- and fight, fight, goal-line fight.
"We want to prepare our kids for the battle on Friday nights but we also want to prepare them for the spiritual battle," Ridgeland High coach Mark Mariakis told Hargis. "Make no mistake, there's a spiritual warfare going on and it's for the souls of our kids."
He's right, you know. Kids are being pulled under by massively destructive forces (sexualized media, endless drugs, a flattened culture), and I love the lionhearted Mariakis for fighting to save them.
But football is not sacred.
And God is not a linebacker.
With so much resistance coming from groups like the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which repeatedly tries to interrupt Friday football prayer (they're often right, at least constitutionally), then perhaps it is time for coaches to call an audible.
To win, by losing.
Is there a coach or athletic department out there willing to invite anti-football-prayer folks to the table, for the single and sole purpose of listening to them?
Genuinely, sincerely, honestly and without judgment. That kind of listening.
Don't try to join them, but stop trying to beat them. Learn from them. Befriend. Offer peace, not a blitz.
Doing so probably won't stop the legal debate, but could make a place for common ground and the possibility that the Us vs. Them mentality will soften. How fragrant and appealing such a move would be; it would turn heads across the land.
Would they do that to you? Who cares. Take the highest road.
Isn't that the point of religion and prayer? Not to conquer, but to make peace? To reconcile, not defeat?
(But you see, that will never be the point of football.)
That long-ago team of mine? Those girls kept playing for me, despite knowing I was the sorriest coach this side of Morris Buttermaker. They tried their hardest, never gave up, and returned my ineptitude with grace and kindness.
Halfway through the season, I realized I'd been praying for the wrong thing.
Instead of praying to win, I should have been praying for the wisdom to know how to lose.
Contact David Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...
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