On Sunday, Gabe’s football team—which hasn’t lost a game in five years—was down 18-14 at halftime of their playoff game.
We’ve only been on this team for a season so the mystique of the Undefeated is new to us.
I was proud of how they all handled it. Coach kept his cool. The parents kept cheering positively, with the exception of me and Shea and AJ’s mom–but to be fair, Gabe and AJ were being held for twenty plays before the refs actually threw a fricking flag.
Still, Gabe’s eyes were wide and his eyebrows were floating around his hairline, which is family code for “I’m freaking out.” He kept looking at me, but the league frowns on parents doing pep talks on the sideline so I just gave him a thumbs-up and a smile.
Thirty seconds before halftime ended, it hit me: between Mass and Sunday School and pre-game practice, we hadn’t prayed. So then I did get up and walk down to the sideline. He saw me coming and when I said “We didn’t pray” he stood on his tiptoes and reached his hand up to the railing. I grabbed it and we prayed this prayer:
In the battle that goes on in life,
We ask but a field that is fair
Give us the strength to meet the strife
The courage to do and dare.
If we should win let it be by the code with our faith and our honor high.
If we should lose let us stand by the road and cheer as the winners go by.
His eyebrows went back to their normal place and in the second half the refs found their flags and the offense got their feet under them and we won the game 28-18.
Afterwards he came to me and said “It’s because we prayed.”
Oh buddy. He comes from a long line of athletes who pray. In high school, we hit the quiet cool of the church for a decade of the rosary before every game. When we made the play-offs, it was a full rosary. Then we prayed the Memorare on the court before lining up, along with a shout-out to St. Therese: Little Flower, show your power, help us in this needy hour. The end of every huddle went like this: Our Lady, Queen of Victory…pray for us…St. Anthony…pray for us.
When I coached, we did the same, except I replaced the Memorare with the prayer I say with my kids. You ain’t heard nothing in a huddle until you’ve heard high school boys pray to “cheer as the winners go by”, although one later admitted to me that he crossed his fingers every time he said that part.
But it was never superstition. It was what we did, but not what we needed to do to win, like wearing lucky socks or sitting in the same seats on the bus. I think that’s a really important conversation Gabe and I will have. His team didn’t win because Gabe and I prayed. My teams didn’t win because we prayed. God doesn’t work on a pray to play basis.
But did we play better because we took those moments to be centered in the presence of God first, to lay down our cares and worries? To remember that win or lose, we were beloved children of God? I did. I looked forward to the empty, darkened church and the murmured prayers of my teammates. As a coach, I wanted my players to know that peace.
I loved our voices raised in prayer together. I loved Gabe’s dirty, reaching fingers in my hand as we prayed in the rain. And the sweet bowed heads of Kate and her teammate Jo as we prayed in the gym. I loved watching high school players pray over each other on the sideline of their public school game a few weeks ago. I love how Tim Tebow—that’s right, I said it—leaps into the stands to pray over fans in distress.
And that’s how I know God is a sports fan.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”