My love affair with sports goes back a long way. There weren't many kids on Baptist Hill, but we spent endless hours on our sandlot sports, boys and girls. We were gender inclusive long before feminism was a gleam in Betty Friedan's eye. Quite frankly, we needed them. But what fun we had and what friendships we made - celebrated last summer in a reunion of the gang that grew up together.
I quickly learned that athletics involved pain. There were so few of us for softball that the batter had to bat and catch everything he or she didn't swing at. One day as I reached out to catch a ball, it snapped my finger out of joint. The pitcher, one of the bigger kids, quietly popped my finger back into joint, and the game continued. It hurt, but not enough to stop the game.
It was little different when I played high school and college sports. As a small football quarterback I remember having my nose broken as I was making a hand-off. I collapsed in pain, fumbled the ball and was taken to the doctor. He painstakingly and painfully straightened my nose, the coach fitted me out with a helmet noseguard and I played that Saturday. No big deal.
Perhaps the greater hurt came on the last game of my high school career - my Canandaigua Academy verses hated Newark for the championship. In a Friday night that will live in infamy they crushed us 39-12 - literally adding injury to insult - I hurt my knee. The next morning five of us who played both football and basketball literally limped out on the basketball court for our first practice - a week late and hurting.
But the hurt was assuaged when I was named All Conference quarterback and was featured in the Rochester Times Union as the quarterback who "passes, punts and prays." In those more pious days I led the team in the Lord's Prayer before games and prayed during the huddles - it seemed to work until that fateful Friday night. How vividly I recall those wonderful days of joy and pain!
I share this background merely to suggest how sports have shaped my life. From them I have made some of my best friends; I have learned something about subordinating self for a greater goal; I have discovered something about how to win modestly and lose gracefully. As Yogi Berra so succinctly put it, "You can't win all the time. There are guys out there who are better than you."
As much as I believe sports are overemphasized in our culture, they do provide some useful lessons for living. For example, just look at the metaphors taken from sports that have graced our speech: From archery - to hit the bull's eye. From billiards - behind the eight ball. From boxing - to throw in the towel and hitting below the belt. From baseball - to throw a curve, and three strikes and out. We say that its not winning or losing, but how you play the game, and talk about a level playing field.
And so, on this Superbowl Sunday, we see shadows of ancient religious ritual. There are the gladiators on the field doing battle; there are the vestal virgins cheering them on; there is the crowd with its thumbs up or down as they root for their team. There is music in the air - perhaps ram's horns - to heighten the drama. There is patriotism - the National Anthem bowdlerized by some pop singer instead of sung by the assembled multitudes. As one of my ministerial friends says, "The only things which seemed to be missing (are) the Christians and the lions."
When I spoke with another ministerial colleague this week, she told me how her daughter once described her to a friend, "My mother is the kind of sports fan who would give each team a football so they wouldn't have to fight over it."
But when all is said and done, I confess I find there is a poetry in football - the electric excitement of the kickoff when hopes are highest and the score is 0 - 0; the grace of the wide receiver racing down the sidelines, leaping high in the air over a defender to pull down a pass; the beauty of a tight spiral from a skillful quarterback; the elusive movements of running backs as they snake their way down the field as if, in Andy Griffith's old football spoof, they were trying to avoid stepping in something. And there is what casual fans don't see - the strategies, the surprises, the subtleties of shifts in momentum.
And so, on this Superbowl Sunday, my homiletic thesis is that football is a metaphor for life. Maybe, you say. Maybe not. But what better way to fill the time between now and the Superbowl kickoff than to consider the question?
You will notice that I didn't say that it was a good metaphor for life - just a metaphor - a mirror on our culture at its best and its worst. In my day sports competition was fun - you won some and you lost some - your character was not determined by your won-lost record. Now the sports mentality of winning at all costs permeates our political/economic system. Winners bask in self-praise; losers are forgotten.
The violence of the game now reflects the ferocity of the modern market place. The salaries of professional athletes go even farther beyond reason or decency than those of corporate CEO's. Professional sports have become more business than entertainment - with little community pride, less thought for the fans struggling to buy overpriced tickets, and no sense that rich owners extort public money for private profit in state-of-the art stadiums.
I find the public piety of professional athletes somewhat disturbing - the prayers in the end zone after a touchdown, the public prayers on the 50-yard-line at game's end. On the one hand I believe with Jesus that when you pray go into your closet and pray in private - not in full view of millions of fans. On the other hand, such a gesture reminds us that these behemoths who have been pounding one another for three hours do have another more mellow side.
But then there are the words of New Orleans coach Mike Ditka who reportedly has renewed his commitment to God since being fired by the Chicago Bears in 1992: "Strong spiritual beliefs are essential to get through life. But that don't mean we're not going to kick the other guy's" (you fill in the blank).
And then this week we have the sad case of Casey Martin - a talented 25-year-old professional golfer with a degenerative leg disease. He has to move about the course in a golf cart and has been barred from play because he cannot walk it. (His case is under review). What a model Martin would be for all of us.
But, however much football parallels the seamier side of American life, there is one kind of metaphor I find appealing, playing with pain. It struck me when I read recently about Howie Long, currently football analyst for FOX TV network, formerly a six-foot, five-inch National Football League defensive lineman. Now 38, he is in constant pain which he expects will last a lifetime. "My back is killing me," he told an interviewer. "Run into other people for 20 years, you're gonna have pain. But I'd do it all again. ... It's like I say to my kids: 'Good things that happen are often a byproduct of a sacrifice you've made.'"
Long grew up a poor, troubled kid in Boston, was abandoned by his parents and raised by assorted relatives. "I was sick a lot, and doctors told my grandmother I'd never grow up to be big and strong. Isn't that ironic?" Now he lives in a $1.5 million mansion and stars in the new movie, Firestorm. He feels blessed, but also proud. "There is no easy way to greatness in any venue. But if you work hard, good things will inevitably happen to you."
It is not often one gets a religious lesson from a football player, much less a mere lineman. But I am fascinated with Long's assertion that even with the pain he is enduring, he would do it all again.
Those of us who are Monday Night Football couch potatoes are alternately inspired and dismayed by healthy young men who risk life-long injuries to play for ephemeral fame and not so ephemeral money. As a former football player I can identify with the desire to play - even in pain.
Playing in pain has for me become a metaphor for life. When I see these Goliaths of the gridiron or the graceful ones on ice, I think I see a body in near-perfect condition - without pain - energetically going about the business of competing. What I know from my own experience is that very often athletes perform in pain - sometimes excruciating pain.
While I think of freedom from pain as the default mode of human existence, I know that is not true for many, if not most, if not all of us. There are many kinds of pain of course - physical hurts, temporary and chronic, physical or mental disability, psychic and spiritual pain.
I have been instructed by my own arthritis, one of the worst afflictions for one who fancies himself an athlete. Now running has become power walking, downhill skiing must be done with a degree of caution and moderate speed - tennis, my doctor advises me, should be done in doubles - singles being too hard on my arthritic joints.
Happily, while my pain is daily, it is not omnipresent and I am able to exercise my way into a relatively comfortable day with a minimum of medicine. There are those among us, however, who must live in chronic pain, life-long disability, and not a day goes by without their being reminded of the cost of living through another 24 hours.
And there are few among us who are not afflicted with psychic pain of loneliness, depression, disillusionment, despair. For most of us this pain is episodic, situational and we can work our way through it. For others it is constant and they must daily decide that living in pain is more desirable than the alternatives.
There is also the psychic pain of asking why we are afflicted. What have we done to deserve it? But, as one wag put it, "Expecting the world to treat you fairly because you are a good person is a little like expecting the bull not to attack you because you're a vegetarian."
I think of Jerry Sittser, a college teacher, who lost his wife, mother and 4-year-old daughter in a car accident. People were outraged, "Why you? ... If it can happen to you, it can happen to any of us. Now no one is safe!" To which he replied, "No one is safe, because the universe is hardly a safe place. It is often mean, unpredictable, and unjust. Loss has little to do with our notions of fairness....There is often no rhyme or reason to the misery of some and to the happiness of others. ... Over time I began to be bothered by the assumption that I had a right to complete fairness. Granted, I did not deserve to lose three members of my family. But then again, I am not sure I deserved to have them in the first place. ... So, God spare us a lifetime of fairness! To live in a world with grace is better by far than to live in a world of absolute fairness. A fair world might make life nice for us, but only as nice as we are. We might get what we deserve, but I wonder how much that is and whether or not we would really be satisfied. A world with grace will give us more than we deserve. It will give us life, even in our suffering." He has decided to live with the pain of loss.
All of us at one time or another live with spiritual pain - the occasional or constant sense of meaninglessness, wondering if there is a purpose in our lives worth the emptiness we so often feel. For the athlete the meaning is in the competing - the participation.
Likewise, with life in general. The meanings are not written out there somewhere in the stars for us to discover. They are hidden in the day to day struggles to live - even with - especially with - pain. If our lives are focused on something more than escaping pain - on creating meaning in the joy of the game - it will be less - it will be bearable - it will take on its own meaning.
Sports point to the courage to compete. Life points to the courage to be. As Dag Hammarskjold reminds us, "Life only demands from you the strength you possess. Only one feat is possible, not to have run away."
Athletes endure pain - at least I did - because of the drama - we don't know how the game is going to end. It is truly an open-ended proposition. We don't know how our lives are going to go or how they will end. This is the greatest drama - in which we play leading roles. There will be pain. But we are creatures who can play with pain and still find our parts worth everything we can bring to them.
In the closing words of Alfred Lord Tennyson's Ulysses, "though much is taken, much abides, and though we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are, one equal temper of heroic hearts, made weak by time and fate, but strong in will, to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."