The athletic world continues to expand creating opportunities for families to bring God’s love into the world. To kick-off our theme, Encouraging Parents of Athletes, we invited a mom of four athletes to share her experience of how she found encouragement from her local church in one of her toughest times.
How Church Leaders Can Support Parents of Athletes
Even though my husband and I had promised ourselves we would wait, by the age of six, my oldest was in tears daily because his friends were getting to play football and he was not. We gave in to the tears and thus began his football story and his dreams of playing for his favorite college team and the professional team he, his dad, and little brother went to see each Fall.
My son grew into a local football star; achieving state honors, never achieved before or since by his position; being ranked nationally; and, becoming a high school football All-American. He had the choice to play for any college in the nation but, for him, there was only one. He wanted to play for his home state, on the team he had always dreamed of, which meant playing for a Division I SEC football program in one of the five largest college football stadiums in America. He was even asked to leave high school early and become an early enrollee for his beloved university.
By his Junior year of college, the word was getting back through the football network that he could probably play professionally. The rest of his childhood dream he had the God~given talent for and had dedicated his life to, was just a breath away. It is a dream very few athletes ever will achieve. In fact, only 1% of the top 1% of all athletes ever make it to the professional level.
Little did his dad and I know, at this same time, he was hiding that he was losing feeling in his hands and arms. When he finally told his coaches and us, my husband and I immediately flew our son to a highly specialized NFL doctor, the best in the nation, so he could be ready for the following Saturday’s college game. In one doctor’s visit, though, his gifted football career ended. He had the choice to continue to play and lose the use of his arms and hands (or worse) or he could stop immediately and have a quality of life. He wisely chose quality of life. Naturally, with our full support.
To watch his dream slip from his hands, in an instant, was heart~wrenching and quite honestly, is taking years for complete physical, emotional, and spiritual recovery.
My husband and I had never missed one of our four children’s games (have you heard of child~centered parenting?!?! Ugh.) but, the next Saturday, through tears, my husband and I watched our son on the sidelines through the television in the intimacy of our home. Our hearts were so tender. As we grieved, we watched his teammates we had fallen in love with…trying our best to cheer them on because we had built relationships with them and their families. Many relationships still stand today.
As we did, do you know who sat with us? Who cheered with us when we cheered? Who figuratively held my husband’s and my hands when we teared up? Who quietly listened to me rage at God during halftime without judgment? Who reassured us there are no mysteries for God, He was not surprised with the sudden diagnosis? Who gently reminded us God knows, understands, is in control, and continued to have plans for our son? Who just by being present helped hold our fresh brokenness to the abrupt ending of 15 years of football? Who reminded us that God still had plans for us, too? Who pointed us to the deep well of God’s enduring love?
It was a man from our church who had taken time to build a relationship with us as the parents of four athletes.
He was a person who gave us the freedom to be gone many Sundays to games. Not that we needed his permission, but we always felt his lack of judgment when we were gone and returned. No shame but rather support. We were always greeted warmly with a, “how can I help equip and empower you with what you are doing in ‘sports world?’’ He even came to some of our children’s games … yes, our elite athlete but, also the games of our stellar basketball player and even our two average athletes, which is what makes up the majority of the sports world population.
Who was this man from church we allowed into our sacred moment of raw pain?
He was our church leader, our pastor.
I had learned during our four children’s athletic adventures that the sports world was kingdom work. As a young mom, I had temporarily stumbled down the path of putting pressure on my children to be active, vocal ambassadors for Christ. That was unfair. Each person is designed by the Creator uniquely. Not everyone can be a Tim Tebow! Thankfully, God only created one Tim. Otherwise, the world would be a bore! The rest of the world’s athletes need to be true to how God created them. Eventually, I realized it was me, the adult, and the way I was designed, who was equipped to be an ambassador for Christ around the field.
I have seen my four kids on basketball courts; cross country, track, and field, and swim teams; baseball, football, and soccer fields. Sports fields became my mission fields without me even realizing it. It was only natural my relationship with Jesus would spill over into my relationships with all of the amazing people I was to meet and still continue to meet on these fields. Sports world became sacred work.
Pulling for a team together provided an instant way for me to connect with families.
Over time, my sphere of influence blossomed from our local community at the junior pro-level to people from around the US at the collegiate level. People we are still friends with to this day. People from every socio~economic level, every race, male, female, young, old. I became friends with them all because, on teams, we always became one under the school or mascot. No Sunday morning segregation.
During my sons’ years of public high school, I had 125 football players come to my home every Thursday night for dinner and a Christian motivational speaker. I did similar activities for my daughters’ teams. My husband and I have had athletes from years ago thank us. Ironically, I ran into one just this morning at the gym who told me it was one of her favorite memories of playing high school basketball. As my circle widened, I was given insight into people in need and given opportunities to help. I was given opportunities to serve the athletes and the coaches. I still have former student~athletes who are young adults who show up at my doorstep or reach out through social media who are in need of someone to talk to or simply want to express gratitude.
My husband and I hosted tailgates and I was asked to serve on a parent committee at the collegiate level. We have always been about building community and relationships. And for me, Jesus and expressing His love has always been at the center of it all. No need for me to deliver a sermon, that is the church leader’s responsibility (along with so much more,) I just need to love. And then when asked about Christianity, or Jesus, or where I go to church, or even things I do not have answers for…I have been able to point people to Christ and the church. I have also had church leaders come alongside me and encourage these friends I have made.
These fields become sacred not because of their traditions and scoreboard victories but because of the relationships formed there because of Christ.
I am thankful for a church leader who sees our family. He allows us to be us. He always saw my vision of pouring into others. He trusts me. He does not judge me. He believes in me being an ambassador in the sports world. He shows up for me where I am. He directs me to God and His Truth. He helps sustain me. He pours into me so I can pour into the people God has chosen to bring across my path through my children’s activities. He sees me as an extension of our church in the world of sports.
The world of sports…it is an easy and wide~open place to lavish the love of Christ on others.
And when this happens, it becomes a sacred space. When I witness church leaders supporting the parents of athletes and the athletes as well, I see sacred work have even deeper roots. And I know deeper roots will bear richer, longer-lasting fruit.
It seems in most athletes’ lives whether professional, collegiate, high school, middle school, all the way down to the child on the soccer field taking a moment to chase the butterfly, that there will be moments of celebration but, there will always tend to be moments of heartache, as well. The field can mirror the joys and brokenness of life.
I hope if you are a church leader reading this, you have relationships in place with your athletes and their parents and that you have opportunities to encourage them and sustain them as they walk out as ambassadors of Christ into the world of sports. I also hope that at least once in your lifetime, you have a moment when you are asked to hold their hands when their tears fall. A moment when you can gently remind them of Who God is, of His Truth, and His everlasting love so that they feel reassured to continue their faith journey. It is a sacred moment, you will not want to miss.
The ripple effects of you actively empowering this population of your congregation can have the potential to reach into eternity.
Tracy Jones is a former teacher with a Masters in Education. She is a creative spirit who easily names Jesus as her best friend. She and her amazing husband, John, have raised three quality humans & still have one quality human under their roof….all who happened to be student-athletes. Travel, art, good books, home, and recovery of the heart are Tracy’s greatest passions.
PRAYER CARDS FOR STUDENT-ATHLETES
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