Boasting in Losing (A Lot) in College Football

You Would Be Well Within Your Rights to Call Me a “Loser.”

Mockingbird / 2.8.21

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This sermon was written by Will Ryan.

I always enjoy the faces people make when I tell them I was a college football player. Sometimes the look is shock because I’m not a particularly large man, and their vision of a football player is a 6’5’’, 250-pound behemoth. Sometimes it’s skepticism because I tend to be quiet and reserved in comparison to the braggadocio one gets from the meatheads on TV. And sometimes it’s outright confusion because I’m a pastor, and their vision of a pastor doesn’t jive with football. Every time, though, doubt turns to comprehension when I follow up and say, “I was a kicker and punter.”

“Ah, yes. That makes sense,” they say, as if I couldn’t possibly have been anything else. If I’m going to be honest, it does make sense for the reasons listed above. It would also make more sense if I happened to spill the beans on how bad my football experience was in college.

I had the pleasure of starting in one football game in all four years I attended Culver-Stockton College, a small liberal arts college affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It was a pleasure despite being mostly an objectively bad experience. There were the typical downsides to football: 5 AM workouts after trudging through the snow and two-a-days in 95-plus heat during summer training camp come to mind. But when I say bad experience, I mean something other than the constraints that come with being a collegiate-level student-athlete. When I say bad experience, I’m talking solely about C-SC’s win-loss record over my four-year career.

The Culver-Stockton Wildcats were an astounding 2-42 the four years I was there. You read that right. My football team only won two games in the four years I kicked and punted there. What’s worse: the wins came in my freshman and senior seasons, meaning our team went 0-11 both my sophomore and junior seasons. I didn’t feel the thrill of victory for over three calendar years. And most of the games weren’t close at all — only seven of the losses were within a touchdown. Like I said, an objectively bad experience.

While it is usually employed as an insult, you would be well within your rights to call me a “loser.” Obviously, you wouldn’t be wrong. What else could you call someone whose career winning percentage was 4.5 percent? It’s as Luther says: “A theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.” Even when that thing is the worst thing possible for an athlete.

an empty trophy pedestal

It’s taken me years to come to terms with being a loser. Instead, I have passed the blame away, claiming I was “just the kicker.” I have focused on the awards I won: I was a two-time Academic All-American. I can always bring up the good things I did on the field, too, like my 80 percent career field goal percentage. I could divert the focus to the benefits of my time on the team: the structure, the good friends, the jersey I can frame. For years, I have done anything but deal with the reality of what I am because no one, including me, wants to be a loser.

We want to take pride in what we do. Everyone wants to be recognized as successful. We want to bask in some modicum of glory, to feel enough. Football is a breeding ground for all this. That’s why I like claiming that I was a college football player, while neglecting to say how that actually went.

Just like any other team, we put in the work, the literal blood, sweat, and tears. We woke up early and stayed up late. We spurned our social lives. We did everything we could with the hope that, at the end of each afternoon in fall, we would sit back and feel like we’d earned our victories. Winning, of course, makes the sacrifice worth it.

But what happens when you don’t win? How do you rectify losing in a culture so heavily invested in winning? What happens when the hard work doesnt pay off, when the sacrifices are made in vain, when nothing you do is enough to get you over the proverbial hump?

St. Peter wondered the same. After witnessing the earnest, hard-working, rule-following rich man turn away sad, Jesus tells his disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

This is a preposterous thing to say. Those who are rich are the winners of life, now and to come. If they cannot be saved, and the kingdom isn’t accessible for them, what possible chance could a loser like Peter have? Peter joins in with the rest of the disciples: “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus replies, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

If he were to hear the second part of Jesus’ reply, Peter might hear hope. Instead he hears condemnation and hopelessness. He hears that all he had done to follow this man — leaving his boats, traveling far into the countryside, risking his safety with local authorities, sitting with demons and the sick — by all accounts, Peter had done a lot to win favor with God, and now Jesus was saying it all didn’t matter? He piped up once more: “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” You mean to tell me that I’m still going to lose, that I’m still a loser?

Jesus’ answer is two-fold: first no and then yes. No, you’ll have more than you had before you left home, both now and in the kingdom. But yes, the way you get it isn’t through hard work and winning. It comes to those who have lost. Many who are winners will lose, and the losers will win. Jesus affirms the disciples’ question about their ability to be saved: you can’t save yourself. It’s not something you can achieve. You can’t earn your way into God’s kingdom. It is a gift freely given.

Needless to say, this is the opposite of the message preached in football, where you’re told again and again that you need to “earn it” — earn it in the weight room, earn it in film study, earn it on the practice field. Winners earn it. They earn every inch, every yard, every first down, every touchdown, every win. Losers lose because they didn’t work hard enough to earn it.

Jesus, on the other hand, understands that nothing will put you over the hump. No effort can cross the chasm of sin and death. Against that opponent, you will always fall short. You will always lose.

Losing at the rate our team did has a way of forcing you to come to terms with it. The illusions and self-justifications eventually fall away if your record is that historically bad. Needless to say, if Jesus were to justify us by the rubrics of football (and of the rest of the world), which focuses on winning, I’d be toast.

“Wretched man that I am!” Paul cries out. “Who will save me from being a loser?” Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Because he doesn’t play by the rules. The grace he gives is not earned. The gate to his kingdom isn’t for the winners. The life and peace he offers isn’t even something you have to work hard for.

Peter would later find that what looked like the ultimate loss would instead be where the losers of the world would forever find their hope. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus proclaims, “I have come to call not the winners, but the losers.”

I understand Paul’s words a little better now: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” We boast in our weaknesses, our losses, because those are the very same places Jesus shows up. The thing which the world looks down upon, a 2-42 record, is the gate to Christ’s mercy. He meets us not in the glory of winning but in the agony of defeat because it was at his lowest point, the final loss, where grace entered the world.