The Unbearable View From the Top

A Look at the Swamp Kings and King David

Matt Pearson / 9.11.23

I love college football. By God’s kindness to us, it started back in full force this past Labor Day weekend. Hallelujah. In order to help us survive the start of college football, Netflix graciously released a four-part series called Swamp Kings days before the first kickoff of the season. It’s a documentary about the Florida Gators during the Urban Myer years (think Tim Tebow). If you’re tracking, we fanatics got to watch college football before the start of college football. I know. It’s a sickness. I’m working on it.

Watching the series, I began to note some interesting parallels between David and the 2009 Florida Gators. Not that Tim Tebow is the second coming of David or anything (Jesus fit that bill already), but the the similarity and differences reveal an interesting dichotomy.

I’ll spare you all the details, but the Florida Gators won the National Championship in 2008. They were truly the kings of the swamp. On top of the college football world. After the season, the star athletes with remaining eligibility announced their plan to return for their senior year. The players who helped them win the championship were all coming back rather than leaving early for the NFL. This could only mean one thing: the Florida Gators would be back again in 2009 to run the table against every opponent and win back-to-back National Titles. Swamp kings indeed.

But something happened. When they got to the top, they noticed the pressure to stay at the top was too much. The offseason practices and games throughout the 2009 season revealed much angst. Turmoil. Frustration. Conflict among players. Stress among coaches. Difficulty accomplishing the basics. Florida won a lot of games in 2009, but it felt different.

In 2008, they were running toward the top. In 2009, they were there and expected to stay there. Being at the top wasn’t what it promised to be. The #seculosity of being college football champs all but drained the swamp. Everyone felt the pressure and released the pressure on one another. The swamp kings had a great year (from a stat sheet perspective) but ended up losing in the SEC Title game against a team that shall not be named in an article I write (I went to Auburn. War Eagle.). Florida didn’t even make it back to the National Championship game to compete for a repeat title. When they got to the top, they could not handle the pressure. What was promised to the swamp kings didn’t deliver. It almost never does.

Contrast the swamp kings to when David was coronated as Israel’s King in 2 Samuel 5. What was his first act as king? Once on top, what was his first order of business? He ordered the ark of God to be brought back to Jerusalem (see 2 Sam 6:2). David wanted his reign to start and be marked by the presence of God with and among His people. God commanding. God providing. God rescuing. God loving. When it finally became all about David, David wanted the focus to be all about God.

King David got to the top and tried to get out of the way. The swamp kings got to the top and got in their own way. King David put the pressure on God to perform. The swamp kings put all the pressure on themselves to make it happen.

Now before you roll your eyes, hang with me. I know one is about college football and the other about the biblical David, Israel, and God. I get it. I really do. In a sense, this is an apples and oranges case. I also know that David had his own issues in 2 Samuel 6, and as we all know, later in his life. He’s not a perfect role model for us to emulate. I know. But I do think there is a valuable lesson here for us. Whatever it is we think is at the top is not there.

Whatever we think will be waiting for us when we “finally arrive” is not waiting for us. There’s nothing there. Well, that’s not quite right. The thing that is there is pressure to keep it up. Pressure to keep performing. Pressure to maintain. Unbearable pressure not to fall off the mountaintop. Pressure to be less and less human. I can’t know for sure what was going on in David’s mind when he officially became king of Israel. But I do know he started his reign by looking up, not down. When he had the opportunity to be at the top, he went low. Instead of taking it all on himself, he put the onus on God. What we tend to think is at the top – what we long for there to be waiting for us — can only be found in and with the presence of God.

Let me challenge you to give it all you’ve got. At your job. At school. In a sport. A hobby. Go for it. Both aim and reach for the top. But let me be quick to warn you to be careful. Don’t make “the top” (whatever that is for you) the ultimate thing. Make the presence and reality of God in your life the thing. God with you. God commanding you. God providing for you. God rescuing you. God loving you. We aren’t wired to carry all the pressure. That’s not what life is. Being fully human is being fully alive to the active and present God.

As Eugene Peterson once wrote, “We’re never wholly ourselves until we’re open before God, attending to the reality of God, responding to the action of God in us, receiving the word of God for us.” Yes. That’s where life is. Not at the top where the only thing that awaits us is more pressure to perform.

Oh yeah — one more thing: if you do watch Swamp Kings, don’t compare your biceps to Tim Tebow’s. You’ll need therapy. That summit can’t be climbed by anyone.

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