Back in November, I had the honor and privilege to be the keynote speaker at our Upward Football end of the year celebration. I have been coaching Upward sports for nearly a decade now and it has had a huge impact on my life. I am not alone. It has affected so many coaches, referees, volunteers, and athletes in such a positive manner. It is an amazing program and I have been truly blessed to have been a part of it. I am looking to coaching for many years to come and hopefully will get the opportunity to coach my son, Matthew in the coming years.
In this blog, I wanted to share with you the talk I gave at this event. I hope you enjoy!
Welcome everyone! It is such as special day as we gather to celebrate the accomplishments of all of our players, cheerleaders, coaches, officials, volunteers, and everyone else involved who made this 2017 Upward Flag Football season such a special season. I want to say that I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to talk to each of you today.
I want to start by telling you a little about my story. I was born just outside the small town of Hudson located in NE Iowa. I was a farm boy and loved everything about farm life. Working hard was instilled into me at a very young age. Growing up, going to church each Sunday was a priority in my family and I was taught about God and the gospel message at a very young age and I don’t ever remember a time that I did not believe in Jesus. I spent time in the Lutheran and Brethren churches. For those of you who attend Christ Community Church and have been following our sermon series on the reformation, I would say that I was raised right in the middle of the crossover of ideals between Martin Luther, Conrad Grebel, George Blaurock and Felix Manz who all played a key role in the reformation. The missing piece to my Christian education was that I was never really taught that you could have a close, day to day, relationship with God. When I realized that later in life, it changed my life forever.
I was always tall for my age and a bit chubby as I was growing up. I didn’t really like sports at a young age, but my mom thought it was important that I be involved with sports so there I was on many different sports teams, but not really wanting to be there. I was not gifted with athletic talent and coordination was a real struggle for me. I was never very good and was usually one of the last people picked for games at recess. If any of you have ever been in that position, I can certainly relate.
When I was in going into Jr. High, I switched schools and did not really know anyone. I was still involved with athletics, but was still not any good. One day, I decided that it was madness to keep doing what I was doing. If I was going to continue to play sports, I needed to get good at them. I also thought it would help me be more accepted by those in school. I decided that I was going to do whatever it took to get good. I made a decision to step into the great unknown. It started with basketball. My grandma helped me set up a basketball hoop in the barn and I went to work. I would practice hours and hours each and every day. I was determined to excel. I really put myself out there and did everything I could to improve. I lifted weights early in the morning, I began running and doing different drills on my own each day, I attended football and basketball camps, I even got involved with some different AAU basketball teams. Slowly, over time, I continued to improve and by the time I graduated from high school, I had been a part of a state championship basketball team, a state championship football team, and was regarded as one of the best athletes Hudson High School had ever had. I had also developed a great love for sports, which I still have to this day.
I was able to get a scholarship to play football at Iowa State. I was highly regarded coming out of high school, but the adjustment to the college was very tough and I was no longer a star. So I did what I knew how to do. I continued to work harder than everyone else and I made myself into an all Big 12 player by the time my college career was over. I was good enough to get signed as a free agent with the St. Louis Rams of the NFL. I was able to be around and compete with the very best football players in the world. The Rams had just won the Super Bowl just months before I arrived.
I do not mention these things with the purpose of boasting, but rather to show how much I was blessed by God to have experienced so much success at such a young age. The problem was that I thought I had achieved all of that on my own through the hard work I had put in. I would soon learn that this was not the case.
Up to that point my entire identity was wrapped up in the fact that I was an exceptional athlete and I could do anything if I was just willing to put in the work. My football career in the NFL was short-lived and all of a sudden, I was no longer an athlete. I had lost my identity. I had returned to Iowa State and was in vet school studying to be a veterinarian. I put all my efforts into excelling at that and that is what I put my identity in. I was stepping into the great unknown. Right after graduating vet school, I married a girl and was so in love. I put all my identity in her and her acceptance of me. After only being married a couple of years, she told me that she did not love me anymore. She divorced me and left and I never saw her again. This was devastating to me. Once again I had lost my identity. I went into a deep depression. Over the next several years I fell into a deep, dark pit. All the success I had achieved early in life did not matter anymore and I felt completely useless and did not feel worthy of anyone’s love. I had a huge hole in my soul and nothing I did was filling it. I even stopped going to church and turned away from God. I finally hit rock bottom when I started to question in my mind what the point of living anymore was. I was actually contemplating ending my own life.
It was Dec. 24th 2008 and I was home celebrating Christmas with my family. This was usually a joyous occasion. We were at Christmas Eve service, at the church I grew up in, and were singing Silent Night holding lit candles in the dark sanctuary. My heart was not felling comfort or joy in that moment. I felt only loneliness and emptiness inside my soul. I didn’t know what to do. I began to weep uncontrollably. I had gotten to a place where no matter what I did or tried it did not seem to help. Hard work had always worked before, but not this time. In desperation, I cried out to Jesus and asked Him into my life. I asked Him to save me because I couldn’t. It was in that moment, when I was finally able to conquer my greatest enemy, myself, and truly give my life to Jesus. I was stepping into the great unknown.
That was the beginning of my new life. My life has not been the same. Right after giving my life to the Lord, I was hungry. I was reading my Bible each day, praying, and attending every bible study I could. I was starting my great love affair with God and I just couldn’t get enough.
Soon after, I was approached by someone in the church about if I would consider getting involved with the Upward Sports program at the church. They had been running a basketball program for a couple of years and they would be starting a flag football program in the fall. This sounded like a good idea. I loved sports and had a lot of experience when it came to the games of football and basketball. There was only one problem and it was kind of BIG one for me: I didn’t feel comfortable around kids. I did not like babies. I had never held one and would never had even considered changing a diaper. I didn’t really feel comfortable around older kids either. I found their behavior kind of annoying and would do my best to try to avoid them. How could I ever coach if I did not like kids?
If I was following the path I would set for my life, coaching Upward was not going to be something I would really be interested in doing. The problem was that I had just surrendered my life to Jesus and told Him that it would be “His will” and no “my will.” I could sense God continuing to try me to push me to step outside my comfort zone and do this. It was as if He was saying to me, “Do this and I will help you. You can do amazing things through me.” I was still hesitant, but I decided to go ahead and do it anyway. So I jumped in and became an Upward coach. Not just for flag football, but for basketball as well. I was stepping into the great unknown. It was not easy at first and I did struggle a little bit with relating with the children I was coaching, but I could sense God helping me along the way and changing me from the inside. A few years later, I even became an Upward official. People would ask me all the time if my son was on the team I was coaching and I would say, “I don’t have a kid.” A strange look would come over their face and they would ask me, “Why was I coaching?” The real answer was because God asked me to and I was willing to say yes.
Now almost a decade later, I have been an Upward coach every year since then. I have been on the dance team for the children’s Sunday school. Most recently, after our family moved to Jewell, I got involved with volunteering for the AWANA Program at one of the churches in Jewell. I take our son Matthew, who will be 2 in Dec., with me. Even though he is still way under the minimum age, he is a Jr. Cubbie this year as I am helping out in the Cubbie room this year. It can be challenging at times. A few weeks ago, we had an autistic boy join our room and along with that comes great difficulties in trying to teach him about God. Our teaching leader came up to me and asked me if I would be willing to work with this special boy because she said, “I was the best person in our room relating to little children and if there was anyone that could reach this little boy about God and the gospel message, it was me.” In that moment a wave of clarity came over me, along with tears later that night. It was in that moment I realized, not how far I had come in the past decade working with children, but how far God had brought me. Over the past decade God has transformed me into a person who has no fear or hesitation in working with children. He has prepared me to be a good dad. It takes my breath away to think of the miracle he performed in my life and how he can do the same with all of us. God really is a great God!
There are so many great things about the Upward program that really make it a special program and really a program that puts itself ahead of other youth sports programs that your kids could be a part of:
- Players of every ability level get to play
- Everyone gets equal playing time
- Emphasis on treating coaches, teammates, opponents, officials, and parents with respect
- Devotion time at each practice to focus on being a better person, not just a better player
- Exposure to the Gospel message
I have always made it a big emphasis in my coaching to give each of my players a strong understanding of the basics related to the sport. To become a good athlete, you have to start with the fundamentals so we really emphasize that. On our teams we do not emphasize winning or losing based on the score of the game. That score can be very deceiving. I base our wins and losses based on how we played the game. Did we play at a level that we should play at or did we sell ourselves short. I define success as doing the very best you can with the abilities God gave us. That can be different for every single player so the world’s definition of success is not very applicable to the teams I coach. I figure that they have the rest of their lives to be judged by the world’s standards, but not while they are a member of our team.
This year was a unique year in that we had a coaching team of four this year. For over 5 years now, I have had the honor of being a part of a small men’s discipleship group that meets every Thursday night. We talk about God and our lives and how we are living them. Are we living lives worthy of what God is trying to do in our lives. This season, I asked Ward Leek, Bill Brannan, and Chris Akers (the members of that group) to join me as coaches for this season. This made them step out of their comfort zones as well, but they did it and they did an amazing job! I could not be more proud of these guys. This also serves as a model for other small groups that are asking themselves what they can do to get more involved in the church or the community in general. Coaching an Upward team is a really awesome thing to do and the kids give back so much to the coaches. It really can be a life altering decision.
Our devotion time is the most important time in each practice. This season we covered 3 different virtues that are really important virtues to implement in our lives:
Knowledge. Knowledge is discovering something new so you can be better at whatever you do.
Contentment. Contentment is deciding to be happy with what you’ve got.
Grace. Grace is getting something great that you don’t deserve.
With this year’s team we decided that we wanted to get each member of our team their own Bible. Coach Ward was kind enough to buy these for the boys. We wanted to emphasize the importance of reading your Bible and learning what it says and then trying to do that in our lives. I think this is a message that us adults need to remember as well. We would all be a lot better off if we would do that. Parents read the Bible with your kids. Parents read the Bible for yourself in front of your kids. As parents, we need to serve as models for our kids. Don’t be afraid to read a Bible with a lot of pictures. Maybe you want to get a Bible with pictures for yourself to read. Those are usually the most fun to read anyway and if an easier version helps you to understand it better, that is even better.
In our final practice we were able to share the gospel message with the kids. We learned that we all are sinners and that the penalty for sin is death. Because we all sin and that the penalty for death is sin, we all deserve the punishment of death. But because God loved us so much and did not want to see us go out like that, He sent His Son Jesus to Earth as a man. Jesus lived a sinless life so He did not have to die, but because He loved each of us so much, He choose to follow God’s will and take each of our sins for us, and upon taking those sins, He had to die on the cross in our place so that we did not have to die. Three days later, Jesus rose from the dead, as He said He would and He returned to His Father in heaven. Because of this great sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf, if we are willing to admit that we are sinners, confess our sins to God, and believe in Jesus and that fact that He died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead three days later, we too can be saved. That means when we die our physical death here on earth, as we all will, we will be brought back to life and live in heaven for all eternity. We do not have to earn our way to heaven. We could never earn it on our own anyway. The price was already paid over 2,000 years ago. We just have to accept that gift. What an amazing message the gospel message is!
We had several kids who gave their lives to Christ during the course of this season. That is awesome! We have many others who have not taken that step yet and that is great too. I would urge you to keep learning more about God and what He has done and can do in your own life. As I have found in my life, even when you are running away from God, He loves you so much that He still pursues you and eventually, you will have to decide if you will let Him in. Parents, don’t be afraid to take this journey with your children. Maybe for some of you, it is time that you stop trying to do life the best you can on your own, and let God take the wheel and see where He can take you. It might be places you could have never imagined.
I want to encourage everyone here, who is not currently involved with the Upward program, to consider getting involved. Consider being a coach, an official, or volunteering in some other way. You don’t have to have any prior experience in any of these areas. We will help you and give you all the tools you need to be successful. If you are still unsure, I can bring you on as one of my assistants and I will teach you everything you need to know.
Dads, this program is a great opportunity for you to connect with and spend time with your children. The same is true for Moms. Even if you don’t currently have children, get involved, like I did.
For all of the current players, as you get older, strongly consider giving back to this program that has done great things for you. I know I have several players on my team this year who, at different times, wanted to coach our team and make some decisions on what positions people play and what calls we should run. Seriously, come back and be a coach in a decade and then you really can call the shots.
God has the ability to do amazing things in our lives, if we give Him the space to do that. Sometimes that means we have to step outside of our comfort zones to experience that. What are you giving your time and energy to in your life? Maybe God is pushing you in the direction of getting involved with Upward and maybe He has some great things waiting for you if you will just say “yes.” Maybe it is something other than Upward. Maybe God is asking you to step into the great unknown. Don’t be afraid to step into the great unknown. Don’t give up on that opportunity just because you were too unsure of yourself. Remember, you are not by yourself. God will be with you at every step and He will lead you into greatness.
I have made the decision on several different occasions during my own life to step into the great unknown. They were all scary and each time I was unsure of myself. But God was with me each time and through that process, He has changed me from the inside out and made me into a person I never would have ever gotten to on my own. He has taken me to places I never could have imagined going in my own scope of where I thought I could go.
God can take you to places that you never could have imagined you would ever be at too. God can transform you into a person that you never knew was even possible.
Sometimes you just have to be willing to step into the great unknown!
In closing, I would like to end with a poem I heard several years back that I think brings the whole thing into the proper perspective.
Pedal, Pedal (Charles Swindoll)
At first, I saw God as my observer, my judge. Keeping track of the things I did wrong so I was to know whether I merited heaven or hell when I died. He was like the President, I recognized his picture when I saw it, but I didn’t really know him. But later on when I met Christ, it seemed that life was more like a bike ride. But it was a tandem bike and I noticed Christ was in the back helping me pedal. I don’t know just when it was that he suggested we change places, but life has not been the same since. When I had control, I knew the way. It was rather boring, but it was predictable. It was the shortest distance between 2 points. But when he took the lead, he knew delightful long-cuts. Up mountains and through rocky places at break-neck speeds, it was all I could do to hang on. Even though it looked like madness he said “Pedal…pedal.” I worried; I was anxious and asked him, “Where are you taking me?” He just laughed and didn’t answer. And I started to learn to trust. I forgot my boring life and entered into his adventure. And when I said “I’m scared,” he’d lean back and touch my hand. He took me to people who had gifts I needed, gifts of healing and acceptance, and joy, they gave me gifts I needed to take on my journey. When we were off again he’d say, “Give those gifts away, now, they are extra baggage, too much weight.” So I did to the people we met and found that in giving, I received. And still our burden was light. I didn’t trust him at first. In control of my life, I thought he would wreck it. But he knows bike secrets. He knows how to make it bend to take sharp corners. He knows how to clear high rocks. He even knows how to fly to shorten scary passages. And I’m learning to shut up and pedal. In the strangest places and I’m beginning to learn to enjoy the view and the cool breeze on my face, and my constant, delightful companion Jesus Christ. And when I’m sure that I just can’t do anymore, he just smiles and says “Pedal…pedal.”