Football and Faith
by Rob Hendricks
The lights. The fresh grass. The crisp autumn air. And…God? Nothing in my life has spoken Christ and the Gospel into my life quite like the gridiron. From fear to depression to pain to idolatry to the Gospel, God has used football to move me through inward and outward trials to His surrounding, covenant love. Through football God has shown me that (as Andy Mineo raps in “Never Land”) “the way up is down; stay low to the ground and you close to the clouds.”
For most of my football career, I was the smallest and the slowest. From elementary school flag football all the way up until freshman year, I was good for two things: memorizing plays and cheering from the sidelines. Part of being the smallest and the slowest was the day-to-day beating I would take during practice. To be completely honest, had it not been for freshman Rob and my “Friday Night Lights” dream that maybe football could land me my secret lady crush, I would have quit on the spot. Every practice elicited fear deep within, as I was a 115 pound twig attempting to tackle 185 pound bulldogs. Making matters worse, my coach accidentally listed my height in the game program as 6’3”, perhaps producing the skinniest football player of all time (6’3”, 115 lbs). For the first time in my life, I truly needed God; frankly, as I thought at that moment, not because of my sin or for His salvation, but rather because I believed there was a chance I would break every bone in my body each time I went in for a hit. It was here that God taught me a lesson about His sovereignty through football. He is bigger than any D1 bound lineman. He is God in control of it ALL.
Over the next year, my fear melted away with the combination of God’s grace and the fact that I gained 40 pounds in one offseason through hard work, chocolate milk, and a whole lot of puberty. But no amount of personal physical growth could prepare me for what happened next. In January of 2011, one of my teammates and friends, a part of the “brotherhood” our football team was, committed suicide. That loss hit me unlike any crack-back block. For the first time, I wept; not just cried, but wept. I was broken. Seeing his lifeless body at the wake only increased my emotions. For the first time, death became real to me. And in the aftermath of his death, I launched into a period of sadness and fogginess unlike any other stage of my life. As someone who has always been blessed with energy, positivity, and a bright outlook on life, it was a dark season. I turned away from God and became a shell of the person I once was. Funny how turning away from God makes us less than who we were made to be. That was the revelation God finally put on my heart months later. Praise Him for grace.
Finally, I started the second half of my junior year, now no longer the weakest, smallest, or slowest. Entering my senior year, I had worked harder than ever before and was in the perfect position to make a significant impact on my team and our playoff aspirations. But that all ended during the second quarter against Westlake, when I fielded a squib kickoff on the 35 yard line, only to run knee-to-knee into my own teammate (embarrassing, I know!). By the time I was carted off the field, the damage was done. I fractured my right knee’s growth plate, but even worse, I broke my femur. With that injury, my dreams of Friday glory faded. My football career was seemingly over. But through the disappointment and the bitter tears looking back on all the work wasted, God broke through again. Through His Word, and the exhortations found in Philippians 4, I cast my anxieties on Him and found strength to fight through the pain. Even more, he blessed me with the revelation that football was just a game–that real glory was found only in the resurrected Savior. Football is merely a platform for God’s glory, whereas before it was a playground for my own vanity. Unfortunately, it took a crippling injury to reveal that to my stubborn heart. Praise God for humbling me before Him.
Now, I play varsity sprint football at Cornell. And for the first time in my life, football and my faith align. Before every game, I kneel on the sideline, by the 35-yard marker, and look around; I see some of my closest friends at Cornell. Among them, I also see some of my Christian brothers on the team that I’ve been blessed to play and pray alongside, and am filled with a sense of awe at God’s faithfulness. I kneel and repent of the areas where I’ve fallen short in my life; and I praise Him with all my heart and all my soul for His perfect plan and for His grace that allows me to walk, talk, live, and play the game I love!
Thank you God for grace. And football.