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Behind the scenesPosted Friday, February 1, 2013, at 11:13 AM
My nephew is in his 11th year of coaching. I finally got to attend the first basketball game where I saw him in this position.
He played basketball and other sports all throughout his public school education. While taller than most other players, even by his senior year his body hadn't filled out enough to move beyond the nickname of "string bean" and so he didn't get to play as long as other players in each game. We could never understand why he didn't play for his college team, but such was his choice.
Now he teaches elementary school, this nearly 7-foot-tall teacher, and first-graders must break their necks trying to look up to him each day! He loves teaching in the classroom but his real passion is in teaching sports.
Over the years he has moved up from grade school teams to junior high teams and now coaches the junior varsity basketball team of the county high school where he teaches. For six months all of his extra hours are spent coaching and going to games and scouting other teams and encouraging his "young gentlemen" to live out their sporting principals in the rest of their lives. Married and now a father, the family drives wherever his team is playing so that he knows that he, too, has support and love and encouragement in what he is doing.
And I finally got to see him coach a game.
How could the little baby I used to feed be the same gruff man who yelled and argued and shouted for joy for nearly an hour? It was clear to me that he had the devotion of not only his players but also their families and the entire community. And it was clear to me that no matter how well his players were playing there was an element outside of his control that greatly affected the outcome of the game.
Referees ruled the playing floor.
After a few minutes the players knew that one referee cared about consistently following the rules of the game while the other referee wouldn't or couldn't keep up. During a well-fought match between teams I watched as one referee judged fairly the plays of all the players while the other simply looked away when "his" team made mistakes. I joined a crowd of hundreds booing because of an uncalled penalty and later applauded with that same crowd over a well-called judgment.
I soon came to realize that the referees ultimately determined two things. They determined whether players, coaches and spectators felt a game was honestly judged no matter which team won. They also determined whether the players felt like all their time and effort really mattered. Would the "playing field" be equal or was someone in authority more powerful than everyone else and ultimately determined the outcome? Would life be fair or would someone always be against you, defeating you no matter what you did? Such was the unspoken power a referee had no matter the coach or the team. And, as my brother-in-law explained in the hour-long ride back, after a few bad or biased referees in a row, players would just give up and quit their team.
I'm not a referee. Yet I know several in our community who are. I've heard David Bray and Chuck Schroeder talk at a Kiwanis meeting about the hours they give refereeing and umpiring games. I've heard my colleague Rev. Mark Miller speak about the heavy responsibility he feels when he judges the performance of student athletes in games. I believe Judy George, Lisa Lazar and others in our community also have given of their time and energy. I'm sure there must be many others in our area who perform this service in our community and around the state.
I've never given these good people very much encouragement and appreciation for what they do. Until now I've never really understood the position they are in to steer the opinions our young athletes have about first the sports in which they play but ultimately life itself.
I've come to realize the spiritual role these good people have in the lives of countless hundreds of young people whose names they may not know but whose lives can be greatly shaped by their decisions.
I'm proud of my nephew and what he does as a son, husband, father, teacher, and coach. I got to see firsthand the team of young men he's shaping by coaching this year and I trust that he's had the same good influence on the lives of hundreds of others that he's coached in a variety of sports over the years.
And, as in all of life, I realize that we live in community with so many others.
A coach can spend months helping the players become a strong team.
A referee can determine the success of that team and how life is viewed, perhaps for the rest of a young person's life.
P.T. Wilson is the senior pastor at Gobin Memorial United Methodist Church, Greencastle, and is also the University Chaplain at DePauw University.