Yesterday my college, Michigan State University, defeated Penn State to take a share of the Big Ten football championship. Way to go, MSU!
It wasn’t all glory, though. They did it in spite of what my dad described as “the most idiotic play of the year,” possibly in all of college football. I won’t go into the details—it would make sense only to those who follow American football, which isn’t every reader here. It’s enough to say that it was not a failure of athleticism, drive, desire, playing skill, or heart. It was a failure of knowledge. The right play would have been terribly easy,* but this player, Trenton Robinson, didn’t realize what he should do in the moment. His mistake could have cost his team the game and the championship. Thankfully (from my perspective) they survived the error.
It was quite a contrast to MSU’s game against Notre Dame earlier this year, which they won by making perhaps the most brilliantly successful play in all of college football this season—a fake field goal converted to a touchdown to win in overtime. ESPN has replayed it hundreds of times in their commercials for college football.
To borrow a line from an old Peanuts comic, how can one team be so deft and so clumsy? It reminds me of Western Christianity. We have moments of incredible brilliance, the light of Christ shining brightly through us as we help neighbors in need, care for disaster victims, stand up for the oppressed (including the unborn), and hold on for dear life to the truth. And then we have our clumsy moments. Like the football play yesterday, many of those are almost too painful to recount.
MSU’s great play against Notre Dame was called from the sidelines by the coach. There’s an obvious parallel to Christianity in that: we need to listen to the Coach, the Holy Spirit, speaking through Scripture. Yesterday’s failed play wasn’t one that could have been called from the sideline. It was an unpredictable game-changing, potentially season-altering moment. For times like these it’s a matter of preparation: studying the game, knowing it so well that one knows makes the right move even under great pressure or in the flush of excitement.
Back in 1968 I saw a triple play at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. The pitcher, the Tigers’ Denny McLain, caught a line drive and whipped around to throw the runner out at second; the relay to first finished play. They all made the play so quickly (especially McLain), there’s no way they could have thought about it; they just knew. As followers of Christ, we never know when we might walk into a life-changing opportunity or crisis, where we’ll be called on to do the right thing with hardly any time to think. How can we best be prepared for moments like that?
I have pointed to this one play as a failure of knowledge. I don’t want to imply that’s all that matters. Robinson wouldn’t even have been on the field with a championship team had he not disciplined himself to condition his body, develop his skills, take instruction from his coaches, and play as a teammate with the rest of the team. I’m inclined to think that where we’re weakest in Western Christianity is in developing the deep knowledge we need to face every situation; but that could be my prejudice, and perhaps we’re just as much in need of learning to listen to God, or working effectively with the rest of the team.
Right after yesterday’s big mistake, one of Robinson’s teammates found him, gave him a bear hug, and said, “Hey, I love you man.” Coach Mark D’Antonio told the press, “In the end, all that will be remembered is we won the football game. [Robinson] was instrumental in getting us to this success.”
And there’s the other message for the church: God, our Coach loves and forgives us. We all make mistakes, but we can count on winning, and we can all still love each other.
But I’ll bet Trenton Robinson won’t make that mistake again.
*For those who know the game: taking a knee in the end zone after an interception. He ran it out instead and fumbled it away to Penn State on the three-yard-line.