I may have related before that a few years ago I was co-chaplain at a relatively minor professional football team in London. The club was in the parish I was working in; the chaplain approached a robe-clad, sun drenched version of myself about 20 minutes into my life as an Anglican minister. He’d heard from a mutual friend that I was going to be serving in the parish for a while and that I liked football; he sidled up to me, introduced himself and set about pitching to me to help him in his ministry. I was enthusiastic, but needed permission from the vicar with whom I’d be working. He didn’t need much convincing, so it was I was able to give a handful of hours each week to the football club. I worked with the youth teams, attending training sessions (as a spectator), hanging around to start conversations about anything and everything with coaches, playing staff and non-playing staff. We gratefully received free tickets to matches whenever we wanted to go; we sat amongst the directors, getting to know people. We led carols on the pitch at half-time at Christmas; I scattered the ashes of more than a few fans on the pitch on cold Tuesday mornings. I was at the youth training pitch when I heard a plane had flown into the World Trade Centre. It was a ministry of pastoring and mission enabled by presence; a kind of holy hanging around, waiting for God to do something. I wasn’t especially good at it, but I learned a lot from it. It fostered in me convictions about models of mission that I’m still fleshing out.
There was an annual conference for chaplains in the sports world which I attended faithfully. It was a tremendous fun – and I say that as someone who has a skeptical relationship with conferences. As well as some good training on specific issues, we had some fascinating speakers from the sports world. I even got to meet some proper legends of British sport; if you’re British and like football, you’ll know what a big deal it was for me to have conversations with Trevor Brooking and John Motson. Sport featured as an activity; and the food was atypically excellent for a Christian conference. We found ourselves queuing for supper with athletes from many disciplines using the National Centre for Excellence (which gave us a venue) for their own purposes. I remember wondering what Andrew Flintoff was doing eating that when he was meant to be healing his injury ahead of the Ashes.
All of this gave me a real insight into the various pressures at play in the life of full-time athletes at all levels. What it means to make your living entirely through your body; the sheer number of people hanging on coat-tails to be associated with success; the boredom of most of the life of the athlete; why a massage can actually be tiring. At one conference I heard a line which stays with me to this day. “If you want to be a sports chaplain, there are two things you need to remember. First, it’s only a game. Second, it’s never only a game.”
I remembered that line again over the last week whilst watching a 6-part documentary series. The show in question is Last Chance U. It’s produced by the online streaming service Netflix, but as is the way with these things it may well appear on other platforms at some point. Whatever your relationship with sport in general or the sport it focuses on, you should make an effort to check it out. It’s about sport; but it’s about way more than sport. It’s about people of all ages growing up. It’s about grace, forgiveness, family, obsession, failure, success, apologies, anger, forgiveness and much else besides. It’s utterly magnificent and compelling and hope inducing.
It’s focuses on the febrile world of college (American) football. As you may know, university level sport in the USA is a world unto itself; a breeding ground for excellence, simultaneously making and crushing dreams in front of an audience of millions. The college in question – in a small town, apparently adjacent to the middle of nowhere – takes promising players who had failed elsewhere and gives them another go. The college team has built a habit of winning and getting players well onto the path to big-league success, signed the next season by big name colleges. They’ve also built a habit of not losing, and not losing by huge scores. Which makes them fearsomely unpopular with their opponents.
The coach is obsessed with winning, and winning big; the life of the town revolves almost entirely around the team. The real hero, though, is the remarkable Miss Wagner. She is tasked with the job of keeping the players on the academic straight and narrow; if they don’t pass, they don’t play. If they don’t play, they don’t get signed. If they don’t get signed, they’ve lost their dreams – which for many of these guys is all of they’ve got left. Watching her reminded me of my wife and her endless capacity to work with people to help them discover what they’re best at and can achieve; part of her that I first fell in love with.
I’m a fan of the sport who is denied the affordable ability to watch it due to where I live, so I ate up the sporting side of it all. The game sequences – a relatively small part of the 6 hour series – are brilliantly directed. If you appreciate this sport, you’ll see just how good these guys are and you’ll feel the hits, the scores, the highs and the lows. But it’s all about the people, in the end. The story of individual hopes and dreams, and what this all might mean for their futures.
It being a documentary with no narrator, the series allows the people and the events to speak for themselves. Events can be presented a certain way, of course, but we’re intimate spectators to a roller-coaster ride on which we can’t see beyond a few feet in front of us. Events take a startling and unpredictable (unless, of course, you know American college football especially well) turn in the last two episodes; we see success and failure, anger and forgiveness at their most raw and life-changing. We end with an act of grace so kind that it’s hard to believe it wasn’t all set-up for the cameras. Except of course, we know by then it can’t possibly have been.
Sport is only a game, right? Maybe. There are times when all of us – players, fans – need to know that and remember that. It means nothing in the scheme of things. Yet it also means everything; sport, like all art, is unpredictable, messy, glorious and infuriating and utterly irreplaceable. Watch Last Chance U and you’ll use those few words of well-meaning diminishing with much less casual ease.
Which of us have never been obsessed? Never had a dream? Never hoped? Never got angry? Never needed grace?
Only a game?