Obsession, anger, grace and dreams: Netflix’s Last Chance U

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.

(For a 2 minute acquaintance with the show, click here for the trailer)

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?

You sure?

 

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In praise of … last minute perfection

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Think of a task, a discipline, a project which you love and to which you dedicate yourself. It could be a relationship; it could be something artistic; it could be a sporting achievement; it could be a qualification for which you long. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s something to which you regularly give much energy and commitment and in which it is hard to become proficient.

In the realm of professional sport one of the hardest disciplines (if not the hardest) is hitting a baseball. Specifically: hitting a baseball for a home run at major league level. If you take the technical definition of a successful hit then the reality of how hard this is will come home to you. You do not merely need to lay 2.75 inch diameter and 42 inch long bat on 5 ounce, 9 inch circumference  ball at speeds of 90+mph. You need to put the ball you have hit in play, in the wide ‘v’ in front of the hitter. You also need to do so in such a way that you do not get out – caught or beaten by a fielder’s throw to the base to which you are running. A good major league hitter will, over a career, achieve this about a third of the times he takes to the plate. This means that the best fail at what they are paid to do two-thirds of the time. Imagine failing at something you love two out of every three times. You’d have to be strong to cope with that, wouldn’t you? A home run is still harder. You need to connect with the aforementioned ball in such a way that if flies the 300 plus feet to the field’s edge and clears the wall there within the legal zone. A really good major league hitter, over the course of a 162 game season, will hit around 40 or more home runs.

Baseball is America’s game of myths and legends. It’s not the commercially dominant one – that status belongs to (American) football. But it is the one in which a nation continues to find at least a good part of its meaning. It gives rise to notions and phrases which have spread the globe: three strikes and you’re out, curve ball (not curved ball as some of my friends keep saying), touch base, step up to the plate; all of these are phrases which have entered parts of the global cultural lexicon with ubiquity. A home run or hitting it out of the park are concepts we can grasp – it’s something monumentally successful which is very hard to achieve. To do so in the context of major league baseball takes athletic power, almost supernatural levels of hand-eye co-ordination, a cool head under pressure in order to know when to go for it and when to refrain, and an elusive dash of luck.

I’ve always liked American sports. I have little time for the lazy ignorance which assumes that the stop-start and heavy padding of football means it’s not physically intense. As the ex-England rugby captain who trained with a football team will tell you, it’s the most physically intense sport there is. Including rugby. With an extra serving of the strategy and tactics of chess reinvented as a blood sport. As for those who dismiss baseball as rounders … well, by now you should have got the point.

So as we do when we visit my sister near San Francisco, we recently managed to see our baseball team – the Giants – live. Last Friday was my fourth live baseball game, each time seeing the Giants. I’d never seen a home run, and was of course longing for one. What we got was a special night. My wife and I, my sister and her husband, two of their three kids and my sister’s friend were off to see the San Francisco Giants. This is a successful team, winning two of the last three World Series; success can breed passionate fans and sell out crowds. We had tickets for a game with the Giants’ bitter rivals, the Los Angles Dodgers. Over the long season they play each other 15-20 times, and each one is broiling mass of emotion and passion. A sell-out 41,000 crowd on an early season, early summer San Francisco evening saw a low-scoring game defined for the most part by the Giants hanging on in on a game from which they should have been dismissed.

Hang in there they did. Low scoring in baseball usually implies two good teams and a bucket-full of tension; it was that, though in truth the first portion of the game was characterised by Giants errors from which the Dodgers should have made more capital. Good teams hang in there, though; so we entered the 9th and final inning with the scores level at 1-1. If a winner didn’t emerge, which seemed unlikely, we’d head for the potentially endless torment of sudden-death extra innings. The Dodgers, batting first, failed to score, stymied by Sergio Romo, the Giants’ electrifying close-out pitcher (meaning he specialises in finishing games – the pitcher who starts a game will never finish one; it’s just too long). Up came the Giants’ hitting line-up, to this point this evening stutteringly ineffective. With extra inning beckoning, Buster Posey came to the plate for the Giants. One pitch, one perfect connection. 41,000 stand watching the white ball describe a high but fading arc against the night sky. Go on. Go on. Go on. The arc dying over deep left field, it seems to gain a new lease of life. On it goes, over the fielder, somehow over the wall.

Home run. Game over, home team victory over bitter rivals in the bag. 41,000 (minus a few Dodgers fans) erupt in a spasm of joy. Posey jogs round, dives into his team mates at home plate.

I have now seen a home run. One game out of a 162 game season, more if the Giants make the play-offs as expected. Pause for a moment and think, though: what is going on in that moment of last-minute perfection?

It’s easy to criticise sport, especially if you seek to follow Jesus. Sport can obsess; it can and does become an idol, elevating money and celebrity at the expense of the ordinary and every day. To see only that misses the point. In a moment of near-perfection achieved, of a game irrefutably won, we in the stadium and watching or listening elsewhere are purely and simply caught up in the moment. Now to live purely for the present is another trap we Jesus-followers must avoid; we are called to see behind and beyond, to think and act with our eyes on eternity. But to do so, crucially, in a way which leads us to be present to the moment we are in. Giving it our full attention and focus; weeping or laughing or thinking or stopping or whatever is required to be done as fully as possible, then moving on. Not living in it, but fuelled by it, seeking to point ourselves and others to the eternally bigger reality of which this present moment pulls back the curtain. It is, to use the words Jesus spoke, ‘not worrying about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself...’.

Playing and following sport, if done well, allows us to consider the lily of the moment in front of us, to maximise it, to drink fully from it, to relish it and move on. For the Dodgers fans, it allows the same – in sport as in the rest of life, for those on the mountain top are relatively few. Most of us are down in the valley somewhere. For me, and for others that Friday night, we had a mountain-top moment of perfection, joy, euphoria, hope fulfilled. Most of my life I am not there. That much is true for most of us most of the time. Sport, when seen with the eyes of eternity, can help light and elevate the soul with moments of prowess and beauty and achievement; aware that most of the time we are reaching and grasping for it, falling short in the two-thirds majority moments of failing even at that to which we are most devoted.

So, consider the lilies: the cricket, the soccer, the rugby, the ball-game, the coffee, the painting, the child, the lesson-plan. For even in the two-thirds moments of apparent imperfection you will, if you stay present enough, see eternity’s curtain pulled back just a touch; enough to give you fuel for the journey onwards, upwards, downwards, on the level. Whatever the elevation, it’s still forward.

Scroll down for some of my wife’s brilliant photos of the night, and down further still for a link to her full collection of photos of the game.

If you’re not yet convinced by the romance and beauty of baseball, or just fancy a good watch, then I strongly recommend two wonderful films (which will I promise make sense to the newcomer). First and most importantly, the beautiful and beguiling Field Of Dreams. Then the more recent, more factual but no more real, Moneyball.

To see the decisive home run from this game go here (this link may not work outside the USA)

Also in this series: In praise of … counter-cultural sport

To see more of Bev’s photos of the evening click here.