The Ten Things I’ve Learned about Formation While Watching My Son’s High School Football Team

In Culture, Discipleship, Football, Formation, Habits, Spiritual Formation, Vero Beach Fighting Indians by BizgaineyLeave a Comment

Pt. 2: Formation (Development) takes time and is not easily measured in the short-run.  

Joe Erhmann, former NFL player and volunteer Defensive Coordinator for Gilman High in Baltimore, Maryland, has spent his life helping boys become men.

His story, beautifully captured by Jefferey Marx, in his bestselling, Season of Life: A Football Star, A Boy, A Journey to Manhood, reminds me that growth and development are best measured in years, rather than days – or even seasons.

In a particularly moving portion of the book, a mother asks the coach how good this year’s team is going to be.  In response, the coach answers,

“Won’t know for twenty years,” the coach responded. “That’s when we’ll know what kind of husbands and fathers they’ll be. That’s when we know what kind of men they’ll be.”

In a world that expects instant results for our effort, and immediate return on our investment, it’s helpful – actually vital – that we recapture the narrative that says formation/development (lasting change) takes time and is not easily measured in the short run.

For me, few things capture this reality better than the sport of football.  That is, if you’re looking for it.  Unfortunately, most of us aren’t.

The God of This Age

Football has become, in many ways, the God of this age.

Its stadiums (from high school to professional) are modern-day cathedrals.  The architecture is imposing, designed to make us believe that something bigger than oneself is taking place for all those who enter in.  The facility (typically located in the center of town or designed to revitalize the heart of the community) literally beckons the faithful, in numbers reaching the tens of thousands, on a weekly basis.

The coaches and staff are the modern-day Prophets and Priests, while the owners and industries behind them embody the great Kings of old!

The Kings (owners and industries, particularly ESPN and the NCAA) proclaim new truths for the modern world.  They ignite our hearts, imagining a distinct vision of manhood, womanhood, personhood. They proclaim what success looks like and why the success they offer is a worthy investment of our time.

The Prophets and Priests (coaches and their staffs) lead us into battle, developing and implementing a plan for success.  They invite us on a journey to what, for the masses, has become the vision of the good-life – the type of life for which we all long.

Rhythms, Rituals, And Worship – All Beneath “Friday Night Lights”

The structures that support the teams we love, from the band, to the cheerleaders, to the paid entertainment directors, incorporate the rhythms of the ancient synagogue and sanctuary.  On cue, the music stirs our hearts and invites us to stand and chant our allegiance.

We applaud, on rhythm, as our team advances the ball and we work ourselves into mass hysteria as we anticipate the penultimate moment of worship in this new cathedral: the moment of consummation when the final seconds tick off the clock.

We ‘high-five,’ we ‘hug and kiss,’ and depending on the value attached to the game, we break down and cry with tears of joy and delight.  Feeling that here – in this cathedral that has drawn out all of our loves – we’ve been satisfied, at least for now.

Yes, the cathedral that is the stadium is a reminder that there is no such thing as an atheist.  As James K.A. Smith points out: it’s not a matter of if we worship, but what we worship!  Many of us worship football.  We worship all it proclaims as good and true.

Our collective worship at the cathedral that is the stadium prevents us from seeing the basic beauty that once was football and what it might become once again.  In order to experience this beauty, you have to attend the practices, hundreds of them, for it’s there on the practice field where you learn that formation takes place over time.   You also learn that formation is not easily measured in the short run.  Even, or especially, in the frenzy of the glorious and god-like world of Friday Night Lights.

Football has taught me (particularly watching my son play this game) that formation takes place over time.  Our collective penchant to worship this game, is teaching me that we need to become aware of and attentive to the things that form us (or rather, deform us) so that we might allow the needle of our hearts to bend toward True North.

We need more voices like Joe Erhmann’s, and coaches like those who occupy the halls of our local high school, that don’t dismiss — but rather see beyond — the lure and luster of Friday Night Lights.  These voices, voices of development and formation, serve as a reminder that development is not only about how well we perform on the field but also about who we are becoming off the field!

Disrupting to Renew!

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