Last Saturday was a typical fall day in Oregon – sunless, cool and damp with a constant hint of rain. It was our last home football game of 2017 and from a public view most preparations for the day appeared entirely normal. The teams gathered on the field and were getting their game plans in place. Fans were arriving slowly with warm jackets and umbrellas in abundance. You could sense it would be another good day at Stoffer Family Stadium.
But it was not a normal day for a young man named Willie Stoffer. Willie, a former student at George Fox, had struggled with various forms of cancer for many years. In the face of serious disease he was a constant encouragement to many of us, including the George Fox football team and coaches. Willie loved football and especially the group of men who make up the team and coaching staff at George Fox.
Earlier this fall Brad and Katharine Stoffer drove their son out to Newberg, where he watched practice and gave the team a challenge to encourage them for the game. His calls to “never quit” and strive for excellence always resonated with the players and they looked forward to his visits. If you looked carefully on a Saturday afternoon during football games, you would always see a young man sitting in a wheelchair, close to the field, cheering the team on. He gave the team life, and in turn they provided him with a sense of community.
About three weeks ago Brad let us know that Willie was not doing well. The doctors said there was little else they could do – his death was a matter of time. Those are difficult words for family and friends. I know that in some abstract context death is a matter of time for all of us, but that understanding provides little comfort to parents who have to watch their son die long before what might normally be his time. As a follower of Jesus, one thing I have learned over the years is that I often do not have answers to some of life’s most difficult questions. Why does a young man get cancer and die? I do not know. What I do know is that the God who created this world loves us and is with us even in pain and suffering. More importantly, he calls us to come alongside those we love in the midst of pain and walk with them. The God we serve is a God of hope and this life leads to one with Christ where cancer is unknown and life with him everlasting.
Willie grew weaker in October and was unable to attend the previous home game with Lewis and Clark. He and his parents still watched from home and cheered the Bruins on to victory. As October came to a close, Brad let us know that Willie was struggling, and this past week many of us went by to visit. Every time we came by he seemed to perk up and engage us in conversation. It was hard to believe that he would not be with us much longer. Brad let me know on Friday that it would be unlikely that they would make it to the football game – Willie was just too weak. Then early Saturday morning I got a text from Brad saying Willie just wanted to come to the game for a few minutes and meet the team – he would be there at 12:45 (the game started at 2 p.m.).
I got to campus and asked Coach Casey if it was OK if Willie greeted the team. I knew the answer even before I asked: “Absolutely, we will do whatever encourages him.” Brad pulled in just before 1 p.m. and we moved Willie into the locker room where the players invited him into the players-only meeting. They treated him like a member of the team! He seemed to have more energy, so we rolled him to the edge of the field where he could watch the team warm up. While Willie and Brad were watching, two players ran over and took the wheelchair and rolled Willie into the middle of the team. Now he was fully a part of the group. You could hear the cheers and words of encouragement.
Willie’s sister Lacey recorded this short video.
Then something happened that one rarely sees on athletic fields. Our opponent this past Saturday was Pacific Lutheran University. Their coach, Scott Westering, is a committed Christian and a friend of Coach Casey and George Fox. He asked Coach Casey what was going on and he told him about Willie and his struggle with cancer. The next thing we knew, Coach Casey came over and asked Brad if he would mind if Pacific Lutheran gave Willie a cheer and prayed for him. I remember Brad asking, “Do you mind?” He answered: “Brad, we are going to do whatever is good for Willie.” Just before the national anthem played, the entire PLU team gathered around Willie. Every player hugged him and Coach Westering kneeled and prayed with him. Two teams preparing to face each other in an important game took time to embrace a young man and walk with him, even if only for a few minutes.
The game started and we took Willie back to his car. We gave him one last hug and a word of encouragement. I think all of us deeply wanted Willie to know that even though his life was brief, he made a significant difference in the lives he touched at George Fox. His fierce courage and positive spirit were always evident. His energy and words always empowered others and helped them see the best things. In return, we wanted to be the hands and feet of Jesus for him the best we could.
I gave the sermon at Newberg Friends on Sunday morning and told Willie’s story. It was emotional, but I wanted the congregation to know that even in our pain, God is present. After the service I went back to the house and checked my email. Brad had written a note letting me know that Willie had died early that afternoon, peacefully and surrounded by family.
Willie, your story still makes a difference even though you are gone. Jesus, thank you for lending Willie to us, even if for only a short while.
As a follower of Jesus we know that death is not the end of our story In fact, it is only the beginning. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, “For Willie, his life on this earth has come to an end. But for him, it is only the beginning of the real story. All his life in this world and his adventures with us were only the cover and the title page: now at last he is beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
The game? We lost 13 to 3 but on this day, but there was something far more important going on.