It was the fall of 2008. We welcomed new first-year students to our campus in the last week of August and among them was a young man named Willie Stoffer. The first weekend is a whirlwind for most of the university staff and I do not remember meeting Willie, but sometime during the first week of school that changed. I was sitting in my office on the third floor of the Stevens building on the George Fox University campus, and while I was looking out the windows to the quad I noticed a student riding a scooter at breakneck speed down one of the sidewalks, trying to get to class on time! My initial thought was that he had violated our sidewalk speed limit!
Over the next month I got to know the scooter driver, Willie Stoffer, and eventually his family. As you know Willie had many physical challenges but he never let those deter him. He consistently worked hard in his classes and strove to do his absolute best. He approached each day with a smile and his resilience became a testimony to other students and the university staff. He was very gifted. He loved to draw and carried a notebook with him in which he sketched people, the natural world that surrounded him, and, of course, the Blazers who he deeply loved. Although he had physical limitations Willie loved sports and did everything he could to be involved with teams at George Fox. He was a constant presence at basketball games (we were yet to develop football) and became one of our best fans. More than anything else I will remember his smile.
Willie’s illness made it difficult for him to complete his degree at George Fox and he returned to Lake Oswego. Even though he no longer attended the university he was still a presence on campus. We made the decision to develop a football team at George Fox, bringing back a tradition that had ended in the 1960s. As we developed the program, Willie became an integral part. In fact, three years ago, the team began to call him Coach Willie!
Every Monday this fall, Coach Willie provided the team with a theme for the week by email. Thursdays were special for the GFU football team because that is the day Brad and Katharine Stoffer would drive their son out to Newberg where he watched practice and followed up on his Monday challenge to encourage the team for the upcoming game. His calls to never quit and strive for excellence always resonated with the players and they looked forward to his visits. Head Coach Chris Casey noted that Willie’s quotes almost always fit what the team needed – God moves in mysterious ways! He became an integral part of the team. If you looked carefully on a Saturday afternoon during our games you would always see a young man sitting close to the field in a wheelchair, 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 gone and life with Him everlasting.
Willie grew weaker in October and was unable to attend our home game with Lewis and Clark. He and his parents watched from home and provided cheers in digital form! Willie continued to struggle physically, so many of us decided to come by the house and talk with him. 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, Nov. 2, that it would be unlikely they would make it to the football game – Willie was just too weak. Early Saturday morning I got a text from Brad saying Willie wanted to come to the game for a few minutes and meet the team – he would be there at 12:45 p.m. (the game was at 2 p.m.).
Saturday, Nov. 3, was a typical fall day in Oregon – sunless, cool and damp with a constant drizzle. 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 George Fox University’s Stoffer Family Stadium.
It was anything but a normal day for Willie Stoffer. As we reflected on Willie’s life we recognized that in the face of serious disease he was a constant encouragement to many of us including the George Fox football team and coaches. The coaches and team would often joke with Willie that it had to be Bruins over Blazers! Most of the time we lost in that competitive conversation, but this fall everyone on the team was thrilled when Willie turned down his seats to a Blazer preseason game to save his strength so he could attend Bruin football on Saturday – Bruins over Blazers!
That morning 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 – he loved the “rock on” session, as they call it. The players treated him like he was one 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, 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.
Then something happened that one rarely sees in athletic competition. 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 coach, “Do you mind?” He answered, “Brad, we are going to do whatever is good for Willie.” Just before the national anthem 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 just for a few minutes.
The game started and we took Willie back to his car with his dad. We gave him one last hug and words 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.
During the last two weeks Willie consistently communicated these words to Coach Casey: “I will always be there and know I am not a quitter!” One of the last things Willie did for the team was make an art piece. Below the drawing he had written: “I love you and I am with you.”
Willie, your story still makes a difference even though you are gone. Jesus, thank you for lending Willie to us, even if only for a short while.
As followers 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? Oh yes, we lost 13-3. But on this day, there was something far more important going on.