On Saturday, Sept. 2, I stood on the sidelines during our first football game of the 2017 season. It was a cool day with a breeze and just a little rain. We had traveled to play the No. 15-ranked Division III team in the nation – a squad that had beaten us 35-0 on our home field the year before. The opposition looked as tough as it had the previous year, so I had to wonder if we would endure a similar experience. At the end of the first half we trailed 24-7, so we at least had the consolation that we had scored!
The second half proved to be quite different from the first. We came out determined that we were not going to surrender to one of the better D-III teams in the Midwest. We had come to play. With just under four minutes to go, our upstart Bruins were ahead 28-27 and had a genuine chance to beat Wisconsin-Platteville.
When we started football, I never actually imagined we would be competing at this level in just four short years. The team and staff that Coach Chris Casey had assembled had already created a culture that expected that they could win against the best. I was pleasantly surprised and proud. In the waning moments of the game, Wisconsin-Platteville drove down the field and our defense stopped them once more. This time, however, the field goal was good and we could not mount a comeback. The scoreboard read 30-28. We were so close, but we lost.
As well as we played on that day, I was more impressed with what happened next. I waited a few minutes and then went in the locker room. No one was happy with the loss, but all were respectful. Most importantly, I noticed a group of men with brooms, rags and a vacuum. When I asked them what they were doing they said, “We always leave any place we touch clean, and if possible better than we found it.” When I looked around I also noticed head coach Casey was in the middle of the clean-up effort. He had his own broom and was working hard to make sure that the locker room looked spotless. There was no observable hierarchy on the team. From the head coach on down, all were committed to making sure that they carried themselves well and that they respected their opponent, including their property. When the last player walked out of that room, the place did look better than they had found it.
A friend of mine once told me that character is who you are deep down inside when no one is watching or looking. It is the way you carry yourself, and it is particularly born out in the way you treat others and the respect you grant them. I know there are many things to dislike today in athletics. But on a Saturday afternoon in Platteville, Wisconsin, I observed the best in sports. A group of men gave their all in a game and they came up short. Although the loss was painful, they showed their deep character in the way they conducted themselves on the field of play, and most importantly, in the locker room afterward. In the end, I was just as proud of the state of the locker room as I was of the team’s performance on the field. I do believe that Coach Casey is giving young men a chance to build character.
Character is both modeled and taught. I was encouraged that Coach Casey does both. He did not know I was watching and has been doing this work for four years without me knowing. Athletics is one place where young people learn what it means to serve others, and it is good to know that it is happening here on the football fields and in the classrooms of George Fox University.