The sun is hanging low in the western sky casting long shadows across the Bear Den where the Burke County Bears are finishing their warmup on this cool Friday night in October.
A steady current of anticipation and excitement swirls around the field as the coaching staff watches and directs from the sidelines. It’s the middle of football season in Burke County and expectations are riding high after last season’s championship season.
A shrill whistle pierces the air as the team files off the field and into the gym, taking their place on the bleachers for the pre-game devotion. The room goes quiet and all eyes are on Head Coach Eric Parker.
Listening to the Coach speak, the respect from those gathered is obvious. It’s not simply because this is the man at the head who last year led them down the road to a State Championship. More importantly, they recognize Coach Parker as one of the men leading them down the greater road towards manhood. They know this is a man who cares and they listen:
“This lesson comes from Matthew 25: 29.” He begins,
‘For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.’
Now …Here’s what I want to share with you: every man sitting here has a talent or a blessing that was given to you by God. I want you to think about this. We can tie it into athletics but let this one go with you always: what God gave you he gave you. Don’t chase after things that were not meant for you.”
A few more minutes and the Coach has finished, “Huddle up.” he says. A prayer is offered before the team suits up to take the field for what will result in their 8th win of the season.
For Coach Parker and the members of his staff, winning ballgames is only a piece of what they are privileged to do. It’s an opportunity to turn football games and drills into the life lessons and skills these players are going to need in order to walk tall anywhere they go.
“When you become head football coach in a small town like Waynesboro, Georgia, there are a lot of expectations. Obviously people want to win, but I think when people turn their children over to you every day they have some expectations of you other than just teaching them how to play football. That’s something I take seriously and something I tell my coaches all the time. At the end of the day, I think our kids realize we love them.”
It’s a tough love for sure but it’s something modeled before these young men every day.
“I feel like we have a strong group of men who work with our kids every day. They talk to them about life issues, about what it means to be a man. One thing we try to express to them is that sometimes being a man is a difficult thing and if you’re going to do it the right way, you’d better be spiritually grounded or else you’re going to really, really struggle.”
Assistant Coach Mark Flowers understands, on or off the field, there’s always bigger game with higher stakes being played.
“Football teaches you about life. There are so many things and people involved and it’s our responsibility to tie these things together and teach the kids how life really is.
My whole goal as a coach is to instill those values that’ll help guide their self discipline. It helps the way they play and guides the reason they play. When you realize you’re playing for something greater than yourself, the game becomes more than a game; it’s an awesome experience.”
Obviously, these skills and needs are not unique to football which is why students approached Coach Flowers to help restart the campus club, Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). Each week 25 – 30 students gather for fellowship, music and a lesson focused on helping them maintain their values in the highly competitive situations they face from day to day whether it’s in their sport, the classroom or in the hallways after class.
FCA member and Senior baseball player, Jonathan Wilson understands his faith in God as a possible catalyst for good, both on and off the field.
” I think sports is a good way to learn lessons about life…you get knocked down and you have to get back up. But people need to realize the most important thing is your walk with Christ.
You’re given a certain amount of confidence when you have a relationship with God and I just have to realize that it’s not about me. When you are in the center of God’s will you are exactly where you need to be and there’s no better place.”
This is the type of character the coaching staff hopes to encourage in any sport. Coach Parker recognizes the importance of the role he and his staff plays in modeling this consistently before their players. Football is, in his words, a “barbaric sport by nature.” and the social pressures put on students today are enormous. Football can be the vehicle to help build strength and character but it’s faith that keeps you grounded.
And accountability is the key to respectability.
“You know, we don’t push the specifics of our religion; but at the same time I think there are some things that are universal and faith is definitely one of them. At the end of the day you need to make sure your faith is where it needs to be and that you can be held accountable for your actions.”
The team has had it’s emotional highs and lows but it’s been the consistent level of communication and integrity that has allowed them to pull through and maintain a steady course. Just last year, the team had to face the death of one of it’s senior members, Safety Denzell “Snake” Warthen, and as Coach Parker explains, it was their solid faith and commitment to one another that helped them cope.
“It was hard. Obviously we grieved; but we also used it as a teachable moment about acknowledging where each of us is at this moment in our life and our faith with God. There are all kinds of devotional opportunities that can tie into what we’re doing right now in football with what life is really all about and what God expects of us. This was a hard one and we wouldn’t waste it.”
Life lessons. Because at the end of the day the team can play well, win big and maybe take home another trophy but football is still just a game and even a great coach understands his players are going to need something solid to stand on. Parker explains,
” I have to be realistic. I tell them at some point in time, you know, the ‘air’s gonna go out of the football fast’. For some; as soon as high school is over. Now what do you have set in place? Whatever it is please let your faith in your relationship with God guide you.”
Coach Parker admits his staff is ‘hard’ on these kids and they’re going to push them to their limit. They’re going to work hard and enjoy the fruit of their labors for as long as they have to play.
He has no problem telling them that when it’s all over, he knows God is not going to be interested in how many championship rings or ‘Coach of the Year” plaques he had hanging on his wall. What God will hold him most accountable for is, what did he do with the young men put into his care.
And that’s where his focus remains….most of the time.
“That’s where faith and football falls in line with us. I think what it brings to the table is huge and we don’t go around posting signs up bragging about what we do, that’s not it at all. That’s not our intent. If you have ever seen this team play, you know. We play the game hard and I think we play it by the rules. I think we play it with class and I we play it with discipline. But at the end of the day, make no mistake; we’re trying to knock your lights out!”