“How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us that we may be called children of God.” I John 3:1
The Kingdom Scene dream is that kids everywhere become anchored in the truth that they are loved. Thankfully, there are great mothers, fathers, grandparents, guardians, and mentors out there who help kids recognize and even experience this truth every day. I had a moment in my life where this truth became very real to me.
It was my junior year of high school. Never before had I played competitive football. During my freshman and sophomore years, I watched from a distance. I observed the team camaraderie, the anticipation for each game, and the pride after a victory. More than anything, I listened. I listened to them speak about winning a state championship. The more they spoke about it, the more I believed that it was more than a possibility. It was to be a reality. And I wanted to be a part of it. Our school had a strong football tradition with many state championships in years past. I began to feel like I was missing something by not playing football. So during the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I decided to give it a try.
I didn’t play too much that year. Sure, I got a few plays in on offense and a few plays in on defense, but much of what occurred on game day confused me. I recall my coach screaming at me from the sideline as I screwed up one of the offensive formations. However, I loved playing defense. I only had to memorize about five different formations and I was set. It was a blast. Every time I got a chance to play defense, I jumped on it with excitement. I still remember knocking to the ground a 30-yard pass thwarting our opponent’s final comeback attempt. That same evening I was attending homecoming with my high school crush. Needless to say, for a brief moment, I felt like a stud. However, those instances were few and far between. Normally, I stood on the sideline and served as a cheerleader wearing shoulder pads.
I did have one job that remained consistent throughout the whole season. I kicked the extra points and field goals. Because I had a soccer background, I could kick a football relatively well. And because no one else on the team was willing to do it, by default I had the job. It really wasn’t a big deal. I made most of my attempts. I botched up a few, but they never really mattered. No game was decided by just a point or two. We had a really good team and won our games handily.
As the season progressed, it became clear that our goal of winning the state championship was within our grasp. We won our district games as well as the state sectional game. Only three opponents stood in our way.
Our team traveled to a small rural town to play the state quarterfinal. I still remember the bus drive down. We had all of our cheerleaders with us and we even had fan buses following. As we drove through the town, we saw signs on every fast food restaurant and small business reading “Closed for the Game.” I couldn’t believe that this small town literally shut down for a high school football game.
When our team took the field for warm-ups, I was stunned as my eyes caught sight of 5,000 spectators crammed into the high school bleachers. Cameramen and news reporters were on each sideline. Some people who couldn’t get into the game were even standing on top of their cars and trucks trying to catch a glimpse of the action. I began to realize how big of a deal this game was.
From the opening kick-off, the game grabbed everyone’s attention. For the first time in the playoffs, we were challenged. This game became a defensive battle as neither team took control on offense. In the second quarter, our defensive coordinator became frustrated with the play of one of our starting safeties and took him out. To my surprise, I was put in the game. Determined to make an impact, I sprinted towards every football, whether it was near me or not. Towards the end of the first half as the opposing team was making a drive, I ran after a thrown ball and dove after a pass. I intercepted it! It was the first interception of my “football career.” My teammates jumped all over me and slapped my shoulder pads in celebration of the stopped drive. As our team chewed on oranges during half time with the score tied 7 – 7, my adrenaline was pumping. I paid greater attention to what our coach had to say at the half, as I finally felt that I was making an impact.
The second half of the game was no different than the first—a defensive battle. The score remained tied 7 – 7 at the end of regulation time. In overtime, each team got the ball from the ten yard line and was given four downs to score. We had the ball first. On the initial play, the referee called the defensive team for a five yard penalty. So we had a first down with the ball on the five yard line. I immediately figured that we had won the game. We had two of the best running backs in the entire state. Five yards would be easy to gain, right? They stopped us three plays in a row! I’ll never forget our coach looking at me and saying, “Get in there, Zach, and kick the field goal.”
I couldn’t believe the game rested on my shoulders now. Although I felt the pressure, I jogged onto the field confidently, trying to think that this kick would be no different than any of the previous ones. However, this kick did matter. It would make a difference, a big difference. For the first time all season, our goal of a state championship was in jeopardy.
I marked off my steps as I did before every kick and waited for the hike. I could sense more than 5,000 sets of eyes peering at me, the news cameras focused on the situation, and the reporters waiting to write the conclusion of this nail-biting game. The ball was hiked, it was a good hold, and I kicked. As soon as I kicked the ball, I could tell it was a bit lower than my normal kicks. An outstretched hand from the other team knocked the ball away, crushing our only chance to score. My head dropped in shame.
Though devastated, I mustered the strength to play defense. Our defense stopped their drive three downs in a row. Then their field goal kicker came into the game on fourth down. His kick sailed through the uprights. Game over. We lost.
Never in my life have I felt like a bigger failure then right then and there. Our chances to win the state championship were gone, and I believed it to be completely my fault. I walked off the field feeling totally dejected. I felt that I had let my team down, especially those seniors who had just finished the last football game of their careers. I felt that I had let our fans, our school, and even our city down. We had been the only school left from our city in the state tournament that year. As I walked off the field, I didn’t want to be seen by anybody. I wanted to crawl into a hole and never come out. I kept my helmet on because I could sense the tears coming.
As I approached the sideline, I caught sight of my dad waiting for me. He had a sincere smile on his face and a sweet sparkle in his eye. He was looking only at me, waiting only for me. He didn’t speak to any of the fans around him or any of the other players as they walked off the field. He focused only on me. I knew exactly where I was going. Crossing the sideline, I threw my helmet to the ground and buried my head into my father’s chest, while tears streamed down my face.
I cried my eyes out in my father’s arms. It was like a moment frozen in time. It may have been only a few minutes, but it felt like an eternity and I didn’t want to let go. I could sense his love for me emanating through him as he held on to me. He didn’t care that the kick failed. He didn’t care that we lost the game. He only cared about being with me. As we stood there embracing, some observed and were touched by this sight of a father and son. What they did not realize is that a remarkable transformation was taking place. The tears of sadness that streamed down my face began to change. They became tears of joy as I realized how greatly I was loved by my father.
Though it has been years since that night, I think of it often. God used my dad to show me a glimpse of the Father’s love. No matter how many times I fail in life, I know that God is standing on the sidelines, just waiting for me to bury my head into his chest and experience his transforming love. God’s love and forgiveness is not based on my failures or successes, but on his character as a dad. And, therefore, his love is an immovable anchor. It speaks healing, restoration, and hope in the midst of my worst failures. It tells me that our relationship is secure–that he is my heavenly Father and my failures cannot change that. And the cross of Christ is the evidence and assurance that my failures will never thwart the outstretched hand of God the Father.
The gospel that secures God’s position as Father is not for the proud or for the perfect, but for the humble, for those who know that they need him. If I had not failed that day and known it, I would not have needed my dad. If I had thought my relationship with my dad was in jeopardy because of my failure, I would not have wanted him. Thankfully, dad’s love reflected the love of the Father. And my life was changed.
Thank you dad.