The following story appears in my book Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down South. Get it here.
The baseball coach felt as if the pastor was talking directly to him. Sure, there was a congregation full of people, but the message was so pointed, so personal, that it felt like a one-on-one conversation.
The sermon was about stepping outside of your comfort zone. The coach had always talked to his high school players about doing the right thing, about what he wanted them to do. He did the same when he was the coach at his previous job. He had never really shown them.
“Baseball is just kind of an avenue for us,” he says.
When the church service was over and he went outside, he told his wife that he wanted to start a Bible study in their home with any player who wanted to come. He then called a friend, who had been a youth pastor at one time. He was all in to help. The next morning, the coach was preparing to tell his players of his new idea when one knocked on his door. He asked his coach if he would be all right with the players starting a Bible study in the locker room. He told the player that he would not believe what happened the day before.
“It was like God’s way of saying, ‘This is what you should do,’” he says.
The Bible study started the following Sunday. It was not mandatory, and players were told that it would not affect their playing time. It was totally separate from baseball. The coach figured on maybe a handful of players showing up. Fifteen of the eighteen on the roster came. Those numbers remained steady. Every Sunday during the baseball season, the players met at their head coach’s home for food, Bible study and fellowship. Sometimes, the studies lasted fifteen minutes. Sometimes, they lasted an hour. Afterward, they would watch the Sunday Night Baseball game on ESPN or play Wii. Players learned a lot about each other. They opened up about family, girlfriends, choices, college. They grew closer.
“It was an unbelievable time of team bonding away from baseball,” he says.
The coach’s favorite memory from those Bible studies is about a player who was selected in the Major League Baseball draft. He decided to instead play football and baseball at an Alabama university. That player came back to his old stomping grounds one Friday night for a football game. The coach stood with him on the sidelines. He asked if he missed the Friday night lights, playing sports at the high school level. The player said that he really didn’t. The coach was floored. How could an athlete not miss high school sports, his glory days? The one thing the player said he missed were those Bible studies.
“It just humbled me,” the coach says.
The coach has continued the Bible studies since becoming the head baseball coach at his third high school. After one of the studies, one of the boys called the coach thirty minutes after everyone left his home. He wanted to come back. They sat on his back porch for two hours, just talking. Without the Bible study, that relationship may have never deepened.
“I think it’s more than a Bible study,” he says. “It brings kids closer together. To me, that’s the special part. And that’s the important stuff. We are giving them an avenue to talk to us.”
The Bible studies happen during the baseball season, though on some occasions they have begun in December because the kids wanted to start them earlier. The coach says the importance varies from kid to kid, from team to team. Each one has a different personality.
“I just think we’ve seen some kids grow closer together,” he says.
The coach led his current team to its first baseball state championship in school history not long ago. He will not go so far as to say the Bible study was why the team won it all, but it was clearly a factor. That team, he says, just had something different about it. They were close. During the playoff run, at Bible studies on Sundays, baseball was not even a topic of conversation.
“We love it,” he says.
At a football game about five months after winning that state championship, the baseball team returned for the ring ceremony. There were four seniors on that team, and they had all started college at three different institutions. This was their first time being back together since graduating. The coach watched as they sat at their own table in the stadium’s press box, just sharing their experiences as college freshmen. It took the coach and his wife back to when they originally started the Bible study.
The coach gestured toward the group and said to his wife, “Look how special that is.”