One of the blessings of writing Farewell to Football (available in paperback and Kindle here) has been meeting people along the way, learning from their stories about their relationships with football. I’ve been lucky to find more than four dozen contributors willing to sit for interviews or answer questionnaires. Some are fairly “big names” that college football fans may recognize, like Georgia coaches Mark Richt and John Lilly, or Tony Levine, formerly of the University of Houston. Some are young athletes working hard every day to make it in the NFL, like Case Keenum and Arthur Lynch. Some should always be remembered for their part in transforming who gets to play the game where, like Jerry LeVias and Rufus Cormier. Some may not be well-recognized any longer even as they still hold records, like Houston’s Ketric Sanford. And then there are the singular characters, like Clay Buhler.
Depicted above, Clay Buhler played Biblical Football.
Clay’s brother Wes Buhler works for me at the Writing Center, and these are two high-values young men, mindful and diligent. After a high school career during which he played football at both a large (Texas class 5-A) public high school and small Christian school in the Houston area (and saw some important differences), Clay chose to pursue his college education at Greenville College in Illinois. A four-year liberal-arts college affiliated with the Free Methodist Church, Greenville enrolls around 1,100 students, and competes in NCAA Division III athletics, including football.
To make clear what it’s all about, I will quote the Greenville College football mission statement and vision statement verbatim.
To empower players to live championship lives through the transforming power of an athletic experience taught through Biblical principles.
Our program will be known as a premier small college football team, committed to high academic standards, committed to championship play as well as living championship lives.
We will be a diverse, inclusive, respectful and loving community of athletes passionate in applying biblical values to our athletic experience. We will be a witness to the culture that it is possible to be fierce committed football players and play the game in a way that honors Jesus Christ.
We will be men who lead courageously and accept responsibility. We will choose commitment over comfort. We will enact justice for the weak. We will leave a legacy that lasts beyond our own lives.
InSide Out Coaching
This may sound familiar to readers acquainted with Joe Ehrmann’s book InSide Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives, first published in 2011. In the tradition of critics like Matthew Arnold, Ehrmann works out the details of a central dichotomy, distinguishing between transactional and transformational coaches. My image of the transactional coach, to whom the player is really just a resource to be exploited in pursuit of victory, is someone like Nick Saban stepping over an injured player on the field to yell at an official about a call that went against his team. In my interviews for Farewell to Football, I found strong elements of transformational coaching in the approach taken by my Norwich High School colleague and head football coach John Pluta (whose picture can be found in the gallery of this blog). His prototypical exchange with a player coming off the field, especially after a play didn’t go well, included two questions:
His goal was transformational, to try to help his players grow into young men capable of ongoing problem-solving processes. Football was a path to that destination.
That’s the approach the coaches at Greenville took, and Clay Buhler recently related to me that “InSide Out Coaching is required reading for all the Greenville football coaches.” Just as a small example of the philosophy, Clay says of the photo above, “our coaches made us smile in every team related photo we took. . . . They refused to let us indulge in the ‘false manliness’ we so desperately wanted to.” Countering destructive notions of hyper-masculinity is a big part of the InSide Out Coaching agenda.
The real test of character-based coaching is how the team responds to “football adversity” (which isn’t always what common-sense people would call adversity), and here’s Clay writing in 2013 about the Greenville team’s appearance in the bowl-game for Christian colleges:
When the Panthers accepted a spot in the NCCAA Victory Bowl against a 9-2 Division II program, it seemed unlikely that Greenville would have much success. Indeed, the 67-0 loss was not the desired outcome. However, an article by columnist Jim Alred for the Rome News-Tribune revealed that the Panthers achieved a different victory, and a much more important one. In regards to the game and their season in general, he said, “Down by more than six touchdowns, the Panthers’ players on the sidelines jumped, danced, chanted and cheered. If not for the scoreboard, I would have thought the game was close, or Greenville even had a lead… It’s easy to say how much brotherhood means to your team when you’re winning. It’s another to show everyone how much it means even when you don’t.” Greenville football head coach Robbie Schomaker told the team during the game that champions are born in adversity. Even though the Panthers ended their extraordinary season with no title to show for it, a championship caliber team was definitely born.
The overall impact of the Biblical Football model that Greenville follows, with other small Christian schools, is that Clay looks back at his football experience without ambivalence. “Every day that goes by I appreciate more and more the things that football, my coaches, and my teammates have taught me. I am seeing just how much the skills and character required to be a great football player and teammate translate over into being a great professional, parent, spouse, citizen, etc.”
In response to what I call “The Football Question” (please take the poll) Clay replies enthusiastically: “Not only am I going to be willing to let my children play football, I will be greatly saddened if they do not get the opportunity.”
Clay’s contributions will help Farewell to Football deal with two of the Examination of Conscience questions:
COACHING: does football provide a means for profound character development for the young men who play it?
SERVICE AND FAITH: is football, like military service, really antithetical to Godly life?
Feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments section below. Farewell to Football? is available in paperback through the Amazon and Barnes & Noble online catalogues, and in Kindle format, too.