As I was writing this post Sunday night, a shooter was opening fire on his football teammates at UVA. Life is so fragile. I pray for those families who lost a son in this horrible shooting; and for the UVA community as they mourn this tragedy. But I still want to celebrate the life lessons that unfolded at UVA last weekend.

Specifically, I want to think about loss in the life of an athlete. A significant loss in my son JP’s athletic life.

This weekend JP played his first big college squash match. UVA vs the #4 ranked Yale Bulldogs. JP was so excited for this. He has worked for years to be in a position to compete at the upper echelons of collegiate squash. This match was his first public step toward that dream.

There is so much I could say about the weekend. But it’s late, I have to work tomorrow, and I just got in from a long drive back from UVA. I must focus on what I view as the essential. 

I find myself thinking: how does a Christian athlete deal with loss? What is enduring about loss? Where is grace in the encounter with loss?

JP’s First Big Match

Nine people play on a college squash team. Each player has a rank and plays against the corresponding number of the other team. JP, playing #5 for his team, hit the glass court for his match against Yale around 12:55 on Saturday. When I say glass court, I mean a squash court that is glass on all sides so spectators can watch. 

UVA’s Myles McIntyre had just notched a scintillating 3-1 win, at the #6 position, over an outstanding player from Yale. Meanwhile, over on court 2, UVA’s #1, Ali Hussein, from Egypt, had just notched a clinical 3-0 win over his opponent. It wasn’t close.

You could smell an upset in the air. 

JP took the court like a man of war. I’ve never seen him so pumped up. So focused. So steely. He flat-rolled a knick on the 5th point of the match. I mean flat rolled: the ball never left its kiss of the floor from the moment it screamed off the front wall to simultaneously knick the side wall and floor. I am talking about a perfect shot, the kind that sings from the strings of an in-form player. It was shaping up to be a great match. 

But then tragedy struck. At 6-5 in the first game, JP’s opponent hit a tricky shot to the front left corner. JP took off after it, at top speed, arriving before the boy had fully cleared. So JP was forced to do a sudden shuffle of his feet to avoid his opponent. As he did so, all in a split second, he landed awkwardly on his left foot. He was barrelling in at full speed and the left ankle rolled over. A sudden sprain. He hopped in pain. It looked bad. He tried to shake it off. 

He kept playing. But he could no longer plant off that ankle. A sudden weakness was exposed. 

His opponent sensed it. He started moving JP from left to right, front to back, for the rest of the game. It was merciless; it was inevitable. JP was moving at like 60% capacity. The outcome was not in doubt. First game to Yale. 11-7.

In the changeover, JP went to the trainer and had his ankle taped. Would it work? 

Not a chance.

The same funereal scenario played out in game 2. JP was the equivalent of Achilles with a spear to the tendon. No matter how valiantly he tried, the outcome was sealed by the fates. Another 11-7 game. Yale now led 2-0. Impossible for JP to come back from this deficit on a bum ankle.

JP took the court for Game 3 anyway. But the outcome was the same. An 11-7 loss. The match was over. 3 games to 0.

To make a long story short, the tide of the overall match soon turned as well. UVA lost a couple of close 5 gamers (that’s shorthand for a close 3-2 loss) and Yale won everywhere they were favored to win. The final result was Yale 6, UVA 3. A deeply disappointing loss for JP and his team. 

Fathering in a time of loss

A little later that day, I took stock of the situation. JP not only lost in his first big college match, but his team lost too, and he walked off the court with a badly sprained ankle that would see him out of action for the next two team matches. It was a devastating blow. 

What was I to say to that? How do you father in such a situation? When your son is already in college and he has a coach and a trainer in his corner? What is my role?

I felt inadequate to the task. Daunted by it. Muted by it. What could I say? When should I say it? 

I let the afternoon pass. I let JP and his brother hang out together in his room while I took care of some things. I asked my wife to pray for me, to pray for wisdom when it came time for me to speak. 

There was a team dinner that night. JP sat with his teammates. I with the parents. 

JP left early with his brother to go back to his room. I stayed for more conversation with the parents, meeting and speaking with new friends for the first time. 

Then I made my way to his room. On the way there, I stopped by the gas station to buy more ice for his ankle. When I arrived, I asked his brother to wait for me in the car. I wanted some time alone with JP. 

I climbed the stairs. I knocked on the door. It was the first time I had ever entered JP’s college dorm. (His Mom had taken him to drop-off weekend, while I stayed home with our other children who had already started school.) JP’s room felt now more like a tomb than a dorm room. What a dashing of hopes! What a crashing of dark waves upon these shores! 

I tore open the top of the bag of ice I had brought. JP found a zip lock bag. I made him an ice pack. He eased onto his bed, sat up with his back against the wall, a pillow behind his shoulders, his legs stretched out. The left ankle was badly swollen, above the ankle. I put the ice pack on it. 

In my heart, I looked to heaven and begged for the right words to come. 

“JP, I’m sad for you. I’m sorry for what happened. I understand how disappointing this must be.”

I looked up. On the wall, above his bed, was a poster of the quarterback Joe Burrow, celebrating his National Championship at LSU. It was the first time I had really noticed it. 

A sudden insight hit me. 

“JP, look at Joe Burrow. What happened to him during his first season in the NFL?”

“He got hurt,” JP replied.

“Yeah, he got hurt,” I echoed. “Season ending knee injury. But I don’t ever recall him lamenting about it. I never recall him looking dejected or defeated. He got hurt. Then he got busy getting healthy again. He was resolute. His champion’s will was not derailed by an injury. He had a setback and he met it. He overcame it.”

“And the next year he led his team to their best season in 20 years or so.” 

“Injuries are a part of an athlete’s life,” I said.  “The trick is how you deal with it. Some athletes grow stronger inside, after an injury.”

Loss and The Cross

“But, JP, that’s just one dimension,” I said, searching for wisdom to try to express something I had been thinking about that afternoon. Indeed, it’s something I have been thinking about over the past several weeks, on this blog: the mystery of suffering. 

“In the Christian life, setbacks and injuries are not wasted; they are not empty of meaning. They are a participation in the mystery of the Cross. As setbacks are a part of an athlete’s life, the cross is a part of the Christian’s life. Jesus himself said: ‘If you want to follow me, if you want to be like me, take up your cross and follow me.’ You can’t draw close to Jesus, you can’t be like him, without sharing in some way in the mystery of the cross.”

“What happened to you today is not just an athletic setback, JP. It’s also a cross. And if it is a cross, then it shares in the nature of Jesus’ Cross. It contains, in other words, buried in the heart of this experience, some grace that will enable your soul to grow through the experience. Some resurrection. That’s what I want to say to you. That in the heart of this disappointment and setback, there is a path for your soul to grow. This is not just a deeply disappointing setback. It’s a cross which, as you bear it and carry it, will cause your soul to grow.  God’s fathering hand will work growth in your soul as you carry this cross.” 

“I don’t know how. I don’t know what exactly it will look like. But in the same way a great athlete grows in fortitude by facing setbacks with courage, a Christian soul grows in grace by carrying the cross in faith, in courage, in love.”

I spoke these words, or words to this effect. He took them in. 

It was late. I had to return to his brother, waiting in the car. I bent down and kissed JP’s forehead and withdrew from the room, returning to the hotel with Alexander. The next day UVA played Columbia and JP stood on the sidelines, a boot over his ankle. You can see him, here, in the picture. He cheered for his teammates as they notched a narrow victory. He left aside his own sadness and invested himself in the good of the team. It was already a sign of growth and maturation: thinking of his team, caring for his team, not just himself.

During the match with Columbia, I spoke to the team trainer and learned of the prognosis: 7-10 days off from any sudden lateral motion. 7-10 days off, in other words, from the squash court. Which means he will miss the next major team match, vs #2 ranked Penn, next Friday. This was a painful sentence for JP.

The outlines of the cross in all of this are abundantly clear. The weight of the loss is clear. From an athletic standpoint, the path through setbacks is clear. 

But what of the Christian soul’s path? 

I wonder: what will be the fruits within JP’s soul of this experience? What and when will be his experience of the resurrection? 

I can’t say. But, in faith, I look forward to watching it unfold.

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