Excerpt from The Life Coach: Small-Town Lessons on Faith, Family, and Football by Coach Ronnie Gage and Emmet C. (Tom) Thompson II with Alice Sullivan
Faith and Football
My family did not attend church together when I was growing up, but my mom would get up every Sunday and send us to Sunday school. We kids would go as told, but I never remember going to church with my parents. I’m not sure why they never attended. At that time, I never questioned it. I just did what I was told. I do know Mom was baptized in a river in Oklahoma where she grew up, and she was a Christian. We used to go to family reunions and I remember everyone standing around the piano and singing hymns. My mom was part of a Christian family, and I know I’ll get to see her again one day and get to thank her for her part in bringing me to Jesus. Either way, there was never a doubt about my mom and dad caring for us. They loved us and expected good things for their children.
When I was twelve years old, I got invited to go to a church camp in Arkansas. That invitation was a pretense to get me to play third base on the church’s softball team. I guess you could say that sports have been the root of all things good in my life, and it was through that life-changing camp I found Jesus. I came back home and accepted Christ the very next Sunday.
My father had already passed away when I was baptized. Mom didn’t attend the service when I came to the Lord, although I’m not even sure I told her. It was an odd situation, but like many things in my life, that’s just the way it was.
The Impact of Faith on My Life
I’ve been fortunate that Stephanie came from a solid Christian background. We’ve been able to create a Christian
family, and we raised our children in a godly way. Going to church and being baptized on my own wasn’t easy. It takes support to walk the way.
I call myself a Christian. I believe in God. I trust God. I have faith in God. But I am not sure I am always a good disciple of God. My relationship with God is still growing, as it should be. I don’t think it is anywhere near where it needs to be, but I suspect it won’t be perfect until I’m standing next to Him in the great hereafter. Until then, I can look to my family and friends and draw strength and lessons from them.
My daughter Juli has taught me so much about myself and life, so it’s understandable that she would inadvertently give me a lesson on faith. Juli’s husband Sean works in sales for the Dallas Cowboys organization and was thinking about taking a job in California. They were building a stadium out there for two teams. According to Sean, the job would be a boost to his career. Juli and Sean’s daughter was a year-and-a-half old at the time, and we were devastated we’d be so far away from our granddaughter. Neither Stephanie nor I handled the situation well, because we put our needs before the welfare of my daughter’s family.
When I realized what we were doing, I prayed one night for God’s forgiveness. I needed to be a better father and less selfish. The very next afternoon I got a call from my daughter. She told us that Sean had backed out on the deal and they were going to stay in Dallas. There is no doubt in my mind that God intervened.
Living in God’s light doesn’t always mean getting the things you want. You don’t always understand the things that are happening to and around you, but I know He is there. The Almighty has our best interests in mind—even if we don’t. I trust the fact that He will continue to lead my life and I am going to be there with Him one day. I’m going to be there with Jess and everyone in my life that I’ve loved. Knowing that is worth all the mustard seeds of faith I’ve ever planted.
The Importance of Faith in Coaching
I honestly cannot imagine getting up every morning without leaning on the promises God has given me. I also can’t understand how anyone could suit up and take the field without some sort of faith.
If I’m honest, my faith got stronger after my daughter passed away. It took me time to stop being mad. I couldn’t understand why this had happened, but I realized that all I had to lean on was my faith. If we listen, God, the Ultimate Coach, can lead us through anything.
Faith is something I’ve tried to instill in our players. Even though Christianity and any public show of prayer has become taboo to some, I have never been afraid to pray with any of my players. I have prayed before and after every game that I have ever coached, at every school I have ever been. How ridiculous is it that in school that you can’t sit down and pray as a group? I am not trying to teach a creed or cram dogma down their throats. If they don’t feel like praying, they don’t have to. If they don’t want to listen to a message we give, they don’t have to. I do believe we should respect everyone’s beliefs and their religion. But I won’t quit praying just because it makes some people uncomfortable.
In fact, I extend those general lessons by talking to my athletes about the importance of faith and family. I always remind the kids to thank God for everything they’ve got and their families. “Go home and tell your mom and dad you love them and kiss them,” is the most important thing I’ve ever coached my players on. Gratitude for what you have creates a humble heart and having a humble heart is the first step to having faith. People without faith, teams without faith, schools without faith…I imagine those people must live a lonely, miserable life.
I want to make sure my players know that I am a Christian and my faith is in God. I don’t know how you make it without that. Plus, how could I hold my greatest treasure back from my players?
HUDDLE UP WITH TOM THOMPSON:
TAKING IT AND MAKING IT ON FAITH
In November of 2007, I was kicking back in my office when I first heard the name Mike Flynt. The story came over the internet about a Franklin, Tennessee, grandfather who played football for Sul Ross University in the late 1960s and early ’70s. He’d been kicked out of Sul Ross for fighting and never played his senior year, 1971. Flynt finished his credit hours at another college, but technically graduated from Sul Ross. Flash forward a couple of generations, and Flynt is at a Sul Ross reunion opining about missing playing his senior year.
“Stage a comeback,” said Flynt’s old roommate.
That’s all it took. Mike Flynt, a retired fifty-nine-year-old and the inventor of the Powerbase Fitness exercise equipment, found out he was eligible to return to his alma mater. Flynt sold his house and moved back to Texas. He’d eventually get some game time and be the oldest recorded person to play in an NCAA game.
Huh, I thought. And that’s all it took for the wheels to start turning.
I don’t know about you, but I often have conversations with God inside my head. After reading Mike Flynt’s story, the chat went something like this:
“God, I might have some eligibility left.”
He said, “You should act on it.”
Not Just Another Old Guy
As it turns out, it wouldn’t be as easy as just filling out a few forms and suiting up. After Mike Flynt did what he did, the NCAA was deluged with old guys trying to get eligibility back to play. The NCAA already had their guard up, so to speak, when I started the process in December of 2007.
I didn’t ask anybody how I should go about this. I simply went through what I thought would be the logical steps by first contacting the NCAA. I realized that Division III would be the only division I could go into because of my age. I then found out that the individual conferences oversee eligibility issues, not the NCAA. I would have to target a school in a specific conference to get the process going.
There were a few schools nearby, but I focused on Austin College. The school had a robust academic reputation that drew me to it. I emailed Austin’s athletic director about my chances for eligibility and got a less than stellar response: “Thank you for your interest; however, the fact that you have a terminal degree means that most likely you don’t have any eligibility remaining.”
That didn’t surprise me much. It was incredible to the NCAA that anybody could fall through the maze of rules they had to still have eligibility at my age and with my existing degrees. I’m sure they wanted to make it a nonissue for all the Mike Flynt wannabes, and I was initially declined.
Undeterred, I decided to take a more personal approach with a few phone calls, and went to Austin College in February 2008 for some meetings with administrators, and that’s where I met Coach Gage. I received permission to apply for the following fall. I also found an ally in Tim Millerick, the vice-president of student affairs and athletic director. He pushed my cause all the way through the NCAA. It looked like I was going back to school, with or without eligibility to play.
Denied but Determined
I took it on faith that I would be able to get on the team. Camp was scheduled to start on a Sunday. That Friday before I got a call from Austin College’s new assistant athletic director, David Norman, telling me my waiver had been denied. The NCAA wasn’t agreeing with my presentation of the facts; the denial had nothing to do with my age.
I told my wife Teresa about the rejection. She started to quiz me about the rejection. Was that it? Could the decision be appealed? Why don’t you just go back to school and see what happens? She wasn’t wrong. What could it hurt if I kept pushing a little and went back to school? There were appeals. There are always appeals, but I couldn’t take advantage of that if I wasn’t a student.
I kept moving forward and soon went to a football camp that I couldn’t participate in. Coach Gage’s solution to my unique problem was to make me a student coach. All that meant was I could dress up as a coach and stand on the sidelines during games. I would be a glorified fan on Saturdays. During practice, I carried an air horn.
Every five minutes I’d blow it for segment change. That doesn’t sound close to anything I wanted, but it was a step in the right direction. One of the requirements to letter at Austin College was two years of participation in a sport. Student coaching would count as a year of participation. I just had to hang on until the appeal come through.
The clock marched on to September, and still there was no word from the NCAA. I drove back and forth to college every day. My son John Rawles was a toddler at the time, and Teresa was working a full-time job. We had no time together and I was tired. I had such angst and frustration over the whole situation. In one of my conversations with God one morning, I boldly said, “Look, Nolan Ryan does not have to ask you to help him do what he does. You’ve got to give me some hope and help me here. Because if I am not supposed to do this, I want to go home and be a husband and a father.”
After practice that very afternoon, I took a different path back to my car. I’m not sure what made me break from my routine, but I did. I kept hearing my name being called, but my hearing was starting not to be as good as it used to be, so I took another step. Then I thought, No, turn around. There was the athletic director. He had been calling after me and said, “I was looking for you. I spent the entire afternoon with the NCAA going over your situation.” Instantly my stomach pancaked to the sidewalk. I expected he wanted to give me the bad news in person, so I stood there silently as he continued. “I ended up reading the regulations line-by-line with the representative. We finished the last line and I said to the NCAA representative that it looks to me like this man has eligibility. Tom, the representative agreed.”
The only words that formed on my lips were, “Oh, my gosh.”
I almost didn’t hear the athletic director over the blood rushing through my ears. He continued, “There’s a catch. To fulfill the transfer clause, you have to participate for a year as an undergraduate. You’re going to transfer into a grad program, and that is how you do that.”
I can’t honestly tell you if I would have given up or not that day. I don’t think I would have, but I do know I could see God’s hand at every step of the way, and that’s what kept me going. He gave me the inspiration to start this process. He heard my prayer that day walking back to my car. He knew what my limits were, and exactly when to intervene.
How could anyone doubt there is a power in the Lord we call upon that is greater than our own? It’s there and is as necessary a component to a good and successful life as food or air. As necessary as football in Texas.
Over the years, Coach Ronnie Gage has coached in five different school districts in Texas and has returned to live in his hometown of Decatur, Texas, with his wife of forty-two years, Stephanie. They are the parents of three children, Jessica, Julianne, and James. Two children followed in his footsteps by becoming coaches. Learn more at 91Kick.com
Dr. Emmet C. (Tom) Thompson II is a businessman, motivational speaker, assistant football coach and an adjunct professor at Austin College. On November 14, 2009, at 61, he kicked his way into the record books, becoming the oldest football player in NCAA history and the oldest NCAA football player to score a PAT. Tom and his wife, Teresa, reside in Coppell, Texas, and have three children — Eric, Rachel, and Jon Rawles. Learn more at 91Kick.com
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