Reviewed by Jason Byassee
Grandpa on the Gridiron
If you could have anything to do over in your life, what would it be? For Mike Flynt the answer was simple. He'd been kicked off the football team at Sul Ross University in Alpine, Texas just before his senior year. Even though the final incident of brawling was nothing compared to what he'd done previously, the administration had seen his name in the police blotter for the last time. So just before he was to start as a linebacker and lead as a co-captain, he was out—and so heartbroken he couldn't bring himself to speak to his erstwhile teammates for decades.
The dropout did just fine for himself. His skills as an athlete and motivator came in handy when the pioneering field of strength and conditioning coaching hit bigtime college sports. He taught players at Nebraska, Oregon, and Texas A&M how to keep in top shape—and at 59, he himself had the same weight and waistline as 30 years prior. When he confessed to old teammates that the greatest regret in his life was missing that senior season, he added, for good measure, "You know, what really gets me more than anything about all of it is that I still feel like I can play." One responded, innocently enough, "Why don't you?" A trip down to rugged west Texas for a flag football game with 18-year old freshmen followed, a call to the NCAA revealed no time limit on playing four collegiate seasons, and he re-enrolled, tried out, and made the team.
The Senior ain't great literature, even as sports memoirs go. One wishes an editor had warned Flynt against use of the adjective "special" and passed on a pep talk against sports clichés: "Our young people are our nation's greatest resource." But the book has its moments. Flynt is chosen for a random NCAA drug test after one game, and quips he might test positive for Geritol. During his brawler days back at Sul Ross, he earned a B in Humans Relations ("How's that for irony?") for beating up a campus bully whom his professor particularly disliked. Even the sportswriting has its moments, especially when it veers from the norm. Though head coach Steve Wright comes in for praise for letting Flynt try out for the team and shielding him from the media for a month, that relationship clearly was not warm. Coach is criticized for missteps personal and professional. One can imagine the confidence it took to allow a "player" older and wiser (and more successful?) than himself into his own locker room. One can also imagine the university debating the risk of liability and ridicule behind letting "the senior" (what a nickname!) suit up. But Flynt's impressive skills as a salesman will undoubtedly benefit the university. Surely Hollywood will find the premise irresistible, and maybe a movie deal will do for Sul Ross what Friday Night Lights has already done for Flynt's football-insane high school alma mater, Odessa Permian?
The theology informing this real-life tall tale befits the born-again faith dear to west Texas, in its toughness and treacle both. Flynt came to Christ through despair over being charged with fraud for having participated in a friend's pyramid scheme. When he mentioned thoughts of suicide to his wife, she witnessed to him—and something clicked. In the book's most memorable scene, we see the muscle-bound middle-aged ex-brawler resorting to his daughter's Bible-books-for-children after failing to read the adult version. The brawling part of his personality was born when his enraged father yelled at him that he was a runt, and that was all he ever would be. Not surprisingly, maniacal weightlifting and fighting prowess followed. He admits he used to imagine fighting anyone he met, and not infrequently made good on that fantasy. But "by the grace of God, I don't think I've even had the desire to throw [a punch] again." Still, one detects a note of pride in descriptions of his boxing prowess. After all, it earned him not only a B in Human Relations but also a certain amount of self-respect—and, likely, the physical acumen still to play football in his late fifties.
If Disney handles the script, we can guess how the story will end: a starting job at his old linebacker slot, a championship for the team, and a misty-eyed speech about working hard to accomplish your goals. The book is packaged that way by Thomas Nelson: a uniformed Flynt glowers from the cover, looking every bit his six decades except for the bulging biceps; blazoned on the back is the slogan, "It's Never Too Late to Tackle Your Dreams!" Life was a bit less malleable to our desires than that: Flynt spent most of the time battling a variety of injuries, got in as a blocker on extra points and field goals about midway through the season, and in the final game managed to play a series of downs at linebacker without making a tackle. Suddenly his senior season is done, and there's no Rudy moment of athletic excellence at all.
Except that he made the team. And that's more than enough. At the heart of this wonderfully improbable story is the mystery of time that St. Augustine marveled at. What is time, anyway? It's a knife's edge. It's gone faster than an instant. I think I know what it is, till someone asks me, and then I go mute. But it's precisely the unstoppable flux of time in which we creatures live, love, work, worship—in short, in which we are. And that flux is the best creaturely analogy to the eternal timelessness of God. Augustine the biblical reader tweaks Augustine the Platonist on this point: time is not simply a tragedy as it slips through the hourglass, though it feels enough like it if former athletes try to run again, lovers to love again, and so on. Most of us are not Mike Flynt. We can't go back, even if we wanted to—the past is more inaccessible than the farthest reach of outer space. But it is precisely in time that God comes to save in Christ and his church. The relentless progress of time—always forward, never back—is the condition of the possibility of salvation by the enfleshed God.
And that's how most of us will see the "redemption" of our past—to use a word thrown around a bit pollyannishly here. Not by going back and redoing what needs be redone, but by confessing our faults, seeking God's and others' forgiveness, and waiting for him to make all things—even our gravest disappointments—new. Americans love the story of the underdog who works hard and achieves her or his dreams. It's a fine story, even as it is repeated ad nauseum. It's just not the Story that matters most.
Jason Byassee is director of the Center for Theology, Writing & Media at Duke Divinity School.
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