Why I’m always excited to see the Clemson Tigers play football on New Year’s Day

Back when I was an impressionable sports nut of a kid, I read an influential quote (I think it was from Bobby Knight, but I wasn’t able to confirm that in a quick internet search just now) that gave me many-a-chuckle for many-a-year whenever I’d hear athletes thank God for their various victories.

“You’ll never hear me thanking God after my wins,” this (unfortunately anonymous) coach said. “I hate when guys do that, in fact. What are they saying? That God was against the other team? That’s just a mean thing to say!”

Thanks be to God, my faith has matured. I no longer chuckle at that kind of thing.

Or at least my laughs aren’t borne of sarcasm.

I do remember laughing with joy a few years ago when the first thing Serena Williams said after one of her more thrilling Grand Slam wins was, “I first want to say thanks to our always faithful Jehova God.”

And my laughter even sprouted a few tears after an NBA Finals game when Danny Green shocked a post game interviewer looking for a memorable quote about his amazing string of 4th quarter, game-saving three pointers.

“We serve an awesome God. Thanks be to Him for everything!” is how I remember Green’s response.

He then then returned to his celebrating teammates, and the TV woman seemed stunned.

“Well, there you have it. Back to you,” she said.

(I recalled this scene a few years later after I interviewed an All-State caliber Sweeny High School linebacker for a preseason feature in my local area daily, The Facts. The young man spoke at length, and unsolicited, about his faith and his calling to be an athlete. He said multiple times that he attributes his football success to God’s will. I included all of that, of course, in the article I submitted. But readers never saw it. Every mention of God was duly edited from the published version. Reporters and editors too often just have no good idea of what to do when God comes up in their stories. But I digress.)

All this is to say, I love Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney’s unabashed — and very public — commitment to our Lord. And I’m excited to see his Tigers back in another New Year’s Day game tonight. I’ll be rooting for him in the National Semi-Final Rivalry game against Nick Sabin and the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Does that mean I think God is rooting for Clemson, too?

No, of course not. Don’t count me as a fruitcake who believes our God is a power hungry micro manager. In the years since my impressionable days, I’ve studied the Bible (and the concept for free will) enough to know that’s not His character.

I just like rooting for a guy who approaches sports (and, specifically, winning at sports) in the same way I coach my own athletes. It’s good to have him as an example (along with Serena Williams, Danny Green, Tim Tebow, Jose Altuve and many others, of course) to whom I can point.

When the (mostly beginner) tennis players I coach start to get their first taste of winning, I am quick to sit them down for a discussion about why it’s important to always play to win.

“Because it feels good,” is what they almost always say when I pose the question.

Yes, winning does feel good, I gently admonish them, but that’s not why we should always play to win.

Our Great Commission from God is simple, love others. And a key way we do that is by boldly sharing the great news of Christ — letting others see Christ at work in our lives.

People are drawn to winners. And, when those winners use the attention the world gives them to shine their Light of Christ, victory results for all His kingdom.

Or, to quote Dabo Swinney: “Let the light that shines in you be brighter than the light that shines on you.”

And to quote Apostle Paul: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way as to take the prize. Everyone who competes in the games trains with strict discipline. They do it for a crown that is perishable, but we do it for a crown that is imperishable. Therefore I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight like I am beating the air. No, I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Lord, thank you for the inspirational life (and words) of athletes and coaches who are quick to use their fame to remind The World who is king. Please help me (and all of us) always remember the best reason we have for always playing to win.