Photo Credit: Pixabay.com
Yes, I know. Professional sports have lost its attraction for many of us. Salaries are too high. Personal scandals of players and owners are seemingly rampant. But we should remember that a majority of professionals have maintained the moral compass that guides their lives and performances in their sport. Some might even exhibit a type of ordinary spirituality that helped lift them to the heights of achievement. By ‘ordinary spirituality’ I mean that with which we are all born: the call to draw out the best in ourselves and others toward flourishing and happiness.
Case in point? Joe Thomas, retired left tackle of the Cleveland Browns, who made it into the Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot as announced this past week. Thomas is a first-rate player who racked up 10,363 consecutive successful snaps, 10 consecutive Pro-Bowl games, and universal praise as one of the best left tackles in NFL history. Add to this, most importantly, Thomas is married with four young children and loves being a family man.
Something stirred in Thomas while playing high school football during Wisconsin’s cold fall days and he said to himself, “Count on me.” He made it his mantra. He meant it. Wherever his team needed him, he was there whether he wanted the position or not. He kept the mantra burning during college football and when he was drafted by the Browns. He played 15 years only with the lackluster Browns going through 20 quarterbacks, six coaches, and only one winning season. He never complained. Never sought higher pay or change of teams. He was quoted this week saying, “It was count on me…when times get tough…you can slide next to my side and count on me. This was ingrained in my character and it’s part of my identity.”
Thomas’s career was cut short by a torn biceps muscle, but he managed outstanding statistics in the years he played. One official was quick to say, “Everything you would want in a player in your organization is Joe Thomas, on and off the field.” He is described as a great teammate, stud at his position, well-spoken, no drama off the field, inspires those around him.
This same week LeBron James, the Akron native who will always be a Cleveland idol for helping the Cavaliers win the NBA World Championship in 2016, broke the highest scoring point number held by Kareem Abdul Jabbar for nearly 50 years. In his on-court acceptance speech of an award, James referenced himself – as he always does – as the “kid from Akron, a small town in Ohio.” James grew up in the hard-scrabble urban neighborhood where his single mom raised him and encouraged him to love basketball. When NBA players take to the floor in championship games, he is the only one without the academic pedigree of a college education. No. He was found in a Catholic high school that was struggling to stay alive since the rubber factories closed their doors. And he is proud of that school where he recently paid for a new gym. It is not far from the new school he built through his charitable foundation for elementary children named, I Promise. I like to think some of the religious influence of Catholic Social Justice Teaching seeped deeply into James’s heart refining a moral character as well as an outstanding player.
During his speech, James pointed out his “…real ‘starting five,’” his family. (The starting five are the initial players who start a basketball game.) To James they are his wife, three children, and his mother. As if frozen with stage fright, they stood near him, his two boys giggling with pride, when James said, “I could not have done this without you.” He concluded with a thought that sprung from his beginnings in Akron. “My job,” he said, “is to play at the highest level because there’s a kid in some inner city looking for inspiration.”
As I read about these two men, I was moved by what I thought was a spirit deep within them that has touched millions of followers. Sports writers call it charisma; I call it spiritual force. I don’t know if either man has a religion, but each one acts a kind of religion, especially in his personal life. This is what faith and love for God should do for those of us who invest in religion.
Spirituality is not confined to faith alone. Or prayer. Or religious practices. Or charity. But it isreflected in a ‘count on me’ attitude and providing ‘inspiration’ to lift someone to heights of achievement.
Let’s resolve this week to look at our own wonderful ‘ordinariness’ of spirituality and see how we can use it to help the ‘team’ or inspire someone in need. That is the way the Spirit works: in our ordinariness. How often this week can you say, ‘count on me’ and really mean it?
And, please, let us do what we can to help the people of Turkey and Syria. Check to see if churches near you are collecting anything from money to clothing. Make it part of your prayer rituals. There are many organizations that are faith-based and can get donations to the suffering in this world.
(Quotes for this article were taken from The Cleveland Plain Dealer of February 10, 2023. Further quotes from LeBron James’s acceptance speech came from YouTube.)
Good morning, Mary Ann, Thank you for this wonderful reflection! Like many people, I have become disillusioned with a number of aspects of professional sports. But then along comes a Joe Thomas, and I begin to trust again in the basic goodness of many successful people. The day Thomas was drafted by the Browns, he was not sitting in some big auditorium in a big city. He was in a boat with his dad fishing in a small Wisconsin lake. That fact immediately endeared him to many of us Browns fans. Thank you for highlighting two Cleveland players we can be proud of. Gratefully, Melannie (Go, Guardians!)
Thank you Melannie. Your comment about Joe’s acceptance adds more lustre to an already incomparable career…Mary Ann
Thank you, Sister Mary Ann., Great article, and reflection! You can “count on me” as I sent your article to all my grandchildren. I was sure to get their attention as the article had to do with sports. We are influenced by successful and famous people for sure. It was inspiring to hear the remarks these two men made regarding their identity.
Peg: I hope your grandkids do read the blog. Thank you for sending it. I think these two mean represent so many others who are missionaries through a different lens. S. Mary Ann
Thank you for sharing this information about these terrific players. I am not a big sports fan, but these two exemplify why my family became sports fans in the first place.