Losing Winners: A Lesson from Saban and Hoke

Iron Bowl

Iron Bowl (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just moments after Alabama’s T. J. Yeldon stepped out of bounds, I stepped away from the TV screen and out into the parking lot of the seafood restaurant. It wasn’t clear whether the refs would allow one second on the clock or not, and it didn’t seem to matter. The game was going into overtime. Only as my mother followed the live feed from her smartphone in the backseat of our minivan did I realize that I would have to watch the most amazing ending to a college football game ever, on YouTube. And I almost couldn’t believe it then. The game was tied, and Alabama had the ball. Why take the risk? What could Nick Saban have been thinking?

That was the second time that day I’d felt that way. Only a few hours earlier – same mother, same smartphone – I had listened as Brady Hoke called for his Michigan offense to attempt the two-point conversion, fail, and lose “The Game” to Ohio State by a single point. Why didn’t he just kick the extra point and go into overtime? What was he thinking?

Truth:

I don’t know what either man was thinking two Saturdays ago. Perhaps no one – maybe including themselves – fully knows that.

Truth:

I’m not all that much of a sports fan. Obviously. True sports fans don’t take a day trip to Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile to see the Christmas lights and let their mothers narrate the play-by-play en route while their teams are playing the biggest game of the regular season.

Truth:

After thinking it over, I still believe that each man would make the same call again, given the opportunity.

And if they wouldn’t, I would.

Not that my opinion on sports is worth anything. But this isn’t about sports; it’s about life. (And when life is about sports, then something is seriously out of balance.) There was something very powerful on display at the end of both games, and though both my teams lost, they lost like winners.

They lost because they chose a tiny window of opportunity rather than play it safe. They lost because they preferred using the very small advantage they possessed to handing the ball back to the other team. They lost because they would rather win than yield. They lost because victory appeared to be within their grasp, and they thought it better to lunge and miss than to pass up an opportunity that might never come again.

Here, a true sports fan might argue all the missed opportunities leading up to those final, crucial moments, or he might point out that a better team had nothing to fear from overtime. But I’m not concerned with football strategies right now; it’s the attitude that impresses me for the moment.

It’s the attitude that says, “I can; therefore, I will.”

Left unspoken is the understanding, “If I don’t, then I’ll die trying.”

Sometimes…

Sometimes, like Alabama and Michigan on November 30, 2013, they die.

Sometimes, like George Washington or Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay or Neil Armstrong, they don’t.

Sometimes, like William Carey or Jim Elliot or Adoniram Judson, they simply can’t.

They can’t because Jesus said, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s, will save it.” There’s something distinctly Christian about this attitude, when submitted to the Lordship of Christ.

It’s found in the words of Paul when he insists upon going to Jerusalem despite warnings from God himself that he would be arrested upon arrival. His response? “None of this changes my mind. I don’t count my life dear to myself. I simply want to finish my days proclaiming the Gospel of God’s grace.” (cf. Acts 20:24)

And once he was arrested and sitting in prison? “My hope is that Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or death, for to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:20-21)

He couldn’t lose, because even in death, he wins! And that’s true of every Christian. But if it’s true, why do we so often play it safe?

Because…

It’s so much easier to hang on to the ball and do nothing with it; it’s harder to run the risk of losing it all. It’s so much easier to go for the extra point, tie things up, and keep everyone happy; it’s much harder to go for the win and risk losing all your support.

Can we put some clothes on these ideas?

It’s easier to invest yourself in a ministry that will get you a lot of attention; it’s harder to serve the Lord in obscurity.

It’s easier to keep back a little more money to provide a little extra cushion against life; it’s harder to invest more in the Lord’s work and trust him to guard against the unknown.

It’s easier to cling to traditional practices long after they’ve become obsolete; it’s harder to apply Scriptural principles in new ways few have tried before.

It’s easier to leave a church family when things aren’t going smoothly, feelings are getting hurt, and the leadership seems misguided; it’s harder to remain committed to the communion of faith and ministry of grace and to work for the health and witness of Christ’s body.

It’s easier to remain silent in a community of unbelievers, hoping that good deeds will lead others to think you’re a Christian instead of a good Muslim or Buddhist; it’s harder to share the essence of your faith verbally and without compromise.

It’s easier to hand Gospel tracts to strangers; it’s harder to develop relationships with people not like you, learning to love them, and looking for opportunities for God to use you in bearing witness for him.

One of the world’s most elite fighting forces, Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) has for their motto: “Who Dares Wins.” That’s what we saw on display between Saban and Hoke two weeks ago. Only they didn’t win. But they might have. And I suspect that the same spirit that led to such spectacular attempts and failures, will, over time, produce far more wins than losses.

But for Christians, the only real loss would be not to try at all, because God has guaranteed us ultimate victory. It was this confidence that led William Carey to urge, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.”

The question that faces every follower of Christ, then, is not “Can we make the game-winning field goal?” or “Can we complete the two-point conversion?” In Christ, God has already assured us that we can…and will.

The question is, given the promises of an unfailing God and the power of his Gospel…“Will we even try?”

Try what? What would you do for God if you knew you couldn’t possibly fail? Let me know in the comments!

Update: I wrote this before the rumor mill began discussing – in earnest – Saban’s departure to Texas, which might tarnish his image in the minds of some readers. Think of him as a metaphor more than a man.

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