Any way you slice it, the BYU Cougars have been on fire. The football team had its second straight season of more than 10 wins; it rallied against all five of its Pac-12 opponents this year (including the team that now has the honor of playing Ohio State in the Rose Bowl). It reached into its depth chart while navigating a slew of injuries and still finished the regular season with a top-15 performance.
Then it got snubbed.
A New Year’s Six bowl game might have been a long shot, but there’s no hiding the fact that Cougar Nation is justifiably disappointed with an appearance in the Independence Bowl this Saturday. But what happens next could be as great a measure of character as any accomplishments the team has achieved in the past two years.
I want to share a story with you. It was a chilly November evening in North Carolina. Overflow crowds filled the football stadium. Horns were blaring. Cattle bells were ringing. People were yelling. Cheerleaders were chanting. My son Jeremiah’s high school football team was playing in its second consecutive state championship game. This moment was the culmination of years of hard work; Jeremiah’s work ethic, his attention to detail and his desire to honor what he was doing were always present.
The state championship game was going according to plan. But then it happened. The whistle blew. The play was over. The players from both teams got up off the ground. But Jeremiah did not. He was still on the ground. His teammates waved at the coaches and medical staff to come to the field. They gathered around Jeremiah, and I could tell he was badly hurt. I knew because he clutched the pant leg of one of the medical staff. That is exactly what I did when I broke my leg and tore ligaments in my knee in 1998 in a game against the Dallas Cowboys while I was playing for the Carolina Panthers.
My heart began to beat out of my chest. Fear was present. The coach signaled for me. I ran to the field and broke through the circle of coaches and medical staff surrounding Jeremiah. I got down on one knee and put my left hand on his chest. With my right, I instinctively started to stroke his head. Jeremiah had a tear making its way down his left cheek. I looked at him and smiled. I said, “Son, I love you. I am so proud of you. You literally gave it all so your team could win.”
The medical staff carried him off the field and placed him on the bench. His ankle was about three times its normal size. His leg was broken in eight different places and several ankle ligaments were ruptured. He sustained a significant injury. It was bad. But something happened in that moment that has transformed our lives forever. Even though the stadium was bursting with loud people, Jeremiah and I had a moment where all I could hear was him. I was hurting for my son. He was missing the state championship game with his brothers. He was facing surgery and a long rehab.
In this bad moment, Jeremiah looked at me with the biggest smile on his face, and he said, “Dad, God is so good.” I said, “What did you say, son?” He said, “Dad, God is so good.” I said, “Son, why do you say that?” He said, “Dad, I could have been hurt in the first game of the season. I could have been hurt really bad.” In my mind, I am thinking, Son, do you have any idea how big your ankle is right now? But with the biggest, most peaceful smile — despite a broken leg and ruptured ankle ligaments — my 18-year-old son was praising God for his goodness.
He was not praising God because he made the biggest play to help his team win. He was not praising God because he played the best game of his life. He was praising God when it made no sense to praise him. The depths of God’s goodness met him. My heart of trepidation transformed into a heart of praise. I started praising the goodness of God, too.
Jeremiah’s team won, but he got something so much more valuable than a ring. The goodness of Heavenly Father got him. Even during pain and disappointment, he tasted and saw that God is good.
When disappointments, setbacks and hardships come, no matter how much we think we deserve a break, we can be grateful for the chances to play, the opportunities to learn, the moments of grace. Taste and see that the Lord is good. How happy is the person who takes refuge in him (Psalm 34:8).
The Rev. Derwin Gray played football for Brigham Young University and the NFL. He is the founding and lead pastor of Transformation Church in Indian Land, South Carolina. Portions of this article were adapted from his most recent book, “God, Do You Hear Me?”