ARLINGTON, Texas — We always talk about sports teaching lessons. We probably do this, at least a little, to assuage our guilt about how much of an emphasis we place on what in the end are just games.
In light of the types of unfathomable tragedies we seem to face all too often lately — 20 tiny children being gunned down by a mad man, crazy religious zealots flying planes into buildings, or smaller scale tragedies like an NFL player killing the mother of his child then himself — it is fair to ask what possibly can be learned from a football game or the players who played in it.
The answer is a lot, actually.
There is more to be learned from Sunday’s 27-24 Cowboys victory than what it does to the playoff scenario, or the NFC East race, or Tony Romo’s legacy. There was a lesson in grace, in personal resilience and in faith. And there was no better teacher on the field than Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr.
He happened to have the interception that led to the game-winning field goal in overtime Sunday. It was the second consecutive week he had a big pick to help the Cowboys win. What is instructive is what Carr laid down — sadness and pain — to be able to show up for his life.
Here is a man who played for the Chiefs, been friendly enough with both Jovan Belcher and Kasandra Perkins that he felt he needed to attend her funeral. Belcher is, of course, the player who killed the mother of his child. Perkins was that mother. He walked out of that funeral to a message that his Cowboys teammate Jerry Brown was dead and another teammate, Josh Brent, was in jail charged with intoxication manslaughter in his death.
“When you talk about adversity, I just fall back on my faith,” Carr said. “There are always times where you may doubt something, be hopeless, be nervous, jittery, anxious whatever it is. It is true. I’m just going to say it. In those times, I just get down on my knees.”
He has been on his knees a lot lately, for Perkins, for Brown and like most of us for those children and teachers in Newtown, Conn. Tragedy has a way of making even the most faithful among us ask, “why God?” The questions that follow are how do we carry on? What do we do when the unthinkable happens?
And what Carr said as he stood by his locker struck me as very wise. He said he does not believe he is owed joy. He believes he is responsible for trying to spread it using the unique gift God gave him — playing the game of football.
“Every day, I get up and have an opportunity to bring something special to the world. Today I had three hours out there on the football field to make people forget what is going on in their lives and give them something to cheer about,” Carr said.
Now, maybe you are a baker or a musician, a bus driver or a teacher, or a sports columnist. What I heard Carr saying is the best thing we can do is spread joy in our own way. It is the whole idea of lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness.
“I have so much respect for him,” Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said about Carr afterward.
He was trying, delicately, to navigate this emerging narrative that the Cowboys were rallying around tragedy. Had they turned Brent’s deadly mistake into a solidifying moment? Well, there was Brent on the sideline Sunday, standing with his teammates in street clothes.
There apparently was much debate on the broadcast and at halftime as to whether he belonged there. It is a fair debate. I found myself conflicted as well, until Jones explained how he got there.
“(Jerry Brown’s) mother asked all of his teammates, she asked everybody to have Josh’s back, to support him,” Jones said. “She said Jerry (Brown) would want this, would want them to support him.”
That is the lesson in grace I was talking about. It is always amazing to me these people who choose forgiveness when anger is the more understandable emotion. One of the more touching moments of this Newtown tragedy was hearing the father of Emilie Parker, one of the murdered children, saying how he was praying for the family of the shooter.
“I can’t imagine how hard this experience must be for you,” Robbie Parker said, “and I want you to know that our family and our love and support goes out to you as well.”
It is an unfathomable display of love in the face of unfathomable tragedy. It speaks to his faith, his compassion. It also speaks to the very best of us. And there are more Robbie Parkers and Stacey Jacksons (Brown’s mom) than there are those who do these unspeakable things. It is those people who provide hope in moments of doubt.
“I am sure she has had some moments where she has been hurt or angry,” Cowboys defensive end Marcus Spears said of Brown’s mom. “Her faith lies in Christ and, when you do that, things tend to not work out how the world views them.”
This undoubtedly will make a lot of people uncomfortable, Spears and Carr talking about faith. There are always those who say such a thing does not belong in sports. They will say talk about football. Talk about Romo being the first quarterback in forever to throw for more than 300 yards against this Steelers defense. Talk about the mistakes that Steelers receiver Antonio Brown made that cost them the game. Talk about how the Cowboys can win the NFC East now. Talk about how Cowboys coach Jason Garrett likely saved his job. Talk about how exceptional Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger played until that final interception. Why do you have to bring faith into this? That will be the criticism.
Why, is simple. It is because we say we love sports because of the lessons they teach, lessons in personal resilience, in faith, in grace, in pressing on and in staying together as a team even in the worst of times.
This is just a game. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into it, but maybe we do because we need important allegories in today’s world. And maybe I am silly to take what most people look at as a football game and turn it into something more, but that is what makes sports special.