Sports Isn’t Everything

Human beings love sports. We also love to win. When we watch a team or athlete we identify with compete and prevail, we vicariously share in their victory. And this human trait is nothing new. The ancient Greeks celebrated their Olympians. The Romans had their famous gladiators and charioteers. In our day, almost one hundred million people watched the Super Bowl last year and more than one billion people around the world tune in to see the World Cup Final. Ironically, most Americans care very little about soccer—the most popular sport on earth, while most of the world has no interest in American football games. Sports, teams, and players, extremely important to some, can be completely disregarded by others.

Vince Lombardi was not the first coach to say it, but he did proclaim this maxim often: “Winning isn’t everything… it’s the only thing.” In his nine seasons coaching the Green Bay Packers, his teams won almost three out of every four games they played, including five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. And yet winning was not really the most important thing to Coach Lombardi. As sportswriter Jerry Izenberg recalls, “He told me one day, ‘I wish to h*** I’d never said that. (I.e., ‘Winning isn’t everything… it’s the only thing.’)” The sportswriter asked, “Well, don’t you believe it?” And Lombardi replied, “What I believe is, if you go out on a football field on Sunday, or any other endeavor in life, and you leave every fiber of what you have on that field when the game finally ends, then you’ve won. And to me that tells a lot more than the final score. And I never made that clear.’” However, I think his players had understood him, despite his imperfect and repeated maxim.

Former Packers reporter Ken Hartnett said of Vince Lombardi, “He was the first coach that I ever heard refer to love in the locker room. He really believed that there was a Christian love that he could incorporate into the team, the love that binds his players together, the love that comes out of sacrifice.” This flowed from Coach Lombardi’s faith. He was Catholic, attended the Sacrifice of the Mass every day, and was an adult altar server, too. “As far as myself is concerned,” he said, “I know my future happiness is, has to be, some other place. I want to try to do the things as well as I can here in order to attain someday maybe a greater happiness.” When Lombardi was dying from aggressive colon cancer fifty years ago this year, his past and present players came to his bedside out of grateful love for him. At his funeral Mass in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, Cardinal Terence Cooke preached, “Vince Lombardi fought the good fight. We believe in that last struggle with death this man won the final victory.

Unless it happens to be our own team, we rarely remember who won or lost state or national championships and titles, even just a few years afterward. Yet how many fans and parents forsake great amounts of time and money, their pleasant mood, or the Sunday worship our God is due on account of such games? There is a proper delight to found in sports, and virtues to be cultivated in their play, yet sports are not everything, nor the most important thing. In the words of St. Paul to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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