I had the pleasure of serving as a Character Coach for the Leominster High School football team this year. It all started with a phone call between me and the head football coach. Coach Palazzi and I have been friends for about 25 years and during my BC (Before Christ) days. Since coming to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and savior in 2005, Kristie and I have been moving in many directions personally, spiritually and geographically leaving us out of touch with many friends over time.
Shortly after we returned to Massachusetts full-time in June of 2016, I made a phone to call and left a voicemail for coach Palazzi. A few weeks later coach called me back. We ended up having a 45 minute discussion. We caught up on the years to some degree but the conversation quickly turned to each of us expressing sincere concerns for the kids. We immediately found common ground with regard to understanding the pressures that kids are under these days compared to our high school years and we found common ground in the values we desire to impart to our athletes.
Well, at the conclusion of a very positive and constructive conversation between us, coach Palazzi said, “Dan, I would love to have you come talk with the team one night.” The football team plays on Friday nights and they have team dinners every Thursday. It is typically during these dinners that coach has someone speak to the team.
I said to coach, “I appreciate that but what I would like to do first is to meet with you personally to catch up and to share the journey I have been on so that you will really understand the perspective that I am coming from.” Coach agreed and said to call him in two weeks when his schedule flattens out and we will schedule some time to meet.
This discussion took place on a Thursday evening. Two days later on Saturday morning I got a text message from coach Palazzi saying, “I have been thinking a lot about our conversation and I don’t need to wait two weeks for you to come talk with the team.” We chatted and agreed on a date for me to come and talk with the team. The talk was received very well. At the end of the evening, with the Friday night game looming, coach Palazzi said “I expect you on the field at 5 o’clock”.
So, I spent the season with the LHS football team attending virtually every game and as many practices as I could. As I was becoming acclimated to the team and coaches, I was made aware of a young man who is dealing with issues that a 17 year-old kid should not have to deal with. The situation reminded me a little bit of the story William Green shares with kids. William is a former Boston College and Cleveland Browns running back. After seeing some similarities between this young man and William, I called William and asked him if we could arrange a call with this young man. So we coordinated a call during practice for this young man who spent about 15 minutes on the phone with William while William encouraged him to “never quit, never give up”.
I maintained my presence on the field week after week. With four games left in the season, LHS lost a hard fought game that eliminated from the playoffs. Naturally, the question among the coaching staff was “how are the kids going to react?”. Meaning, will they rise up or will they quit? It only takes one kid to quit on his team and to send that team into a freefall decline.
Those kids rose up together and finished the rest of the season without a loss. During the week of practice before the Thanksgiving Day game, coach Palazzi and I were standing at mid-field watching the team practice and coach said, “you know, if it weren’t for you that kid would have quit on everybody”. Instead he is having the best season he has ever had.”
As you can imagine, I hid my tears welling up and started praising the Lord.
I did not share much dialogue with this young man during practices but after the Thanksgiving Day game he came over and gave me a very sincere hug and said “thanks for everything”.
This young man’s salvation is the only thing that will top that moment for me, thus far, as a minister of hope to athletes in Massachusetts. Please pray for this young man. God knows his name and has numbered the hairs upon his head. Also pray for more FCA involvement in Leominster and in your community too.
God is on the move in Massachusetts and He is crafting many more stories like this that only He knows right now. We can rest assured that FCA is one of the tools in God’s toolbelt that He has a firm grip on not only in Massachusetts, but in the Northeast too!
Since 1954, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes has been challenging coaches and athletes on the professional, college, high school, junior high and youth levels to use the powerful medium of athletics to impact the world for Jesus Christ. FCA focuses on serving local communities by equipping, empowering and encouraging people to make a difference for Christ – to see the world impacted for Jesus Christ through the influence of coaches and athletes.
More information can be found at FCA.org.