God’s 12th Man

February 11, 2008

I spent my first two years of college at Texas A&M University. As an atheist I never really fit in in the heavily Christian environment, but there was an infectious enthusiasm among the student body that was hard not to admire. The school is renowned for its many traditions, and it was oddly refreshing to see the zeal with which the students upheld them. I only realized after I left to go to another school that there was a real sense of hope and self-sacrifice on that campus that is rare to find among young people these days.

One of my favorite traditions was that of the “12th Man“: back in 1922 the Aggie football team was the underdog in a game against the top-ranked team in the nation. They were slowly but surely pulling ahead, but had so many players injured that it looked like they might not have enough men to finish the game. The coach had seen that E. King Gill, a reserve football player who was now on the basketball team, was in attendance, and the coach asked him if he would be willing to go in the game if needed to keep the required eleven men on the field. Gill gladly said yes, and remained standing throughout the game as a gesture to the coach of his readiness to serve. Still today, all A&M students remain standing throughout the entirety of every game as a gesture that, like Gill, each of them is ready to be a 12th man, prepared to go out onto the field and slog it out for their team at the coach’s word.

I’ve been reminded of this tradition over and over again as I think about my newfound faith, and how I hope to incorporate it into my life.

Now that the newness of being a Christian has begun to wear off, I find that I have to try harder to center my life around God. An initial shockwave of excitement at realizing that God actually exists carried me along for a while, making any kind of spiritual growth automatically fun and exciting. Now that the “new convert” energy has lessened, I find myself walking an increasingly fine line between being comfortable with my newfound religion and taking it for granted.

One of the things I’ve caught myself doing lately is setting limits on how high I should set my spiritual goals. It always goes something like this: I’ll hear some inspiring story about the great level of abandonment to God that a saint achieved — e.g. that St. Therese of Lisieux was humble to the point of getting on her knees to ask for forgiveness when accused of breaking a vase she did not actually break, or that St. Juan Diego was so dedicated to the Eucharist that he would walk on bare feet for miles to get to the church multiple times per week, or how St. Francis of Assisi did not require a single material possession for his extraordinary joy — and I’ll feel great awe and admiration…and then quickly tell myself that that’s not something I should attempt to achieve.

My excuse used to be that it would be prideful to even attempt it, but then I learned that trying to become a saintly person is not a matter of pride since the only way to do it is to “die” to yourself, to move your ego out of the way and let God do all the work. Yet even after that realization I still couldn’t quite seem to get on fire about the idea of trying to reach the level of holiness of the great Christians, to aim to be among the men and women throughout history, known and unknown, who truly put God first in every single part of their lives. Though I didn’t realize it until recently, in the back of my mind was a vague feeling that it wasn’t necessary.

Though I never articulated it, the thought process went something like this: God changed the world through people like St. Therese, St. Juan Diego and St. Francis. Obviously, he’s not going to change the world through me, so there’s no need for me to aspire to quite that level of dedication to living the Gospel. What I’m doing right now has really improved my little corner of the world by bringing me and my family closer to God, and God knows my heart so therefore he’s aware that I’m a basically good person (at least I try to be), and that’s what matters. For me, I would think, there’s really no need to even try to do all that radical abandonment stuff the Christians you read about in history books have done.

Lately, as soon as I start slipping into this mentality, that idea of the 12th Man comes to mind.

The Aggies ended up winning that game back in 1922, yet E. King Gill never actually played. When asked about his role in the game, he once replied, “I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me.” When it became clear that he wouldn’t be called onto the field, that there would be no use for him as a big player in the game, he could have taken a seat — as so many Aggies since then have undoubtedly been tempted to do during games in the sweltering Texas heat — yet he didn’t, and they still don’t. What motivates the Aggies to remain standing through the games is not a realistic possibility of being called onto the playing field; it’s not about feeling like it’s necessary in order to be a good fan, since simply showing up and wearing team colors would be sufficient; and it’s definitely not a certainty that they could even contribute much to the game if they were called. It is an act of love: they love their school, love their football team, and they stand because each one of them really would be willing to go out onto the field and give it their all on the off chance that the coach asked them to (anyone who knows many Aggies knows that that’s not an exaggeration!)

Like all bold acts of hope and optimism and love, the enthusiasm is contagious. The standing fans impact the game, even though they’re never called out onto the field. To be in the stands and see every single person around you on their feet — even though you’re in the terrible freshman seats at the top of the stadium, even though it’s late in the third quarter and the temperature is dizzyingly close to 100 degrees — will inspire even the most grouchy cynic (ahem) to rise to her feet as well.

I realize that if I were to be spiritually mature enough to grasp even a fraction of God’s perfect love, I wouldn’t need any kind of rationalization for wanting to reach a saint-like level of abandonment to his will. But until then, when I fall into that apathetic mindset of aiming for something less than great holiness, I like the thought of just trying to be God’s “12th Man.”

Even when in my short-sightedness I don’t understand why I should seriously aim for the humility of St. Therese, the dedication of St. Juan Diego, or the detachment from worldly comforts of St. Francis; even when I feel like I couldn’t get there anyway; even when I feel certain that God has no plans to “put me in the game, ” to work through me to do good on a large scale as he did with those people…what an act of love it would be to get ready anyway, to put forth the extra effort and discomfort to get to my feet and remain standing as God’s 12th Man.


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