I still remember attending my first football game.
I was a socially backwards kind of kid. My legal blindness kept me from doing things most fully sighted kids did. While I tried to be independent and fit in with the crowd, there was still a lot I missed out on. My family struggled financially and my step-dad’s health was frail so we didn’t go anywhere, isolating me even further.
Even though my step-dad didn’t attend church, my mother took us faithfully every Sunday morning and evening. We were heavily involved in youth group and even attended midweek bible studies together. But, I suppose because of my limited vision and my dysfunctional, divided family, I was a gawky, insecure teenager who had trouble finding my place in the world. If it weren’t for some wonderful people at the Pantano Christian Church in Tucson, Arizona, I would not be who I am today. Those loving people showed me how to live a life pleasing to God. Their examples taught me the essence of strong families and marriages. They believed in me and gave me chances to shine in ways the world or my immediate family never had the patience to do.
Eugene was one of those special people. An elder in the church, Gene had lost his right hand up to the third knuckle in a farming accident when he was a teenager. He and his wife, Martha, lost a little baby girl to Infant Death Syndrome whom I found out later would have been about my age. Gene proclaimed himself my church dad. He championed me in singing solos at church. He asked me to play the piano at the retirement home where he served as maintenance director. He scolded me for walking in the March of Dimes Walk-a-thon on a Sunday. When we stood in a prayer circle, he positioned himself so I was on his right side where I had to hold his broken hand. The silent message was, “I’m comfortable with my handicap; you can be comfortable with yours.”
And he took me to my first football game.
Our seats were in the 86th row of the end zone in the nose bleed section of the towering University of Arizona football stadium. No matter. Gene, Martha, their two sons, and daughter-in-law settled in for a rousing game, treating me like one of their family. Gene took great pleasure in buying me a souvenir stadium cup full of Coke, more soda than I had drunk in a month!
To my limited eyes, the players looked like nothing more than a blur of red and white ants. Through mobility training with the State Rehabilitation Services, I had recently acquired a monocular, a miniature telescope that helped me decipher street signs, see leaves on th trees, and read the blackboard at school. While a monocular magnifies whatever you are trying to see, it limits your field of vision. Unable to follow the fast paced football game, a game I didn’t understand anyway, I quickly became frustrated and dropped the monocular to my lap.
Gene never coddled me. Nor was he one to ignore a situation. He told me the shirt number of the quarterback and helped me locate him on the field. Then Gene said, “Keep your eye on the quarterback because the play always starts with him.”
Sure enough, I kept my eyepiece trained on the quarterback, then followed the ball as it left his hands. God in his heaven smiled and let the next play culminate into a touchdown. Everyone else around us thought I was just another loyal fan screaming for my team. Only Gene and Martha heard my squeal of delight, “I saw it! I saw it!”
Years later, I heard that Martha had died and Gene was about to move to his son’s home in Oregon. I called to express my sympathy, hoping for the chance to tell my “church dad” the impact he had on my life. For half an hour, Gene told me all about Martha’s last days, the funeral, who came, who sent flowers, and how Martha had touched so many lives in her final years. As we wound up our conversation, I told Gene how special it was to be able to talk to him and we began sharing memories.
“Remember that football game I took you to?” he asked.
“How could I forget?” I said. “I kept the stadium cup you bought for me for years.” I opened my mouth to tell him how much he meant to me, how much he had done for me that he didn’t even know.
But maybe he did. He interrupted me. “Remember what I told you?”
“Keep my eye on the quarterback,” I said, trying to keep my voice from shaking.
“That’s right,” he replied. With that, our conversation ended.
I think we both knew what he meant.
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfector of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Because the play always starts with Him.