I’ve been a football fan all my life and have called football games on the radio for the better part of 30 years. I know how important it is to win, especially in the Southeastern Conference, unquestionably the most dominant football league in the universe.
The Georgia Bulldogs’ most recent season wasn’t one most UGA fans will want to remember. The year ended with the first losing record of head coach Mark Richt’s career and, predictably, many Georgia fans were calling for him to be fired.
We’ve all seen coaches screaming at the top of their lungs at their players, many of them cursing with every other word. And, of course, some of them get away with it because they win on the field more than they lose, so their fans put their hands over their eyes and ears and say that it’s all OK.
A devout Christian, Richt has never been a screamer or a cusser. But some “experts” even criticized him for those aspects this year, saying that “top” coaches never bring their religion into play, that intensity and winning should be their primary focus. Basically, because he is a coach who prefers to let his actions speak louder than his words, he has been a target of criticism.
I want to share a little story with you that illustrates clearly there should be much more considered than whether or not he is winning more often than he is losing that measures the worth of a coach — and a man.
Three weeks ago, James Eunice of Valdosta went duck hunting on a big lake in Lowndes County called Ocean Pond. A 17-year old senior at Valdosta High School, Eunice was a talented baseball player who had already been accepted at the University of Georgia.
But as talented he was on the baseball diamond, Eunice was more passionate about football. He was an emotional leader on the most recent edition of Valdosta’s legendary Wildcats football team. And even though he wasn’t a star on the gridiron, his desire made him determined to be a part of the Bulldogs football team once he got to Athens.
So with that dream in his mind and burning in his heart, Eunice had written Richt a letter that spelled out his plan to walk on at UGA in the fall and be a Dawg.
At some point while on the before mentioned hunt, Eunice apparently fell out of his boat and drowned. His body was recovered on Jan. 31, and his funeral was held this past Saturday.
The Valdosta community was stunned. For a bright, young life so full of potential to be snuffed out so prematurely, lives across the board were shaken from their foundations.
For the last two years, Eunice’s Wildcats football teammate, Jay Rome, was one of the most highly recruited players in the nation. While all of the confusion and despair about Eunice was going on, Rome was one of the top players who committed to the University of Georgia. At the memorial service for his friend, Rome spoke. As part of his message, Rome read a personal letter written to the family from Richt.
Mind you, this was a letter written during perhaps the busiest period of the year for big-time college coaches — a time when they are crisscrossing the nation recruiting those players that will be the lifeblood of their programs for the coming years. For weeks at a time, they don’t see their own families while trying to convince top football players in every nook and cranny across America to come to their schools.
In the letter, the Bulldogs head coach opened up about his own heartbreak in learning of Eunice’s passing and also offered his most sincere prayers for the family. He also shared how he had been contacted by Eunice about his plans to walk on the Bulldogs football squad.
Richt stated that Eunice’s name had been added to the teams’ roster and he had officially “made the team.” The family was then presented an official UGA jersey emblazoned with "EUNICE" across the back, and “23” — the number Eunice wore at Valdosta.
Those gathered at the funeral for James Eunice stood, applauded — and cried.
I know if you are a head football coach at a major university you are supposedly paid to win. I understand that ultimately championships and such are your measuring stick, and that just goes with the territory.
But any human being who believes that any victory on the football field could be more important than what Richt just did for the family of a young man whose life ended much too soon needs to take a long look in a mirror.
Like football, life isn’t a game that should be solely measured by whether or not you lose or win. Rather, it should be measured by how you play the game and whether or not God’s rules are at the center of your performance, both on and off the field.
Coach, thank you for the reminder of that fact, one too many of us forget far too conveniently.