I admit I understand football about as well as I understand algebra. There are yards and integers and numbers all over the place – on the field, jerseys, souvenirs and scoreboards. Even the cheerleaders scream about the number one. It’s all kind of obnoxious to someone with a severe numeral phobia like me.
So when I had the opportunity to interview former NFL player, Mark Brunell, for an article I was writing, I was grateful it wasn’t about football. Talk about a fumble – let me count the ways I would have screwed that up! Never mind. Too much math.
The Mark Brunell Charitable Foundation sponsored an overnight camp for local foster children so they could enjoy the camaraderie and fun of a typical summer camp. I attended the kickoff event and met some of the 100 or so campers. They ranged from ages 6 to 15 years old.
But enough about statistics, these children were the faces behind the numbers. They were full of life, filled with excitement and hungry for dinner – which wasn’t going to be served until after Brunell spoke.
The first little boy I talked to was Christian. He was seven, but small for his age. He wore jeans and a grey hoodie that matched his eyes. I tried to coax a smile from his tiny mouth, but it was zipped up like his jacket. I introduced him to my boys and told him that my youngest was eight, thinking since they were close in age they would be fast friends. I peppered him with questions and he answered each one with remarkable brevity.
While asking him about his brother I accidently referred to Christian’s age as eight. With a flicker of excitement he reminded me he was seven. “That’s right! It’s my boy that’s eight,” I exclaimed half confounded by my mistake. “I should try to remember that,” I said with a smile. Finally, he smiled back, and it was worth the wait.
Then, there was a girl who looked to be around nine-years-old whose hair left me scratching my head. She had managed to take the front portion of her shoulder-length locks and put, I’m thinking 40 or so, rubber bands, one after the other on it. It stuck straight up like a unicorn horn, only a unicorn horn slants slightly and this was definitely straight. She seemed like the kind of girl that would believe in unicorns though. Or, with her yellow hair and pretty face maybe she could be a fairy in a far off land.
We spoke about her hair for a few minutes and she flitted off to be with her friends.
Best of all, I had the pleasure of meeting Harry, 14. If Christian was small for his age, Harry was ginormous for his. He wore a green and yellow football jersey, a SpongeBob hat and enormous red sneakers the same size as his age. He told me that he didn’t really want to go to camp, but he ended up having fun. “Now I love it,” Harry said. Not bad for the first day, I thought.
Harry liked sports and told me how he participated in the Special Olympics last year. He told me how he likes to run and play basketball and do push-ups of all things!
I liked Harry. He just had a genuine gentleness about him that belied his physical size. He told me he had good sportsmanship and I congratulated him for that, as I am a terrible loser.
When his friends passed, he told them he was going to be in the newspaper. This seemed to make us both proud. He told me he wanted to be a famous basketball player someday. I wished him the best. I told him I would make sure he was in the newspaper and he would be famous now just by being Harry. He responded with a ginormous smile.
Finally, it was time for Brunell to speak. Footage was shown of him playing football and some legendary upset that involved an interception that I knew nothing about. I did know from interviewing him the day before that he was incredibly kind and sincerely interested in improving the lives of children so I was willing to open myself up to a talk about integers on his behalf.
But to my delight, his speech was a home run! Literally – he talked about baseball! The national passion and the iconic George Herman Ruth who made the country and the world fall in love with a simple stick and a ball, and the glorious sound of the crack when they collide.
After explaining the greatness that Babe Ruth embodied as a baseball player, winning seven pennants and four World Series, enthusiastically comparing him to modern sports icons, he threw the classic curve ball. Babe Ruth was a foster kid.
He grew into greatness and the message was clear there was no reason the room full of kids couldn’t be either.
“When I look at you, each one of your faces – I see greatness. I see the potential for you to go and change our world,” Brunell encouraged. “You have the ability to be great. Do you believe that?”
Sadly, the answer from the crowd of children was a faint yes.
Like any great athlete he wasn’t going to be sidelined by their lackluster response. He had a goal that was about more than football, and I couldn’t help but silently cheer him on.
He told the children how he was a Christian and he was going to share with them his favorite bible verse from Jeremiah 29:11. I instantly recognized those numbers and without trying to sound cosmic, I couldn’t believe his favorite verse was also mine. “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
He explained that the verse isn’t just for people who read the Bible or for football players, but for all of us. “Don’t think for a second that because of where you are in your life that you can’t be great. Don’t think that you can’t make a difference,” Brunell said gaining momentum like a baseball player running toward home plate. “Everyone has hopes and dreams…Believe that the future is bright– that God has a plan for you. Have hope.”
However you score it, whatever game you compare it to, for the kids in this week’s camp and for the rest of us too, his message is a win.