Sports rarely stand still. It takes a lot to bring them screeching to a halt. As Field of Dreams character Terence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, stated in that unmistakable voice of his, “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”
It’s true that many sports, baseball being just one example, have persevered through trying and sometimes tragic circumstances while also carrying on in the midst of momentous occasions that make up people’s lives. Competitors, so driven by their pursuit of athletic excellence, have often played right on through wars, economic depressions, deaths of family members, the births of their own children, holidays, weddings and funerals.
The situation we now find ourselves in is incredibly unique. These are days in which sports stand still. An eerie silence has rested upon weight rooms, gyms, arenas, courts, stadiums, practice fields, tracks and ballfields around the country. The sports world, like many aspects of life, has momentarily surrendered to the coronavirus pandemic. Without sports, many of us feel like we have suddenly lost part of our identities – and it’s okay to admit it.
This time of year would normally be filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. Instead of March Madness, we now have #MarchSadness, as many on social media have dubbed it. Here at Concordia, the women’s basketball program was denied a chance to repeat as NAIA Division II national champions. In regards to that development, words like hurt, anger, sadness and disappointment have been used by those directly involved.
With football representing Concordia’s most well documented sport dating back to the first half of the 20th century, the program’s history (more on that below) provides some insight as to just how unprecedented this period of athletic inactivity is in Seward and beyond. The first instinct is typically that the show must go on. In the case of the 2020 NAIA basketball tournaments, play continued until it became apparent that the health of players, coaches, staff and spectators was about to be at risk.
Following the acts of terrorism that took place in New York City on Tuesday, September 11, 2001, sports did briefly pause. At Concordia, soccer games scheduled on that very date were postponed and a volleyball invitational slated for that weekend was “canceled due to complications caused by the national terrorist tragedy.” In this instance, it did not take long for sports to return. In some ways, sports helped heal a reeling nation and provide a distraction from the pain and utter shock.
One of the most memorable games of one of the most memorable Bulldog football seasons ever occurred four days after the 9/11 tragedy. Then head coach Courtney Meyer’s squad traveled to South Dakota and upset eighth-ranked Sioux Falls, 17-14. In the aftermath of the victory, Meyer said, “As difficult as the week was for everyone in light of the tragic events in New York, we were able to focus on the game, play inspired football and save our best until the fourth quarter.”
No one from the 2001 Concordia football team had to feel the need to apologize for playing in that game, even if many professional leagues did postpone their events. Sports matter for many reasons. No, it’s not that the outcome of a single game is supremely important, it’s that athletics are bigger than the games and events themselves. Sports are about bringing communities together. They are about emphasizing teamwork and family. They teach us life lessons through the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat and so much more. Sports build leaders and men and women of God.
Early in Concordia’s history, staff, faculty and students alike came to realize that the institution was better when sports coexisted alongside academics. Athletics have frequently been described as the “front porch” of colleges and institutions. A key figure in shaping the beginnings of athletics at Concordia, Professor Walter Hellwege saw the value in intercollegiate sports. He began coaching students at Concordia in 1919 and was the institution’s first head football coach. Hellwege helped get athletics up and running after World War I and would aid in laying the foundation for the programs that we see today. Stated a 1931 edition of the Concordia Broadcaster, “It is largely due to (Hellwege’s) insistence on high ideals of sportsmanship that we not only have had good teams, but that a fine spirit of sportsmanship has been displayed by both teams and rooters in competitive contests.”
The importance of sports certainly lessened at Concordia and all over the country during the 1940s when World War II raged on. That historic time period actually appears to be the most recent instance of total collegiate athletic seasons being wiped out by world events or other unique circumstances. Concordia did not field a football team in 1943 when so many able men served in the war. The Bulldogs returned to the gridiron in 1944 and 1945 with reduced six-man squads.
There have surely been other days when sports stood still. Unpredictable Nebraska weather patterns have a way of wreaking havoc on schedules. But those disturbances typically come and go quickly. In the pros, there are often strikes or lockouts as new labor agreements are hashed out. In college athletics, there may be rare instances when teams cancel their own games or seasons due to financial concerns or lack of athletes. When Kobe Bryant died in January, the Los Angeles Lakers postponed games and players around the NBA paid tribute to his massive impact that transcended sports. If only for a moment, sports stood still.
This situation in 2020 is altogether different. There’s no playbook or manual for how to handle something like this. What do you do when something you dreamed about has been taken away from you? We can all learn from Concordia senior Grace Barry, MVP of the 2019 NAIA Division II women’s basketball tournament. Faced with an abrupt and unfair end to her career, Barry put out a tweet that drew praise from a wide range of people. Wrote a heartbroken Barry, “If we prevent just one person from dying, if by canceling the tournament we prevent one person from losing their sister, daughter, mother, father or son, that is a success in itself.”
Not only were basketball tournaments cut short, but Concordia spring athletic teams had just returned from spring break trips when they learned the remainder of their seasons had been wiped out. We’ve been robbed of watching Jason Munsch and Hhana Haro do their thing. Meanwhile, women’s golf and outdoor track and field never even had a chance to get going. Said head cross country and track and field coach Matt Beisel, “We lost a season and it stinks, but I also know we have an amazing God who loves us. We have resilient kids. All of them that I’ve talked to have expressed a determination not to let it crush their spirit. We’re going to come back stronger next year."
We all know there are things of greater importance than sports, such as the health and safety of this nation and world at this uncertain point in time. But the return of sports will be a sign of our resilience and a cause for celebration. It will feel like we’ve won our country back. That day is coming. It feels like it’s far away, but soon enough the images of a packed Bulldog Stadium and Walz Arena will be a sight for sore eyes. As head women’s basketball coach Drew Olson said, “God will lead us through it.”
For further inspiration, consider the words of author Jon Gordon, who says, “Fear believes in a negative future. Faith believes in a positive future. If neither has happened yet, why don’t we choose to believe in a positive future?” Tweeted Director of Athletics Devin Smith, “Jesus is with us and the Bulldog Nation will not waver or be contained.”
There will be the days that sports stand still. Sometimes those days are needed for the good of ourselves and our neighbors alike. But those days will not last.