When Football Tackles the Meaning of Life

  • Steve Hatter
NFL players tackling each other

I am a football fan. Even though I find it increasingly difficult to watch football on TV— whether college or professional—because of the worldly commercialization and scary wokeness surrounding the sport, I have not yet given up on my interest because I do appreciate elite athletic competition and the drama and excitement such competition produces. So, my curiosity about the latest with the NFL had me watching Monday Night Football (MNF) one week ago, on January 2, 2023.

If you have paid attention to any national news this past week, you know that something unprecedented happened during that MNF game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Buffalo Bills. Much of the nation watched a young man named Damar Hamlin, playing the position of Defensive Safety, crumple to the ground in a terrifying way after making what appeared to all onlookers as a routine tackle on a Bengals pass receiver. For reasons yet to be fully disclosed by medical experts, Damar’s heart completely stopped beating because of his on-field collision, and he fell, lifelessly. Suddenly, a 24-year-old professional athlete’s very life hung in the balance, and all of it was playing out in real-time on national television.

The next minutes and hours proved a time of testing for many. The medical first responders fought the clock to get Damar’s heart beating again. The TV network executives and announcers had to fill an unplanned airtime vacuum during an exceedingly long suspension of play and eventual cancelation of the game entirely. The NFL’s top brass was pressed to speak about the unspeakable—and to decide what to do without a playbook for such a thing. The coaches and players representing both competing teams seemingly paralyzed under emotional shock groped for a sense of what to do or say. Even the fanatic crowds, whether in the stands, or viewing from homes, hotels, bars, or myriad mobile devices, were confronted in the most unexpected way, and thus had to think through what the moment really and truly meant in light of human existence, and more acutely, their existence.

Elite football players are not supposed to die in front of our eyes, but here was one possibly doing just that! And death has a way of shaking even the hardest heart. Its specter pushes almost everyone to consider what really matters in life. So, on January second, football, it seems, forced many to tackle the meaning of life.

As I write one week later, the drama is heading to a mainly happy ending. Thanks to the amazing on-field work of the medical first responders who cut Damar’s uniform off him and performed life-saving CPR, a talented young man has made a miraculous recovery. Although Damar’s football future remains uncertain, his young heart beats unaided, and his mind is intact. Generally, good decisions were made in the throes of the crisis, and public communications proved moral and righteous. Media pundits have talked all week about the right priorities, about noble behavior, and even, cautiously, about faith and prayer in a manner like the weeks and months following national tragedies like 9/11.

I admire, even celebrate all these outcomes and will say that America’s response to this high-drama moment infused me with some hope regarding our culture.

However, it was also glaring to me that most people, and the institutions they serve, live in blissful denial about death. As such, the meaning of life remained mysterious and obscure as the Damar Hamlin drama played out. Even as death barged into wide-ranging blissful denial on that playing field, and proved itself undeniable, people’s understanding about what truly matters most remained, and remains, elusive. An opportunity was missed more than taken. As it so often does, clarity on timeless truth proved stymied by politically correct ambiguity.

People talked and talked about prayer, but little was said regarding who the target of such prayer might be, nor how such prayer might be effectual. For Christians, this sort of thing is not surprising, because the Bible tells of the narrow and wide roads, but I was struck by the sheer magnitude of biblical illiteracy evident throughout all that has transpired since the moment Damar fell.

I say this not to judge, but to offer perspective and even hope! I can attest that God does graciously and tirelessly work through all circumstances to draw people to Himself in the ways and means that only He knows. He does so quietly though, away from the loudspeakers. He works you might say, intimately, on one heart at a time. He confronted me with the specter of death now thirty-three years ago when I was sent off to fight the First Gulf War. He drew me to Himself through unexpected circumstances, and I stand today covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ, saved by His grace alone.

One sports commentator described the emerging story of Damar’s health slowly but steadily improving by Thursday of last week as “universally good news.” He made the comment in the context of first describing how divided our country is from the national level down to individual families and that finding common ground—any common ground—was extraordinary. He is certainly right about that. He went on to say the drama of Damar Hamlin had allowed most to set aside disagreements and rally around the saving of one life, and that evidence Damar would live was indeed universally good news.

My hope and prayer is that one temporal example of universally good news provides the push so many need to be drawn deeper into the ultimate and incomparable universally good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is the authentic good news and therefore the single meaning of life.

Although I never wish pain or hardship on anyone, I am glad that football caused some to tackle the meaning of life, and I look forward to seeing in paradise someday those moved to run harder toward God through the circumstances of Damar’s traumatically stopped heart!

The God of Holy Scripture is the author and sustainer of all life. He controls every heartbeat. He wants your heart to beat for him and only him.

 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16.