As I discovered in middle school, there are many benefits of posting Scripture inside your locker door. For example, when you are stuffed inside your locker, there is ample opportunity to memorize the Word as it is directly in front of your face. By the end of seventh grade, not only had I memorized Philippians 4:13, I truly believed I could do all things through Christ, such as fit my 5-foot frame inside a 3-foot opening.
A few months into that year, I figured playing basketball might help my social standing, since there was no place to go but up. Plus, I felt pretty good about my game. At least half the time in our family driveway 2-on-2 matches, I was the MVP of my team. For the record, I’d like to give credit where credit is due: Mom always held her own and was never stingy with the rock.
I showed up to tryouts with about 60 other boys; almost all of them were taller than me. For the next two days I discovered my driveway exploits didn’t translate well to the indoor court and some of the required skills—dribbling, passing, shooting, defense, aggressiveness—weren’t exactly my strong suit.
Team assignments were posted shortly thereafter and I had landed on what students affectionately referred to as the “C” team. The coaches were a little more politically correct about it and called it the “White” team for the color of the jerseys we wore. That was actually quite apropos. While the racial makeup of my school was ethnically diverse, all 15 members of my team were athletically challenged, clumsy, and, well…white. Multiple players sported asthma inhalers and prescription athletic goggles, including yours truly.
The most discouraging part of the whole ordeal was Coach Simpson had me coming off the bench for only a few minutes per game. There I was on the worst team, playing in the worst league, getting some of the least minutes.
A few weeks into the season, I stayed after practice to work on my 3-point shot, and on his way out, Coach noticed I was making more than I was missing.
“Howard, where in the world did you learn how to shoot like that?” (Actually, I remember he used an alternate term for “the world.”)
He hung out with me for a few minutes and I continued to hit 3-pointer after 3-pointer.
“Man, we need to get some open shots for you in the game. I’m going to start calling you ‘Will the Thrill!’”
The next several weeks I played more often and, as long as I could get open, was hitting multiple shots per game. Each time Coach Simpson would yell out, “WILL THE THRILL, BABY!” Even some of the students in the stands began to catch on and, on one occasion, a “Will-the-Thrill, Will-the-Thrill” chant started.
I still look back fondly on those moments seventeen years ago.
Coach Simpson didn’t just give me a nickname. He constantly encouraged me and, despite all my shortcomings, decided to look for something in me beyond the obvious at a time when I didn’t feel like anybody else was willing to.
That relationship gave me so much more confidence; it was actually a springboard for the way I carried myself. While I doubt he ever realized it, Coach Simpson’s belief in me helped my self esteem so dramatically that I had a much easier time making friends in eighth grade and spent a lot less time in my locker.
I think as adults we get so caught up in the hubbub of taking care of ourselves and reaching out to our core group of friends, we forget about those people we might not immediately click with or the people who might seem ordinary at first glance. Many are just waiting for a Coach Simpson to see something in them. With a little encouragement, they could be using their God-given gifts to contribute to the team, to the Kingdom.
Who around you has accepted the lies and labels given by man? Will you take the time to notice and encourage them today?
*Photo credit: Hakan Dahlstrom