Football's Pious Pioneer
The unexpected December 26 death of retired NFL superstar Reggie White incited an outpouring of fond remembrances for the "Minister of Defense," a man known as much for his outspoken faith as for his ferocious pursuit of quarterbacks. White dominated professional football in the 1990s and attracted intense scrutiny when in 1993 he cited God's leading before signing a lavish free-agent contract with the Green Bay Packers.
For more than a decade, White exemplified the growing and obvious influence of Christianity on professional sports and football in particular. He relentlessly rebutted the tired critique of Christian athletes as too soft for competition, and his zeal for the faith helped shape public perception of like-minded competitors as intensely devoted and unceasingly brash. Yet while White's aggressive brand of faith-filled football may appear to be a contemporary phenomenon, it was in fact intrinsic to the game's formative years.
If not for his soft voice and quiet demeanor, Amos Alonzo Stagg would have finished his divinity degree and joined the pastorate. Instead, Stagg fulfilled his calling during the first half of the 20th century at the University of Chicago, where as head coach he invented the tackling dummy, numbered jerseys, huddles, athletic letters, and men in motion. When the forward pass became legal in college football, he had 64 such plays ready to spring upon unsuspecting adversaries.
Stagg was more than just a technical innovator, though. He placed athletics within the eternal narrative of Christ and his church. Stagg was born in 1862 in West Orange, New Jersey, during the initial stages of the Civil War. His devotion to hard work produced success both in the classroom and on the athletic fields during his youth. At the same time, he honed his spiritual disciplines in the Presbyterian church. Acting on the guidance of trusted mentors—his pastor, Sunday school teacher, and sister—Stagg enrolled at Yale University with the intent of becoming a Presbyterian minister.
There Stagg excelled at baseball and football, earning recognition on the first All-American football team. His pitching abilities secured him lucrative offers from professional baseball clubs, but the sport's hard-drinking reputation and his love for amateur competition gave him pause. He still wanted to become a pastor, but Stagg struggled to express his faith in front of large groups. During one conference in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he eavesdropped on legendary university evangelist and ecumenist John Mott, who asked an associate why Stagg "simply can't make a talk."
Stagg had no such problems living his faith, however, and decided to pursue coaching. He accepted his first job out of college in 1888 as head football coach at the School of Christian Workers, a YMCA training school in Springfield, Massachusetts. Anchoring the center of his offensive line was none other than James Naismith, another faith-informed sports innovator. Naismith bounced his ideas about the new game of "basketball" off Stagg, who was prevented by a prior engagement from playing in that sport's landmark first game.
Forged on the Fields of Play
When the 30-year-old Stagg was offered the head-coaching position at the University of Chicago in 1892, he told the university president, "After much thought and prayer, I decided that my life can best be used for my Master's service in the position you have offered." His vision for football's ability to impart virtue to its participants led to the violent sport's acceptance by wary college administrators. Teamwork, sacrifice, and determination would aid colleges in their mission to develop well-rounded Christian men, Stagg argued.
Even then, however, in an academic culture much more concerned with moral development than today's, Stagg's employers also discerned the fledgling sport's knack for attracting media attention and strengthening alumni bonds. In his first two decades as coach, Stagg's Maroons dominated the Big Ten, which the school helped found under a different name in 1896. On campus, Stagg's celebrity rivaled that of the distinguished university's Nobel Prize winners.
Proving their era to be not unlike our own, the University of Chicago thanked Stagg for his 41 years of coaching at the school by firing him in 1933. Ironically, in 1938 Stagg helped clinch his former university's decision to disband their football program by returning to Chicago with his College of the Pacific squad and trouncing the Maroons 32-0. Stagg coached until he was 98, finishing with a record of 314-199-35. In 1965 he died at the age of 103.
Training for the Eternal Crown
Much of Stagg's success can be attributed to his lofty expectations—on and off the field. He viewed football as a grand endeavor in developing biblical manhood. Stagg demanded from his players hard work, intense focus, and sacrifice for the team. Coaching was his contribution to the body of Christ. "Win the athletes of any college for Christ," Stagg said, "and you will have the strongest working element attainable in college life." His holistic approach to coaching defined the role as more than just strategizing.
Were Stagg to stride today onto the sideline at Michigan's Big House or Ohio State's the 'Shoe, he might not recognize the sport he helped craft a century ago. The commercial sponsorship and semiprofessional approach would disappoint this advocate for amateurism. But is the game really so different? Stagg saw in every missed field goal a test of faith, in every tussle at the line of scrimmage the fire of character maturation. Teamwork, he believed, fashions the bonds of Christ-like love, plying the soul to receive the gospel. That's the game of football Reggie White and Amos Alonzo Stagg share.
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