Truth be told, I shouldn’t be a West Point grad looking forward to his 50th reunion in 2019. My freshman year of high school was horrible, though I did rebound and end up with three years on the honor roll to follow. And my freshman year at the University of North Carolina was also pretty bad by USMA standards. And as it turned out, I barely got in on my second try earning a qualified alternate appointment. I recently served on an interview board for one of our Connecticut Congresswomen, and every candidate we interviewed was far better qualified for West Point than I ever was. So, I have always looked back on the opportunity I had to attend the Academy as a gift from God.
That’s why many of the things that mean the most to me in life almost 50 years later I attribute to either West Point or to my wife, whom I met at West Point. One of those things is my love for “The Beautiful Game” or football as the world knows it or soccer as it is called in the U.S. It all began in early September of our Plebe year when I was assigned to the D-3 intramural soccer team. As I remember it, we were gathered together on one of the playing fields down at the North Athletic Fields along the Hudson River. The Firstie in charge asked the 15 or so Plebes standing around if anyone had ever played soccer before and I think three said they had. So, they were automatically assigned to whatever position they said they were good at. When he asked if anyone wanted to play goalie I raised my hand.
I had been a baseball catcher so I thought maybe I could be a goalie, and that was it. It turns out I was actually pretty good at it! I seem to recollect that our Yearling year we made it to the Brigade championship but lost when one of our defenders accidentally deflected the ball into our own goal.
I didn’t have much opportunity to watch or play soccer once we left our Highland home, but I never lost my love for the game. After leaving active duty we moved to Vermont where I played in an adult Saturday morning summer league. I wasn’t as good as most of the younger college players, but I had fun none-the-less. And when we moved to Dallas to attend seminary I played in another league on our seminary team. I had to give up playing goalie in those leagues and played defender instead. At 5 ft. 8 in. I was never destined to be a true goalie in any case. Even while we were in Dallas I never attended a Cowboys game, but I do recall watching the U.S. National Soccer Team play Russia (I think) in the Cowboys’ stadium.
I suppose it goes without saying that my two kids, Jeremy and Lindsay, never had a choice when it came to what they were going to play growing up. They were both introduced to soccer before either of them even knew there were other options; and as it turned out they were both fairly good. They played travel soccer quite a bit and started every game of their high school careers, though they didn’t end up doing anything with it after that. But to this day my son, who’s now 40 still enjoys watching it when he can. At one point in his younger days he even imagined that he wanted to work in the brand new Major League Soccer that was just getting started in the U.S. in the mid-1990’s. He had the opportunity to spend the summer of 1997 as an intern working in the media office of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, which was one of the original teams that no longer exists now. I remember how excited I was for him when that opportunity presented itself … not knowing that one day I would have the opportunity for a similar experience myself.
The story of how that all came about is too long to tell here but suffice it to say that in all my wildest imaginings, I could never have predicted that beginning in late 2003 I would get the chance to work for three years in professional soccer in England! SCORE, which is now Sports Chaplaincy UK, consisted of two people. John, my boss, had started the organization almost 25 years earlier; and besides his full-time work as the director of SCORE, he was also the volunteer chaplain for Manchester United (ManU) Football Club. He oversaw the work of SCORE and represented the ministry in the northern half of England and to the sporting world beyond. I represented SCORE in the southern half of England and primarily worked in soccer, but we also sought to expand the concept of sports chaplaincy into other sports like rugby, cricket, tennis, motor sports, the Olympics, etc. John was the chaplain of ManU; I was the chaplain of Watford Football Club which now plays in the Premier League but was in the next lower league back then.
Basically, we helped local pastors become officially recognized as volunteer chaplains to professional sports teams throughout England. Those three years were an interesting and enjoyable time.
It began in late September of 2003 when I travelled over to England about two months ahead of Avril. This gave me time to shadow my boss for a while, and to begin getting some of our personal affairs in order over there. Two memorable things occurred during those first two months. The first was during a visit with John to the Manchester United training grounds. While waiting in line for lunch in the cafeteria, one of the players came up and followed me down the lunch line. A quick glance over and I discovered that he was none other than Ronaldo.
As a longtime soccer fan, it was all I could do to simply go through the line without gushing all over him and asking for his autograph. The second event occurred in Greece where John and I attended a world-wide sports ministry conference with over 750 people in attendance. During one seminar we were told to turn around and pray with whoever was behind us. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be Ben Peterson, a wrestling gold medalist at the 1972 Munich Olympics.
I had worked out with the wrestling team at UNC, and done intramural wrestling at West Point, so I knew immediately who he was.
In addition to my regular SCORE duties, I also had the opportunity to attend the 24 Hours of Le Mans road race in France. I have been an avid sports car fan for many years, so this was truly a dream come true. I’ve subsequently had the opportunity to attend two more times with the some of my guy friends from England.
As far as regular duties are concerned I had a blast. I probably attended over 75 professional soccer games during our time in England, and I think I only had to pay for one of them. In addition, in my travels around the country I was able to visit dozens of stadiums from the fantastic Anfield of Liverpool Football Club to some smaller venues like Rushdon & Diamonds made famous because the owner was the founder of the once-famous Doc Martens boot
company. I even got to visit Honda’s Formula 1 factory, which was quite fascinating.
One last humorous part of my regular duties was all the soccer that I got to watch on tv at home. Avril is not an avid sports fan, but whenever there was an important game on television all I had to do was tell her there was a game on and she would defer to me and let me watch it. That has only ever been true in all our married life during those three years in England!
Perhaps the most surreal thing that ever occurred was when Avril and I were invited to attend the British National Prayer Breakfast in Westminster Hall at the Houses of Parliament.
It was in the Fall of 2004 and the theme that year was ministry in business and sports. As SCORE’s representative in the South of England, I was asked to help organize the order of service for the event. One perk of that effort was that I was also invited to a formal reception in the residence of the Speaker of the House of Commons the night before the prayer breakfast. All of that was something I never saw coming.
The most poignant event that I was tangentially associated with though, was the London bombings in July of 2005. During my time in the Maine National Guard, I had become a trainer of trainers, and I had recently been doing some seminars around the country on trauma and crisis response ministry. So, it was sort of known that I had some knowledge of the subject. The afternoon of the bombings I received a phone call asking if I could meet with one of the men who attended our church. I was told that he had been on one of the subway trains that had been bombed. In helping him to talk through what had happened I discovered that he was a true hero. Because of his previous work for the railroad industry, he had helped people from the wreckage out to safety, and then gone back and aided rescue workers when they arrived by doing some triage prior to their arrival. He eventually received some formal recognition from the government for his heroism. In addition, one of the people who was killed was a young man who was an avid motor sports fan with some interesting connections. As it happened, I ended up attending his funeral the day we were supposed to have lunch to discuss some future ministry plans.
One of my favorite Bible verses for many years comes from Ephesians 3:20-21 which says, “To him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” God has truly done that for me. He has given me a life far more interesting than I could ever have imagined when I left North Carolina to head up to West Point back in July of 1965.