ATLANTA, Ga. — It was like something out of a movie. Something that looked like it belonged in a book manuscript or on a silver screen.
It began with a championship-seasoned coach’s rousing pre-game speech likening his team to a sharp axe, and the bigger, stronger top-ranked Aquinas squad to a tree destined to topple.
But not just any kind of tree — the kind of tree that a grizzled woodsman would want to claim as his late fall/early winter coup to comfort his family.
“Back in the old days, it wasn’t the little old tree that you’d want to cut down,” said ELCA coach Jonathan Gess as he addressed his team in the Georgia Dome locker room before taking the field.
“The little old tree could only heat the house for a week,” he continued. “No. You want to chop down the big tree, because when you chop down the big tree, I’ve got heat for my house all winter long.”
With each word, Gess seemed to systematically chop down every ELCA fear of a repeat performance of the last time the school stepped on the Dome’s turf to play for a championship.
Each carefully crafted and passionately proclaimed analogy penetrated through the doubts that often come during those pre-game moments of a gridiron battle when each team’s players and coaches try to steal subtle peaks at the opponent in an attempt to size each other up.
And make no mistake about it. The Fighting Irish of Aquinas were indeed bigger, stronger…and perhaps in some places faster. If the game were to be decided on passing the eye test, hand Aquinas the trophy and let’s all go home.
They had the five Division I prospects, including Samford-committed quarterback Liam Welch and probable Mississippi State bound wideout Justin Gibbs, and a host of offensive linemen that looked like they should be playing 6A ball.
But as far as Gess was concerned, every big, strong, fast “tree” has an achilles heel — a well sharpened blade.
“Don’t ever look at a man and get fear because he’s bigger,” Gess said. “Make him prove that he’s badder. Make him prove that he’s sharper. And I don’t believe that he is sharper.
“If the axe is sharp, the tree is going down.”
Cut. Scene. The pre-game talk was done, but this is when the narrative turned epic.
Picture a room full of 70 young men and the smattering of older ones crunched tight in a small space, kneeling down on bent knees, some holding each other around the neck, hands laid on each other’s shoulder pads.
Virtually every football team does a pre-game prayer. But I’m not sure how many enter into full blown worship.
This wasn’t your normal recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. And though it has been a pre-championship game ritual since 2012, it’s far from routine.
“Bless the Lord, O my soul. Worship His Holy Name. Sing like never before, O my soul. Worship His holy name.”
You’d expect to see those lyrics on the projection screen at your church on Sunday morning. You’d expect the worship team to sing Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons” with great skill. But what you probably wouldn’t be ready for is a group of 70 teenage warriors collectively using worship as their main tool to prepare to lock horns in a violent game made even more intense by the lofty stakes.
Warriors is what they are on the field. But you knew that. What you may not have known — or taken seriously unless you saw it for yourself — is that buried beneath the tough exterior of 70 football warriors is 70 God worshipers.
Those lyrics I just quoted a couple of paragraphs earlier? That wasn’t part of a pep talk. That was part of the ELCA football team’s DNA. It was the song that embodied the most important part of its pre-game ritual.
It was the proof behind what some probably think was just spiritual sounding coachspeak and hyperbole. You know, the whole bit we hear from Gess and the ELCA program every football season about “Winning the day,” and about using football to help strengthen — and for some, initiate — a young man’s relationship with Jesus Christ. The whole “this is bigger than football” spiel.
Except it’s not a bit nor a spiel. It’s real life for Gess, for his coaching staff and for every young man who puts on that ELCA jersey and buys into its culture and way of life.
I’ve been covering ELCA football for five years. I’ve seen them win big. I’ve seen them lose close. I’ve seen them get embarrassed on the biggest stage. And through it all, I’ve heard that same, consistent, broken record style message — that this is bigger than football.
But Saturday, for the first time, I saw it with my own two eyes. Eyes that unexpectedly found themselves brimming with tears while watching young football warriors turn into God worshipers.
I saw seniors like Chase Burdette and Chandler Reeves, eyes closed, facial features painting the picture of being in a place higher than the championship expectations the ELCA program had created for itself, particularly over the last five years.
I saw guys like quarterback D.J. Hammond — the Air Force commit who turned out to be the star of the day with two touchdowns and close to 200 total yards of offense — lose all bashfulness as he allowed his emotions to get the better of him.
Hammond was a transfer from Luella two years ago. ELCA’s current team has a handful of guys, including tailback Trevor Gear, who left public schools in larger classifications to come to the Class A juggernaut. And people love to speculate why they made the move, who coerced them to do it or what factors weighed into their decision.
I assume that — based on what some folks have said to me over the years — many of us on the outside looking in have, at some point, been tempted to think it’s all about football, and the Christ thing and religion thing is just a strategically placed veil. I myself have wondered at times how deep this spiritual thing really goes at ELCA.
But I wonder if anyone who speculates ever thought enough to ask the young men themselves?
“Yes sir, winning this is one thing that validates my decision to come here (from Luella),” said Hammond. “But it’s this and most of all getting closer to Jesus Christ. These coaches promote Jesus Christ so much that I’ve been fully developed into a relationship with Him since being here. I don’t know if you saw it or not, but during the song (before the game) I was over there crying. It wasn’t about the championship. It was just about how this place has helped me grow and get better.”
I did see his tears. His and a few others. But here’s the awesome part: The spiritual vibe in the post game locker room last year after one of ELCA’s most humiliating losses was just as strong. The prayers were just as passionate. The genuine nature of worship was just as prevalent. Humility’s aroma still wafted through the air.
Winning and success, nor losing and failure don’t change what this program is about and Who it truly seeks to honor. That’s because the foundation of it is not about winning and success. And the measuring stick for improvement is not just solely based on losing games and failure on the field.
My father used to tell me growing up that however you start off in something is typically how you end up, regardless of what does or doesn’t happen in the process.
That’s called foundation. A solid one builds champions on the field. A spiritual one creates champions in real life.
That’s the appeal of ELCA, ladies and gentlemen.
Perhaps Chase Burdette’s father Tim said it best when sharing a video on his Facebook page of Gess’ first address and prayer with the team before leaving the ELCA campus. Above the video he wrote: “This is why I took Chase to ELCA!”
Perhaps it’s because Gess is one of the greatest examples I’ve seen of someone who knows how to balance the intensity and passion of winning on the field with the obligation of training boys to become men of God off the field.
Junior running back Trevor Gear and his family could probably easily echo the sentiments of the elder Burdette. In fact, long before most of us saw this team as a legitimate championship contender, Gear — a transfer from Union Grove — had already made up his mind about his decision to make that move.
“I was just thinking about my future,” Gear said in an interview earlier in the season. “I always knew ELCA had a good program and I knew the coach and learned about the coach — how he was a good man. A God-fearing man. But beyond the football, it was just a good a Christian environment my parents wanted me to be in. It definitely was the right decision.”
Fast forward to early Saturday afternoon as Gear walked through the Georgia Dome tunnel back to the ELCA locker room, this time as a state champion, and armed with more ammunition to prove that nothing about how he felt for his school had changed.
“I just love playing with my brothers,” he said. “It feels amazing coming here, making the Dome. It was the best season I’ve ever played in my life, on and off the field. Being here with them has just been amazing.”
What’s also been amazing is watching how guys who’ve come through this program go on to live strong lives on and off the field once they’re gone. Guys like Isaac Rochelle — defensive lineman at Notre Dame and a part of that 2012 squad that started the pre-game ritual — still contact Gess before big moments and big games, making reference to that song, to their worship and to the life lessons learned during the time in McDonough.
It’s a powerful example of light in a world that keeps reminding us of its seemingly increasing darkness. It reminds me of the headlines the day after the San Bernadino terrorist attacks that purported “God isn’t fixing this.”
Perhaps He is choosing to fix some of our ills by raising up programs like ELCA, coaches like Gess and young men like Burdette, Gear, Hammond and Reeves who prayed powerfully for his position group after wrapping up warm-ups on the field.
To be sure, there will always be naysayers. There will always be people who choose not to believe in God or His Son. There will always be those who will refuse to be convinced that ELCA’s intentions are pure and that poaching the best of the best away from other public schools is not the Chargers’ M.O.
Gess knows that he nor his program will win every heart. Just like he knows his team won’t win every game, or even every possession or every snap. But I imagine in a spiritual sense, he’ll continue to do what he told his guys to do to that big Aquinas tree Saturday.
“You’ve heard me all year long,” Gess said to his guys before their worship moment. “Chop wood. Chop wood. Chop wood. If the blade is sharp, it will cut through.”
In a game that handed ELCA some early adversity eerily reminiscent of the 2014 title game debacle against Mount Paran, the Chargers did this year what they couldn’t find the strength to do in last year’s game.
They kept chopping — seemingly harder as the game grew more difficult. This time their chopping on the field paid off to the tune of 35-14. But don’t be fooled. The character that produced the strength to chop down Aquinas is more about the work Gess led ELCA to do in their hearts during the offseason.
And with each player’s life changed, with each young man that authentically gives his life to Jesus and with each band of brothers that learns through this program how to co-exist, love, fight, war and worship together, another tree of darkness is hewn down.
Gess said the bigger trees are the ones that provide the greatest amount of wood. With all the trees chopped down over Gess’ nine year tenure, it’s been a while since this program experienced an empty fireplace.
And it looks like ELCA’s house will enjoy an especially warm winter this year.
Gabriel Stovall is the founding editor of thecrescentbuzz.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can follow him on Twitter @GabrielStovall1. Follow our site’s page also @crescent_buzz.
Check out behind the scenes video of ELCA’s powerful pre-game moment: