Tears slid down Leanna’s face while she read the ESPN article about her brother’s life. She knew the story was coming out, they’d interviewed her for it, but somehow it still hurt. Ben had been brilliant, charming, a gifted strategist, and a hard worker; a coaching superstar. The talking heads proclaimed him virtually unstoppable, at the top of his game and predicted he’d move on to the NFL soon. With remarkable speed Ben had scaled the equivalent of Mount Everest in the coaching world; coaching football at a Top 10 University. Leanna’s mind drifted back in time reliving the excitement of watching him coach; he’d been so passionate and animated, a sideshow worth watching. Rubbing her weeping eyes she squinted once again at the computer screen.
Eventually all coaches hit a losing streak that shakes their confidence and leaves them questioning their sanity. Ben’s losing streak found him unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the stress. Many coaches seek counseling or religion to deal with it, but Ben chose to find solace in booze. The truth is, he’d been using alcohol as a coping tool for years; a life pattern had been set. Unfortunately after the losing streak ended, his drinking didn’t. The respect he once held with other coaches on his team began to diminish and before long he was on probation. For a while Ben was able to hang onto his pinnacle position with the help of well-meaning coworkers, friends, and family who made excuses for his erratic behavior. Ultimately, he was fired and soon after that his wife filed for divorce. The golden boy was losing his sheen. A smaller university hired then fired him; a pattern that repeated itself many times over the next ten years.
Eventually, Ben found himself coaching a small, unknown team in Italy. It’s a long, lonely road from the top of the coaching world to the bottom and Ben’s decent had been a slow, painful, journey marked by failed coaching positions and relationships. He was self-destructive and it appeared to all his decent was unstoppable, and there it was written on the internet for all the world to read. She felt Ben’s life was being invaded and violated.
Leanna pressed back in her chair then stretched out like a starfish. It was so devastating having her brother’s life spread over the internet, waiting for judgment from all who read it. She could hear them saying, “what a loser, a mess, and a failure.” The article focused almost entirely on his faults as if there was nothing good left inside him. Over his ten year decent he’d gone to rehab twice and stayed sober for almost a year each time, but then something would trigger his addiction and he’d lose another job.
Ben and Leanna had had a tough childhood that left deep emotional scars on both. Leanna turned to Christianity to help heal those scares while Ben chose alcohol. He had been accepting of her faith and attended church with her when he visited. Thoughtful by nature, he sent her and the kids little trinkets from wherever he’d found work. He called regularly to see how she and the kids were doing, usually his words were slurred and his voice altered by the alcohol, but she was always grateful to hear his voice. Each phone call ended with her praying for him and the few times she’d forgotten to pray he’d say, “Aren’t you going to pray?” This warmed her heart and gave her hope. For Leanna’s part she’d send him Christian books about athletes who had turned their lives around by trusting God or music with a Christ centered message with hopes of softening his heart toward God. He read the books and would ask questions about the content, but never took the initial step toward belief in God.
The call notifying her of Ben’s death had come in the middle of the night. She would never forget the shock, disbelief, and bone crushing grief she felt at that moment. Leanna had laid in bed sobbing for hours mourning his life and his lost chance for redemption. The first week after Ben’s death she cried out God in frustration and disappointment, how could He let Ben die without saving him first. After a week of being mad at God and questioning His love she made an appointment to talk with her pastor. She needed answers.
How could she trust a God who didn’t answer the one prayer that lay deepest in her heart? Heading to the car for her appointment with the pastor she walked across the street to collect the mail. Absentmindedly thumbing through it she suddenly stopped. There tucked between the electric bill and junk mail was a letter from Ben. At first she just held it, as if holding her brother. Carefully she opened it not wanting to damage anything he’d touched. The letter started off newsy, his job was fine although the players were dumb as logs and slow as slugs. The food was good but his apartment was small and moldy. The second paragraph started with, “I’ve something to tell you that will make you happy, very happy. I’ve been rereading all those books you sent and started watching some preachers online and well, I’m saved now. For the first time in years my spirit feels light. Did you know that God loves you even when you’ve been a complete screw up? I have a father now, it’s God; couldn’t ask for a better father. We, you and I, couldn’t have a more faithful father, God is good. Thank you for praying for me all those years. I get it now.”
Leanna reached over and picked up Ben’s letter. “Let them talk, I know who you were. You were brilliant, thoughtful, sincere, and charming, a gifted strategist, a hard worker, and an amazing coach. But most of all you are my brother and a son of God, forgiven and renewed in Christ.” She turned off the computer realizing the letter in her hand, a gift from God, held all the info she needed to know about her brother. “Thank you God, you are faithful all the time.”
Debora Shelford Hobbs