Of Transplant Pastors & New England Sports Fandom

I’m 36 years old, and I’m from Dallas, Texas.

So what does that have to do with anything? Well, it means that I hit my most formative “fan years” at a very specific time period and in a very specific place. In the early nineties, like every other 10-year-old boy I knew, I began to become acutely aware of professional sports, and I was certain that I was going to be a multi-sport athlete when I grew up.

And if you’re hitting that moment while living in Dallas in the early nineties, then the Dallas Cowboys were an easy team to root for. The big three (Aikman, Emmitt and Irvin) were like demi-gods to a boy who didn’t know Jesus yet. It didn’t matter what they might be like off the field, in my mind they could do no wrong.

They were record-breaking all stars who won three championships in four years, and they would each rightfully end up in the NFL Hall of Fame. And that doesn’t even take the time to speak to other Hall of Famers on that team. Guys like Deion Sanders, Larry Allen and Charles Haley meant that the early nineties Dallas Cowboys were really, really good. And ten-year-old Stephen was having a really, really good time following them.

When we get lost in the moment ... we send a message to those who don’t know Jesus yet that temporary things are worth our worship.
— Stephen Woodard

But I didn’t stay ten forever. And when I grew up, God called me to be a pastor instead of that multi-sport athlete. (I’m obviously happy God changed my totally believable plans, but every once in a while, that little kid in me wonders if it’s still possible to do both.)

Despite my begging, God hasn’t seen fit to let the Cowboys be any good since those days long ago when I was a kid. That can be frustrating at times, but during football season, what can seem even more frustrating is that He called this wishful-thinking Cowboys fan to pour his life out in New England.

As an outsider, watching New England sports fans is fascinating. I don’t know if there’s a similar case study anywhere in sports history. It’s a unique situation to have a fan base that dealt for so long with letdown only to have a complete turnaround and now go so long with unmatched success. Any 10-year-old kids growing up in New England in the last few years have been having a really good time, too.

So what’s a transplanted pastor from Dallas supposed to say whenever the Patriots make it to yet another championship game? Well, first I say congratulations. I want my people to understand that I’m genuinely excited about the things they get excited about.

But secondly, perhaps I could speak as a sports fan outsider to those followers of Jesus who are currently hanging out on the football mountaintop. I’m really glad that Jesus eventually captured my heart more than Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin did. Those guys deserved their professional honors, but they could never be anything more than sinful men unable to carry the weight of worship that Jesus does. Ten-year-old me couldn’t see that. He was too quick to believe that they deserved all the praise. But by God’s grace, their careers all had a shelf-life. I was made to worship eternally, and despite my young and biased hopes otherwise, God would not allow me to hang on to them. Time moved on, and eventually I had to as well.

Hall of Famers have to retire in order to become Hall of Famers. The rings and trophies will eventually lose their luster. And there will come a day when names like “Gronkowski” and “Edelman” and even “Brady” will bring up fond memories of days long gone.

I want to genuinely be excited for those who get to root for their favorite team to win a championship. Perhaps I can live vicariously through you this weekend. But far more importantly, I want to gently remind you that the temporary joys we’ve been given are just that — temporary. And when we get lost in the moment and forget that reality, we send a message to those who don’t know Jesus yet that temporary things are worth our worship.

Whether your team wins it all or looks bad trying, that’s a bad look. You’re the one who ultimately controls whether the people around you will see Jesus as surpassingly good, sweet and satisfying. Holding Jesus tightly and the New England Patriots loosely will give you a unique opportunity to speak to a people who see their team as the end-all-be-all of their existence.

I hope you enjoy the game this weekend. But I hope you enjoy Jesus more.

Stephen Woodard is the senior pastor at Nashua Baptist Church in Nashua, NH.