Yesterday, a relic of my past was posthumously inducted into pro football Hall of Fame. Junior Seau was one of two iconic sports figures that represented the very best of my home town, San Diego. The other was Tony Gwynn, the beloved San Diego Padre and representative of everything that is good about baseball.
They made being from San Diego important. With their play and personalities, they galvanized a city, unlike anything most sports fans have ever seen, or will see again. They gave San Diego homers genuine reasons to be loyal to our teams that consistently came up short. Their work ethics were unmatched. Their integrity and example as leaders fueled hope in teammates and fans, alike.
I never taught my boys that their sports heroes were to be their personal role models for life, but these two men always showed the best of what sports could be and I never worried they would teach lessons I would need to undo, as a parent.
They both died young. Way too young. Junior Seau committed suicide with a gunshot wound to the chest in 2012 at the age of 43. Later, medical studies concluded he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of chronic brain damage that has also been found in other deceased former NFL players.
Tony Gwynn died in 2014, due to salivary gland cancer, at the age of 54. Even though there are still questions that remain, TG , along with most others, was convinced his 16-year battle with cancer in his mouth was due to his dipping tobacco habit he started early in his baseball career.
No matter how great these men were as players, teammates, fathers, husbands, friends and civic leaders, they were not perfect. Even though they represented some of the best of humanity…loyalty, commitment, discipline, focus, determination, humility, generosity, kindness and genuine love (as everyone who has ever remembered them could attest), they fell short.
And no matter what your theology, they both played a significant role in their own deaths. Junior Seau sold out to football. He played with a recklessness that most players only dream about. His motor never stopped, even when his body was telling him something was wrong. His brain was ravaged by the game he loved. He died in chronic pain, with brain that no longer functioned properly.
Tony Gwynn had an addiction to both tobacco and food. At the end, he weighed well over 300 pounds. Multiple surgeries had robbed him of his ability to talk, or even smile. The man who became one of the best pure hitters the game had ever seen, died, at least in part, because he couldn’t master his demons with the same discipline and commitment he mastered hitting a baseball.
I wish they were still alive. I wish they were still the faces of San Diego, instead of distant memories. Here’s the lesson:
I have no clue where my two sports heroes are right now. I know nothing of their relationship to eternity. Seau was raised in a family of deep faith from his Samoan heritage. Gwynn spoke often of God and family and the spiritual principles he was raised by. But past that, I have no clue whether either one of these good men were right with God.
And, honestly, the same is true with the majority of people I know.
If people are holding on to a prayer they made at some point in their life, or a formulaic confession they repeated when the preacher phrased it for them, or the moment they were dunked in water…as the insurance plan for making it to the “good” destination, rather than the fiery lake…at best, I would say they have some serious misunderstandings of what it means to be a son or daughter of God.
And if a person is holding on to the idea that “goodness” matters to our eternal destiny…like, the personal kind of goodness we saw in the lives of Tony Gwynn and Junior Seau…kindness, humility, commitment, generosity, love, and the like…then that person has another thing coming. Nobody is good enough. That’s not the story I see unfolded in the pages of the Bible.
Nope. The only thing that matters is if you have touched grace, or been touched by it (depending on your Bible interpretation!). This is the grace we see flowing out of the heart and life of Jesus. Everything else is a distant second.
None of us are perfect. Not even close. We all have demons. We are all broken in some way. It’s probably not concussions or dipping. It may be pride. Or ego. Or self-centeredness. Or letting the “stuff of life” rule our hearts. No matter what, we are all in the same boat.
I’m grateful my sports heroes lived in such a way that my memories of them are good and they made a lasting imprint on those who knew them and saw them play. That’s a great legacy.
But it’s not enough. Not nearly enough.