Coaching Christian life: going into overtime

"It's about the theology, saved by grace. I'm a poor miserable sinner saved by grace." Does the above sound like something said by a pastor? By a Lutheran school teacher? How about by a middle school basketball coach? If you guessed the basketball coach, you're correct. It was something Coach Jerry Ratzburg shared with me recently. Jerry's St. Paul's Lutheran School Bears just won the Lutheran Basketball Association of America's national tourney to complete a perfect 36-0 season. At first, Jerry will be very uncomfortable with this e-newsletter. His coaching and his life are really about the initial quote in this article. He's quick to be a witness of His Savior, and he's quick to serve as well. He's not interested in the limelight. Jerry's a gym rat whom kids know and gravitate toward. He has a heart as big as his shoe size, and that's good because Jerry isn't someone you'll miss. With a big smile, a big voice, and an equally big body, Jerry sets quite the imposing figure. But Jerry's not imposing anything on anyone. He's simply letting his faith lead his life and coaching. Jerry grew up in northern Wisconsin as one of six kids in his family. His parents were active members of the Lutheran Laymen's League and supporters of Concordia Mequon (now Concordia University-Wisconsin), and largely because of these relationships, Jerry went to college there. The biggest draw for Jerry was that he was allowed by the school to play two sports (not just one): football and baseball. Later, Jerry moved to Fort Wayne, and up until about two years ago, was a respiratory therapist. He'll tell you there have been some tense moments since being laid off, but "faith keeps me going." One of the other things that "keep going" is his commitment to kids and doing more than just coaching basketball. It really should be called a commitment to the classroom of the basketball court. Jerry has his method and his strategies for every basketball season, and most of them have nothing directly to do with basketball. His classroom of the basketball court includes dealing with adversity, showing empathy, consistency (discipline), routine for the sake of comfort, expectations (in life, from our God), and prayer. It's also witnessed by a St. Paul's jersey. As Jerry says, "Name of the school on the front and the cross on the back-always a witness-of your church, school, family." What are the effects of the classroom of the basketball court? What does this look like? How about a couple of stories to explain? One of Coach Ratzburg's out-of-town coaching rules is that the team will worship together on Sunday morning. Along with this rule is the accountability that each player has for one another. So when the boys sat down for church at Immanuel Seymour in February and one of the boys wasn't there, the guys began to be concerned that this young man was letting himself and the team down. That wasn't the case. In fact, the young man had taken a lot of the team's principles to heart in a short year at St. Paul's and not only did he show up for church, but so did his dad. Impact on the court? You bet. Impact in life with Christ. Absolutely. Sharing the faith just like coach. Undeniable. Another story. Two years ago, St. Paul's basketball team was making one of its first visits to Valpo for the national Lutheran basketball tourney. The team was undefeated and feeling pretty confident. Then came a Saturday night game when the Bears already had two wins in the bag. But after the final buzzer, they were dealing with the fact they just had lost. How did they handle it? At first, they waited patiently for the other team to dance for joy on their triumph. Then the St. Paul's players, calmly and with a certain confidence, shook hands with the opposing team, congratulating them on their win. When they got into the locker room, the tears started flowing, and there were plenty of upset boys. What was shared was typical Jerry. "Losing is painful, but the sun will come up tomorrow, and tomorrow is Palm Sunday. Tomorrow is the beginning of Holy Week. We're going to walk with Jesus into Jerusalem, see him beaten and crucified and then celebrate his resurrection next Sunday. Yeah we lost, but this is nothing compared with what faith in Jesus is all about." How about that for putting a game in perspective? Coaches and the many volunteers of our Lutheran schools are teachers of the faith, witnesses of the grace shown to them in Jesus. While the classroom experiences wrapped with a proclamation of the Gospel are central to the mission of our schools, board members, coaches, special event coordinators, and many more help make Lutheran schools unique venues for sharing the faith. Jerry is an example of what coaches are capable of and what our sports programs can do in teaching the faith and modeling Christian life. Want to know more about Jerry's coaching style and philosophies and share the faith with him? Take Jerry to Buffalo Wild Wings. He'll enjoy the conversation ... and the wings.