Sports and Community Development

My father has had a profound impact on my life in a lot of ways. For instance, he definitely passed his gregariousness down to me, which explains why I love chatting with people after church for far longer than the people riding with me would prefer. And why certain servers at local eateries can recognize my voice at the drive-thru window, even through the crackly speakers. Dad also really believes in doing what you love, instead of what gains you the most money. This quality explains why he's stuck around at the same job my entire life, instead of seeking higher paid but more stressful options. Such an example surely factored in when deciding on nonprofit work as a career path. And finally, my dad is passionate about sports. It's this final similarity that I want to highlight, since it comes into play in some surprising ways. My dad isn't just passionate about sports; his entire working life has revolved around sports. He has served as a sports writer for newspapers since he was in eighth grade. He's covered huge games, like this year's Texas A&M vs Alabama match-up (I'm still upset about losing to the Crimson Tide...) as well as smaller events, like a high school wrestling tournament he attended over Christmas or the Little League games of muggy July evenings.

With a sports writer for a father, I learned a great deal about sports growing up. Memories of playing with cousins and exploring local creeks are peppered with rooting for Andre Agassi at Wimbledon, cheering for the Houston Rockets' first championship, and untold hours of pulling for Biggio and Bagwell back when Astros fans had hope. As I grew, I latched onto the Texas A&M football and baseball teams, since my dad covered them and I got to meet players and coaches, not to mention sit in the press box.

By the time I had become old enough to work at Camp of the Hills, a church camp for at-risk youth from across Texas and Oklahoma, I had spent most of my life caring about sports. Many of the kids I was working with were quite knowledgeable about sports, especially the NFL and NBA. Since these were the two sports I was worst at out of football, basketball, and baseball, I had not kept up with recent trends in either league well. But after a few summers, I realized that learning more about these sports could give me a good opportunity to build relationships with some kids with whom I often didn't have a lot in common.

Sure enough, as I followed the NBA and NFL more closely I was able to spark up more natural and nuanced conversations with the kids. On jersey night, I would have opportunities to ask about their favorite teams, biggest rivalries, and which players they liked best. As I learned, I also grew in my own appreciation for the sports, and soon had my own opinions and theories that I could match up with the campers'. Though many mocked my beloved Rockets, opting for Dirk's Mavs, LeBron's Cavs/Heat, or even the dreaded Lakers and Kobe Bryant, discussion and debate sharpened us, and I like to believe helped flesh me out as more than just a counselor; I was a real person.

This lesson, that sports talk was a great ice-breaker, has served me well in the years since moving on from my work at Camp of the Hills. As I walk the streets of Abilene, I run into all manner of folks. Part of my job involves striking up conversations that can turn into relationships, with the hope that those relationships will be instrumental in making the community a better place. My father's outgoing nature certainly helps me in that regard. But also, I've started trying to notice the subtle hints that suggest sports might be a way to find commonality. I'm not a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan by any means, but I've seen enough of their games and know the NFL landscape well enough that I feel really comfortable leading with a, "How 'bout those Cowboys?" to a neighbor I notice stepping out of a car with a silver and blue bumper sticker. If I walk by a couple of guys in NBA jerseys during a prayer walk, I'm not afraid to ask them if they think the Heat will get past Indiana this year. Thanks to a couple friends who got me into the English Premier League, I can even hold my own in a conversation with soccer fans if I see someone repping a Manchester United scarf.

This all goes back to the realization I had at camp: if I can find some point of commonality, that can be the start of a relationship. I want neighbors to think of me as a real person with whom they can relate. As the initiator in these settings, its my job to do my best to highlight our commonality, hopefully creating the best opportunity for a relationship. Sometimes that's noticing a neighbor's garden, other times it's through a mutual friend vouching for me. But I also relish the chances to connect with others in the same way my father and I have connected for so many years: through the love of sports.