This past Friday a group of 15 men gathered on the campus of Roberts Wesleyan College. As the members of this group arrived, hugs were exchanged and conversations took place about how good it was to see each other again. Other people that were in attendance figured that these men were just some other alumni that were there to attend the Yesteryears Brunch that always takes place during the college’s annual homecoming.
However, this was a very special group that had been invited to the brunch by President, Dr. Deana Porterfield and Athletic Director, Robert Segave. At the brunch RWC would induct the very first athletic team into the college’s sports hall of fame. This team was the basketball team that had played during the 1965-66 and 1966-67 seasons. All but one member of that team were able to attend, along with the head coach. The missing teammate, Ken Curtis, died in an automobile accident soon after graduating from the College.
Why would a college induct an entire team into its Sports Hall of Fame? In Roberts’ 150 year history, this team had the winningest record over those two seasons. It was announced at the induction series that the 1965-66 team compiled a record of 18-2 only to come back the next year and post a 20-5 record. Both of these teams received bids to the NAIA end of season tournament.
I had the wonderful privilege of playing on those teams. To better understand the accomplishments of this group of young athletes, it is important to explain a couple of things. RWC had approximately 550 students at the time. It had never had a strong basketball program but there was hope of success as the 1964-65 team had achieved a 14-8 record. However, the schedule for the next two years was extremely challenging as Roberts would face many state colleges and all of the opponents had much larger student bodies and stronger athletic programs.
To make matters even more challenging, RWC did not have its own gymnasium and had to practice and play in a rented facility at a local high school. There were no weight or training rooms available for conditioning and medical attention. The team did not have a lot of height as none of the players were over 6’6″. It was notable that 9 of the 12 players could dunk the ball and the coach developed an impressive warmup routine that showcased this jumping ability.
This was not what would have been seen as a highly recruited group of athletes. One player did not even play his senior year in high school due to suffering a broken leg in the off season. Another one had only played half of his senior year, again due to a broken ankle. Another team member was unable to play high school ball because of a heart condition. Most of the other players played high school ball at rather small rural public schools.
In spite of all of this, God did something special with this group of young athletes. The team not only defeated all of the larger state schools they played but did so convincingly. The team averaged over 90 points per game and posted a 20-point per game winning margin. We played before standing room only crowds with the final home game against a strong Buffalo State team having the gym closed to more spectators almost 1 hour before game time. Roberts Wesleyan College’s basketball team had captured the hearts of not only its students but the entire North Chili community.
When the team arrived back to campus after losing its final game by 4 points in the NAIA district final, the team bus had to stop at the corner of Buffalo and Orchard Streets where the students and community had come out to welcome them home. The players and coaches were made to disembark the bus and walk the 1/4 mile up Orchard Street to the school cafeteria to the cheers of hundreds of students and community residents. Many of us were put on the shoulders of students and carried to a reception honoring our accomplishments (I can only imagine what would have happened if we had won that district championship game).
Over the last 50 years of basketball at Roberts nothing like this has ever taken place again. There have been many talented players and coaches at RWC since those memorable seasons but the magic of 50 years ago has never been duplicated. I gave a lot of thought to what I had been a part of as I prepared to make the trip with my wife from Charleston, SC to Rochester, NY. One of the things that I have learned throughout my life is that while you are going through something, you very seldom understand what and why things are going the way they are. However, down the road God reveals why things went the way they did.
I am convinced that God allowed me to be part of this amazing time in RWC history to teach me what it takes to be one of His disciples. In Matthew 16:24 we find these words of Jesus.
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.
Many of us have memorized this verse and could quote it with no effort if asked to do so. But what does it mean to deny oneself and follow Christ? I think I have a better understanding of these two aspects of being a disciple of Jesus Christ by being a part of this basketball team. First, God taught me how one denies himself by what happened with that special group of teammates I have known for over 50 years. We all knew who on the team was the best shooter, rebounder, defender etc. However, this team was different. Each of us was willing to accept our individual roles on the team and honor our teammates roles. There was no jealousy or pride in any of the players. If one player was having an off night, he would help another teammate take the spotlight. There literally were no individuals on the team. We each denied ourselves for the sake of the team. This is what Christ expects of me – I am to deny myself for the sake of His kingdom.
The second thing that God taught me by playing on this basketball team was what it means to “follow Him.” Following someone simply means that you obey that person completely. Our coach played a significant role in what this team accomplished. We “had” to “follow him”! We did what he told us to do or we sat next to him. It didn’t matter how talented a player was, you had to “follow” or “obey” the coach. To this day I am convinced the teams that win are the ones who obey their coach the most, beginning in practice and carrying on throughout each game. I could fill pages with stories that we always share with each other of how coach required us to follow him.
I am very thankful to Dr. Porterfield and Robert Segave for honoring our team this past weekend. I will never forget having President Porterfield place the medallion around my neck, being introduced at the halftime of the men’s soccer game before a large homecoming crowd, and being honored as the first team to ever be inducted into the RWC Sports Hall of Fame (many of the team members and coach had already been inducted as individuals). This was truly a memorable weekend.
However, I want to thank God for giving me the talent to play the sport and leading me to Roberts Wesleyan College. It was God who allowed me to be part of this team, made up of such incredible men. God also allowed me to play for a coach who loved his players and wanted them to become men of character more than winning a lot of games. This team may never gather again here on earth. One player is in a battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Another one has battled Parkinson’s disease for 15 years. However, we all came together so that we could be together one more time and huddle up and give a hearty Go Raiders one last time.
I can only imagine what it will be like when Christians from every tribe and tongue gather together with Christ and worship Him forever. Thank you Lord for teaching me how to become one of your disciples.