My son, whose birthday is today and who is on track to graduate this May, has had a unique college experience. He’s one of the few undergrads, I’ll wager, to work his way through the entire River Forest university system.

That is to say, he attended Dominican University, a liberal Catholic institution, his first two years, then transferred to Concordia University, a conservative Lutheran institution, for the past three years.

He didn’t experience a conversion–in fact, the move seems to have reinforced his identity as a Catholic. He transferred because he wanted to play football. Specifically, he wanted to take a crack at placekicking even though he had never played organized football before–had, in fact, never donned shoulder pads and a helmet before.

OK, I thought, with a myriad misgivings, he’s pursuing a dream and that should be encouraged–within reason. As it happened, Concordia had gone 2-8 the previous season and didn’t have a returning kicker, so he moved down Division Street a few blocks and made the team.

The transition wasn’t easy. He never felt comfortable in the openly religious milieu of Concordia. And kicking a football with very large people charging at you is no picnic either. But it teaches you how to handle pressure. Turns out he joined the worst team in NCAA Division III. They lost 20 straight over the first two seasons. That’s a tough thing to endure. I should know. I attended all the home games and some of the away games. How those kids stuck it out I’ll never know, but eight seniors came back for one more try this past season.

The university, mercifully, hired a new coach, Lonnie Pries, who brought a different attitude, better assistant coaches–and a flock of promising freshmen. Pries was a star defensive lineman for Concordia in the early ’90s so this was a homecoming of sorts.

In the spring, Pries and his assistant coaches showed they were serious–but also capable of making football fun again. “Your life doesn’t revolve around football,” he told the kids and their parents. “Winning is important, but there’s more to football than winning.”

He certainly wasn’t shy about focusing on his faith. But he also had a sense of humor and didn’t seem to take himself too seriously. I’m not used to being around people who are so overtly religious, and thanks to Jim and Tammy Faye, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and a host of other notorious charlatans, I had begun to wonder if all conservative Christians were thinly veiled bigots and/or hypocrites. I grew up believing you didn’t make a show of your religion and those who did usually had some ulterior motive. Obviously I have my prejudices.

So I held my breath, hoping these were genuinely good people and that my son would keep an open mind. I was relieved when he told me, “Coach usually says the right things at the right time.” He was learning a lesson in tolerance and respect. So was I.

It helped that the team won their first game of the season, taking the monkey off their backs immediately. They won only one other game, but they were competitive and came close several times–including against their main rival, a nationally ranked team.

The parents tailgated and got to know one another. More fans showed up for the games and made more noise. And Concordia’s field, I discovered, can be a very pleasant place to watch a football game on lovely fall Saturday afternoons. It was the most fun I’ve ever had following a team that went 2-8.

But 2-8 was a quantum leap over 0-20. Obviously we were witnessing the turnaround of a football program, and my son felt very proud of being part of that. He also turned into a solid, reliable kicker. What looked to be a catastrophe suddenly became a very positive experience. He pursued his dream and made it a reality.

At the end-of-the-year banquet, Feb. 10, Coach Pries, his staff, and his wife, Jenifer, did a nice job recognizing the kids and making them feel honored and special–particularly the seniors. They brought each one up, told a story that revealed something about their character and let them say a few words. The seniors’ message to the underclassmen was consistent: Stick with this program. It’s worth it.

I’m expecting better things for Concordia football in the future, possibly great things. But I’m more impressed that this program managed to move beyond the usual cliches about football building character. You could see it actually taking place in these young men.

I can see it happening in my young man.

I never thought I’d end up feeling beholden to the Concordia University football program.

Consider me a believer.

Join the discussion on social media!