Urban Meyer faces his sins (ESPN offers crickets)

Here we go again. It’s almost time for the annual God-and-gridiron tsunami.

Athletes and coaches do like to speak their minds on religious matters, from time to time. There will be coverage worthy of praise. However, the months ahead are also sure to include sports stories in which scribes add one or two flashes of vague religious content — usually in the form of mushy labels or unexplained direct quotations — and then turn around and fumble the ball when it comes to backing up the God-talk with any meaningful reporting.

Why do so many reporters, on all beats, find it so hard to — here’s that Poynter.org mantra, again — connect “faith to facts”? To phrase this concept another way, what we need is for news people to back up their God-talk in stories with actual journalism work. You know, “follow the money” and all that stuff.

However, the recent ESPN magazine opus on the new Ohio State University head coach — “Urban Meyer Will Be Home For Dinner” — is a whole different kettle of Friday fish.

This story is packed, packed, packed with colorful details and grab-a-tissue anecdotes. It’s riveting stuff. In fact, put me on the record as saying that the ESPN team has produced one of the best stories I have ever read on the temptations that haunt a workaholic and the spiritual pain produced by the sad quest to be great, while forgetting to simply be good.

Like I said, it’s one of the best stories on this subject I’ve seen — only the ESPN folks didn’t seem to know that was what the story was about.

Oh, there’s religion in this piece. Glimpses of the Meyer family’s spiritual journey keep popping up.

For example, the heart of the story is Meyer is trying to return to coaching, while escaping the soul-sucking and heart-breaking crush of his work at the University of Florida. So it’s a huge, and symbolic, moment when he sets up his Ohio State office. ESPN is there:

Meyer signed two agreements when he was hired by Ohio State: one with the school that demands performance and another with his family, which demands much more.

He went to work.

Meyer unpacked his boxes, setting up little shrines on the blond wood shelves of his Ohio State office. To the right, positioned in his most common line of sight, he placed a blue rock with a word etched into it: balance. Behind the rock went a collage of photographs, the orange of a sunset from his lake house — his particular harbor — and of his old church in Gainesville. The shrine was a gift from his pastor in Florida, a prayer from people who love him that he won’t lose himself again.

Framed above his desk hung the contract he signed with his kids, written on pink notebook paper.

1. My family will always come first.
2. I will take care of myself and maintain good health.
3. I will go on a trip once a year with Nicki — MINIMUM.
4. I will not go more than nine hours a day at the office.
5. I will sleep with my cellphone on silent.
6. I will continue to communicate daily with my kids.
7. I will trust God’s plan and not be overanxious.
8. I will keep the lake house.
9. I will find a way to watch Nicki and Gigi play volleyball.
10. I will eat three meals a day.

It’s a shrine representing wisdom from his pastor and his church. That’s interesting, in the context of this story. But here’s the problem. Is this his pastor or his priest? Is it his church or his parish? Meyer, you see, is a Roman Catholic — a fact that is never mentioned in this story.

Why? I have heard priests do brilliant presentations on the topic of workaholism, especially since — in an era in which there are fewer and fewer young priests — this is an issue that affects so many priests. I have heard priests give amazing, but of course anonymous, insights into the lives of the workaholic men, and women, they have helped through the rite of Confession.

We’re talking about sin, folks. The ESPN article shows that, big time. But it never names the sin or seeks any insights into how faith may or may not be helping Meyer limp into this career comeback.

Where is priest who provided this shrine, a key element in this workaholic’s new workplace? Does Meyer have a new parish, a new priest, a new spiritual father? Is he literally commuting back to this old parish in Florida, which holds such a dear place in his heart?

(Cue: Crickets)

Folks, this IS THE SUBJECT of this news feature. The heart of the matter.

There are other missed opportunities, of course. However, the story ends with an agonizing riptide between heaven and hell. This is long and hard, but you will see the point. A few paragraphs after a reference to Shelly Meyer, the coach’s wife, praying for changes in his life there is this finale:

The door shuts, and his last meeting of the day begins. For the first time, the freshmen and veterans gather, the 2012 Buckeyes in full. Meyer sits calmly at the front of the room, as composed as the crisp lines on his shirt. A quote on the wall is from Matthew, 16th chapter: “What good is a man that gains the world yet loses his soul?” Behind him in his office, there’s a blue rock and a pink piece of paper. He’s been at the facility almost 12 hours. Breaking No. 4 — working no more than nine hours a day — couldn’t be helped. Meyer lived up to all but one of his promises today.

“He’s gonna be different,” Shelley says. “I totally believe it.”

His calm lasts until a player giggles.

From the back of the room, it’s not clear who laughed, or why exactly, only that the players were making fun of a teammate while an assistant coach gave a speech. Meyer listens, waiting for the coach to finish, stewing, simmering, slowly beginning to burn. If he were transparent, like one of those med school teaching dummies, maybe you could see exactly where his rage lives and how it spreads. In imagination, it’s a tiny, burning dot, surrounded by his humor and love for teaching, by the warm memories of 1986, by his desire to grow old and gray with Shelley, and the dot spreads and spreads until there’s nothing but fire.

Meyer rises and interrupts the flow of the meeting, looking out at his team. His voice holds steady, but he says he’s struggling not to climb into the seats and find the offending giggler. The fire is growing. He paces, back and forth, back and forth, waving his finger toward the center of the room. The air feels tense. Nobody makes a sound. There is one voice.

“Giggle-f—s,” he says.

He slips, his language rough and mean, giving himself over to his rage: f-bombs, a flurry of curses, pounding on the soft and the weak, the unworthy who’d rather giggle than chase something bigger than themselves.

In 43 days, he says, Marotti will hand him a piece of paper with a list of names. “Grown-ass men,” he says. That’s who belongs on his team. No “giggle-f—s,” he promises, pointing toward the big pictures of Ohio Stadium to his right.

“We’re talking about our season,” he roars. “We’re going to that place.”

His mind is there already.

Yes, there’s a bit more, but that’s enough.

The sin and struggle are there. What is missing? Any sense that there is a meaningful faith in this man’s life that is part of this struggle. In other words, the sin is reported — but never claimed as sin. The confessions are there, kind of.

But, with ESPN, the priest is missing. Is that the truth in this story?

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Roberto

    The piece did mention that Meyer’s father thought about entering the priesthood, which makes the silence on the matter of Urban — that’s your first, clue ESPN! — Meyer’s faith all the more noticeable.

  • tmatt

    Yes, I saw that. However, there are other branches of the church that use the term “priest.”
    So, yes, another missed clue.
    The issue of confession is so, so obvious in this otherwise fine piece.

  • http://www.twitter.com/mattswaim M. Swaim

    A few years back, I had the privelege of taking lunch in a rectory one Sunday with Urban after a Novus Ordo Latin Mass at Old St Mary’s in Cincinnati, where his father Bud was everything BUT the pastor. So there’s that.


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