Football, family and … faith? That’s a definite maybe

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If you read GetReligion with any frequency, you know the drill.

We critique mainstream media coverage of religion and often point out holy ghosts in news coverage. What are holy ghosts? Let’s go back to tmatt’s description at the very beginning:

They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

Some of our regular readers understand the concept quite well. In fact, we depend on readers to submit links to stories deserving of attention. Typically, readers provide a few quick takes on the item submitted, and your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas take it from there.

Then there are readers such as Ken Fallon, whose submission on a front-page Oregonian story says just about everything that needs to be said. (I really hope Ken isn’t trying to take my job. Granted, it’s a part-time gig, and I’m not getting rich off it, but I do enjoy writing for GetReligion.)

Let’s catch a flavor of the 2,500-word Oregonian feature before reviewing Fallon’s analysis:

SPRING BRANCH, Texas – Lawrence Mattison finds it odd that anyone would look up to him.

Not in the literal sense, of course. Strangers often wonder aloud, glancing at the teenager’s 6-foot-1, 230-pound hulking presence, “Is that guy in high school?”

But the little boy who approached Mattison last fall after a Smithson Valley football game caught him off guard when he handed up a picture he had drawn in school, shyly saying, “I wanna be like you, No. 21.”

“To shake a little kid’s hand, to hear him say he wants to be like me, it’s crazy, it’s humbling,” Mattison says. “This kid wants my life?”

Mattison, who signed a letter of intent at Oregon State this month, may be the best running back to ever play at Smithson Valley, a 2,000-student high school on the northern outskirts of San Antonio. But he’s also the kid who slept behind a gas station when he had nowhere else to go, the guy who punched two holes in the wall when he lost his cool, the one who got handcuffed and wondered if he had just blown his chance at a better life.

Seventeen-hundred miles away in Corvallis, Mike Riley and his staff have built a top 25 program where they preach trust, family and relationships. Lots of coaches talk about a family friendly atmosphere but it’s a way of life at Oregon State, where coaches’ children and wives hang out at practice and eat lunch with the players, where it’s not uncommon for Riley to stop a fan outside the Valley Center, put a hand on the person’s shoulder and ask, “Hey, how you doing?” then stick around to hear the answer.

If you have time, go ahead and read the whole thing and then come back for the critique.

In his submission to GR, Ken noted that the profile “hints at matters of faith while managing to avoid exploring them whatsoever.” (Did I already mention the concept of holy ghosts?)

Let’s hear directly from Ken:

The story begins by talking about the “family atmosphere” that has been created by head coach Mike Riley, “a top 25 program where they preach trust, family and relationships.” Does faith play a role in the atmosphere at OSU? In Mike Riley’s life? How about that of assistant coach Chris Brasfield, who was the point man in recruiting Mattison?

We don’t know. We can only infer. We know from Riley’s profile that he earned his Master’s degree from Whitworth University, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). His profile includes a quote from talk show host Jim Rome that Riley is “the best guy in college football,” and we know from reputation that Riley is a really nice guy. But where does that nice-guy persona come from?

We learn from his profile that Brasfield graduated from Texas Christian University (better known as TCU), which is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

We know that OSU has hired head coaches from the faith-based George  Fox University, including baseball coach Pat Casey and women’s basketball coach Scott Rueck.

But you’d know nothing about the faith of those coaches from Schnell’s story, never mind knowing if faith shapes the atmosphere at OSU.

The story goes on to talk about the night that life fell apart for Mattison, when police came to his door and put him handcuffs. He was able to avoid a night in jail because he called a team mom named Cathy West. At 1:30 in the morning. She got out out bed, picked up the distraught Mattison, and gave him a place in the West’s home for the next six weeks. West is described as “the type of mom who shows up with food for everyone and organizes team sleepovers.” The West family noticed that Mattison often went without food or equipment, so they took it upon themselves to buy him clothes and football supplies, and “loading him up with groceries to take home.”

Where does that generosity and love come from? Whatever its source, the story says that it caused Mattison to “(swear) off fighting and drinking after that night.”

In steps another family, James and Robin Perrin, and here we see the only hint at faith in this story. The Perrins are “loved and respected in the community for their work with Young Life.” Someone with no frame of reference wouldn’t know that Young Life is a Christian organization that reaches out and builds relationships with teenage kids, and it’s certainly not defined in the story. The Perrins have no children of their own, but have a “warm, inviting house with plenty of extra space,” and after meeting with the Wests and Mattison, they volunteered to let Mattison stay with them.

The rest of the story focuses on Mattison’s remaining academic challenges, but circles back around to assistant coach Brasfield and how OSU will stay committed to Mattison because of the family ethic.

It suggests that Mattison, whose dad died when he was a sixth grader, has allowed Brasfield to fill the role of father figure. Mattison uses the word “family” to describe the OSU atmosphere.

And Riley, who knows Mattison still has academic work to do, reinforces the family theme. “We believe we are the right place for him because we can take care of him,” Riley said. “That’s the beauty of a small environment. He’s not going to get lost here. We’re getting a very hungry person who just needs some love. And I’ll tell you what – this kid, he’s worth the wait.”

I just wish we knew a bit more about the source of that family commitment and love. From both the Texas and Oregon State ends of the field.

What more could I add? Not much, except to note that in November 2011, The Oregonian published a feature titled “A look inside the life of Oregon State football coach Mike Riley.” That piece, too, contains a vague reference to the F-word but no real insight into Riley’s beliefs:

It is those values, faith and family, that drive Riley to not just try and churn out victories on the football field but hopefully to turn boys to men.

Holy ghosts, anyone?

Image via Shutterstock

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Your tweet about this post was “That awkward moment when a reader writes our post for us”. I’d say that you should be happy that others can read news stories as skeptically as you. The more the merrier. So “Don’t worry. Be happy” :-)

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      My concern with the reader writing the post was purely tongue in cheek. Trust me on that, Jerry. :-)

  • Pingback: What’s the elephant in the Oregonian newsroom? Issues of faith | kenfallon.net


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