Michael Lewis’s bestselling book The Blind Side, later adapted into a movie starring the Oscar-winning Sandra Bullock, set the modern standard for depicting meaningful Christian faith in a sports context. A heartwarming story, The Blind Side shows Christians serving their neighbors across racial and economic lines. But it’s not necessarily a uniquely Christian story. Made in the image of God, unbelievers do tremendously unselfish things, too.
True redemption, however, belongs only to those saved by the grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ. ESPN reporter Buster Olney doesn’t identify How Lucky You Can Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer as a conversion story. And his main character, basketball coach Don Meyer, attended church and identified as a Christian long before the turning point Olney so compellingly recounts. Nevertheless, it’s hard to miss the book’s core message that even self-described Christians can miss the wonder and beauty of the gospel.
The Bill Gates of Coaches
Olney got his start covering small-college basketball, including a team coached by Meyer. He knew the coach shaped hundred of lives over the course of his career by imparting lessons on teamwork, service, and overcoming adversity. Former players remembered these lessons years later and applied them during personal and family crises.
Coaches, however, are evaluated by whether they succeed on the court. By that standard Meyer surpassed many of his peers before retiring in 2010. Meyer won more games than any other men’s basketball coach in college history. His David Lipscomb College squad claimed an NAIA national title in 1986. Among fellow coaches he remains legendary. Coaching greats Bob Knight and Pat Summitt have participated in his popular summer camps. He has also recorded a widely distributed collection of instructional videos.
“For Meyer to take calls from a young coach, in the world of coaches, was like Bill Gates taking phone calls from an up-and-coming computer programmer,” Olney writes.
His style was unorthodox. While lecturing on basketball fundamentals and life lessons, players sat at desks taking notes, even during halftime of games. But he got maximum effort from his athletes. Olney writes:
The undercurrent in Meyer’s message was distinctly American. The pursuit of excellence was inalienable, and excellence could be yours if you worked hard enough, if you did the right things the right way.
Meyer’s wife, Carmen, stood by him through the ups and downs of coaching, from Lipscomb, a Church of Christ school in Nashville, to Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. But by the time they moved to Aberdeen, the Meyers effectively lived separate lives. They had grown distant.
Relationships with his three children strained, too. Meyer had coached his son, Jerry-an arrangement that rarely works. He loudly criticized Jerry as if he were the problem with the team. Actually, Meyer regarded his son as the finest player he ever had the privilege to coach. Indeed, Jerry concluded his career as the assists leader in college basketball history. He embodied his father’s emphasis on unselfish team play. It wasn’t enough.
One day, everything changed. Driving at the head of a team caravan, Meyer fell asleep at the wheel and veered into an oncoming semi. Somehow he survived the impact with life-threatening injuries. On his chest’s left side, every rib was broken. The powerful diaphragm that once supported his booming voice had been ripped off the bone. The crash also lacerated his liver and effectively destroyed his spleen.
The other coaches and players scrambled to find help on a remote South Dakota road. A helicopter eventually transported him to the other end of the state for surgery in Sioux Falls. Though he survived, Meyer faced a long road of recovery. That road appeared even more daunting when surgeons discovered something much more dangerous than his injuries: cancer.
While stunned by the news, Meyer had been changed by the accident. More accurately, he had been changed by God. Previously a religious man, Meyer understood God had graciously given him a second chance at life. Now it was time for him to live by the words he preached to so many players. Faith sustained him through particularly painful moments of rehab after he lost the bottom half of one leg. On time he belted out the hymn “To God Be the Glory” by Fanny Crosby at the top of his lungs. He clung to God’s gracious sovereignty. Meyer said:
What’s great about this is I would not have known about the cancer had I not had the wreck. God has blessed me with the one thing we all need, which is truth. I can now fight with all of my ability. What I now ask is that everybody who believes in God would praise him for this discovery and praise him to give me the strength, patience, and peace to be a man of God on this journey.
Everyone noticed his transformation. He effused with loving words for his wife, children, and friends. He acted more lovingly and selflessly toward his wife, taking interest in her activities. The man who once intimidated coach Pat Summitt now hugged everyone he saw. He evangelized hospital workers, discussing Scripture, such as James 3:13-18.
Win by Giving
Olney pulls the title for his book from a something Meyer told him: “It just eats you up inside how lucky you can be to coach.” Olney invests this phrase with double meaning after the accident. But Meyer’s survival was anything but luck. He will be the first person to tell you. This book honors the God who preserves and protects us for his purposes.
Readers especially interested in basketball will appreciate details about Meyer’s accomplishments and tactics. Leaders will learn from the difficulties of Meyer’s comeback, when players stopped fearing him and started pitying him. All Christians should be encouraged by seeing someone so obviously transformed by God’s grace and mercy.
“I always emphasized team because I’m probably the most selfish person in the world,” Meyer told his players during a 2009 reunion. “The only way you’re ever going to win is by giving.”