By Eddie Pipkin
A week ago, football fans were treated to an instant classic: a showdown for the national collegiate championship between the Georgia Bulldogs and Alabama Crimson Tide. I watched the game with keen interest (and if you watched it, too, you know why—it was an improbable comeback made possible by a gutsy call from Alabama coach Nick Saban to bench his starting quarterback at the half and put the leadership load on 19-year-old true freshman Tua Tagovailoa). Even though I was cheering for the Bulldogs, the game was thrilling—decided in overtime with a heart-stopping touchdown pass—but it also got my blogging senses tingling. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had included a blog bullet point that encouraged ministries to focus on “who’s got next.” I emphasized the importance of having a backup in training for every critical leadership position, and here, in real life, was an eye-popping example of why such leadership in the wings can make all the difference.
Alabama was down 13-0 and struggling mightily when Tagovailoa began the third quarter. He brought his team roaring back with two touchdowns that helped get the game to overtime. In overtime, Georgia pulled ahead with a remarkable 51-yard field goal, then added insult to injury by sacking Tagovailoa, leaving the seemingly discombobulated freshman facing second down and 26 yards to go . . . at which point he calmly tossed a 41-yard touchdown pass to win the game and the national championship.
There were three things that stood out to me about this young man’s story (a player completely unfamiliar to me and most of America before he dropped center stage into this heroic role in the national spotlight).
First, it was no accident that he did what he did. True, he was the backup. True he was young and untested at this level. But it would be utterly inaccurate to describe him as unprepared. One of the reasons that Nick Saban has won six national championships is because of the depth of talent he recruits and the extensive preparation by players at every level. Tagovailoa was recruited because of his impressive reputation as a high school player and his limitless potential on the college level, but the young Hawaiian knew he would be waiting in the wings for a starting opportunity behind the seasoned Jalen Hurts. This time was not wasted. At every practice the backup took turns running the offense; he spent countless hours studying film and learning how to read defenses; whenever they were safely ahead, the coaches put him into actual game situations to gain valuable experience. And when the time came to do his part to shake things up and carry his team, he was ready. He knew the plays. He knew his teammates. He had the confidence of the coaches.
How many ministries take the time and make the effort to cultivate the next generation of leaders in the same manner? We have talent that is gifted and waiting for an opportunity to serve if we will give them a shot. We have partnership opportunities to have them shadow current leaders and receive training in the areas in which they will be serving. We can let them step up to lead smaller projects or portions of projects for which we can provide safe supervision and close guidance, getting them ready for bigger assignments to come.
The second thing I noticed about Tua Tagovailoa was how he seemed unfazed by the pressure of the situation, even when calamity was the apparent impending outcome. Even though he had been intercepted once, and even though he had just been sacked for 16 yards, he threw the winning touchdown pass with a confidence that seemed otherworldly. And it turned out it was! Not only did he cite the belief in him he could feel from his coaches and teammates as he took over the helm, his first words in the post-game interview were to give glory to God. Here was a young man who had clearly been raised in a Christian environment on the wisdom of Paul’s words to remain calm and grow stronger through every adversity:
“First and foremost, I’d just like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ,” Tagovailoa told an ESPN reporter on the field right after the game. “With Him, all things are possible and that’s what happened tonight.” And his Twitter bio says it all: “1 Corinthians 2:9 • HIM 13EFORE ME.” That Bible verse from Corinthians says: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” [And the 13 is his jersey number.]
His witness is a reminder to us that the number one foundational element for any ministry leader is a strong, disciplined faith life. We should do everything we can to encourage the spiritual growth of future leaders. The disciplines of prayer and study build strength of character and purpose that carry leaders through difficult challenges and tough times. We should mentor them closely, connect them with accountability groups, and direct them to resources uniquely suited to help them develop their talents and passions.
The third thing I noticed was not about Tagvailoa, per se, but about Jalen Hurts, the quarterback he replaced in the game. Although Hurts had been the starter all season long—the player who had powered this team to this point on the brink of the championship—even when he was struggling and pulled from the game, he was 100% committed to the success of the teammate who took his place, as recounted in a recap from Tidesports.com:
When Tagovailoa threw his first touchdown pass of the title game, Hurts was the first one to greet him with congratulations. When the rookie came back to the sideline after every series, Hurts was there to provide encouragement and counsel.
Hurts never expressed any bitterness about being replaced. Instead, he celebrated the team and the ability of his teammate and partner to fill the role that was needed at the right time. How amazing would it be if all our ministry team leaders and ministry team members had the same attitude? Instead of trying to compete with one another or outdo one another—instead of second guessing and backbiting—what if we celebrated one another and cheered one another on as a matter of routine? What if we stepped back humbly when someone else could step in, step up and do and do something better in a given scenario? What if we gave them a vote of confidence and sang their praises instead of focusing on defending our own turf?
We’d probably win a lot more championships!
What’s been your experience as a backup who was given a chance to shine or as a leader who was able to step back and watch with pride as your backup shines? Does your ministry have systems in place to promote this kind of healthy team dynamic? Share your own experience, questions, and comments in the space below.
I agree with your suggestions. As a pastor I struggle to identify backup leaders. Having such persons in place demonstrates that a congregation is healthy. This is something I am working on in the congregation I serve.