Could Jesus Play Linebacker in the NFL?

It’s that time, guys. The pre-season starts this week and whether you’re a Packers fan (they look pretty good, by the way) or, like me, you’re biting your nails to see just what Chip Kelly can do in his second season at the big league level in Philadelphia, it’s time to talk pigskin. Yup, break out the beer, fire up the grill, let down the tailgate and forget about baseball, especially if you’re a Phillies fan.

That means there are important things to consider: you have to mow the lawn on Saturday morning, before the Irish or the Nittany Lions hit the gridiron; get up early on Sunday and go to the eight-o’clock mass instead of noon because that sausage in the smoker likes to take its time; make sure the house was already painted that “adorable” Wedgwood-blue before the end of July ‘cause, if not, then listen honey, that’s really a spring project anyway. There’s way too much humidity in August. September is booked because of soccer practice. And October, well, you know as well as I do that huntin’ cabin needs god-awful repairs before the snow starts.

There’s one other consideration: could Jesus have played linebacker in the NFL?

I realize this segue isn’t all that neat, but, as a retired teacher, football season always reminds me of the best question I ever got from a student in history class. We were reviewing the American colonial period and I stated I thought George Washington could have played linebacker in the NFL – okay, so a small linebacker. After all, he was about six-foot three and weighed just under two-hundred and wore a size thirteen boot – okay, so a very small linebacker. But, he did cut a mean athletic figure and was the best horseman in the colonies.

It was then that one of my more precocious lads tried to trip me up. They only did this to me in September because they hadn’t seen my teacher face yet. I was trained by the IHM’s, so I developed a stone-cold sober teacher face. Like Ed Sullivan before makeup, but I’m dating myself.

Anyway, the boy asks, in an innocent, before the hormones kick in manner, “Mr. G., could Jesus play linebacker in the NFL?”

Well, you could have knocked me off a bar stool. But I took the young man’s question as a challenge to my teacher’s ego (he did trip me up, the little…).

It was the autumn before the dreaded Y2K, the year the National Catholic Reporter sponsored a contest on the “Millennial Jesus.” This was an invitation to artists everywhere to paint a picture of Jesus for his two-thousandth birthday. You know, something that would celebrate the new millennium with a religious twist so we could all join with Prince and “party like it’s 1999.”

The judge of the contest was the renowned Sister Wendy. A contemplative nun, Sister Wendy became what today we would term “viral,” in England and Europe because of a series of television shows and books she wrote on art. With the help of the BBC and, later, PBS, she became a world-famous art critic. And, she was extremely insightful, refreshing, and intuitive.

I never answered my student’s question. I realized I didn’t know anything about the physical attributes of the God-man. Nothing in the New Testament relates what he looked like. I figured he looked like a Jewish guy from Nazareth, but that didn’t tell me anything. What does a Jewish guy from Nazareth look like anyway? I’ve never been there.

After the school year was over, my wife and I took the kids camping down to West Virginia. That was where I saw Jesus.

He was hanging from the cross in a way I’d never seen before. It was at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, in Harpers Ferry. Yeah, the same place John Brown raided the armory and tried to arm the slaves in 1859, before Robert E. Lee, in charge of federal troops, stomped on Brown’s dreams. During the civil war St. Peter’s changed hands fourteen times between rebel and union forces. It has quite a history. The church itself is beautiful. Built by immigrants in the Irish-gothic style, it commands an exquisite view of the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. To get to the church, however, you have to mount forty-four jagged, stone steps that were carved out of the rock hill. In a way, you have to climb Calvary. But, it’s worth it.

The crucifix is a copy of an Italian original made to emulate the wounds of Our Savior as depicted on the Shroud of Turin. When I saw Him, I knew how to answer my student’s trick question: Yeah, kid, better than Butkus.

Sister Wendy thought otherwise. She selected a painting called “Jesus of the People” by artist Janet McKenzie, based upon a female, African-American model. It was an attempt, I suppose, to capture the “Millennial Jesus” in a unisex portrayal. Sister Wendy said the winning painting spoke of “ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence.” Times being what they were it was certainly politically correct. But it was all wrong.

Jesus the Wimp

You know what a wimp is. It’s someone who lacks courage, right? In physics, it’s an acronym for “Weakly Interacting Massive Particle” thought to be the ingredient of most of the dark matter in the universe. Whatever – Jesus is no wimp.

The crucifix I saw at St. Peter’s in Harpers Ferry convinced me of that. He is the son of a carpenter who apprenticed under Joseph’s loving care. Carpenters back then worked, not with power tools, not with shaved timber, not with two by fours sanded and ready for framing. They worked with raw wood that needed to be hewn and debarked and roughly cut into something useful. This was hard physical labor. A boy would develop strong hands and forearms to grip with; massive shoulders to carry chiseled stone; thick thighs from constantly lifting dead weight; solid pectoral muscles after years of sweat sawing and planning wood with primitive tools in Joseph’s shop.

No, Jesus is not a wimp. He is not unisex. He is not effeminate. Just because He is meek and humble of heart doesn’t mean the man part of the God-man isn’t manly.

He is a strong dude. How else could he have survived the torture and scourging at the pillar? Carrying that heavy cross, even if it was simply the cross-piece and with the help of the Cyrenian, what wimp could do that? When I saw Jesus at St. Peter’s in Harpers Ferry I knew in my gut this guy, my God, our Redeemer could do anything.

Even play linebacker in the NFL.

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