By DAVID KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published October 1, 2021
The topic in RCIA last Sunday was Catholic prayer.
On our Zoom meeting, we covered some of the most familiar rote Catholic prayers—always a great comfort—as well as the rosary, and we said the glorious mysteries together as a class.
We also discussed the difficulties in prayer. How do we find the time? How do we discern the difference between being grateful for what we have and yearning for what we need? How do we find redemption in a time of suffering? How is contemplative prayer dependent upon action? And when, exactly, can we expect an answer to our prayer?
God answers prayer, I asserted. We know this. Yet God works in his own time, and in his own way; in waiting for an answer, I said, we learn the virtues of patience and fortitude. I may have even fallen back on the old standby, “It’s a mystery.”
The class wasn’t quite satisfied. I knew I needed a contemporary analogy. I also knew that the Atlanta Falcons football team was playing against our arch-nemesis Tom Brady and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers at 4:05 that afternoon. So, I said it: being a fan of the Atlanta Falcons, for example, that’s an act of prayer.
Immediately, the Zoom reverberated with peals of laughter. I have some long-time Atlantans in my RCIA class, and they knew exactly what I meant. To root for the Falcons means entering into a prolonged period of patient suffering, the end of which may never come. “28-3,” I said. “28-3!” The class got it, the reference to the Super Bowl collapse against the same Tom Brady in 2017.
From birth, I was doomed to be an Atlanta Falcons fan. I was conceived in 1966, the same year as the Falcons’ conception, and when I was born at Piedmont Hospital, and presented to my father, he said immediately, “He looks just like Tommy Nobis,” the great linebacker who was the Falcons’ first draft pick.
I’ve been a fan, a suffering fan, for my entire life, and I don’t expect to ever stop. As William Faulkner wrote, “You don’t love because: you love despite; not for the virtues, but despite the faults.”
I told my class how I gave up my Falcons season tickets nearly 10 years ago so that I could teach RCIA. “That’s surely time out of purgatory,” I said. Then I reflected. “Being a Falcons fan is purgatory,” which was followed by more howls of laughter.
‘Help us to understand’
Sports unite us as a community. The people in my RCIA get that. If you’re reading this and smiling and wincing at the same time, you get it too. You may even remember the great old bumper-sticker from the 1970s—“Go Braves! And take the Falcons with you.”
The people of Sunderland, England, UK know all of this to be true. They have followed, with equal measure of passion and disdain, love and hate, their “Black Cats,” their “Lads,” for well beyond a century with little return on their emotional investment.
In the early days of the COVID pandemic, I discovered a wonderful program that had just premiered on Netflix titled “Sunderland ‘Til I Die,” which chronicles the collapse of a once proud though long-suffering English soccer team and their current fans. It was a great show, and it led me deep into long afternoons of watching the English Premier League, which at that time represented just about all the sports we had beyond Korean baseball. I thought about writing about the show 18 months ago, but I held off, and now that Netflix has revived it for another run, I knew I had to share it with you.
Sunderland is in the far northeast of England, close to Newcastle. It has a strong Catholic and working-class identity. The city was once a center of British industry and was particularly known for its ship building yards. For many northern cities in England, the decline of industry and manufacturing has meant that they have had to reimagine their economies. Manchester and Liverpool have become cultural centers, each city famous for its music. Sunderland cast its lot with football by building the elaborate Stadium of Light, a prototype for many of the larger grounds built throughout the country in the early 21st century.
The problem with the massive Stadium of Light is that it is often half-empty. When the series begins, the club has suffered one of the worst indignities in professional sport. It has been “relegated,” cast out or sent down from the mighty Premiere League to the second-tier Championship Division. The team hasn’t won at home for a year. One of the club’s great slogans, “Ha’way the Lads,” means roughly “Come on Lads” in the Geordie dialect, but it might as well mean go away. As much as the fans love their team, they are tired of losing. No, they are exhausted with losing.
No one understands this better than a Catholic parish priest who appears at the beginning of the series. In a prayer that might one day be as famous as the statement by Brooklyn Dodgers fan Father Herbert Redmond, who once told his Brooklyn congregation, “It’s too hot for a sermon. Keep the Commandments and pray for Gil Hodges,” Father Marc Lyden-Smith of St. Mary’s parish implores, “Let us pray for Sunderland football club and for our city. Help us to understand what football means in our community; show us how football can help unite; guide us to take the best out of every game. Help us through our anger and our fury, when our team is not performing the best it can. Help the people of Sunderland and their frustration, for they are good people, who work hard. Guide us in our love, for our city and our club, for it is a love born out of passion.”
Such was the climate before the 2017-2018 championship season. An angry, frustrated, and even furious city desperately needs unity and love. Some might say with cynicism, “and sport can supply all that?” I argue yes. Remember the Atlanta Hawks’ magnificent playoff run earlier this year? For weeks it provided healing and unity in this city.
“Sunderland,” one citizen says in the series, “is a hard place.” The show’s emphasis on the people of Sunderland is what separates it from so many other sports documentaries. We get great insight from the players, coaches, and management—and this commentary is fascinating—but equal time is granted to the ordinary men and women who support the team, even making it a priority among all their other financial obligations.
By the end of the two seasons, the viewer feels genuine empathy for “the regulars” who appear throughout the series. We especially feel for the club staff: the ticket office, the equipment manager, the team cooks—all of these people are unforgettable, and we feel that we know them.
The fans are particularly touching. There is the middle-aged man who goes to games alone; as he leaves the house, he bids his wife a kind of forlorn, resigned goodbye. There is the young father who hunkers over a radio in his attic room, racked with anxiety and hope. There are the young toughs who go to every match, home and away, who scream their devotion and furor with equal obscene measure (be warned: some of the match day language is profanity laden.)
And of course, there is the football—soccer—a great metaphor for life. I’ve grown tired of being an apologist for soccer. “There’s no scoring,” people whine. “They just run around,” goes the complaint. Rubbish, as the English say. Soccer is like life itself. We spend most of our lives trying to score; only occasionally do we succeed. We teeter a line between triumph and anxiety; a 90-minute football match is life condensed into a series of agonizing moments of hope and despair. At its best, it is thrilling, and the show’s game sequences are fantastic. I find myself crying out with joy and awe at success and disbelief at failure. If you like soccer, you will love “Sunderland ‘Til I Die.”
If you like sports, and if you believe as I do that being a fan of a particular team offers some of life’s greatest joys and sorrows, then you will also love “Sunderland ‘Til I Die.” In another moment with Father Lyden-Smith, the priest says that “Faith and football go hand in hand.” He expresses his belief that the club will revive “like a Phoenix rising.”
The Phoenix! The symbol of Atlanta, up from the ashes. Rise up! As I write this, the Falcons are 0-2. Sunderland is relegated to League One, beneath the championship. But there’s still time! There still is time, for as they chant in the Stadium of Light, “I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m Sunderland ‘til I die.”
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.