Spiritual Lessons on Victory and Defeat

Like many in First Covenant Church in San Francisco, I was raised in a Swedish-American family. We lived in a second-floor flat above my grandfather’s bakery where Scandinavian breads and pastries kept us well fed. But on Sundays, all three generations of Holmgrens were found at church where the bread of life was generously dispensed.

As a child, my appetite for spiritual things was not substantial. I was more interested in a pick-up game of touch football…. Raised in the shadows of Kezar Stadium – where the Forty-Niners played – I dreamed of one day wearing a Niner jersey.

When I was 11, Billy Graham held a three-week crusade at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. My parents took my sisters and me almost every night. On the final night, Cliff Barrows led the audience in singing “Just as I Am.”  I couldn’t stay seated and went forward to accept Christ just as I was, grubby tennis shoes and all.

But even as a Christian, I remained determined to make a name for myself on the gridiron. After leading my high school teams to the state championship I was offered a scholarship to play for the highly touted Trojans at the University of Southern California.

Unfortunately, injuries kept me sidelined much of my college career and I didn’t play much. I was gratefully surprised when I was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1970. But four weeks later, I was released. The New York Jets picked me up as a back-up quarterback to “Broadway Joe” Namath, but before the preseason was over, I was cut again. My dream of playing professional football was over before it had ever begun. I was devastated.

A girl I had met at Mission Springs Bible Camp the summer after I became a Christian re-emerged in my life about this time. Although we had corresponded off and on between summer reunions at camp, our friendship had drifted in recent years. Kathy had taken her faith much more seriously than I. She went on to a Christian college, became a nurse and was serving as a short-term missionary in Zaire. Her inspiring letters helped me realize how much I needed to trust the Lord in the midst of my disillusionment. As a result, I recommitted my life to Christ. Proverbs 3:5-6 became the personal line of scrimmage at which I dug in. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all of your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”

When Kathy returned from Africa we became engaged. In 1971 we were married. I began my coaching career at the high school from which I graduated. As our family of four daughters grew, so did my professional opportunities. I moved up into the college coaching ranks. But ambition was not the demon in my life it had once been. My wife and kids were a daily reminder of both God’s blessing on my life and His priorities. I had honestly reached a place where my future was in God’s hands.

Then a job opened up in Utah. Some of our friends questioned our judgment in accepting it. But Kathy and I viewed my position as assistant coach at Brigham Young University (BYU) as a unique opportunity. We wanted to be an evangelical witness to the players, coaches and students on this predominantly Mormon campus. God blessed our motives.

It was during my time at BYU that the San Francisco Forty-niners invited me to join their staff. For six wonderful years I worked with the likes of Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Roger Craig. Together we earned two consecutive Super Bowl Championships.

Although I was not a player, God had fulfilled my boyhood dream to be a part of my hometown team. Less than five miles from the Cow Palace where I had responded to Billy Graham’s message, Candlestick Park became the stadium where I expressed my faith in God in the course of my job as offensive coordinator.

When the media began to speculate that I would be offered the head coaching position of an NFL team, I prayed diligently. When the offers came, it seemed obvious to us that the needs of our daughters must take precedence over my career. I opted to decline the contracts and stay with the Forty-niners.

Sportswriters and colleagues scoffed at my reasoning. They said I’d never be approached again. But God honored our choice. One year later I was hired by the Green Bay Packers to carry the mantle of legendary head coach Vince Lombardi.

My first season with the Packers was beyond my expectations. Despite injuries and a grueling schedule, we nearly made the play-offs with a record 10 wins and six losses. It was the Packers first winning season in more than a decade.

But win or lose I learned a long time ago what really matters. It’s not Super Bowl rings, but the crown of eternal life Christ has won for us by His victory on the cross. As the Swedish hymn writer, Lina Sandell, put it: “Though he giveth or he taketh, God his children ne’er forsaketh, his the loving purpose solely to preserve them pure and holy” (Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook, No. 87).

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