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How COVID-19 helped college football’s greatest coach find more joy: A lesson on approaching each day with gratitude

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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Nick Saban
Alabama Crimson Tide offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood (70) and head coach Nick Saban hold the trophy as they celebrate on the stage with quarterback Mac Jones (10), and offensive lineman Landon Dickerson (69) after the Crimson Tide defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes at the College Football Playoff National Championship football game on January 11, 2021 at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, FL. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

If there were any doubt that Alabama Coach Nick Saban has earned his place atop the pantheon of the sport’s best, Monday night’s dominating victory over Ohio State—capping a perfect 13–0 season—put the discussion to rest. 

Saban has now won seven championships in his career and six of the last twelve. As a result, it’s only normal that a big smile donned his face throughout the post-game festivities. 

Most college coaches aren’t normal, though. 

As Ryan McGee writes for ESPN, “Coaching legends don’t smile. They don’t beam. They don’t grin. They scowl. From Bryant and Woody Hayes to Urban Myer and John Heisman, the College Football Hall of Fame is a portrait gallery of men who look like their underwear is three sizes too small. Grimaced perfectionists all.”

And even Saban has been known more as a gruff competitor than a joyful one over the years. 

So what changed? 

As the coach described after the game, “I do think that when you have something taken away from you, as we did when it came to spring practice and our normal summer and early fall routines, or you have the potential to have something taken from you, the cloud we lived under all season long, then I think that has to make you appreciate it more. We all love this game, but when it’s all you do, you start thinking it’s always going to be there. Then when it isn’t, it’s only natural that you pause to appreciate it more when you get it back.” 

In short, what changed for Saban is that the Covid pandemic helped him appreciate the sport, his players, and the chance to compete in a way he’d come to take for granted. 

In so doing, he became a better coach and a better person. 

Understanding God’s call to gratitude

One of my most urgent hopes and prayers as we approach month ten of the coronavirus wreaking havoc on our lives is that all of us can take a page from Saban’s playbook and take stock of the blessings that have gone underappreciated for far too long. 

Gratitude is a consistent concept throughout Scripture, but the Lord’s call to Israel as it wandered in the wilderness perhaps mirrors our current circumstances best.

That call often harkened back to a sense of gratitude and remembrance for the ways in which he had blessed his people. The Ten Commandments, for example, start not with the declaration that “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3) but rather with the decree that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (v. 2). 

The Lord knew that for his people to keep his commands, they would have to first appreciate their source. 

He understood that a sense of entitlement or a focus on our problems is one of the greatest impediments to a thriving relationship with him. 

And he recognized that being thankful for the good things in life can help us overcome the trials we face on a daily basis. 

In short, God called his people to see gratitude as a way of life and that remains the best way for us to approach each day. 

Will you?

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