Reading Time: 6 minutes

The legacy of Lee Elder: Why war and sports inspire us

Mark Legg is a staff writer for Denison Forum. He graduated from Dallas Baptist University with a degree in philosophy and biblical studies. He eventually wants to pursue his PhD and become a professor in philosophy.

Lee Elder watches the flight of his ball as he tees off in the first round of play at the Masters in Augusta, Ga., in this April 10, 1975, file photo. (AP Photo/File)

I’m a sports outsider. Though I played soccer as a kid, I ended up on a slightly nerdier path. (I did four years of speech and debate in high school.) I don’t currently follow team sports of any kind.

On Thanksgiving, however, I found myself sucked into the Cowboys game, the only football team I’ve felt the slightest attachment to. The game on Thanksgiving against the Raiders was a riveting (if ridiculously foul-ladened) game. 

The one time I get invested, I’m taken on a roller coaster ride that ends in a deep low. 

How does sports inspire emotion and investment? 

It’s just a group of guys getting the ball from over here to another place over there, right? 

Sacrifice and hardship in war (and sports)

Randall Wallace wrote the screenplay for Braveheart and directed We Were Soldiers. He equated the success of Braveheart to his touch on the spirit of war. War, while in and of itself brutal, is a result of the worst of the world’s sinful manifestations and to be avoided at all costs. Yet it still inspires us. 

Wallace says, “I’ve been asked why I make war movies. I say I don’t. I make love stories. I want to know what you love enough to sacrifice your life for if necessary.”

The fact that you fight for something, risking death and injury, means you must value something. He wrote the line for William Wallace, “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom.” War inspires us because it reflects great sacrifice. 

Sports inspire us because we get inspired by competition and overcoming difficulties. The hardship of repeatedly shoving an athletic, three-hundred-pound lineman away from whom you’re trying to protect does not sound like fun to me. 

But that’s the point. The grit required to succeed gives room for excellence and human triumph (without literally swinging giant claymore swords at each other). It makes complete sense that sports inspire fans to wear body paint, put cheese hats on their heads, and, sometimes, get into brawls. 

Ironically, though teams are pitted against each other, just like in war, men and women become extremely close under the pressure. 

Because sports gives rise to excellence, camaraderie, and unity for the team, it became a catalyst for the civil rights movement in America (just like war did in the twentieth century). 

Another step in the arduous path of the civil rights movement was the life and legacy of the late Lee Elder. 

Lee Elder’s legacy 

Robert Lee Elder was one of ten siblings. He was born in Dallas, Texas, in 1934. His father died in Germany in World War II, when Lee was nine years old, and his mother died only three months later. Yet from these ashes, Lee would eventually excel in professional golf, earning millions in prize money, an exemplar of true skill in the sport. 

An orphan, Lee grew up with his aunt for a few years but struck out on his own at sixteen. He made money as a caddy, working any job he could. He eventually got good enough to make money hustling gamblers in the southwest. 

After joining the army for two years, he parted ways with the more dangerous side of playing to start playing professionally. At that time, the main golf tour (the PGA) was “caucasian only.” He eventually joined the PGA in 1968, after it did away with its racist clause in 1961. 

A few years later, he managed to get an invite to the Masters, despite facing discrimination. The story made national news. He was suddenly speaking at banquets, playing exhibitions, and everything else. The nation’s eye was on him: the first black man to play at the Masters. 

Alongside the national attention and support, he also received numerous death threats. He and his team were constantly on high alert and often had to detour around dangerous areas. 

Next year at the Masters, the other professionals treated him well, and a couple became his fast friends. The crowd erupted with cheering for him at every hole. 

In a special issue of Golf Digest, Elder said, “Of all the acknowledgments of what I had accomplished by getting there, this one meant the most.”  

He described the moment: “Most of the staff was black, and on Friday, they left their duties to line the 18th fairway as I walked toward the green. . . . [It] moved me very deeply. I couldn’t hold back the tears. One club employee shouted in this booming voice that rose above the applause, ‘Thank you for coming, Mr. Elder!’ Other employees, taking his cue, shouted the same thing.”

In 2019, Lee Elder received the Bob Jones Award, the United States Golf Association’s highest honor, and was subsequently named an honorary starter for the 2021 Masters.

He died on Sunday at the age of eighty-seven. 

A new way to fight 

Lee Elder is an example of overcoming adversity. In the not-too-distant past, racism openly and overtly plagued many sports. Since I am a part of “gen Z” by most accounts, it boggles my mind that overt segregation persisted in America only around three generations ago. 

It’s only through persistence and courage that an entire culture is overturned from evil. 

While fighting in war and competition in sports can inspire and unite people, the war that continues in every corner of the earth is the church’s battle to push back the darkness with the light of Christ. While the Bible includes wars between Israel and its surrounding enemies, when Christ came, he waged a different kind of war.

In those times, Roman soldiers could, by law, require a citizen to carry his military gear for him for a mile. So, in that context, Jesus encourages his followers to shoulder their enemy’s pack and carry it an extra mile (Matthew 5:41). 

Jesus’ military plan for introducing his kingdom included: 

  • healing the wounded of the enemy (Luke 22:51)
  • setting up a group of impoverished ragtag men for his top generals (Luke 6:12–16)
  • recruiting an occupying tax collector (Matthew 9:9–13)
  • praying on behalf of his opposers (Matthew 5:44)
  • forgiving his own killers (Luke 23:34)
  • recruiting a terrorist (Acts 9)
  • showing compassion to all (Matthew 9:36)
  • and ultimately dying on behalf of his enemies (Romans 5:7–8). 

Sound effective? 

Certainly not by worldly standards. 

Yet through his life, death, and resurrection, he destroyed the works of the devil and defeated darkness (1 John 3:8). 

Now he calls us to follow his example of humility.