Quietly, faith has been key tenet in Meyer's life
The college football world watched as Urban Meyer dropped to one knee, driven to the turf by a throbbing headache during the Indiana game on Oct. 6 in Ohio Stadium.
It was stunning to see the stoic Ohio State coach kneeling on the sideline, but for Meyer, bowing his body was nothing new. Only the setting and circumstances were different. The 54-year-old soon-to-be retiree has spent more hours on his knees this season seeking relief in his spirit than he has crumpled in pain because of the cyst in his head.
“It’s very clear from Scripture that anxiety is not something to hold onto. ‘It’s ‘Give your anxieties to Him,’ and I’ve had the hardest time doing that,” Meyer said during a sit-down interview five days before Christmas. “The amount of hours I have spent in prayer trying to overcome, like a lot of us. I have thorns, and like it says in II Corinthians, ‘Please remove the thorns from my side.’ And God said, ‘My grace is sufficient.’ ”
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Volumes have been written about Meyer and football. Chapters have been written about Meyer and his family. Less has been written about Meyer and his faith, which is why I pursued that aspect of his life, intrigued after he began his portion of the Dec. 4 news conference announcing his retirement with “God has a plan … ”
What I learned is that Meyer’s close attachment to Christianity is as self-impacting as that of his predecessor’s. Jim Tressel may have been more public with his profession of faith, but personality plays a part in it. Meyer is more private, but his faith manifests in ways just as meaningful.
Ryan Day, who takes over as head coach on Jan. 2, said Meyer makes faith — Christian or otherwise — central to the program.
“It’s something we talk about and understand is a huge part of our program,” Day said. “I talk about it all the time, that God has a plan. We talk about pillars of life — physical, mental and one is spiritual; and if that part is not right, you’re going to fall apart.”
Meyer’s faith journey evolved at Florida, where he met daily with quarterback Tim Tebow to discuss how to apply the Bible to real-life situations, but his roots extend to childhood.
“It’s deep, deep, and has been that way my whole life,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve always been where I wanted to be, but it’s always been a part of me and my family.”
Hard stop. Meyer is well aware of the accusations of hypocrisy that follow any coach who says one thing and does another. He has been targeted for committing just such a sin, both at Florida — where he preached character even while unsavory characters dotted the roster — and also at Ohio State, where especially this season his actions (or inaction) involving former assistant coach Zach Smith led to a three-game suspension and the questioning in some circles of his methods and morals.
Meyer not only gets it, but admits to missing the mark on occasion.
“Language has been a major challenge for me,” he said, explaining that even though his salty vocabulary has cleaned up over time, there remains room for improvement. “I’ve been called out by (ESPN broadcaster) Dave Pasch and (Chris) Spielman and people who know me very well. What comes out of your mouth is a reflection of who you are, so you can seem hypocritical if you’re using that language. But at the end of the day our players know I love and care about them.”
Actions have consequences, and Meyer deserves no special treatment. But calling out his hypocrisy is a dangerous two-way street. If not careful, stones of judgment come back hard against the hands that cast them. To his credit, Meyer has taken hits and done well extending grace to those who grumble against him.
“There are people who say things … ,” Meyer said, hinting at the hatred he has encountered this season. “When I see some of the vile things that are said — and I try to avoid it but sometimes it is thrust upon you — what gets me through is there is no way that person really believes that. So I always look at it as those are thorns, and they’re things you’ve got to overcome. And you can’t hold that person responsible.”
Meyer grew up Catholic, with his father, Bud, teaching Bible lessons to the family almost daily. His wife, Shelley, grew up Protestant, and the couple now associate with the nondenominational Rock City Church, where lead pastor Chad Fisher has encouraged Meyer to “Follow peace” in transitioning from coaching to whatever comes next.
“I’m not there yet,” Meyer said, explaining that adjusting to a new role takes time after 33 years of identifying as a coach. “The peace I have right now is the fact that our athletic director (Gene Smith) is very excited. Recruiting went very well. Our players are excited. No people are transferring out. Buckeye Nation is very excited. This is a strong program with a chance to get even stronger. There’s a lot of peace in knowing that.”
Legacy matters to Meyer. An unknown future makes him anxious. All he can do is fall to his knees, talk to God and, especially these days, listen.
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