Against all odds

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Last Sunday the undefeated Carolina Panthers, 14-0, traveled to Atlanta to play the Falcons who, after a 5-0 start, were at 7-7 on the season. Just two weeks earlier, Atlanta had been humiliated by a 38-0 score at the hands of Carolina. The Panthers were confident, cocky even, and players predicted that the Falcons would fall and that the Panthers would own a 15-0 record at the close of the game. It wasn’t to be.

In what has to be one of the most significant upsets of the 2015 season, a scrappy Falcons team refused to quit and, at the end of the game, Atlanta had defeated the powerful Panthers 20-13. While the Panthers are a lock for the playoffs and the Falcons will likely be sitting at home during the postseason, it was an extraordinary game and it points to the truth of sports — on any given day, any team can beat the other team.

In 1968, the Dobyns-Bennett Indians high school football team traveled to Greeneville, Tenn., to play the Greeneville Greene Devils. In 1966, D-B trounced the Greene Devils 48-0. In 1967, the Indians again humbled Greeneville by a score of 35-7. In 1968, the Greene Devils were on their way to a disappointing 4-5-1 season and were, once again, expected to be humiliated by the powerful Indians.

But things sometimes happen that one cannot account for. On this Friday night in Greeneville, Tenn., a severe storm swept through northeast Tennessee. At times it was hard to see more than a few yards downfield, such was the torrent of rain and wind. The powerful running attack of Dobyns-Bennett ground to a halt in the field of thick mud. Passing was almost impossible. So, the two teams slogged it out in a rainstorm with neither team able to mount an offense.

Finally, the Indian defense tackled a Greene Devil running back in his own end zone and the score was 2-0. Before long both bands had retreated to the dry refuge of the busses and many fans headed for home. It was an ugly game on an even uglier night. Suddenly, in the wet and in the slick mud, a D-B running back fumbled the football. A big Greeneville defense tackle plucked the ball out of the muck and headed for the end zone. With D-B players pursuing as though in slow motion, the lineman lumbered into the end zone. The extra point was missed and the score stood at 6-2. And that was the score at the end of the game. It would be 2002 — 34 years — before Greeneville would again come away the winner over Dobyns Bennett.

As I sat in the silent locker room after the game, covered from head to toe in mud, I had to offer a wry smile. “I bet this will make their season,” I thought. “This must be like winning the State Championship for these guys.” Dobyns-Bennett high school has 2,100 students and its football program has the most wins and the most Tennessee State Football Championships of any high school in the state. They are usually a perennial powerhouse. But on this night, the boys from Greeneville prevailed. I remember that game to this day and I can guarantee that those who played for the Greene Devils that year still remember that game with fondness and pride.

Which is what I love about sports and what the Panthers re-discovered last Sunday. On any given day, on any given field or court, any team — regardless of records — can defeat any other team. The lesson is: any person, even the person who finds that the odds are stacked against them, can be a winner. The game is not decided until the game is played.

[A regular contributor to our weekend edition, David Epps is the pastor of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Sharpsburg, GA (www.ctkcec.org). He is the bishop of the Mid-South Diocese which consists of Georgia and Tennessee (www.midsouthdiocese.org) and the Associate Endorser for the Department of the Armed Forces, U. S. Military Chaplains, ICCEC. He may contacted at frepps@ctkcec.org.]