Ask any University of Florida fan, such as myself, what we have in common with a University of Georgia Bulldog fan, and we’ll say, “Absolutely nothing!”
A recent visit to the home of former University of Georgia Football Coach Mark Richt proved me wrong, however. I was invited to Coach Richt’s home to discuss his upcoming book, Make the Call, slated for release in September. However, what I learned from our conversation was profoundly more significant than a book interview.
Richt had just announced that he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and our time together taught me a lesson about faith and endurance in troubled times.
The sun peaked in through the windows that surrounded us in his Athens, Ga., home on a bright Monday morning. As the coach sat down to put on his shoes, I watched him slowly but with confidence slide each foot into his sneakers. He was ready to go, despite his stage 1 diagnosis.
“Even walking through a difficult battle, his faith seems to be guiding him.”
“A lot of people have spent 10 to 20 years in stage one, which is relatively mild,” he explained. “That’s where I’m at right now; but I feel good and am not in any pain.”
Richt’s statement announcing his disease to the world was viewed on the ESPN website by 9 million people. The one thing that makes him happiest was that he could lift up the name of Jesus for all the world to see even through this health crisis. Even walking through a difficult battle, his faith seems to be guiding him.
He is not shy in talking about how Jesus changed his life at the age of 22 when Coach Bobby Bowden lead him to faith in Jesus.
“Coach Bowden had an open-door policy, which was open to anybody who wanted to talk to him about Jesus,” he explained. “That changed my life. I mean, it dramatically — for all of eternity — gave me a new perspective on how to live.”
This manner of approaching life may be why I was drawn to Richt’s story in this season of his life. He demonstrates faith in action, and he remains honest about what lies ahead for him.
“I’m doing great. I posted that I had Parkinson’s, because I kinda just got tired of people asking me what was wrong,” he explained. “’Cause you know, my balance, it gets off a little bit and you slow down a little bit and then people start noticing, and asking, ‘Coach, is everything OK? Can I help you? Does your back hurt?’ Finally, I just said, let me just get it out in the open and get it over with as far as letting people know. It was kind of therapeutic to do that — really just to kind of get it off of my mind and not have to sit here and try to explain to people what’s going on.”
Richt believes just because we are called to have faith doesn’t mean we must deny our feelings or lose all reality around us. On the contrary, faith is transparent by letting people know what battles or situations you’re facing. It is stepping outside of the unspoken prayer request and making it known that everything is not OK.
Given his recent news, I thought I would find a somber individual for this interview. Not so. In his coach’s tone, he is emphatic that being positive is his choice.
“In his coach’s tone, he is emphatic that being positive is his choice.”
“You gotta stay positive. You can’t, you can’t be depressed. You can’t stay in bed. You got to keep moving. There are things that you could do that can really ward this off. This it’s not a death sentence. It sometimes feels like it. You know, it is life change, for sure.”
He is uniquely ready for the adversity of Parkinson’s disease because his dad also suffered from the disease. He has seen what it can do to a person, yet he’s not fearful. He has determined to live by faith.
“When the adversity hits you, you’re ready for it. You can handle it,” he said. “If you spend time with the Lord, you truly have that peace that surpasses all understanding. When these things happen, you can handle them better and you can stay positive.”
He also finds comfort in the promise of Scripture: “I really do see it as a momentary light affliction that I have compared to the glory that I’m going to have in heaven. When we get those glorified bodies with no sin and no disease, and all that kind of good stuff, I’m looking forward to that day. In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy life like I always have.”
Maina Mwaura is a freelance writer and communications consultant who lives in the metro Atlanta area. A native of Orlando, Fla., he earned a bachelor of science degree in communications from Liberty University and a master of divinity degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.