In an effort to find a little quiet space, I parked myself on a cushy sofa of the elegant hotel lobby where I claimed a corner of the world for myself. Albeit for just a few moments, I sipped my coffee and read with enough white noise in the background to make me feel I was completely invisible.
After a few minutes, a particular conversation was piercing through my privacy and distracting me from my work.
I can’t remember exactly what was said at all, but I thought I heard someone speaking to a young custodian about football. I kept fighting the diversion like one would fight a lone mosquito at a 4th of July picnic in the sticky summer heat. I’d get focused again and there it was. Causing me to bat it away.
Finally, the conversation quieted and was replaced by the sound of a vacuum cleaner. I never thought I’d be so happy to hear the sublime tones of a Hoover, but it seemed to provide enough escape to blot out any other conversations and, ah, I could delve into my thoughts once again.
The sound of the vacuum cleaner was closer now and then even closer. It was in my direct vicinity of where my feet propped and I was soon interrupted with, “Excuse me, Ma’am.”
I said good morning and asked a simple question that came out of nowhere.
“Where did you play football?”
This one random question was enough to make the sound of the vacuum cleaner to go away. At the same time he powered it down the custodian said, “How did you know?”
I don’t recall digesting any of the conversation that had been my earlier nuisance, but somehow I just had a nudge inside telling me to ask this of him.
“I just thought maybe….” I said.
Before I could finish my sentence, the custodian began rattling off a list of accomplishments in athletics that helped him earn his degree at a Division I school.
“What position did you play?”
“Outside linebacker….” and then his eyes sort of drifted off.
I didn’t need to hear the last part of his next sentence because the first two words told me everything I needed to know. “I was….”
I realized the custodian with the vacuum had a hidden nerve that I’d stumbled upon because at 6.0 and 215, he suddenly had some man-sized tears rolling down his face that said something like “they don’t write about me anymore.”
“Do you mind if we step outside?” he asked me.
The custodian was so young to have this kind of buried regret. He began to tell me about his descent from the ranks of valor into the pit of despair. He began to tell me about how he had disappointed his Mama, his family, and his entire hometown. Nobody had to remind him of his mess ups because he reminded himself daily of all he had ever done wrong.
Here in the very town that had made him a poster child of NCAA football was where he daily pushed his vacuum and had many hours upon hours to consider his life. This, as former fans said hello and asked questions like, “Hey do you remember when?” and “What happened with the NFL anyway?”
Nobody asked for photos anymore.
The burden of his failures was heavy upon him.
We wrapped up our discussion with prayer and an exchange of information. I check in on him from time to time.
Today, the custodian lives in his hometown again. He is now serving as an inspiration to many where he teaches 10th grade. He has a life he could have never imagined after failure of the greatest proportions. Though he envisioned it would have been a life in the NFL, it was now a life of investing in others.
I tell this story, Dear Reader, as an inspiration to gaze forward with hope not backwards to brokenness. Whenever being tested by fiery trials and failures, God will send help along the road of restoration. It will sometimes come in the form of prayer partners, spiritual parents, or even a general stranger in an unlikely place. In fact, we should count ourselves as blessed when we endure many trials and temptations for this type of testing produces perseverance.
Above all, we must forgive others and forgive ourselves for shortcomings that have caused gaping wounds. Alexander Pope’s famous quote is right even in modern times: To err is human, to forgive is divine.
Life is too short to clutch lack, pain, and bitterness. Many a graveside service have closed a man’s chapter of this earthly life while the bereaved sing a song of final redemption: Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. ’Tis grace that brought me safe thus far and grace will lead me home. Yes. Amen.