If you’re a football history buff, you’ve probably heard about “Wrong Way” Roy Riegels. Even if you’re not, we all can learn a lot from his memorable mistake – and the way he reacted to it.
On Jan. 1, 1929, the California Bears were playing Georgia Tech in the Rose Bowl. An outstanding athlete, Riegels played on both the offensive and defensive lines. In the second quarter of the game, one of his teammates fumbled the ball at Georgia Tech’s 30-yard line. Riegels picked up the ball and started running with it – except in the wrong direction, toward his own team’s goal line. He was finally tackled at the Bears’ one-yard line, by one of his own teammates.
Georgia Tech scored a two-point safety on the next play, and those points made the difference in Tech’s 8-7 victory, which gave them their second national championship.
For most observers, Riegels’ stunning mistake was responsible for his team’s defeat.
Many people haven’t heard what happened when Riegels returned to the sideline. Understandably distraught, he told his coach, Nibs Price, he wasn’t going back on the field. “Coach, I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you, I’ve ruined myself, I’ve ruined the University of California. I couldn’t face the crowd to save my life.”
Price looked in the eyes and responded, “Roy, get up and go back out there – the game is only half over.”
He did, and played an outstanding second half, including blocking a punt. Despite his efforts, Riegels’ team fell one point short, magnifying the two points Georgia Tech had scored because of his errant run.
But he put the embarrassment and notoriety behind him, being named team captain his senior season, earning All-America honors, and helping California to a 7-1-1 record. Riegels refused to let the stigma of his wrong-way run turn into a life-crushing mistake.
Most of us don’t have to live down the infamy of such a public blunder. I’ve never experienced running the right direction on a football field, let alone the wrong one. But we’ve all made mistakes in our lives, some so minor that hardly anyone knows about them, but others that haunt us to this day.
As with Riegels, we can’t rewind those moments or erase them. Typically, our stumbles in life don’t offer us a do-over – or a mulligan, if you’re a golfer. We must face the consequences, and sometimes they’re severe. At such times we have two choices: We can crumble under their weight, or we can heed the advice of Riegels’ coach: “The game is only half over.”
One of the distinctive qualities of the Bible is its candor. It doesn’t varnish or sugarcoat the stories of its main characters. They’re presented in all their flaws, along with their sins. For instance, we have King David of Israel, who committed adultery with a married woman and then arranged for her husband to be killed in battle, hoping to cover up his misdeed. There’s impetuous Peter, who boasted of never forsaking Jesus – and then did exactly that. Then there’s Saul (later named Paul), who devoted his life as a zealous Pharisee to persecuting Christians. And many others.
Each recognized their sins but didn’t let those define them. When the prophet Nathan confronted David, he did not deny his wrongdoing or offer excuses. He said, “I have sinned against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13), and later wrote, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…. Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me…. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me” (Psalm 51:1-12).
Peter denied Christ three times while He was facing a Roman inquisition, but unlike Judas Iscariot, the apostle refused to let that be his final act. As we read in John 21:15-19, after Jesus’ resurrection, He restored Peter by asking him – three times – if he loved Him. Each time Peter would reply, “You know that I love you,” after which Jesus said, “Follow Me.”
Numerous times Paul had the opportunity to give testimony of his divine encounter with Jesus while traveling on the road to Damascus. The experience immediately took then-Saul off the persecution circuit and transformed him into a fearless ambassador for his Lord.
In 2 Corinthians 2:1-3, the once proud and self-confident Paul confessed to believers in Corinth, “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling.”
Each of these men, and many others in the Scriptures, committed seemingly unforgivable acts, and yet God forgave them completely. As it says in Psalm 103:12, “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
This can be our experience as well, knowing that whatever we’ve done is part of our history, but need not be part of our future – if we repent of it, entrust it to the Lord, and receive His spiritual healing and forgiveness. As Paul wrote late in his life and ministry, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
Like Roy Riegels, the game isn’t over for us yet.
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Robert J. Tamasy is a veteran journalist, former newspaper editor and magazine editor. Bob has written, co-authored and edited more than 15 books. These include the newly published, ”Marketplace Ambassadors”; “Business At Its Best: Timeless Wisdom from Proverbs for Today’s Workplace”; “Tufting Legacies,” “The Heart of Mentoring,” and “Pursuing Life With a Shepherd’s Heart.” A weekly business meditation he edits, “Monday Manna,” is translated into more than 20 languages and sent via email around the world by CBMC International. The address for his blog is www.bobtamasy.blogspot.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.