Bethany House Publishers
RICKY & SHERIALYN BYRDSONG
Coaching Kids in the Game of Life
Ricky Byrdsong was only fifteen when he met Sherialyn Kelley on a blind date on Christmas Day, 1972. The six-foot-six basketball player was smitten with the athletic Sherialyn, who was smart as well as pretty. The high school sweethearts both graduated from Iowa State University and were married on October 6, 1979.
Ricky started coaching college ball immediately after graduation in 1978. His nineteen-year coaching career took him finally to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, as head basketball coach.
Sherialyn, too, was "Coach Byrdsong" at the University of Arizona, coaching women's basketball at the same time her husband was coaching men's basketball there. When the kids came along, Sherialyn became an at-home mom but continued to coach sports at her kids' schools.
Both Ricky and Sherialyn made serious decisions as adults to live for Christ. Ricky realized there was a lot more to life than just playing basketball. Coaching became a way to teach life principles of discipline, following the rules, cooperation, a positive spirit, and learning from mistakes. Win or lose, Ricky was always a role model of integrity and a man of faith.
Meanwhile, God was using Sherialyn to coach others in worship and the study of God's Word. While Ricky was head coach at Northwestern University, Sherialyn became the praise and worship team leader at The Worship Center, a church with a vision to unite persons of many races in Christian worship
When a losing streak cost him his job at NWU, Ricky began working on a book that had been gnawing inside him--a book for parents about "coaching kids in the game of life," using sports metaphors to teach parents how to encourage and guide their children.
Then he was offered a job--not as a university basketball coach, but as vice president of community affairs for the Aon Corporation. His job description? Developing programs to help underprivileged youth reach their full potential. Speaking in schools and bringing inner-city kids to his "Not-Just-Basketball Camps," Ricky was doing what he did best--coaching kids in the game of life.
Then ... tragedy. On July 2, 1999, while jogging in his suburban neighborhood with two of his children, Ricky was shot and killed by a young white supremacist during a two-state shooting spree. People nationwide were stunned by his murder.
Suddenly Sherialyn, only forty-two, was a widow with three preteen children. She was at a crossroad. She could give in to despair, bitterness, and self-pity ... or she could believe that God's love is stronger than hate. In the media spotlight since her husband's murder, she has turned tragedy into triumph through public witness to her faith in God and by establishing the Ricky Byrdsong Foundation. The Foundation seeks to address the growing epidemic of violence in our society by providing opportunities for young people that instill a sense of self-worth and purpose and develop respect for others.
The torch has been passed from one Coach Byrdsong to another.
ames Saunders sized up the tall, good-looking black man walking briskly up Wacker Drive and decided he looked like a good mark. "Got a dollar or two, mister?" he called out. Unlike some of the other panhandlers in downtown Chicago, James knew he wouldn't get snide remarks like "Get a job, buddy." Not many people could pass by the wheelchair of a double amputee without throwing something into his hat.
"Sure," said the tall man, digging out a five-dollar bill. "Say, losing your legs must be tough. What happened?"
James was surprised. Most people just dropped in the money and hurried off. Not many stayed to talk.
It was the first of many talks on the corner of Wacker Drive and Monroe. James told his new friend, who introduced himself as Ricky Byrdsong, that he'd been stabbed in the back at age twenty-five, which paralyzed him from the waist down. An infection in his bones took off first one leg, then the other. For the past twenty-five years he'd been in and out of hospitals, had married three times, and held piecemeal jobs.
Ricky Byrdsong told James he used to be the head basketball coach at Northwestern University "... until I got sacked a year ago." He laughed ruefully. "Nobody would hire a coach with a losing streak. Didn't think about panhandling, though.... You make good money on this corner?"
James laughed in spite of himself. The tall man was obviously well-off now. Turned out that he worked across the street at the Aon Corporation--the second largest insurance broker in the world--as vice president of community affairs.
"Don't you miss coaching?" he asked his new friend.
Byrdsong grinned broadly from ear to ear. "James, I've got the greatest job in the world. They're actually paying me to go to schools, talk to kids about what's important in life, and run basketball camps for inner-city kids in the summer. Not just basketball, either. Kids come to camp to play basketball half the time; the other half we teach them computer skills, take them to work, try to give them a vision for something besides basketball." His eyes had fire in them. "I want them to know there are other options besides becoming an NBA superstar like Michael Jordan--which isn't very likely--or hustling drugs. I want kids to know there's dignity in education and hard work."
Dignity. Pride. That was hard to come by panhandling on a street corner, even though it put food in his stomach and helped pay the rent. There was something about Ricky Byrdsong that inspired James Saunders, made him want to "stand tall," get off this street corner, and do something with his life.
"Ricky, do you think you could help me get a job?" he asked one winter morning as the two men exchanged their usual hellos.
Byrdsong scratched the back of his head. "Can't promise anything, James. But I'll see what I can do."
Within a couple of days Ricky ushered James's wheelchair into the Human Resources office of the Aon Corporation. There was a job in the mailroom. Did James think he could handle it?
James could hardly believe his ears. "I'll be the best employee you've got!" he said. "I'm dependable. I'll show up here on time, even stay overtime if I need to."
"He's got that right!" Ricky Byrdsong chimed in. "If this guy can show up on a street corner in the Windy City every morning, rain or shine, summer or winter, without fail, you know he's going to show up for an inside job!"
Their laughter bounced off the walls. And James was true to his word. He didn't make as much money as he sometimes did panhandling, but Ricky Byrdsong had given him something far better: friendship and dignity.
An advocate speaks up on behalf of someone else who is often overlooked in society.
FROM GOD'S WORD:
Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed (Psalm 82:3, niv).
LET'S TALK ABOUT IT:
1. Why would a man like Ricky Byrdsong make friends with a panhandler who "worked the corner" across from the big corporation where he worked?
2. Why is helping someone get a job more helpful than just giving someone money?
3. Is there someone you pass by every day--on the way to work or school--who needs you to be an advocate for him or her?
From Tragedy to Triumph
e's dead, you know," said the sympathetic voice at her elbow.
Sherialyn Byrdsong stopped her prayers and stared at the intensive-care nurse.
"Dead?" she echoed in disbelief. "Dead?" How could this be happening? Not Ricky, not her big strapping husband who was so full of life. Murdered?
The screams of her children still rang in her ears: "Daddy's been shot!" At 8:52 on a peaceful summer evening in their quiet neighborhood in Skokie, Illinois, a lone gunman had opened fire on her husband and children as they were coming home from a nearby park. The children were all right--traumatized, but alive--but Ricky ... Ricky was dead.
The next few days were a blur. It was Fourth of July weekend, 1999. Newscasters were saying the gunman was a white supremacist shooting at over twenty-five Jews, Blacks, and Asians in a two-state spree. The shooter finally turned the gun on himself as the police closed in. Three dead--counting the shooter's suicide--and twelve wounded.
Calls of sympathy came pouring into the Byrdsong home from all over the world. Sherialyn could barely think about why Ricky had been shot. Just because he was black? It didn't make sense! Her husband was working at a job he loved, motivating kids to become all God meant for them to be. His kids needed their dad. And just two weeks earlier Ricky had heard that a publisher wanted the parenting book he was working on.
At the same time she knew why. The stronghold of evil was in a spiritual warfare with the kingdom of God, and the Evil One had scored a victory by eliminating a man who was influencing others for good, who had gotten to the place in his life where "nothing else mattered" other than living for God.
Two days after her husband's murder, Sherialyn Byrdsong held a press conference. People who watched were impressed by her poise and dignity. "The violent act that took my husband's life is yet another clarion call to our nation.... Wake up, America! It's time to turn back to God.... This is not a gun problem, it's a heart problem, and only God and reading His word can change our hearts."
In a private sharing with her church family, she said, "In the twenty years I've been a Christian, all the Scripture I've studied and all the worship songs I've ever learned were like deposits into my heart. Now I'm making withdrawals big time."
Working with Ricky's co-writers, Sherialyn Byrdsong helped oversee his book to completion, making sure that it reflected the heart of what he wanted to say to parents.1 A lot of her energy went into establishing the Ricky Byrdsong Foundation to continue her husband's work with youth, giving them positive alternatives to a culture of violence. All three of the Byrdsong kids ran in the Ricky Byrdsong Memorial 5K Run a year after their father was killed, an event that brought together nearly two thousand people of all races pledging themselves to work against violence and hate. And on the one-year anniversary of her husband's death, at a memorial celebration called "From Tragedy to Triumph," Sherialyn spoke to a gathering who worshiped together across racial and denominational lines, to praise the King of Kings and to commit themselves to let God's love be stronger than hate.
As Sherialyn worked through her grief, keeping her eyes not on her loss but on Jesus, she taught a series of Bible studies at her church, addressing the question "Is God good?" Her answer: a resounding YES. "If we understand the sovereignty of God, we'll understand it's not about us. It's about God!"
Some people are defeated by problems; others
understand that God has already given us victory.
FROM GOD'S WORD:
"Death is destroyed forever in victory." ... But we thank God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54b, 57, ncv).
LET'S TALK ABOUT IT:
1. What do you think Sherialyn Byrdsong meant when she said that studying the Bible and singing worship songs were "deposits" in her heart, and now she was making "withdrawals" to help her through this tragedy?
2. Why do you think Sherialyn Byrdsong called the senseless murder of her husband a "wake-up call"?
3. Have you ever lost someone close to you in a tragic way? Do you sometimes wonder if God really is good? How can you turn loss or tragedy into triumph?
The Missing Shoes
ut, Dad... !"
"I said no, so don't keep asking. I'm not going to put out money for expensive athletic shoes just for a one-week basketball camp. What's wrong with your sneakers?"
His father's words still echoed in his head as the ten-year-old boy mingled with the other kids who had signed up for Ricky Byrdsong's summer basketball camp at Northwestern University. The gym was full of black kids and white kids, kids wearing squeaky-clean athletic shoes, tossing the ball around, shootin' hoops.... But he didn't see anyone else wearing a yarmulke on his head.
A tall guy holding a basketball on his hip walked over to the boy. "Hi, son. I'm Coach Byrdsong. You bring any other shoes to play in?"
The boy reddened and looked down at his muddy sneakers. He shook his head. "My dad wouldn't buy me any new shoes for camp."
The coach raised his eyebrows. "Stay right there, son," he said and walked off the floor. A few minutes later he was back, jangling his car keys. "C'mon." Puzzled, the boy obediently trotted after the coach as he headed out to the parking lot. Coach Byrdsong unlocked his Jeep Cherokee and said, "Get in."
"Where we goin'?"
"To get you a pair of shoes." The coach grinned.
The boy's eyes flew wide. "Aw, no, coach. My dad wouldn't want you to do that."
"Get in, son. If you want to play ball, you gotta have good gym shoes--and they can't go outside playing in the mud."
The boy tried a few more times to tell Coach Byrdsong that his dad wasn't going to like it, but the coach cheerfully ignored him. He asked the shoe man to measure the boy's feet and fit him with a good pair of basketball shoes. Then he pulled out his wallet, paid for the shoes, and gave the bag to the boy to carry.
Back in the car, the boy tried again. "My dad will make me bring them back."
"Don't worry about it, son. I'll talk to your dad if it's a problem." Man, those shoes felt good running up and down the basketball court. And when they took a break from doing skills and drills, the boy listened as Coach Byrdsong gave them some tips about basketball ... and life. "What's the most important skill you can develop? A positive attitude! You got the right attitude, you're on the way to being a winner!" And "Respect! Every member of this team deserves respect. And that includes the manager and everyone else on the staff. I don't want to see any of you leaving your towel around the locker room, thinking somebody else can pick it up for you."
By the time he got home, the boy had figured out how to handle his little problem. When his dad got home from work--as CEO of a large Chicago company--the brand-new athletic shoes were safely stowed at the back of the boy's closet. They only came out in time to get smuggled to camp, then back in the closet. And when basketball camp was over, there they stayed.
A couple of years passed. It was summer again and the boy--a teenager now--was excited about the plans his family was making to celebrate July Fourth, which fell the day after Sabbath. But suddenly news was spreading like wildfire over Chicago's airwaves and newspapers: A lone gunman had opened fire on a group of Orthodox Jews walking home from Sabbath services, wounding several. Then the gunman had driven north and killed an African-American man jogging home from the park with his kids.
The man who had been shot was Coach Ricky Byrdsong.
Suddenly the teenager remembered the shoes in the back of his closet. "Dad?" he said, digging out the shoes, tears filling his eyes. "I've got something to tell you."
A spirit of generosity delights in sharing whatever we have with whoever needs it.
FROM GOD'S WORD:
You must each make up your own mind as to how much you should give.... For God loves the person who gives cheerfully (2 Corinthians 9:7).
LET'S TALK ABOUT IT:
1. What do you think the father's reaction was when he heard that Coach Byrdsong had bought his son basketball shoes--shoes the father easily could have afforded?
2. Why do you think Ricky Byrdsong left the basketball camp to buy shoes for one boy instead of just saying, "No shoes, no play"?
3. Brainstorm some ways you (and your family) can develop a generous spirit.
1Coaching Your Kids in the Game of Life by Ricky Byrdsong with Dave and Neta Jackson (Bethany House Publishers, 2000).