Avery really loved this guy.
Master of hide-n-seek,
conqueror of large snow covered hills with a flimsy plastic sled,
impromptu bicycle-ride planner that always ended in ice cream.
Matt has always been easy going. A lay back and go with the flow, kind of guy. It's a wonderful quality. Endearing. Comforting. He demands little of the people in his life. A simple smile and this guy is your best friend for life.
When Avery started fifth grade this past September her number one goal was to play on whatever school sports team she could. Volleyball season came first and I worried thinking the experience would end up being bad for her. Avery didn't know how to play volleyball. Maybe the gym would be too loud and it would be confusing or her teammates would get upset because she would make a mistake and then she'd get embarrassed, or worse, maybe she would be such a poor player that she wouldn't get any play time at all and she'd just be heartbroken... of course, those were my fears, not hers.
Avery ended up being a pretty good little athlete. Her assertiveness surprised me. Matt was so excited because he could see her potential. I was excited because she was so happy. They would sit together and talk about volleyball and then the upcoming season of basketball. They made plans to practice at the park. Avery was so excited to be placed under Matt's basketball training wing.
One day she walked up to Matt and told him he needed to coach their basketball team. He laughed it off, telling her to focus on volleyball, but she was insistent. He tried to explain that he worked full time, that the time commitment needed to coach a 5th and 6th grade basketball team wasn't possible with his job, plus, what did he know about girls? She then came up with an obvious solution: pointing to me she said that I could help coach! That way, I could start the practices and then Matt could come later when he was done working. I explained that wouldn't be possible because I was scared of the ball. In fact, I had made it my life mission to never, ever involve myself in activity where people were hurling objects at you (except for my not-so-thought-out stint in the US Army). Anyway, ever been hit in the face by a basketball? It hurts. Bad.
But, man. Avery would not let it go. Over and over she would remind us, "you need to tell the school you're going to be the coach." Once afternoon we walked into the school for a volleyball game and Mr. Taylor, the Athletic Director, said to Matt, "so Avery tells me you're going to be our new basketball coach!" I tried to talk to Avery. "Honey, I know you want Matt to coach, but I just don't think that's going to work." "But, Mom," she explained in that patient, matter-of-fact way she had. "He needs to."
After she passed, how could he say no?
At first I thought maybe she was so insistent for me. Maybe walking back into that school a week after her funeral was to help me move forward. But I remembered she was after Matt to coach, not me. She just used me as a vehicle to get Matt into that gym.
Then I thought, well, maybe it was for the girls. I remember in seventh grade my friend Veronica died. Her locker was cleared out and her name erased from attendance sheets. A part of my heart had hardened with the knowledge that one of my friends could be here one second and so completely gone the next. And, to me and my immature mind, it seemed like the grown-ups got over it too easily. Maybe Avery had wanted us to coach to show the girls that even though mourning someone was hard, it was possible to go on and have fun.
I loved seeing Matt with these girls. I loved how he knew each and every one of them within the first week and could tell you (in detail if you were willing to listen) which skill set this one had or needed to have or what position they would be best at. I loved how he would talk to them like they were professional ball players and act surprised when he realized they had no idea what he was talking about.
I loved how he came home all excited, excited not only because of an incredible win, but because, he announced "I installed my very first ponytail!" (since one of the girls had forgotten to put her hair up).
After detailing every play of every game he would slump his shoulders a bit, "I wonder what kind of player Avery would have been." One of a million unanswered questions we'll always have.
Now, almost three months after Matt first took hold of the coveted dry-erase clipboard, I believe I know why Avery was so insistent that Matt needed to coach basketball. I believe God was preparing our healing and I believe Avery knew that. Maybe not the specifics, but she knew that God called Matt to coach inside this small gym of her modest Christian School and that he had to answer that call and that is why she was so insistent and so firm and adamant.
None of us knew how to cope with Avery's sudden death. I turned to God with the simplest of prayers: please, help me. Immediately a scripture came to my mind and would remain on repeat for five full days and nights: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can do ALL things through Christ who strengthens me. I held on to the courage of others. I cried openly into the palms of my hands. But no one heard the words spoken between God and I in my heart.
And Matt didn't know God well enough to turn to Him. Matt had no experience, no example. He saw only my head bowed, eyes squeezed tight, forehead wrinkled in an unrecognizable pain. He had no way of knowing the conversations pulsating through the core of my innermost being: my railing anger, confused pleading, and the comforting answers which found their way back to my knowing.
But through this team? This team taught Matt who God is.
Walking into the school that Avery adored, day after day, looking into the faces of children that had known Avery for years: had laughed with her, been annoyed by her, supported by her, created inside jokes with her, learned and played and prayed with her - somewhere along the way Matt learned about God's Gifts. He learned about the blessings of life.
But most of all, by coaching this team, Matt has been led towards faith by a wonderful, God filled man: Mr. Taylor. Both Matt and Mr. T enjoy sports. (A lot.) They both are about the same age and have boys around the same age. They both do tile work. Their father's even have the same name. They both have a spunk and free spirit about them. They are both easy going and patient. And they both coached the girls basketball teams (5th/6th by Matt; 7th/8th by Mr. T.). The biggest lesson Mr. T has taught Matt is that a man whose heart is centered on God is a man who can accomplish anything.
Basketball Hall of Famer, Larry Bird, once said, "A winner is someone who recognizes his God-given talents, works his tail off to develop them into skills, and uses these skills to accomplish his goals." It's true for the girls on the basketball team, but it's also true of all of us. I hope that Matt can see the talents God has given him and he chooses to develop them to reach his goals. And I believe that, through Avery, Matt was able to take those first, very important steps.