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From the Rev: Waiting in the Wings

In 11 seasons of serving as team chaplain, and three seasons in media relations with the Colorado Rapids, I feel like I have “seen it all.” In those years, there have been many highs and many lows, that I have had the sacred privilege and honor of observing and participating in. But, there is perhaps no greater place of tension as a chaplain than ministering to those who are “waiting in the wings.” Every professional team has them – those players who work tirelessly (sometimes even harder than the starters) to gain a starting position. And in no other sport is it more difficult to get a chance than for those who fill out the reserve squad for a football (soccer) team’s roster.

Consider this: a National Football League team has 53 players. There are 11 on the field at a time – and usually there is little duality of roles (i.e. offensive players and defensive players do not mix). The resulting 22 “starters” leave another 31 on the sidelines, but there tend to be many ways for players to have specific roles (special teams, etc.) with an NFL team and are still able to play and contribute. There is no limit to the number of substitutions that can be made during an NFL game- only to the amount of players (46) that can dress on game day. So potentially, there are seven players that may not see action on game day. Statistically speaking, 13% of your roster that you have to try and keep satisfied, motivated.

A National Basketball Association team can have 15 players signed and practicing with a team, but can only dress 12 for an NBA game. There are five players on the hardwood for a team at a time, unlimited substitutions and flexibility of roles within a team make for the chances of each player being able to get some time playing the professional game that they are passionate about. The three players that do not dress, equals 20% of a ‘roster’ though the NBA is similar to the NFL in that they often designate these players as “practice squad” players.

The National Hockey League is similar to the NBA, but with more players on the roster. 23 players can be with the club, but 20 (18 skaters and 2 goaltenders) are dressed for gameday. The speed and pace of the game means that there are many substitutions (again, unlimited) and the 6 players (5 skaters and 1 goaltender) on the ice at a time allow for full participation of players in the game (coaching decisions, penalties, and situational circumstances aside). The three players excluded from game day represents 13% of the roster – again, keeping these players fit, motivated, and satisfied represent a challenge for the coaching staff.

Major League Baseball has a different system. There are 25 players on an active roster (an additional 15 players are on an expanded roster which has injured players or farm team players). With 9 players on the field at a time (the American league has an additional player hitting for the pitcher) there are unlimited amount of substitutions that can be made, but there is a limit to this as many of the roles in baseball are situational. Teams carry different loads of positional player to pitcher ratios (usually 12 pitchers and 13 positional players on an active roster) but if we merely look at the game-day roster of 23 and assume that there are 13 position players that could be substituted for 8 positions (excluding the pitcher) this leaves 5 that may not see game time (not including situational pitchers). But the sheer number of games in MLB (162) means there is plenty of opportunity for players to play. So, roughly, 22% of a MLB team waits in the wings.

Major League Soccer teams carry rosters of 30 (with some exceptions). Of this number, 18 dress for 11 positions on the pitch (field). However, competition rules limit the number of substitutions to 3 players. This means that in any given game (34 league games in a season) at most 14 players can compete. Games are timed (like in football, basketball, hockey) but there is no stoppage of the clock. 90 minutes for 14 players out of 30 means that more than half of your team is not seeing a minute of playing time (limited as it is) and among professional sports leagues, only the NFL has fewer games than MLS. 50% is a large number of individuals on a team to try and keep satisfied, motivated, and fit. And, so, when a player gets a chance in soccer, they have to make the most of it. 

As a chaplain, here is the rub – we support the players starters, subs, and reserves without reservation. But the competition and drive and desire to gain that position is a difficult place to minister. To encourage the younger player, to support the incumbent, to be received well by both can be one of the most challenging parts (if not the most) of my work. The fatal tendency for a chaplain can be to fall to one of two extremes: either gravitation toward the starters for their profile and fame or gravitation toward the reserves because of their openness and hunger for any and all support. There is a balance to be struck, I believe, but it is one of those heart-wrenching places for a chaplain because we want to see the team do well and individuals do well and succeed, too. And, so many times, I find myself saying an extra prayer for those “waiting in the wings,” that God would give them encouragement, strength, discipline, and patience.


Rev. Brad Kenney


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