Sunday, December 9, 2018

Forgiveness and Football: Hugh Freeze's Second Chance

Please note: I work for Liberty University in the IT department, and I am an alumnus. I do not speak on their behalf, and the opinions of my blogs, and social media pages are my own.**

     This week my employer, Liberty University, who also happens to be my alma mater, hired their ninth football coach in our 47-year history. We hired Hugh Freeze, formerly the coach at Ole Miss.
     Coach Freeze had some serious issues while at Ole Miss. Both NCAA, and personal failings. It’s because of those failings that our hiring immediately came under fire by many, both alumni and those outside the Liberty family.
     I’m not here to defend Coach Freeze’s indiscretions. Nor do I wish to minimize them. It was bad. It was embarrassing for the school, his family, and himself. There is no excuse for what happened, and Hugh Freeze has -to my knowledge at least—never tried to make any.
     I’m only a moderate football fan. (I am a hockey player at heart.) I grew up a Penn State fan, by reason of my Philadelphia birth. I adored Joe Paterno and, if pressed, I would tell you I still cheer for PSU where college football is concerned. So, this isn’t driven by some mad desire to defend the hiring of our new coach, a man who-by any standard of measurement—is an incredibly talented football mind. I’m not writing these thoughts because I am a wild-haired zealot from the heart of “Flames Nation,” who sees this hire as a coup of sorts. (I mean, the guy beat Nick Saban and the mighty Crimson Tide, twice in his four years at UM.)
     No, I’m happy for our program, because he’s a good coach and this move makes sense if you want to win football games. But there’s more to it than that. Since the announcement of Freeze’s hiring, the catcalls and wailing and gnashing of teeth has been incredible. From LU students, who -being not yet 22 years old-- know best how to run the world, starting with how to run Liberty, (I know…I was once in their shoes and I thought I knew better than Doc back in the day. It’s a phase) to alumni who scream that this man and his well-known sins should not be representing our school.
     Of course, the national media weighed in. Dan Wetzel, who never met a redemption story he didn’t despise, led the charge, lambasting Freeze and Liberty and decrying the hire as merely an extension of President Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsing Trump three years ago. Wetzel can say what he wants, of course, he writes an opinion column. What bothers me is those believers who have attacked my school because of this.
     For once, it’s not Liberty I’m defending, per se, (I am very protective of my alma mater, as many alumni are, and I’m known to knock heads with those who attack her) it’s believers who attack the idea of forgiveness. What Hugh Freeze did was dreadful. I get it. I understand casting a jaundiced eye in his direction where matters of trust are concerned, especially at a Christian school. But I also understand forgiveness, and how it works, and how it’s needed. I know this first hand.
     In 1989, I was twenty-six years old and had been in the construction business for about three years. I started small. So small that I had to do my first vinyl siding job, working from my car. I used the profits from that job to buy my first pickup truck. I did okay for myself and by the time 1989 rolled around I had a decent business going and had recently taken a partner. There’s a lot to the story but the long and short of it is that he embezzled funds while I was out of town at a wedding, and when I got back, we were overdrawn by almost $10,000. He had vanished, and I was left to clean up the mess.
     Since Lindsey had never wanted to sign the checks, (I sadly understood why after he pulled his stunt) I was on the hook for all the money. Checks bounced all over town and while I did everything I could to make them all good, including selling off all but my own truck and tools, I couldn’t pay it all back fast enough. I was arrested eleven times in two weeks, mostly for checks totaling $250 or less but three of those checks were over $500, the largest being $1100. In Delaware, where I was at the time, that is a felony.
     I had paid everything back by the time we went to trial, the judge said in court that he felt for me because I was a victim as much as the venders who had received the bad checks, but the law is the law and I was a felon.
     The final court date was in April of 1990. I had to sell my beloved shotgun. The gun I took my first deer with. The gun I spent so many hours in the fields with, along with my best friend, hunting for whatever was in season. Hunting and the outdoors are part of my DNA and losing the right to own a firearm was heartbreaking.
     I could not vote any longer. I cast my last vote in 1988, for President Bush. After this mess, I could not participate in what I believe to be the greatest obligation and privilege this country affords her citizens. It broke my heart, especially as politics became more important to me and affected my life more with each passing year.
     My “adopted dad,” Poppa John Iorizzo passed away before we ever got to hunt together. It was always a goal of ours and a dream of mine and I never got the chance. When I filled out job applications, I felt the crimson rush to my face each time I came to the box that asks whether I had ever been convicted of a felony. I had to try to explain what happened, and then pray silently that the potential employer would believe me and would offer me the job despite the dreaded black mark.
     I can tell you that there are some failings that haunt you day and night. Sometimes in the middle of a day, out of nowhere, I would remember “You are a felon.” I had friends ask me to come shooting with them and had to make excuses why I couldn’t go. I have not been in the field with my best friend since the winter of 1988. Hunting together was one of the trademarks of our childhood and we seldom spent a weekend during the winter without being in the woods or fields at least part of the time. If you’ve ever had a best friend, you understand what I mean when I tell you my heart ached.
     I carried this around inside me for 27 years. I told no one unless I absolutely had to. My own daughter didn’t know until this summer. I was burdened by so much shame and so much disappointment. The sad thing is I think I merely accepted it and didn’t see how it affected me. Besides being an avid sportsman, I am also politically engaged and to not be able to vote, when so much was on the line for so many years, wore at me.
     This past year, beginning in August 2017, I began the process of getting a pardon from the State of Delaware. It is a grueling, tedious process, involving a lot of forms, letter writing, responding to questions, culminating with a hearing before the Board of Pardons. Once they decide on their recommendation, they inform the Governor who renders his final decision.
     I started the process in August of last year and submitted my completed paperwork in December of 2017. (Almost a year to the day from my writing this now) Then came the waiting period. In February, I was informed that my hearing date would be June 28th, 2018. So, for the next four months I waited. I waited and dreamed of the day when I could legally own a firearm again. I dreamed of hunting again. My voting rights had been restored by an act of the Delaware State Congress in 2013, so I could already vote. (As a sidebar, since the day I left court in 1990 I have not had a gun in my hand. Ever. Gun laws work only when people choose to obey them.)
     My appearance before the Delaware Board of Pardons was a revelation. The long and short of it is that, I arrived prepared to answer questions before the board and be grilled on my life, my failings and what I was doing to make sure this never happened again. I was surprised to find that once I got there, and my name was called, I did not have to testify at all. They had done their due diligence and based on the time passed, my life since the crimes, and my willingness to take responsibility for what happened, they were recommending me for a full pardon and the State AG office had no objections.
     I literally thought they were joking with me. They smiled and said “No, we only needed you to show up today to see that you are sincere. We’re recommending in your behalf. Good luck to you.” There were four others in the group who received the same wonderful news.
     I walked through the huge oak doors and a security guard smiled and shook my hand and said “Congratulations!” (I think they have one group at each pardon hearing that they do this for and it’s become something of a “feel-good” moment for them) I have to tell you that I barely made it out of the courthouse before I felt tears come to my eyes. I walked two blocks to my car in the stifling late-June heat and finally broke down in sobs. I only realized how much shame and guilt I was carrying after I received forgiveness. The governor still had the right to deny my request and I spent three months on pins and needles until I got that embossed letter in the mail with the words “Pardon” on the second page.
     This fall I’ve been out deer hunting again for the first time since 1982. Thirty-six years came and went and each year the love for it waned just a little more. Or so I thought. I’ve found myself seeing things differently out there. Appreciating things more. I love hunting even more now, since I know what it’s like not to be able to hunt.
     I’ve wondered, as I watched this all unfold at Liberty this week, if Coach Freeze doesn’t feel this way. David wrote after his sin with Bathsheba, “My sin is always before me.” (Psalm 51:3) David saw and felt his grief, shame, embarrassment, and self-loathing at every turn. “No matter where I turn, I see the awful things I’ve done,” is what he was really saying.
     I imagine that for the last two years -especially during football season, or anytime he interacted with his wife and children—he saw his sins all over again. I imagine that for a time, there seemed to be no escape from them. That he would never be able to forgive himself and move on.
     Coach Freeze spoke here at Liberty almost a year ago. He was honest, forthcoming, contrite, and broken. He owned what he’d done and made no excuses. For those who refuse to forgive him; his wife has forgiven him. Since she was the one sinned against the most, what right does anyone else have not to forgive him?
     Maybe it’s that I understand having some of the things I treasure most stripped from me as a result of my actions (whether I was stolen from or not, it was my signature on the checks) I know what it feels like to see a season coming, a season that used to be among my favorites, and to feel the embarrassed, hollow, shameful feeling in my gut that reminded me “you can’t do that anymore…remember?” I also know how life-giving restoration is. My co-workers would tell you they have noticed a tangible change for the positive in my overall demeanor since receiving that letter in the mail, and especially since my first day in the field.
     I imagine Coach Freeze is already experiencing some of that. He is a coach again. Coaches must coach. I imagine the sights and sounds and the smells of the film room and the training room and the practice field are already stirring his heart. I imagine that our home opener next fall will be one of the most emotional moments in his life. I know. I’ve been there. Someone was going to hire Coach Freeze, he’s too talented to not get back in the game. I’m glad it was us. Liberty will surround him with godly men who will help him remain true to what he believes. As opposed to some other school who might have wanted a great coach and couldn’t have cared less about the man.
    Liberty is peppered with people needing second chances. There are stories of people, from professors to janitors, who needed a second chance and for whom Liberty provided exactly that. Forgiveness and restoration are essential in the Christian faith.
For those who ask, “How could Liberty hire a man who has done those things?” I ask; “How could they not?”

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