I was certain of one thing going into Sunday's CFL game between the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the B.C. Lions: that Darian Durant would not let the Riders lose. I was confident in the team's ability to win, though not blinded to the possibility of a loss, but I knew that their quarterback would not be the reason for the loss. Three quarters of the way into the game, it looked like I might be partially right, as the Lions seemed destined to win, though through little fault of Durant's performance. It ended up that I was right, and I was personally inspired by how Durant led the Riders to victory. Allow me to recap how events unfolded in the last quarter of the game, forgiving the necessary football terminology, and then I will explain why it was so meaningful for me personally.
The Recap: Riders vs. Lions, November 10, 2013
The Riders had not played well for most of the game. Except for a drive near the end of the second quarter that resulted in a touchdown to Weston Dressler, it seemed like BC's game to lose. The Riders had not held the lead since the first quarter (3-0), and they were down 25-16 with five minutes to go in the third quarter. Things did not look good at that point, even as the team got the ball back at midfield. Durant fumbled a handoff to a teammate, and though he managed to recover it, it seemed like it might not happen for the Green and White; a few plays later, the team was stopped on a 3rd & 1 conversion for the first turnover of the game, and the loss that seemed improbable at first now loomed as inevitable. The defense forced a two-and-out, but it seemed like the win might already be a fait accompli for the Lions. Then something changed.
On the last play of the third quarter, on 2nd down with nine yards to go, Durant pulled off a quarterback draw and ran up the middle to get 15 yards and a first down. Two plays later, after an incomplete pass left the team facing 2nd and 10, Durant called the same play and ran for 35 yards to put the Riders in prime position for a touchdown, which Durant delivered moments later in a pass to Dressler, leaving the Riders trailing by two points. After a five-and-a-half minute drive resulted in a field goal for the lead, Durant successfully rushed on 2nd and long twice more in the final minutes to extend his team's drives and ultimately secure the win. His final numbers were telling: 19 of 23 for 270 yards and 2 touchdowns to go along with 97 yards rushing, including 76 in the fourth quarter alone (91 if you include the run to end the third quarter). Durant decided not to let the team lose, and they didn't. He needed a lot of help along the way - two touchdowns by Dressler and five field goals by Chris Milo, along with a shutdown of the Lions' offense by the Riders' defense - but Durant was the inspiration for the rest of the team.
Watching Durant lead
What really struck me was how Durant ran, particularly in his 35 yard run. Most QBs scamper and hunker head down when they run, attempting to eke out the minimum yards necessary to make the first down before they crumple and slide to avoid a hit. Durant ran powerfully, with his head up and shoulders back, choosing to run as much as he could before going down to avoid a hit - not out of cowardice, but out of wisdom, as he knew that incurring an injury to himself at that point would be foolish and pointless. He ran knowing that he needed not only to get the yards, but to inspire confidence in his teammates that they could - and would - win the game. He chipped away at the Lions' defense, which was still successful in neutralizing running back Kory Sheets, one of the most explosive backs in the league, by completing short passes and then running himself when he needed to. He was the leader that the team needed on Sunday - though it has been quite a journey from his beginnings with the team five years ago.
Durant started out as a young quarterback playing above his expectations, as he led the Riders to unexpected Grey Cup appearances in his first and second full seasons in 2009 and 2010. He suffered some injuries in 2011, along with some coaching changes that set him back, and he had to re-evaluate himself and re-establish himself as the leader he had shown extended glimpses of being in his first two seasons. After another new coach in 2012 and a difficult first-round loss to Calgary, Durant came back with a vengeance in 2013, starting off with one of the best half-seasons ever by a CFL quarterback. He and the Riders trailed off after their torrid 8-1 start, in which Durant did not throw an interception until his 9th game, but he (and the team) recovered and still ended the season well: they finished 11-7 and he threw for 31 TD and over 4100 yards against only 12 interceptions. Even during their final 3-6 stretch, in which the team had a lot of missed opportunities, Durant was referred to as a "veteran leader", and he knew that he would have to get the team back on track for the playoffs. He proved it especially on Sunday, as he did not seem like the young mistake-prone quarterback exceeding expectations, but the established leader who knew himself and his team, and how to get to that victory even when it seemed unlikely.
The personal connection
The reason I took particular note of Durant's performance on Sunday (and indeed his entire career) is because I have felt a particular kinship with Durant. He is six months older than I am, but his professional career as the Riders' QB has mirrored my career in Victoria almost exactly in length (the timing, of course, varies because of the discrepancy between the CFL season and the school year, but just stay with me on this one). Like Durant, I started off in Victoria strongly, with two years of teaching in my subject areas and a lot of success professionally and relationally at my school and in my church community here. Then, like his injury-laden season with coaching trouble, I had a similar year of challenges after being laid off and working as a teacher-on-call for a year. Then, like Durant, I had a new opportunity to establish myself; for him, a new coach, and for me, a new school. But like the Riders' 2012 season, my season was ended abruptly, and I was left looking for answers (as well as a new job) in the off-season.
Like Durant and the Riders, I started my next "season" strongly; in my case, this included two summers that bookended a school year. I directed a successful camp ministry at the Forge (my church), followed by surprising success in working as a teacher-on-call in 2012-2013, particularly with younger kids, as I spent a surprising amount of time with students in K-5. I capped off the overwhelmingly positive year by again directing Forge Camps in 2013, a time that I consider one of the most rewarding I have ever had in ministry (or employment, for that matter). But like the Riders in 2013, my record has been different after Labour Day, and I have struggled significantly over the past two-plus months of working as a teacher-on-call. I have had some good periods in the past nine weeks, but I have been in a rut most of the time: not feeling motivated, not feeling successful, not able to manage my time well on days off, etc. I have not been able to explain it or even figure it out, but these past two months have been some of the hardest in my life. Just like the Riders' 3-6 finish, my struggle hasn't made a lot of sense, per se, but I have still had to deal with it in the meantime.
"Head up, shoulders back"
And on Sunday, I broke in church. Publicly. Crying. If you know me, you know that I don't do that. Ever. But I did, and it was hard even going to church that morning because I knew going in that I would need to break, and that it needed to be with everyone, and that it was what I needed to do to be not only the person I needed to be but also a leader in that community. So I asked for prayer, and people gathered and prayed for me, and I sobbed and my wife sobbed, and something in me broke; I got lots of hugs after the gathering was done, as well as a number of words of encouragement from a number of people who know me well (as well as a few that don't). One of the main prophetic words I received during the prayer time was from a friend who had the phrase "head up, shoulders back" very clearly for me. It resonated immediately, because my attitude over the past couple of months has just been to (metaphorically) put my head down and just power through this difficult season of life, mostly on my own strength. It's clearly not working, and I needed to break down and have someone point it out for me.
What the Riders were doing on Sunday was not working; the fumble and subsequent failure of 3rd & 1 showed that clearly. So what did Durant do? He responded to the situation as it unfolded around him, he changed the way he led, and he ran forward with his head up and shoulders back. He inspired his teammates, and he earned that victory on Sunday. He still used the previous methods, including Sheets' running game, with limited success, but it was the overall shift in his composure that made the difference between winning and losing. Of course, it's not going to get any easier for him next week going into Calgary; in fact, it will be even harder, and the team might not win, despite his efforts. But they're going to try, and they're going to leave it all on the field (I hope). And that's what I'm determined to do in this season: I'm going to do my best and I'm going to do everything I can to change my composure just like Durant did. I don't know if I can make any changes to my current state of employment or living situation, but what I can change is my attitude and my focus. Instead of just trying to get through, I need to hold my head up and put my shoulders back and to focus my attention in a different direction. In my case, I need to look to my faith in Jesus, as well as looking toward the areas in which I can experience success. I need to look to those around me to inspire me and carry me when I can't take it. And I need to remember that regardless of the outcome of the season that it's all worth it for the journey.