Growing up I was heavily involved in sports. By the age of ten I had tried just about every sport that was available to me: soccer, basketball, gymnastics, swimming, tennis, volleyball – I even won a punt, pass, and kick competition. When I reached middle school my interests had narrowed down to basketball and volleyball but by the time I got to high school I was focused solely on volleyball. Volleyball was a big part of my life. My identity as a volleyball player played a huge role in my overall identity.
Whenever we would visit my grandparents in Cody, Wyoming, the subject of sports would always come up. Grandma would kindly ask how volleyball season was going (or how it went) and I would reply honestly. My answer would either convey high levels of frustration or high levels of excitement, because as any dedicated athlete knows, the world of sports is a world of emotional highs and lows. Whenever I was finished filling my grandparents in on the details of my volleyball life, no matter which emotion my answer was charged with, my grandpa would reply with his patented line, “Well kid… there are no balls in Heaven.”
This answer always bothered me for a couple of reasons. The first reason being that I didn’t fully understand what he meant by that. There are no balls in Heaven…? ‘How would he know?!’ I often thought to myself. All I wanted to do was tell him about my favorite sport and he would just want to tell me that it doesn’t exist in Heaven *insert eye roll*. (Although to be fair I never actually dared roll my eyes in front of him… he’s a rough and tough Wyoming cowboy and rolling my eyes would not have ended well for me.)
The second reason this response always got under my skin was that I felt like he didn’t really care about that part of my life. Volleyball was key to my self-image and to my identity among friends and classmates, so him telling me that there are no balls in Heaven just made me feel like he didn’t care about that part of me. It was something I loved and I never felt like I could fully share it with him.
Fast forward to about a month ago: I’m 27 years old and I was just finishing up my third season as the head women’s volleyball coach at Southern Virginia University. We had made huge leap in progress from the previous season and had seen a lot of successes including: a 13-game winning streak, players elected conference players of the week 4 weeks in a row, beating a specific team for the first time in program history, earning the first ever win in the postseason in program history, and having two players elected to first-team all-conference (one of which was player of the year). But perhaps the most rewarding of all the successes we had was the fact that I had 17 girls who genuinely loved each other. There was very little, if any, drama throughout the season. The relationships they built with each other are truly beautiful.
When the season came to screeching halt in a heartbreaking loss in a semi-final match, I was at a loss for words to comfort them. I had four seniors who had dedicated their entire lives to the game of volleyball, sacrificing time and money; even pouring blood, sweat, and tears into years of practices and games. As I huddled with the team at the end of the match, looking at the four seniors with tears flowing down their cheeks, eyes puffy and red, and nearly doubled over in sadness, I desperately wanted to comfort them. But the only words that would come to my mind were, “There are no balls in Heaven.” And then it hit me. All at once, years of confusion and mild frustration finally made sense. So I told the girls what I had learned about this phrase as I was learning it myself.
“Girls,” I sad, “There are no balls in Heaven.” Of course they were confused so I followed it up with, “I don’t actually know if it’s true, but I do know that what is meant by that is that there are infinitely more important things in this life and in the eternities. Volleyball is a fun game that has taught us all so many things. You’ve poured yourselves into this game for so long, so of course it hurts that it came to an end tonight. But please know that the relationships you’ve built with your teammates and the lessons you’ve learned from competing will be far more important in the rest of your lives than tonight’s loss and thus more worth remembering! Where you go in life from here will be of much higher consequence and reward. No one is going to remember how many serves you missed tonight or how many times the other team killed the ball. But you will all remember the love and support that you feel from your teammates right now. You’ll remember that you worked hard and gave it your best. You’ll remember the positive things that happened throughout the season. You’ll continue to support each other for the rest of your lives, if even from a great distance. You’ll all go on to great careers or to be beautiful, loving mothers, and this moment won’t seem so painful anymore. I love you, your teammates love you, your family loves you, and God loves you. Winning or losing a volleyball match will never change that.”
In this moment I finally realized that my grandpa had no idea whether or not there were balls in Heaven. But he did understand that nothing is greater than the power of Heaven. Nothing is more powerful than God. No amount of stress or trials can deflect the love of God. No success is greater than God. He has a plan for each of his children because He loves us, and nothing can change that. All those years my grandpa just wanted me to understand that my identity as a member of my family and as a daughter of God was infinitely more important than my identity as a good volleyball player.
My grandpa passed away a few months before this moment of realization so he probably knows now whether or not there are balls in Heaven. I would love to ask him but I’ll have to wait until my own time comes. For now, I choose to believe that there are in fact balls in Heaven. Even though there are more important things, I’m confident that angels like to play sports too. And speaking of angels, I’m sure grandpa was there watching me coach and my sister, who was one of the seniors, play in her final match. I wouldn’t even disregard a theory that he was the one to whisper that phrase into my ear as the match was ending.