The day I learned to pray

Joe Kennedy, an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, takes a knee after the final whistle sounds, setting off a choir of holy unrest.

I’ve never played organized football, but I do have a Friday night lights story that might shine a different perspective on prayer.

My high school, Walla Walla High, was playing at home against a team from Pendleton, Oregon, back in the fall of 1971. Sometime in the second half, I had to leave and catch a ride somewhere. I remember standing outside Borleske Stadium. I remember hearing an unending raucous crowd. I remember when, strangely, the cheering stopped.

At the bus stop that Monday morning I learned why. Chuck Anderson, a Wa-Hi lineman, had suffered a concussion during a play and was in a coma. The neighbor girl who broke the news asked if would I like to come to a prayer meeting at someone’s house.

I didn’t know Chuck Anderson and, honestly, I didn’t know much of anything about prayer, except that some people seemed to believe in it.

Come Tuesday, the level of apprehension and concern was mounting. That morning I was in study hall when a voice came over the school’s public-address system. “I have some news to share with our Wa-Hi community ….”

It was Abe Roberts, the vice principal. On most days, he spit nails as the voice of law and order, especially for the creatives who had perfected hiding their own cigarette smoke into an art form.

But then Mr. Roberts’ voice began to break. “I’m sorry to report that about an hour ago, Chuck Anderson passed away.”

Soon after, the bell rang for lunch. What happened next is something I will never forget.

Typically during lunch, Wa-Hi’s big lawn in the middle of campus was littered with students eating sandwiches while listening to the sounds of Led Zeppelin coming from a pair of big speakers some guys had pointed out the windows of the science building. In the fall of 1971, it was our own tame, little version of Woodstock.

Except on this day.

When, I walked over to sit down on the grass and eat my lunch, I couldn’t. There was no room. Several hundred students were sitting en masse in a large circle. They were shoulder-to-shoulder and back-to-back, huddled around a lighted candle in the center.

Everyone was praying. Some kids were crying. Most simply bowed their heads. That included a few teachers and an administrator or two, including Mr. Roberts.

I tried to take it all in, this prayer thing. It was obviously something very personal to many.

Even though I was standing at arm’s length from prayer and God and the Bible, I could tell something real was taking place on that crowded lawn. It was the clear expression of undeniable loss and genuine love.

Love for Chuck Anderson and his family. Loss suffered by his grieving teammates, teachers, coaches and friends.

For all I didn’t understand about prayer that day, what grabbed me the most were the quiet, yet audible, prayers for the Pendleton players, especially the player who had collided with Chuck, and who didn’t deserve to shoulder any guilt or shame about what had happened.

One thing I know: On that Friday night, when lawyers had already gone home from work and online chat boards had yet to be invented, there were prayers on a football field.

Even though I was standing at arm’s length from prayer and God and the Bible, I could tell something real was taking place on that crowded lawn. It was the clear expression of undeniable loss and genuine love.

I have thought about that game and that day on the lawn many times.

Lately, the shouting and cheering involving Joe Kennedy and his young players has caused me to rethink why I pray, today.

I’ll never fully understand this side of heaven how Chuck Anderson’s life and tragic death changed the lives of a lot of us who were there for good.

Yet I will always be thankful that at my school — a public high school, at that — students, teachers, coaches and friends came together and, if only on that one cloudy day, found a common language to care for one another.

Mark Cutshall lives in Shoreline and makes his living as a writer. While he’s never played organized football, he can still hum the Wa-Hi Blue Devil fight song.

Featured in The Seattle Times November 3, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

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