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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

The Gridiron Servant

By Eric Slivoskey
Sept. 9, 2012

A steady stream of water poured from the gutters of the Oxenrider, a sleepy little motel set in the prairies of southeastern North Dakota. Behind the counter, a bespectacled man with thinning hair sat surrounded by stacks of Gideon Bibles and an assortment of local newspapers.

“What can I do for you?” asked the man as he swiveled his office chair in my direction.

“Well, I’m interested in getting a room for the night. But I’m also looking for someone,” I replied. “Are you by any chance Coach Tatum?”

It was June 2003, and I was starting a six-year journey that began with selling my retail business and house in Arizona, and relocating to Ellendale, N.D., to attend Trinity Bible College (Assemblies of God). My wife, Estalita, and our two children were in tow as we prepared to spend our first night in a new town.

As I proceeded toward the front desk, the stranger in front of me offered a firm handshake and a sincere smile. This encounter would serve as the first of many meetings between the two of us over the next six years. Coach Tatum’s first words to me, “What can I do for you?” have been repeated on countless occasions throughout the time I have known him. He has served as a friend and mentor to me both on and off the field.

Bob Tatum came to Trinity Bible College in 1983, with his wife, Gwen, and two of their five children, from California, where he had success as a high school athletic director and football coach. The desire to test his coaching methods and philosophies in a college environment led the family from sunny Southern California to the windswept prairies of North Dakota.

The plan to start a football program at Trinity was implemented in 1984, with approximately $10,000 in funding, a tireless work ethic, and a vision rooted in a life of prayer and faith in Jesus Christ. To put this into perspective, most colleges and universities raise between $2 million and $3 million before competing in football at the college level.

While the endeavor may have lacked substantial financial support to get started, Tatum concerned himself more with the spiritual foundation of the program. He was unfazed by the fact that the school had no uniforms, helmets or even footballs to begin play.

The coach located a school in New York that was terminating its program, offering an opportunity for Trinity to obtain the much-needed startup equipment. Trinity’s blue and gold colors also matched that of the New York school, allowing the team to acquire uniforms as well. Travel expenses were minimal because the team didn’t stay in hotels. Instead, players and coaches lodged in camps and churches while on the road, ministering God’s Word wherever an opportunity presented itself.

Over the next six years, Tatum worked tirelessly, recruiting Christian student athletes who shared his vision of glorifying the Lord through athletic performance. As a leader, he encouraged his athletes to put a “total release” philosophy into practice. He learned the approach from Wes Neal, a former weightlifter and coach who authored a book on the concept. The philosophy defines winning as “the total release of all that you are toward becoming like Jesus Christ in each situation.”

 “The idea is centered on giving all you have: total effort in the classroom and on the playing fields,” Tatum says. “The release of these talents enables the athlete to worship God through his or her individual sport.”

During the last 28 seasons, that philosophy has been greatly tested. Tatum and his players lost their first 17 games before winning their season opener in 1986. Since then, the program has had only one winning season, several double-digit losing streaks, and a nationally publicized 105-0, record-setting loss to Rockford College (Ill.) in 2003.

Still, both the program and Tatum keep running the race and staying the course. Several former players are now serving as teachers, coaches, businessmen, pastors and missionaries around the world. The success of the program can be measured in the way these men have influenced the world for the kingdom of God.

Matt Fellers played for Trinity from 2006-09, and his thoughts echo the sentiments of many former players. Fellers, who also served as an assistant on the Trinity staff for one year, had this to say about his career at Trinity: “I won four games in four years at Trinity Bible College. I’ve suffered through hundreds of long practices. I’ve been beaten by 70 points in a single game. And now I have to ask myself, Am I going to miss all of this? Yes, I think I will. Trinity football has made me grow into the man I am today.”

As for Tatum, he has remained connected to the program in many ways since passing the head coaching baton in the late 1980s. During my time as head coach at Trinity from 2006-08, Tatum helped by picking up players at the airport or bus station, offering athletes part-time employment at his family-owned motel, and assisting with pregame setup.

During my tenure, he also contributed by working as an interim athletic director for two seasons. He often prays with the team, or any individual who needs some direction or a word of encouragement. Now in his 70s, Tatum still faithfully attends athletic events at the school.

Until a couple of seasons ago, he could be found cheering the Lions at Bob Tatum Field, a small stadium at the edge of campus that bears his name. Then in 2010, Tatum again dusted off his clipboard and whistle, and joined the team as a part-time defensive coach. The young team competed valiantly against much larger programs and found a way to win three games during the season.

All along the way, Coach Tatum was there providing support and reminding players of a truth that we all do well to remember: “Victories of the Christian life don’t always show up on the scoreboard.”

ERIC SLIVOSKEY lives in Havre de Grace, Md.

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