What is going on here? I looked around the auditorium. It seemed that everyone but me was singing to loud, upbeat music. Some people had their hands raised in the air. This is really strange.
I'd expected a Christian college to be different, but this just seemed weird. Up to this point, my visit to Bethel College in Minnesota had been pretty typical. Then some of the guys from the football team brought me to a meeting called vespers. It reminded me a little of the church services I went to as a kid, but here I felt out of place. I squirmed in my seat and felt thankful when the meeting ended.
Then, another surprise: "You up for some sledding, Scotty?" one guy asked.
Sledding? Is he serious? I knew the usual recruiting routine: I met with coaches; we talked about football; they sent me off with the guys to "have a good time"or in other words, "hit the parties and try not to get too drunk." I imagined what my friends back home would say if I told them I went sledding on a college visit: "What?! No parties? What kind of lame school is that?"
Searching for a change
Since my junior year in high school, colleges had been recruiting me to play football for them. Big colleges, with big offerslike the University of North Dakota, Montana State and Minnesota State. I even got calls from Notre Dame and Northwestern. All the attention was flattering, and playing for a big-time school sounded exciting.
But I felt like I needed something different. Football had been my entire life for as long as I could remember. I definitely wanted to play college ball, but I also wanted to be known as more than Scotty the Quarterback. As for the party scene, I was tired of it. There has to be more to life than football and partying, I thought.
In January of my senior year, my high school coach suggested I check out Bethel. He knew some of the coaches and said they had a strong football program. I figured a religious school would be a good place for a lifestyle change, so I decided to give it a shot.
Even before vespers and sledding, I noticed something different about Bethel. When I met with the head coach, we hardly discussed football. Other college coaches promised me scholarships, playing time and recognition. Coach Johnson offered love.
"I love my players," he said. "Not for their athletic talent or for what they can do for me, but for who they are."
I'd never heard anyone talk like thatlet alone someone I hardly knew. The students seemed different, too. I'd never seen a group of people so excited about churchbut they knew how to have fun, too. Sledding turned out to be a blast. As we raced down the hills and pelted each other with snowballs, I couldn't remember the last time I cut loose and had fun like that without feeling the pressure to look cool.
Back home, I tried to put Bethel out of my mind. You'll never fit in there, I told myself. It didn't make sense to turn down a full-ride scholarship and a chance at fame. As my senior year came to an end, I hung out with friends and pretended to have fun partying. I made a half-hearted commitment to a Division II school. That pleased everyone else, but only increased the empty feeling in my gut. I couldn't shake the feeling that Bethel might be the right place for me. I'd seen something different in the people theresomething real.
One day, alone in my bedroom, I broke down and cried. I don't want to live this way anymore. I took a deep breath and picked up the phone. Quickly, before I could change my mind, I dialed. A few rings later, Coach Johnson's voicemail picked up.
"Coach J, it's Scott Kirchoff," I said. "I'm coming to Bethel."
I hung up and stared at the phone. Did I just make the biggest mistake of my life?