Our church doesn’t do a lot of the hymns I remember from growing up Baptist. But on Sunday, near the end of the service, two of our singers did “Softly and Tenderly.” Those of you who didn’t grow up Baptist but like indie films might remember it from the movie “Junebug.”
The song always gets me, but this time it really got me. The night before we’d gone to a birthday party for a friend, and we saw some people we hadn’t seen in years, and I’d been thinking about how far the tide has carried me from home. That song sounds like home. I was glad we sat in the back row so nobody could see me wiping my eyes. “Softly and Tenderly” is an altar-call song, meant to draw you toward the Lord … but you can also read it as a song of passing from one world to the next, Jesus calling you home. That’s supposed to be a happy moment. But for most of us, I suspect, it’s too soon. Always too soon.
I woke up Sunday morning to find out there had been a shooting at Auburn. Early on there were several different versions of what happened. Eventually police announced that three men were dead, including two who recently played football at Auburn. Ladarious Phillips, a fullback, was in the process of transferring; Ed Christian, an offensive lineman, had left the team after a back injury. A current player, sophomore O-lineman Eric Mack, was one of three people shot and wounded. He’s expected to recover.
Police are looking for a Montgomery man with no connection to Auburn football. A witness said the shooting, at an apartment complex, started with a fight over a woman.
Fights, over women and otherwise, happen to college football players. Which is to say, they happen to college students. Which is to say, they happen to young men of all kinds between 18 and 22, when their bodies have the most power and their minds have the least control, especially after a few beers on a Saturday night. It’s amazing, in some ways, that more fights among young men don’t end in bodies on the street. All it takes is one young man who needs to prove himself. All it takes is one gun.
Three shot dead in Auburn would have been a big deal no matter what. But two are football players, in a football town, and so it matters more. It shouldn’t. But it does.
I spent a couple of weeks in Auburn last year for a story I wrote for Sports Illustrated. The people I met were kind without exception, and the campus is green and beautiful. Smart kids go to Auburn. But the place comes most alive on those seven or eight home football Saturdays every fall. For the people who love Auburn — whether they went there or not — football connects them to the university and to one another. When you play college football, you’re the reason for this convening of the tribe. Nothing else could get 87,451 people to come to Auburn, Alabama.
College football can fill a town with joy. It can also cause people to rot away with rage. I went to Auburn because somebody poisoned Toomer’s Oaks — the ancient trees that frame the main gate to the campus. Harvey Updyke, an Alabama fan to the nth power, famously called the Paul Finebaum radio show and said he did it. Now he says he didn’t. On Sunday, the Opelika-Auburn News‘ Web site led with a story about the shooting. Next to that was a story about Harvey Updyke’s trial, scheduled to begin next week.
Football is a sport based on human collisions. You get respect by taking a hit and getting up, or by giving a hit that makes your opponent shy from the collision next time. If you watch enough football, you start to understand a deeper message: The best way to score is to avoid getting hit.
But there is a deeper message under that: Sometimes you get hit anyway. And the hit can be instant, and unfair, and permanent.
I think what gets me about “Softly and Tenderly” is the part that happens before the song starts. The song is intended for sinners who need God, or if you interpret it a different way, for the dying who are about to step across to the other side. What isn’t spelled out is what led them to those places. We already know. And it’s rarely something soft and tender.
Demario Pitts, a resident of Auburn, was also killed in the shooting. John Robinson and Xavier Moss were wounded. Add those three to the three football players and you have six families who need thoughts and comfort as another day rises in Auburn. These stories often get more complicated as the details unfold, but no matter how you get to the bottom of the ledger, it says this: Three young men are dead, and each one was 20 years old.
In the church where I grew up we often left out a verse when we sang a hymn. Most of the time we’d sing verses 1, 2 and 4. I had forgotten the third verse of “Softly and Tenderly” until I looked it up. Today, it makes the most sense of anything.
Time is now fleeting, the moments are passing,
Passing from you and from me;
Shadows are gathering, deathbeds are coming,
Coming for you and for me.