By Ben Smith
At the start of the 2013 college football season, Chette Williams, chaplain of the Auburn University Tigers, said he told a reporter, “I hope our football team scores a lot of touchdowns for Jesus.”
Williams had no idea what miracles were coming, the preternatural last-second shifts of fortune that enabled Auburn to beat huge rivals—Georgia and No. 1-ranked Alabama—and end up squaring off against Florida State University tonight in the NCAA college football championship.
The Tigers, which at the beginning of the season were expected to be good—but not this good—go into the game as 8.5-point underdogs. On the sideline will stand Williams, a Douglasville native who sees these triumphs with a long view of the Auburn program’s rocky history.
Chette (pronounced Chet) Williams has been doing this for 15 years, since former coach Tommy Tuberville decided in 1999 he wanted a full-time “spiritual coordinator” on staff for his players and coaches.
Williams, an Auburn alumnus and former linebacker in the 1980s, saw Tuberville leave and replacement Gene Chizik come and go. He also counseled the team through a 2010 controversy involving the father of former star quarterback Cam Newton, who allegedly had tried to obtain large amounts of money in exchange for his son playing for a major college football team.
The Broken Road
Williams documented his experiences in a book released in 2013, “The Broken Road: Finding God’s Strength and Grace on a Journey of Faith” (Looking Glass Books). It chronicles the three-year spiritual climb by the Auburn players and coaches to their previous national championship at the end of the 2010 season.
“For all the joy we experienced, we also knew injuries and sorrows and disappointments. Players endured pain and witnessed the suffering of others along the way. Yet isn’t that the nature of every journey?” writes Williams. “We all travel a broken road. Even in our journey to Him, God allows us to bear pain and heartache to the breaking point, because those experiences strengthen us.”
“They open our eyes to the hardships of people around us so we can be a comfort to them,” Williams states. “They remind us that our strength comes from God.”
The team not only weathered these changes and incidents, it prospered. Auburn won the 2011 BCS championship, defeating the Oregon Ducks at the end of the 2010 season after Newton had been declared ineligible to play and then reinstated after it was determined there wasn’t enough evidence to show he or anyone on the Auburn staff had known about Newton’s father’s actions.
The investigation was closed in October 2011. Newton now plays for the Carolina Panthers in the National Football League.
“Adversity and challenges and make you grow spiritually,” said Williams, who is 50.
Among the stories included in the book is a benched starter’s locker room speech to teammates about backing each other up. Four chapters detail an aid trip Williams and a dozen players take to the Dominican Republic after the devastating Jan. 2010 earthquake that rocked Haiti, on the other side of the island of the island of Hispaniola. (The team originally wanted to go to Haiti, where a team player’s father went missing, but it was considered unsafe.)
Williams’ book also includes accounts of players both overcoming and giving up to injuries, including defensive back Aairon Savage, who college career was cut short by major injuries.
For one reader based in Auburn, The Broken Road took on the bigger question of “Where is God when things go bad?”
“If He with you in victory, does He abandon you in defeat?” asked ‘Big D,’ an Amazon reviewer. “This book attempts to answer that question in the context of Auburn football. If God was in the magical 2010 national championship season–as many, if not most, Auburn fans who consider themselves Christian proclaim– where did He go, where was He during the dismal, embarrassing and humiliating 3-9 season of 2012? Did abandon Auburn?… This book tells where God was in Chette’s opinion and theology and it is a powerful message of how to handle victory and defeat. It doesn’t entirely answer the question ‘Where was God when we got our butt beat?’ but it comes close.”
An inexplicable season
When asked if divine intervention was at play in any of Auburn’s surprise victories this season, Williams appears to demur.
“I feel if God is in you he’s in a play,” Williams said. “As a believer in Christ I feel there is a spiritual component in everything.”
Auburn’s stunning final-second victory over Alabama after returning a missed field goal for a touchdown may not have been miraculous, but it was transformative. So much so, Williams said, that he doesn’t quite remember where he was precisely or what he was experiencing when it happened.
He has a much clearer recollection of when Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall’s fourth-and-long bomb bounced out of a defender’s grasp and into the hands of receiver Ricardo Louis, who scored the game-winning touchdown over Georgia.
An assistant coach jumped up into Williams’ arms in jubilation, and both men fell to the ground.
“He’s a big man,” Williams said, chuckling.
Tonight when the Tigers take the field at the Rose Bowl, Williams will be on the Auburn sidelines as he has been all season.
The chaplain made no predictions about how the game will turn out. Williams hasn’t even planned what to say when he leads the team in a pre-game prayer. It will be in keeping with Auburn’s knack for the unexpected; in Williams’ words, “Whatever the Holy Spirit leads me.”
Ben Smith can be reached at [email protected]