(Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Just as I was getting ready to walk out of that tunnel, I did something I've never done before. I stopped and turned around to tell my team one final thought.
“I'm going to tell you one other thing,” I said, “Those goal posts are heavy. They're coming down today, and when they do, you don't need to be anywhere around them. They can hurt you.”
The day was October 4, 2014, and on this particular day we were hosting # 3 Alabama. The Crimson Tide, as usual, were undefeated going into that game. But this day felt special, and it wasn't a message I only told our players.
“We're going to win today,” I said to my wife and kids. “And when we do, I want you to meet me in the tunnel. Do not try and meet me on the field.”
From the moment I had taken the Ole Miss job, this was the moment we had been building towards. I still remember showing my staff some video of Alabama during my first week on the job, and telling them that this was the gold standard. Alabama had more depth and more talent than us, but we had been building for three years to this moment. We won 7 games in 2012, and then 8 games in 2013, and we were 4-0 as we took the field that day. Three hours later, we would be 5-0, and just like I thought, the fans came pouring onto Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
I still have part of the field goal post in my house to this day.
We went on to win 9 games that year, and 10 the next, with another win against Alabama. This time it was at Bryant-Denny Stadium, with over 100,000 fans cheering against us. We had won more games in every single season I had been there, and it seemed like I was on top of the college football world.
Wherever I went, people wanted to stop and talk to me. It seemed like life couldn't be any better. The reality was a completely different story.
What I'm about to say still hurts. But it's the truth. I did not completely honor my wife.
I hurt Jill. I hurt my kids. I hurt God.
There is no excuse for what I did. After attending counseling, I was able to have a better understanding of what rooted my decision making, but I want to say again there is no excuse for what I did.
I wish I hadn't done what I did. If I could go back in time and take all of my mistakes and all the hurt away, I would. It was hard for me to understand why God would want my failures to go public, but even though I hadn’t been a perfect follower of His, I knew He still has a purpose and plan for my life.
I asked for forgiveness from God and from my family, but sometimes it was difficult to forgive myself after what had happened. No amount of forgiveness was going to undo what I had done, but my family and God taught me that no mistake is too big, and no sin is too grave, that you can't be forgiven.
I looked to the scripture for help, and I remembered the story of Peter. He was the disciple whom Jesus referred to as the rock upon which He would build the church, and it was Peter who attempted to walk on water toward Jesus. And yet it was also Peter who denied Jesus three times. On the night before the crucifixion, when Jesus needed his help the most, Peter denied Him three times.
Peter's sin might have seemed unforgivable at the time, but when Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to look for Jesus' body, the Angels told Mary “Go, tell His disciples and Peter.” The Angels made a point to include Peter. And when Jesus saw Peter later on, He asked three times “Do you love me?” - the same amount of times Peter denied him.
Peter's story showed me that I could be forgiven too. If God could forgive me, He could give me the strength to forgive myself.
When I spoke to my dad, it felt like the story of the prodigal son, who wandered off and squandered his father's inheritance. When the son had hit rock bottom and returned to his father's house, he only got to the property line before his dad came running out and greeted his son with no anger or resentment. In fact, the father held a feast that night in honor of his son. When my dad saw me, he said “I don't care what you've done, you're my son and I'm still proud of you. You keep standing.”
I have no doubt that the love a father has for his son is a reflection of the love God has for me.
The last two years, as difficult as the circumstances were in the beginning, have not been wasted at all. We’ve actually discovered that God doesn’t waste any of our moments - good or bad. He takes our messes and uses them for our good. Because of this “down time” Jill has truly become my best friend, the one I lean on and listen to.
There is a richness that I’ve experienced with my family, especially my three daughters and parents and dear friends like our PineLake Church men’s group that has really shown me the way life can be walked out through both good and bad times. And I’ve been reminded of the power of prayer. I’ve seen God move, and I’ve discovered that true integrity is not always getting it right, but it’s when you don’t get it right...you own it, make the necessary changes, deal with the consequences and play the next play.
And of all the people who helped me along the way, none did so with more grace and mercy than my wife.