It is the one truth in my life that effects everything. It is the credo that frames every action, every thought and every regret. It has changed my life. That one belief is this: Jesus Christ died in my place. Nothing comes close to comparing to that marvelous revelation. No material good, no honor or award, no accolade or compliment can even be in the same orbit as this profound fact – the most holy God – died for the most unholy me.
But there was one moment long ago that can, at least, be in the same conversation as the ultimate sacrifice Jesus made for me. It was an event that happened when I was about twelve years old and one that has had a lasting impact on my life. It is a story about a friendship.
Billy Devine and I were best friends. Billy grew up, ironically, in the very house that Lisa and I have called home now for the past fifteen years. I grew up across the street and we spent the better part of our childhood playing trucks and cars in his backyard or throwing a football or walking to school or watching television and just being friends. His life was not easy. Certainly not as easy as mine. He lived through a difficult upbringing and had a strained relationship with his father. The difficulties of his childhood shaped much of what he became as an adult and his struggles with life would eventually get the best of him. Even though our lives went in different directions as we lost contact with one another – I always regarded him as a friend.
Billy and I loved sports – every kind of sport. We played youth football together and attended many sporting events. We shot basketball on my gravel driveway “court” for hours on end and hardly a day went by that Billy and I did not throw a football back and forth or get a game together with others in our neighborhood. Growing up in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood there were always plenty of kids to play with and a daily game of touch football was the norm. Billy and I made sure to always be on the same team – me playing quarterback and he the receiver. He could catch anything – often willing to dive on the asphalt to keep a drive alive. He was a superb athlete and we hardly ever lost.
One very cold Saturday Billy and I went to watch a youth football game at a local high school and had gone into a restroom to get warm when we encountered a group of boys who began to pick on us. Being outnumbered, we knew it would mean either fighting our way out of the situation or be in for a major beat down. At one point one of the boys grabbed the sock hat off my head and placed it under the sink faucet as if he was going to soak it under the freezing cold water. I was helpless to stop him. It was then that Billy (who was a year older and at least a foot taller than me) stepped up and did one of the most amazing things anyone could do. He pulled his hat off and offered it for their humiliation game in exchange for mine.
It’s funny – I don’t remember what happened after that. I don’t remember what the boys looked like or how we got away unscathed. All I remember is Billy offering his hat so that mine would remain dry and warm. To this day I don’t know of a single act of kindness directed toward me that has had such a lasting impact. More to the point – I can’t remember anyone acting more like Jesus.
Billy’s mother was a strong Christian influence in their family’s life and I remember actually hearing his mom praying out loud inside her bedroom from across the street. She poured her heart out to her God for Billy, his father, and Billy’s two sisters. I would not be surprised that somewhere in her pleas – my name and our family was mentioned. Over time Billy seemed to resent religion and the church and it became the tipping point for his rebellion. I don’t know if he ever reconciled with God – but I do know his faithful mother never stopped praying for him. It is my belief that Billy knew Jesus all along – he certainly acted like Him that day on my behalf.
During high school Billy was involved in a motorcycle accident and suffered a severely broken leg. His athletic career sort of ended that day but I remember sitting with him at his home while he recuperated. We watched TV and talked. Friends do those kind of things. We helped each other through some difficult times. We helped each other grow up.
Years would go by and like many relationships, Billy and I got lost from one another. After high school – his family moved away from our neighborhood and I only saw him on very rare occasions. When my brother passed away in 1987, I remember walking to the rear of the funeral home during his visitation and there on the back row, sitting all alone – was Billy. He had come to the funeral home by himself to pay his respects. He seemed understandably uncomfortable. We talked and I thanked him for being there. I don’t remember ever talking to him again.
Billy passed away on Monday October 13, 2014. He was 56 years old.
For me Billy was not the gray-haired man in his obituary picture. He was a boy of thirteen throwing a football with me on 22nd St. His time was not the day he died but the summers of our youth when three months of vacation seemed stretched into three years where every waking moment was full and alive. His life was not that of sadness and struggle ending in Hospice care – it was a life of laughing, when metal toy cars and a pile of dirt could bring joy indescribable for hours on end or a trip to the Saturday matinée in downtown Owensboro, Kentucky seemed more exciting than a trip to Disney World.
And Billy Devine’s legacy will not be the mistakes and bad decisions he may have made in his life. For me – he will be remembered for a sock hat and a sacrifice and the day he became Jesus to me.
I love you, Billy! Your friend, Steve