December 2008 Christi B. Steckel, Rick Comegy, Jackson State Football
When Rick Comegy took over as the head football coach at Jackson State University in 2006, he had no idea the challenges that lay ahead. But, after more than 30 years in the coaching profession, this veteran of many sidelines did know one thing: It would take commitment and faith.
The first item on Comegy’s agenda when he arrived in ’06 was to build a championship program. For that, he knew he would need the intervention of a power greater than his own.
“I find that the more I bring Christ into the program, the better football program I’m able to have,” Comegy said. “Not just in wins and losses, but in the growth of the character of our kids.”
Fortunately, God had a great teammate picked out to help him: FCA’s Lester Walls.
Comegy (left) with FCA's Lester Walls
In Comegy’s first season in Mississippi’s capital city, he began to lay the foundation for his players and coaches by starting a weekly fellowship on Sundays. As the FCA campus director and team chaplain, Walls assumed the leadership role for the fellowships. Also a former Jackson State player, Walls had spent 17 years as an assistant coach and had gained the distinction of becoming the first African-American to join the staff at Carson-Newman College (Tenn.).
Upon their first meeting at JSU, both the coaches and the players were instantly warmed by Walls’ gregarious personality and smile, which radiated with love and passion for Christ. As a member of the Tigers’ squad, Walls had founded the first FCA Huddle at JSU in 1978, and the same thing that had made him successful in the past remained true in the present: his humble servant’s heart.
Comegy viewed the weekly Huddle fellowships with Walls as a way to prepare the team not only for games on the weekends, but ultimately for the game of life. And, by the 2007 season, as a result of the fellowship time, the Tigers were forming into a unit of believers.
The players watched their head coach and team chaplain serve as if they were the lowest men on the depth chart. Soon, their perception of what it meant to be a Christian began to change. They saw it being lived out, not just talked about. In their midst, God was preparing the team for a moment of glory that had nothing to do with football.
One Sunday afternoon during team fellowship, Walls specifically recalls knowing the spiritual flood gates were about to open.
That day, to everyone’s surprise but his, close to 60 players stood up and prayed to receive Christ.
“The team developed a spiritual connectedness that day,” Walls said. “They knew that to become better men and a better teamthey had to live out the spiritual truths they were learning. I truly expected the Lord to move, and He did.”
In a moment, Jackson State became a unified program on the move, building toward the goal of a conference championship; all while making reservations for eternity.
At the same time, the Lord was preparing Comegy’s heart to face an opponent for which he had no game plan: cancer. Not his own, but that of his wife, Connie.
After finding a lump in Connie’s neck, doctors ran multiple tests that concluded she was suffering from a form of inoperable lung cancer. Both Comegy and Connie were concerned but surprised at the amount faith the Lord had given them.
“To be honest, when I first found out, I thought I would fall apart,” Connie said. “But I just didn’t; I got stronger.”
As the mother of five and grandmother of 14, Connie knew all about life’s ups and downs. Yet she had never seen the family’s pulse hinge around her as the center of attention. Suddenly, it did.
Spiritually Connie gained strength, but physically she weakened. Doctors immediately put her on treatment with daily radiation and chemotherapy, and both she and Comegy quickly realized that the final outcome of this trial could only be changed through prayer. They knew that God would be praised no matter what the outcome, and they took Him at His Word from Romans 8:28, that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Meanwhile, the football season continued. The dedicated coach’s wife in Connie insisted that her husband stay committed to his team and keep his mind focused on winning games. She knew the coaches and players needed him, and that he would need them even more.
For Comegy, finding an eternal perspective was difficult at times, but he continued to focus on his faith and lean on others for support. His faith served the Lord well, as others took notice.
Connie and Rick Comegy
with their youngest, Rick Jr.
“He trusted the Lord,” Walls said. “At times, you could tell it was wearing on him, but he didn’t let it change the momentum of his spiritual walk.”
Comegy desired to be a stalwart for his team and his family, and he leaned on the story of Jacob, found in the book of Genesis 31.
“If I didn’t stay strong and courageous, then I’d be letting the Lord down,” he said. “Sometimes we don’t believe He’s beside us, and we doubt. During this storm, I had to believe He was with me and that everything was going to be alright.”
Week to week Comegy’s players continued to fight the good fight and compete with a forceful faith and determination. The Tigers started the season 0-2 but came roaring back with a four-game winning streak. They surprised everyone when they stood atop the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) halfway through the season. They took the field every Saturday with a renewed strength and purpose. And with their general’s wife as their inspiration, the Tigers went on to beat their biggest rival, Alcorn State, in the Capital City Classic. With that victory, J-State won the SWAC Eastern Division and earned a chance to play for the conference title.
On Dec. 15, the blue and white Tiger Nation traveled east on I-20 from Jackson to Birmingham, Ala., hoping to see its team crowned champions for the first time in more than a decade. Comegy and his team had one final mission left between the lines: to defeat the most legendary program in SWAC history, the “other” Tigers from Grambling State.
Adding to the difficulty of the game was the memory of a 10-point loss to GSU just two months earlier. But, once again, God had a different plan for the day.
Comegy watched with pride as his team rolled up 416 yards of offense and scored 42 points to win their first SWAC Championship since 1996. But he was most in awe of the work of the Lord during the season.
“As a team we’re now going through a test of our faith. It’s time to go through the tunnel and get stronger.”
“I truly believe the majority of guys reached out to Christ during the season in times of hurt and times of reward,” Comegy said. “I think once they heard the Word, they lived in the Word, and it changed our football program.”
Added Walls: “It’s not all about the game of football here; it’s about life. We’re not only concerned about winning; we want to develop real men.”
The victory celebration lasted into the early hours, and the three-hour bus ride home was full of joy. But waiting for Comegy on his doorstep was a battle still to be won.
As it turned out, Connie’s treatment hadn’t been as effective as the doctors had hoped, and her health continued to worsen. Ultimately, the doctors discovered a serious problem. Extensivedaily radiation had burned her esophagus, which prevented her from eating or drinking.
As Comegy watched his wife lose weight rapidly and grow weaker every day, it became apparent that an extended hospital stay was coming. Connie spent almost two weeks in bed recovering.
Yet, in His sovereign timing, God called the perfect audible that led to the ultimate victory.
“My pastor came to the hospital and prayed for me that day,” Connie recalled. “My doctor came in that evening with a big smile on his face and said, ‘Connie, your cancer is gone!’ I said, ‘I know! I know it’s gone, because it was prayed away this morning.’”
For Comegy and his wife, no victory had ever been so sweet.
While confined to her hospital room, Connie recalled having long conversations with God; not asking why, but giving thanks.
“I know most people don’t like to go to the hospital, but that was a peaceful time for me,” she said. “I realized my cancer was a need for me because, when I got out, I was just a different person. I knew the Lord had healed me, and there was a reason for that hospital stay. I will live with what I learned in that room for the rest of my life.”
Comegy with last season's SWAC championship trophy
Today, the Comegy family remains consistent in their faith, accepting God’s plan and sharing their testimony in the community. The cancer has returned in Connie’s lymph nodes, and the initial chemo treatment has failed. However, doctors are currently trying a new form of treatment that has shown progress. And, through it all, her outlook hasn’t changed.
“I thank the Lord I can get up every morning,” she said. “I am full of energy and living a full life.”
Back on the gridiron, Jackson State continues to play hard for a man who knows that the scoreboard isn’t the only measuring stick for victory. Rick Comegy is a leader that his players seek out for wisdom in the midst of storms.
“I tell the team that you can’t bargain with God; you have to do the right thing and live the right way,” he said. “I think some of the guys who try to bargain with God are learning that you have to be complete in your faith. As a team we’re now going through a test of our faith. It’s time to go through the tunnel and get stronger.”
As any coach will tell you, building a successful program and being there for your family is often a delicate balancing act. The hours are long, and time with family is never enough, but the Comegys have never been more content. After all, they’re right where they’re supposed to be. And their influence has never spoken louder.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of Christi B. Steckel, Freddy Norman/JSU, Abram Jones.