Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Mind-Blowing Saga of James Mueller: My Friend Jim

Jim Mueller is a great basketball coach. He is also a devout Christian, a loving husband, and dedicated father of three. Of this I have no doubt—despite the fact he sometimes cannot remember their names.

Today is Jim's 38th birthday . . .

I met Jim a little over two years ago. Back then, he was just an anonymous assistant coach of one of the Lombard Park District's (where I work part-time) girls basketball teams, but his gregarious outgoing-ness, combined with the fact he always wore a Fighting Irish coat and hat, made it mandatory that I introduce myself. We became fast friends, and in between seeing each other at the park district, we began to hang out together—Jim attending my sports/faith talks and I watching sports (mostly Notre Dame) on his big screen TV. And yet, only a couple months into our relationship "the stuff" began to happen.

First there was a minor stroke, then bouts of physical weakness followed by forgetfulness. Theories came and went, as did Jim's blue collar job, car and house. Finally, after nearly a year, the diagnosis was in. Jim had early Alzheimer's.

In the next two years, things changed out of necessity. The kids adapted to their "new" dad, watching over him instead of vice versa, and Jim's wife Michelle hired Leonard, a humble African American man to cook and caretake when she could not. But through it all, two things remained constant. Jim's commitment to Christ—and coaching.

Because of his unusual combination of passion for coaching kids sports while battling a rare disease, Jim became somewhat of a celebrity as his story was featured in both the Chicago Tribune and Channel 2 News. Jim may forget his players' names, but rarely the plays—or how to motivate his charges (Jim was often given some of the weaker park district teams) to accomplish impossible feats. Perhaps taking his own advice, Jim started telling me of a new goal for himself—to actually coach a regular high school team. "I probably never will be able to work full-time again," he confided, "but this will only be a few hours a day. Plus, Tom," Jim would give me his knowing wink, "I could make you my assistant!"

When I once interviewed Cardinal Francis George, he talked about how his meetings with Christian religious leaders of different denominations made him very happy and sad at the same time—happy because he could share their love for Christ but sad because they could not share the fullness of the Truth, which is the Church, with him. The same is true with me and Jim, not only for the reasons the Cardinal mentioned (Jim was raised Catholic but fell away and later became a born-again Christian—in the two years I've known him, the Muellers have been through two Assemblies of God churches, one non-denom, and are now attending a local Baptist congregation), but over the everyday things as well. Yet this must pale in comparison to what Jim's family feels—how his eldest (and namesake) daughter Jamie reacts on the days he cannot share her teenage angst, how his middle-school middle-daughter Erin feels when he cannot comfort her when her shots (on and off the court) don't go in, how his big-eyed blond Katie cries when he can't recall the tales of her second grade conquests, or even worse, the days when Michelle cannot share her tender love with her husband.

It's true that it's hard for me to comprehend how a man who knows that "defense wins championships" can trade the "medicine of immortality," the Eucharist, for a couple of choruses of Kumbaya or the latest Christian fad. Still, if I cannot help Mr. Mueller with his faith or job search, maybe Mary can.

On the surface, someone with early Alzheimer's landing a head high school coaching job makes Rudy's quest seem like a walk in the park. But maybe, MAYBE, we are not dreaming too big but not big enough. After all Notre Dame (Our Lady) brought us two together, so why couldn't she land a spot for James on one of the teams she reigns over? I don't necessarily mean for Jim to take Mike Brey's or Charlie Weis' place, but perhaps a special home under the dome for the coach who may forget with his mind but always remembers with his heart. So now, Mary, you know my birthday prayer wish for him—a place on the Notre Dame bench (and at the grotto) for my friend, Fighting Irish Jim.


Anonymous said...

You (and the exemplary Cardinal) have summarized exactly why I asked to be received by the Church and why, 23 years on, I still marvel at Her mercy in taking me in. "Running through" denominations is exactly what one does until -- and unless -- we find our way home.

Tom O'Toole said...

Dear Patricia,
Thanks for writing and welcome to Fighting Irish Thomas! Ironically, the pastor at one of the Assemblies of God churches Jim attended was a former classmate of mine at Montini Catholic High School. So what road did you take "home"?
God's grace & Mary's prayers,

Hidden One said...

[visiting from McIntyre's Tavern]

I must admit, the power of the Eucharist was a big draw when I was considering joing the Catholic church last October[ish], if only because i had mostly always believed transubstantiation [I read the Bible a lot as a child (I apologize to all consubstantiationists who find that insulting, but hey, its true - take it as you will)] and was quite upset to find that the half-con half-trans Communion ceremony at my church was really -supposed- to be full-con.

I'll add Mr. Mueller to my prayer list.

Sincerely in Christ,
Hidden One

PS: I should be starting RCIA in September, Lord-willing.

Tom O'Toole said...

Hidden One,
One of the Eucharist's many names is "The Sacrament of Unity." And yet, it was the first Sacrament the Reformers would re-invent and the one they could never agree upon. Is "Divide and Conquer" Satan's strategy for Denomination Domination?
God's grace & Mary's prayers,

Anonymous said...

You guessed it

If ever there was a reason to boycott some thing, THIS IS IT!!!!


Together we can force them out of circulation.


Anonymous said...

The person leaving the previous comment is misinformed.$1coin/

"In God We Trust" is not missing from the dollar coins.

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