I want to punch and pray for Tyler Zeller

Maybe that headline is a bit too extreme. I don’t always want to pray for Tyler Zeller.

For almost four years, I was blissfully unaware. As a Duke fan, I would see Zeller on the court in that powder blue and I could hate his annoyingly efficient game. Nothing contained my undignified rage at every invisible foul he drew, as visions of Tyler Hansbrough flopped in my head. I could mock mercilessly when he acted like he was shot by a sniper running down the court in the first Duke game this year (again in slow motion!). All the joy I took from casting Zeller in the revolving role of Tar Heel villain was ripped away from me with one tweet.

Oh, the dangers of Twitter. Politicians find out when they accidentally send inappropriate public tweets that were meant to be inappropriate private tweets. I found out when I saw J.D. Greear, a prominent Triangle area pastor, tweeted out a congratulation to Zeller on being named ACC Player of the Year. He called the UNC senior “a man of great character” and said he was faithful to their church.

I was a modern day Apostle Paul – I had seen the light! Except I didn’t want to. I wanted to continue judging Zeller by his choice of blues. But articles continued to pile in front of me, confronting me with the truth. Even Shane piled on with a Grantland piece on the demise of Carolina’s season. In it, as has so often been the case, Zeller was open, even at the most difficult moment of his playing career, about his faith – our faith, the one I share with him.

While Harrison Barnes was busy building a brand and demurring any talk of what made him lead a weekly Bible study in high school least he be controversial and discourage an atheist from buying his sure to be best-selling Nike basketball shoes, Zeller used the platform given to him to speak of higher goals and loftier ideals. He wasn’t building his own brand. He was looking to build someone else’s Kingdom.

The contrast between those two Tar Heels continues to grow sharper, but in a way I never expected. Barnes was the kid I wanted to come to Duke. He seemed like the guy you couldn’t help but like and the basketball player you could’t help but love. Now all of those interesting tidbits of information circulating during his senior year of high school that seemed so endearing at the time (the Bible study, the honor roll, the saxophone, not having a driver’s license) have increasingly come across as grating poll-driven pieces of the character Barnes is trying to push on the populace, as his actual basketball persona takes hit after hit. Now, he’s leaving UNC for the NBA after two over-hyped, under-fulfilled seasons with no tournaments titles, but plenty of pre-season honors to his name.

Zeller came in as an important recruit, Mr. Basketball in Indiana and McDonald’s All-American, but he was one part of a significant recruiting class (with Ed Davis and, oh how I miss him, Larry Drew). For Zeller, there was no Skype heard ’round the basketball world. No talk of coming in and leaving a legacy before he even left his home. No talk of him being the program’s “savior,” destined to lead them from NIT runner-up to NCAA champion. To me, Zeller was simply another tall white guy named Tyler destined to flop his way to another undeserving win over Duke. Now, he’s graduating from UNC with a national championship and as the ACC Player of the Year, 2nd team All-American and Academic All-American (and as a NIT runner-up – sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

I was ready to have to contain an ungodly (literally) desire to punch him, despite the fact that I’m not a violent person. (Like a decent human being should, especially one who professes to follow Jesus, I was able to sincerely express regret over Kendall Marshall’s injury.) I was ready to scream at him (through my television, of course) for every cheap basket he made, knowing that I would have to apologize to my wife for waking her up. I was ready to hate him for four years and longer, while asking for forgiveness for allowing sports to become an idol, yet again.

I wasn’t ready to want to pray for him. I wasn’t ready to have a growing respect for him as a person. I surely wasn’t ready to increasingly want my two sons to become a man like him, minus that particular shade of blue.

Religion and the rivalry. Faith and fandom. They mix and intertwine in sometimes miraculous, sometimes devilish ways. How else do you explain wanting to punch and pray for a college kid you’ve never met?

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4 Responses to I want to punch and pray for Tyler Zeller

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  1. andrew says:

    I’m not trying to be snarky, I just don’t understand how finding out someone believes in one religion or another (or none) could make you like him more or less.

  2. AaronEarls says:

    Why not be snarky? It’s more fun that way? 😉

    It’s not necessarily that Zeller professes to share the same faith as me, but that he is, from all accounts, intentional about living it out. So many people claim a faith, but never live it out at all. They are hypocritical. I respect Zeller for not being a hypocritical Christian.

    As a fellow Christian, he and I share something that unites us that runs much deeper than a basketball team. I don’t like him more as a player. I still can’t stand him when he wears (used to wear) that powder blue. It’s that I know we, as fellow Christians, serve the same Lord and worship the same God. That goes beyond fandom.

  3. andrew says:

    Fair enough. As an agnostic (who leans atheist) I just don’t think like that. This is how I’ll always think of Zeller:


    Again, not trying to be disrespectful, just wondering.

    1. AaronEarls says:

      No disrespect taken at all. I appreciate the question.

      As a Christian who is a Duke fan, I can think about Zeller in the same way you do, but also in a much larger sense.

      I can laugh, as I did – repeatedly, at his faux-sniper attack in the video I linked above. I can also, however, appreciate that he and I share something deeper.

      It’s rivalry +, not -rivalry. I see him within his role as a player on the team I can’t stand, but I also see him as someone beyond that.

      He and I share a belief and a trust in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. I respect and appreciate him for seemingly living out that belief on a day to day basis. That goes far beyond the rivalry. However, I also recognize him as Tyler Zeller UNC basketball player, while I am Aaron Earls, Duke basketball fan.

      That’s part of who he is and part of who I am, but it’s not everything. This is not just a Christian concept. We all understand and accept the fact that the people we cheer for or boo against are much more than just the players we see on the court. I’m merely highlighting an area of that which connects me with a player from the opposing team.

      Thanks again for the question. I never take honest questions as disrespectful.

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