The rules of Flitzyball allowed Rick to rest his left forearm against the trunk of an aspen tree to steady his right hand as he aimed the soft rubber pistol, loaded with a single ping pong ball, at the bird house with the three-inch round opening, suspended from an a-frame five feet away. If his next squeeze of the pistol accelerated the ball directly into the standard cedar bird house, after fourteen days of intense competition in this rugged Colorado forest, he would be the next international Flitzyball champion. The long trailing shadows cast by the trees betrayed the late hour. He moved his head to the side to use a tree trunk to shade his eyes from the sinking western sun as he assessed the speed and direction of the breeze. Par for each Flitzyball bird house was determined not only by distance from perch to house, but also by wind speed and direction. Scoring was extremely complicated and involved an official’s employing an anemometer with each shot. Two competitors on the same bird house could potentially be assigned different pars as conditions might change by the second.
Commentators from the major networks whispered into their microphones while throngs of fans stood among the forest trees, swaying to line up views between the obstructing aspens, firs, and pines. Rick’s mother, father, and younger sister held their hands to their mouths nervously. The official assigned to Rick lifted the anemometer just as a gust of wind appeared and Rick lowered his right hand. The air calmed and he took aim again. An encouraging shout arose from the crowd and Rick appeared to lose his composure. He stepped away in seeming irritation, then reassumed his pose against the aspen tree. The competitors who had already completed the course waited in front of him. Those who had yet to finish waited behind him. Now all were silent. Rick quickly and forcefully squeezed the soft rubber gun and the ping pong ball burst forth with a satisfying pop and in an instant rattled inside the cedar bird house which constituted the 18th and final target of the fourteenth and final day of this year’s international Flitzyball championship. Rick could not be caught. He would be crowned this year’s champion.
Dozens of competitors were yet to finish, with second and third place yet to be determined, but all the attention was now focused on Rick as he walked toward the trailhead parking lot which served as the tournament headquarters. His family rushed to his side and reached him just as the ESPN commentator placed her microphone in front of him.
“Rick, can you tell the world what this victory means to you.”
“Oh, it means everything,” he said. “For as long as I can remember I’ve thought about nothing else but this day.” He spread his arms wide and opened his palms to the sky. “Nothing has mattered to me since my first steps, since my first words, than to become the Flitzyball champion of the world. It is literally the fulfillment of a lifetime goal. My family has sacrificed everything to get me here.”
“Well, speaking of your family,” the reporter said, “since we have them here, let’s find out how they feel. Rick’s parents, what’s going through your minds right now?”
“We were afraid this day would never come,” Rick’s mother replied. “We’ve waited, we’ve hoped, we’ve begged for our dream to come true.” She looked first to her husband, then to her son. “We were given a promise, and the older Rick became, the more we began to worry that after all we gave up we were not going to be requited. He’s almost thirty, you know. But here we are.”
“Yes,” Rick’s father added as he stepped in front of his wife. “we’re just grateful to the powers that be for allowing this to happen.”
The reporter turned to Rick. “Tell me more about how you have devoted your life to reaching this moment, and the sacrifices you’ve made. I think the American people would like to know what it takes to become an international champion.”
“It was really my parents, I guess.” They decided when I was born this is what they wanted and that they would give up everything for it – friends, school, fun, vacation, I mean everything, trusting that I would be given this day before I reached my thirtieth birthday.”
“So,” the commentator said, “it sounds like they are people of deep faith. They must be very thankful to the Lord for your success.”
“On the day Rick was born,” Rick’s mother offered, “it seems we sold his soul to the Devil on the promise that the Devil would deliver this moment. And here we are. And now Rick, and Rick’s father, and Rick’s sister, and all of us are grateful to the Devil for making good on his word.” She cleared her throat, took a step forward, clasped her hands behind her back, lifted her head, and said, “But I want to tell America now that our bargain with the Devil has been fulfilled.”
The woman from ESPN stepped back and with hesitation said, “Well this must be a first for our viewing audience. I’ve done hundreds of interviews with champions who thank God, or Jesus, or Allah for victory, but no one has ever given the Devil credit for winning before. I can’t imagine what it must be like to sell your son’s soul to Satan.”
Rick’s father addressed his wife. “You know we agreed we weren’t going to go into this, but since you brought it up . . .” He turned to the commentator. “To be honest, it happens all the time. We’re just admitting it, that’s all. And you really just have to let it happen, that’s all. The offer is always there. We all accept it, all of us, unless we actively refuse it.”
“Now you’ve got me confused,” the woman from ESPN said. “You can’t tell me that the great athletes I see praying for victory are actually bargaining with the Devil before each game.”
“It’s not like that,” Rick’s mother said. “But we’ve all made a bargain with the Devil by default unless we resist it. When we make our life’s ambition to achieve meaningless goals that serve no other purpose than self glorification, when we believe superstitions and hoard wealth and luxury while denying others of the basic necessities of life, when we speak so loudly and so often that we don’t hear what others are saying, when we are so busy chasing our material interests that we miss out on the simple pleasures of life, we are complicit in the Devil’s bargain.”
“Wait,” Rick said. “I’m the one whose soul was sold. Now I’m the international Flitzyball champion. I’m not sure my mother knows what she’s talking about. But I think I’m smarter than the Devil. I won the tournament. You can’t take that away from me, and I don’t know what the Devil has done with my soul, but my heart belongs to me, so I’m going to give it to Jesus from this day forward. Yes, I’ll accept Jesus into my heart. My parents sold my soul to the Devil when I was born, but now I’ll be born again with Jesus in my heart. And I’m the Flitzyball champion of the world.”
“How would that change anything?” the commentator asked.
“What would change is that I’d be choosing Jesus over the Devil. I’d be a Christian, born again in Jesus’ name. I’d still be champion. I wouldn’t have to change anything. It’s what you say you have in your heart that matters.”
Rick’s family all looked at each other and shook their heads in sorrow. “It’s taken us to this point to understand the many years that have been wasted,” his sister said. “The dream for my parents was once to experience the satisfaction of seeing their son win a world championship. But for years they have secretly longed for his victory to come so they could be freed from the binds of this meaningless obligation. Now our family is divided, but my parents shall be free. I think my brother Rick is more deeply trapped than ever.”
Other competitors continued to take their shots at the final bird house as Rick furthered his walk up to the tournament headquarters amidst the cheers of the admiring crowd. He stopped to provide blood samples to confirm he had not taken any performance enhancing drugs and that his DNA and gender identity were in agreement. He signed his score card while being witnessed by two tournament officials, and granted interviews to five more broadcast professionals while declaring his newfound faith in Jesus Christ. He was approached by nearly a dozen representatives of corporations with products for which he was asked to offer endorsements in exchange for lucrative contracts. As the sky darkened at the end of the day storm clouds gathered over the mountain ridge to the west, and thunder could be heard in the distance.
In the weeks that followed both Rick and his parents made appearances on talk shows, but never together. Their comments became the subject of blogs and podcasts, inspiring arguments over the role of religion in sports, the existence of the Devil, the struggle between good and evil, whether salvation depended simply on belief and faith or whether good deeds were required to get one into Heaven, and whether a life devoted to sport was a life of virtue to begin with. Still others did not condemn a life devoted to sport in general, but did deride Flitzyball in particular. More sophisticated moderators asked Rick’s parents if they hadn’t meant the notion of selling Rick’s soul figuratively to begin with, while Evangelicals took and related every detail of Rick’s narrative literally and celebrated its revelation. Some sports fans and competitors held that his title was tainted having been won through cheating due to evil influences. Others believed any claim to divine or evil intervention in athletic competition was nonsense, and that Rick was delusional.
Rick went on to become an evangelical spokesperson, endorsing religious products on radio and television and lending support to conservative political candidates. Otherwise his behavior post victory was unchanged from that before renouncing the Devil. He continued to make Flitzyball his life’s purpose, while taking advantage of his victory and subsequent notoriety to enrich himself. He held fast to his belief that behavioral change was not required for eternal life in Heaven; it was that which was in his heart that mattered. Although he continued to compete he never placed above tenth in another tournament. After his international victory rumors surfaced that his soft rubber gun had been equipped with an illegal gas accelerant, but the gun was never found and inspected. He never publicly addressed the accusations.
Rick’s parents always maintained that they were proud of their son’s athletic ability and his accomplishments in Flitzyball, but their advice to other parents was to not encourage their children to pursue a career in professional sports if it meant neglecting friends, education, recreation, and service to others. After Rick’s championship they, along with their physician daughter and their daughter’s physician husband, moved to a Caribbean island where they devoted their lives to fighting disease and poverty.