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Little Bert

"Herbie, line up on the right side and run a down-out-down. " How many times did I hear Bert McDade, Jr. say those words, or something similar, on a Sunday afternoon in my boyhood and college years?

Here's what that meant. First, we were playing two-hand touch football in either the McDade's yard or on the back field at my home church, Bethany United Methodist, in rural Fayette County, Georgia. Second, it meant I'd been picked to be on Bert's team, rather than on his younger brother Jimmy's team, for that particular contest. Jimmy was our church's youth leader and Bert was the preacher at Peachtree City United Methodist, about 20 minutes away, and they were the two oldest of our group, and the best athletes to boot. Thus, they were the number 1 and 2 picks - and the quarterbacks of their respective teams - and the rest of us got sorted out from there.

Bert's directive instructed me to run about 10 yards straight off the line of scrimmage (down), then to cut sharply to the the right sideline (out), and lastly - after running to the sideline or seeing him fake a pass my way - to turn sharp again and run deep down the field toward the end zone. Sometimes he'd throw it short on the out and other times I'd get the chance to fly along and run under a deep bomb.

I'm 57 years old as I write this and I can't help but grin as I again hear Bert, or Jimmy, calling a play, especially either of them telling me to run a down-out-down. My palms are growing a little sweaty imagining a brown, leather Spalding J5V football dipping from it's height against a blue, Fall sky and settling into my outstretched hands. I can picture Bert's smile, and hear his excited yell, if I managed to hold onto the ball and especially if I wound up in the end zone. Memories.

We called him Little Bert, in spite of the fact he stood over six feet tall. He was "little" because he was "Junior," and his father was Big Bert, and deservedly so. Today, November 2, would have been his 71st birthday had he not tragically perished in a car accident last year, only two days after he turned 70.

He was always larger than life to me. Quick with a joke, he never met a stranger and everyone around him enjoyed his presence. Church folks loved him. His kids adored him, as did the rest of his large family. He was athletic and full of life and energy and I, an undersized runt of the litter, wanted to be just like him when I grew up. He was even a preacher, which in high school and then college I was feeling the first rumblings of a sense of my own call to ministry.

So, from the time I was 12 until I was 23 and got married, I spent pretty much every Sunday afternoon with Bert and Jimmy. Just playing ball, usually football, but during the warmer months we played softball. Football, though, was my favorite. I loved those Sundays with church in the morning, then a quick lunch, followed by three or so hours of unfettered play, and then capped off with Sunday evening church.

Back then, I would have told you how much I loved the competition, the thrill of running and playing and sometimes making a diving catch or scoring a touchdown. Now, though, I know the best part was the people, the guys out there together. It was Bert and Jimmy, two young men a decade or more older than us taking the time to invest in the lives of a bunch of kids.

Somebody out there remembers the sermons Bert preached and the Sunday school lessons he taught. Somebody remembers how he was the founding pastor of Peachtree City United Methodist Church, a church that today has over 3700 members. Lives have been touched for the Kingdom through that great congregation, and many have found the joy of salvation in Christ through its ministry, a ministry launched by Bert McDade, Jr. What a legacy of faithfulness and fruitfulness.

But, today, on Little Bert's birthday, I'll remember Sunday afternoons and down-out-down. I'll remember a man who made grace come alive, a man who made the runt of the litter feel special.

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