Bruce Deckert ’87: Serengeti Friendship and The World Cup
Initially, it might not seem like a children’s book and The World Cup would share a similar fate—yet eight years ago when South Africa became the first African nation to host the FIFA World Cup, Bruce Deckert’s ’87 complimentary copy of Serengeti Friendship: Soccer Forgiveness was chosen for the World Cup Exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Foundation.
For both Deckert and Mandela, who once used the sport of rugby to cross racial divides in South Africa, athletics provided the perfect stage to illustrate and practice forgiveness.
With the 2018 FIFA World Cup in its final week, we talked with Deckert, whose 20-year career in journalism, spent primarily as an editor for ESPN.com, was perfect preparation for writing about the fictional Wild Animal World Cup in his middle grades children’s book Serengeti Friendship: Soccer Forgiveness.
The impetus for writing Serengeti Friendship came from a publishing house that had taken an interest in an article Deckert wrote for ESPN.com. The article was a response to a news story about a high school football coach who resigned after the school told him to stop praying with his team before games or team meals. “I was intrigued,” says Deckert. “This story got me thinking about issues related to prayer and sports, worldviews and the Christian faith.”
After finding Deckert’s article on the features section of ESPN.com, Crossroad Publishing Company in New York invited him to write a short book “about the intersection of sports and religion,” he says. But, instead of writing something expository, Deckert chose to revisit a book he’d started writing for his daughter years earlier, after watching Disney’s The Lion King with her. Inspired by the film’s landscape and cast of animal characters, Decker began drafting a children’s parable set in Serengeti, a Tanzanian national park known for its biodiversity and wildlife.
Eventually, after the invitation came from Crossroad, he rewrote the story—this time exploring the intersection of sports and religion through a soccer team comprised of a cheetah, elephant, giraffe and zebra (among other animals), which became Serengeti Friendship: Soccer Forgiveness (2009, rev. ed. 2017).
The book centers on a quarrel that happens in the run-up to the Wild Animal World Cup. It’s a conflict children can relate to, and yet it shows “how they try to work through it and find reconciliation and forgiveness—something that is a part of all of our lives.” The book shows how sports can provide an arena for growth.
One of the key figures in Serengeti Friendship is the wise, old owl who helps the teammates resolve their quarrel. The owl, Deckert says, is a composite of his various mentors—Grady Spires (philosophy), Harold Bussell (dean of chapel), James Garvin (education), David Horn (residence life), Thomas Howard (English language and literature)—all of whom took an interest in him during his time at Gordon.
“Sports teach proverbial life lessons about teamwork,” says Deckert. “About sacrificing yourself for the team, about how to handle disagreements, and how to resolve them.”
Article by Morgan Clayton ’19, history