EASTER WAS ALWAYS a happy time in Esto. Families gathered, and those who’d moved away came home. We hid and hunted eggs after a picnic at T’s pond. Azaleas and dogwoods blossomed.
This year we’d hoped to make it home for Easter. But it didn’t work out. I was doubly disappointed when my sister-in-law called to say we’d be having a special guest at Esto Baptist Church to deliver the Easter sermon: Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. Holy Moses! Saint Bobby himself!
A visit to Esto by a celebrity of Bobby Bowden’s stature was big news. And it was a special celebration for our little country church.
In recent years, the church had dwindled down to just a handful of members. Even the few still active grumbled about this and that. Many locals had given up on the Esto church and joined more vibrant churches nearby. Finally those remaining asked for help. Mighty First Baptist Church in Bonifay, the county seat, agreed to take Esto’s church under its wing and try to rebuild it.
They called a new young preacher from Jacksonville. He arrived on the scene full of ideas and enthusiasm and began visiting around the town, asking people to come back to church. He invited musicians and other special guests. He organized outings for the young people and birthday parties for the seniors.
To celebrate the rebirth of the church, he invited Bobby Bowden, the legendary FSU football coach, to speak on Easter. And he kept inviting until Bowden finally said yes — and there he was on Easter Sunday morning, having driven the two hours from Tallahassee.
Bowden told them he often spends Sunday mornings speaking in country churches. Usually his wife Ann drives, he said, but today he’d come alone. And maybe he hadn’t taken the full two hours to get to Esto, since a state trooper had pulled him over on his way. (No, he didn’t get a ticket.)
Bowden told the story of his own faith, and how it helps him shape young football players into national champions. The church was full — including some people who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in quite a few years, in a church that hadn’t been full in quite a few years.
Proving himself a good Baptist, Bowden kept his talk short, finishing about 15 minutes before noon. They like to finish a little early at his church, he said, so they can beat the Methodists to the all-you-can-eat buffet.
He stuck around for a few minutes afterward, shaking hands and signing autographs and the occasional football. My sister-in-law went up and told him one FSU graduate in California was two-times sad he hadn’t made it home for Easter this year.
He took her copy of the church bulletin and wrote: “Missed you! Bobby Bowden.”