The Bigger Win

Anton Dormer March/April 2023

The Mustangs, Oakwood Adventist Academy’s varsity boys’ basketball team, was having an excellent season. In fact, the best season in the team’s history. By February 2022, for the first time ever, they’d fought their way to the semifinals of the state championship. They were prepared, focused, and eager to travel to Jacksonville, Alabama, for their shot at the state championship.

But fate, in the form of the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA)—the state organization that oversees interscholastic sports—stepped in between the team and its hopes. 

On the eve of the game the AHSAA refused to sanction an easy schedule change—one that had already been agreed between the three other teams involved. The change would have allowed the Mustangs to both play in the semi­finals and stay true to their deeply held religious beliefs. 

As Seventh-day Adventists, the team members had always refrained from competitive sports during their Sabbath, which they observe each week from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. Now they were faced with a stark choice: abandon their religious convictions or forfeit the chance to compete.

The team’s unhesitating decision in favor of their faith hit state and national headlines. They were praised not only for their strength of character but also for their sportsmanship in the face of what was, for them, a crushing disappointment. On the Saturday the Mustangs had been scheduled to play, the whole team turned up at the stadium in Jacksonville, after sunset, to cheer the other teams.

Seven months later, after attorneys from the Adventist Church and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed suit, the AHSAA finally responded to legal and public pressure. It amended its rules, creating a process to accommodate religious holy days when scheduling games. 

But, as with most religious freedom gains, this change was hard won. It happened only because a group of young men was prepared to make a difficult choice and to stand for their faith, come what may.

Anton Dormer is a recent graduate of George Washington University Law School and an alumnus of Oakwood Adventist Academy. He currently works for the Church-State Council, a religious freedom advocacy organization based in Sacramento, California. During his senior year, Anton was captain of the Oakwood Academy Mustangs. 

Coach Calvin Morton

Anton recently sat down for a conversation with Eleazar Williams, a senior member of the Mustangs, who was accompanied by the team’s coach, Calvin Morton.

Anton: Coach Morton and Eleazar Williams, thank you both for taking time to speak with me today. To start, what’s your record for the season?

Eleazar: We’re pretty good. We’ve won a good number of games. We have a winning record. We’re six and three [6–3].

Anton: Eleazar, please tell me a little bit about your background as a Seventh-day Adventist.

Eleazar: Well, I’ve been in Adventist education basically my whole life. My dad’s a pastor, so I’ve moved around a lot. But I’ve really just found a home here in Huntsville. I’ve been here since second grade, and I’ve been playing with the same coach, Coach Allen, since third grade. He’s really grown us as players and as people.

Anton: Eleazar, please tell me what happened to the Oakwood Adventist Academy team at last year’s tournament.

Eleazar: At the beginning of my junior year the team’s goal was to win a state championship. We had a good chance to do it. We went to the area tournament, which starts with playoffs. It’s the four teams that we play in the off-­season. We lost in the area championship, but we still advanced to the finals. We traveled up to a school named Skyline, and we won in overtime by four or five.

We were excited because that meant that we got to advance and go play at Jacksonville State University in the regional game, in the regional tournament. But then our game was set for 4:30 on Saturday, before the sun set, so we weren’t able to play because of the Sabbath.

It really hurt, because we had a good group of guys—guys who had been playing together since we were young. We were prepared. We were mentally ready to win the state championship, and it just got snatched from us.

Anton: When you learned the team couldn’t play, what was going on in everyone’s minds?

Eleazar: Since it was a Saturday, we thought, Maybe they’ll change it. We didn’t know if they were going to officially say no. We still had time to plead the case.

But then eventually we just had to come to terms with the decision that we were not going to play. We knew what we believed. And so, since that’s what we believed, we had to stand on it and know that God would bless us in the future.

Anton: How did this experience affect your faith?

On the evening of Feb. 19, 2022, the team congratulates the winners of the semifinal at Jacksonville Stadium.

Eleazar: Honestly, it was a really hard time, especially for me, with me and God. It was something that we’d worked so hard for. We weren’t able to participate and use the abilities we’d worked on, the abilities God blessed us with. We asked ourselves, Why is God doing this to us now?

But what I came to understand from God was that sometimes the bigger lesson is not the win but the player that you create along the way. So you have your ups and downs and your losses and your wins. But that loss, in particular, really made all of us on the team better people. And that’s more important than us actually winning state.

Anton: Wow. That is powerful. So, now where are you in your relationship with God? And how are you a better player because of your experience?

Eleazar: I feel control with everything I’m doing on the court because when I put God at the center of everything I’m doing, when I’m playing I’m not nervous. I know that I’ve prepared. I know that I’ve talked to God about this. I talk to God about what I’m going to do, how I’m going to do it, and it’s like He’s going to bless my hard work.

Anton: What was the result of the team standing for their faith in the Sabbath?

Eleazar: It was a surprise to see how big the story got. At first we were on local news, as we expected, but then eventually as Tuesday and Wednesday came around, we’re on CNN, reporters are coming to the school, we’re getting letters from the state governor, churches are sending us stuff, Oakwood University sent us to a Memphis Grizzlies game. And the impact was felt not just for us and our school; it impacted how the world views Adventists.

Anton: Based on the results you’ve just described, would you still have wanted to win the state championship?

Eleazar: The places that we got to go, the things we saw, the people we met—we wouldn’t have been able to do that if we had simply won the state tournament. And so I feel that God was showing us that sometimes, in your losses, you get bigger rewards than in your wins.

Soon after the Oakwood Academy Mustangs forfeited their playoff game, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey invited the team to visit her office in Montgomery. She praised the athletes for their integrity and pledged to do more to ensure that principles of religious freedom were upheld throughout the state.Less than a year later, on January 20, 2023, the governor signed Executive Order 733, “Promoting and Defending Religious Liberty Through Implementation of the Alabama Religious Freedom Amendment.” The order sets out legal principles protecting religious liberty that must be implemented by the state of Alabama. The order impacts not only state employees, but also professionals and businesses holding a government license, state contractors, grant recipients, and recipients of government benefits.In a press release announcing the new order the governor’s office highlighted the Oakwood Academy case and the team’s meeting with Governor Ivey, adding that “religious freedom is the cornerstone of the American way of life.”

Anton: Based on this experience, what does religious liberty mean to you?

Eleazar: It means that I have a choice and other people have a choice to believe what they want to believe. It means that I shouldn’t view other people differently because of what they believe, and others shouldn’t view me any differently, either.

Anton: How do you think that other Christian teams view you because your team stood for its faith?

Eleazar: Off the court? It’s a respect thing. On the court, you know, everybody’s trying to win. So off the court, you know, they respect us, we respect them, they know what we did. We can fellowship, we can talk about our beliefs, because we both believe similar things. But on the court everybody’s trying to win. And that’s the main goal on the court.

Anton: Are you guys going back to the same tournament?

Eleazar: Yes, sir. This season we’re going to do our best to win each game so that we don’t have to be put in the same situation as before. We’re going to try to win all the way to the state tournament, because this is our last season. A lot of our guys—we have eight seniors—never won the state; our school’s never been in the state tournament. We feel that we have a chance now to make school history. We’ve worked for this. It’s time for our work to be shown on a state stage and on the national stage.

Anton: Has this experience impacted your career choices? Where you want to go for college? What you want to major in?

Eleazar: I want to major in sports management. This experience has impacted where I want to go for college. I might stay in the Adventist circle, because it’s going to be a lot harder to go to a different school and be able to make decisions that will keep me on the right path. I want to be in an environment in which it’s easier for me to stay within what I believe without compromising my faith.

Anton: Where do you see yourself going after college?

Eleazar: After I get my bachelor’s, I’m either going to try to get my master’s in sports management or try to do sports med. And eventually I want to work my way up to be an athletic director or an athletic trainer, a role in which I can impact players and how they see the world.

Anton: What would you say to someone who’s struggling with expressing their faith, whether that be on the court, off the court, in their workplace, or around their friends?

Eleazar: Eventually you just have to make that decision with yourself. You have to be comfortable with yourself. And if you see that your friends aren’t going to accept you, then maybe it’s time to find new friends. If you see that your workplace isn’t going to accept you, then maybe it’s time to find a new workplace. Because if you’re not growing, then it might not be you. It might be the environment you’re in.

Anton: As a leader, what’s the mindset that you’re instilling in the players around you? How are you encouraging them in their faith while you’re in the locker room, while you’re at practice, and while you’re in the game?

Eleazar: Mostly on the court it comes down to the way you carry yourself. We can’t be out here saying bad words, acting out, crying about stuff. You’ve got to be confident in yourself and what you can do—what you know God has blessed you to do. And we all do that to the best of our ability.

Anton: Well, those are all the questions that I have. Are there any last things you’d want someone to know about the experience you’ve been through?

Eleazar: I would say that sometimes your greatest setbacks are your greatest blessings. That’s all I have to say.

Anton: Coach?

Coach Morton: You never know who’s watching you. And, like one of the coaches told the guys, you never know when your last game will be played. So put all your effort into the game that you have, that you’re prepared for.

Article Author: Anton Dormer