Summer 2024

Soccer in Heaven

I bought a size 1 soccer ball last month for my son’s first birthday. It’s a bit retro looking in that each panel is a different color – black, white, green or silver. But the green and silver panels are bright and shiny, perfect to attract the attention of a little kid. It cost $5, but I’m going to cherish it forever.

Jon Ackerman playing soccer with his daughter.

On my son’s birthday, my family got together to celebrate. My wife did a masterful job decorating and hosting, and we enjoyed the most delicious chocolate-chocolate-chip bundt cake you’ll ever try. But all I really wanted to do was kick around this soccer ball.

Finally, the time came. I gathered my dad and brother, as well as my father-in-law and brother-in-law. We spread out around the backyard and just knocked the ball around like we were back in grade school. I couldn’t remember the last time I kicked a soccer ball, but I instantly recalled how much I loved it. As soon as my 2-year-old daughter, Callie, saw us, she ran around and around the yard trying to chase down the ball. Her giggles were nothing but pure joy.

I desperately wish my son could have been there, too.

Eli Joshua was born on March 16, 2016 at 6:12 p.m. A few minutes later, after a couple breaths while lying on his mother’s chest, he died. Before I could even hold him, he went to be with Jesus.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we were prepared for this. My wife, Shannon, and I were told at the 13-week ultrasound that the baby she was carrying would not survive outside the womb. That was absolutely crushing to hear. In an instant everything else lost significance. My wife was supposed to have a girls weekend – didn’t matter. I was supposed to get back to work, writing about sports – didn’t matter.

Never had we been so angry at God. How could He let this happen? Isn’t He supposed to be a good God? What about this situation is good?

God can handle our emotions, even these feelings of anger. So we let Him have it. But before long, we remembered He’s on our side. If anyone was going to make good of this situation, it was Him. So we prayed and prayed and prayed for the doctors to be wrong, for healing, for restoration. But above all, we wanted God’s will for our lives.

As long as the baby was living, my wife decided we were going to love with no regrets. We filled our phones with pictures of otherwise normal activities that took on more meaning due to the short life of the child in her belly. Trips to the park. A getaway to the beach. The Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl 50 parade.

Shannon Ackerman at the Broncos Super Bowl parade, February 2016.

Jon and Shannon Ackerman at the Broncos Super Bowl Parade – February 2016

Then the day came for us to meet our boy. Honestly, I dreaded the day. How was I going to be able to say hello and goodbye to my son? We prayed for peace and strength – and that’s exactly what we received. Philippians 4:7 says, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” I now know what peace that “transcends all understanding” feels like. The moment we saw Eli, my wife and I both felt a peace we can’t even begin to explain. The day was far from dreadful.

A few weeks later, we learned the cause of death. It turns out my wife and I are carriers of a very rare recessive gene. If two people with this gene make a baby, there’s a 75 percent chance the child will not be affected, but a 25 percent chance the baby will develop a fatal genetic disorder. Eli was in the 25 percent.

The days and months and year that followed were not easy, but God walked with us the entire time. He surrounded us with a community of family and friends that prayed with us and for us every step of the way. It’s a community we prayed for many years prior. That was always something we wanted; God knew it was something we needed.

Throughout all of our ultrasounds, Eli always had a strong heartbeat. So a couple months after he was born, Shannon and I got that heartbeat tattooed on our right foot. Eli made his entrance into the world right foot first.

My right foot also happens to be my best kicking foot. Whenever I kick around this soccer ball, I love doing it barefoot. That way I can see Eli’s heartbeat every time I look down.

What do I see when I kick left-footed? Well, I see a heartbeat there too. As of January 17, 2017, Eli has a little brother in heaven with him – Joey Daniel.

My wife and I conceived again this past summer, well aware of the fact that we could have another baby with the same condition. But we were also very well aware that we could have another perfectly healthy baby like our daughter.

The odds didn’t turn out in our favor. We don’t know why, and I’m not sure we ever will on this side of heaven. Really, the “why” doesn’t matter. John 16:33 says, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

What matters is that Jesus has overcome this world and we place our hope in Him. People tell us they can’t imagine going through what we’ve gone through. But I can’t imagine going through it without God. Knowing we will see our boys again keeps us going.

As believers, we know a spot in heaven is reserved for us. But at least for me, the reality of that is tough to grasp. I’m not one with a wild imagination, so I can’t even fathom what heaven is like. But it’s a lot more real to me now. I’ve got two boys up there I want to kick a ball around with.

Because the vision that always comes to mind is Eli and Joey playing soccer. I was a soccer player through high school, but never really a soccer fanatic. Yet this is the image I have when I think of my sons in heaven. That’s why I got the soccer ball for Eli’s first birthday.

But the most amazing aspect of this vision is who’s on my sons’ team. When they’re playing soccer in heaven, they’re always receiving spot-on passes from Jesus.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jon and Shannon are incredibly brave and courageous and we thank them for sharing their story. To learn more about Jon and Shannon’s journey, and help them in their season of loss, click here.