Nathan Shelley & The Pain of the Prodigal
Updated: Aug 16
I’m roaming the aisles of Box Lunch with my kids looking through all the nerdy splendor and we stumble across Ted Lasso mystery packs of backpack buddies. Little mini figures on clips that you can hang wherever. These things aren’t cheap but my kids wanted me to buy one. They were hoping for Dani Rojas, or Beard, but as we ripped through the packaging right there at the checkout counter, we got Nate. Nathan Shelley. Nate the Great. My kid’s emotions ranged from livid to disgusted. I tried to hand the little figure to all three of them and they all declined. None of them wanted him. I was left holding the shunned Shelley.
We had recently finished watching Season 2 of Ted Lasso which culminates with the lovable Nate making a full Villain Arc turn as he betrayed Ted, Richmond, and himself. He ripped up the Believe sign, left his home, and joined up with Rupert to coach West Ham. My kids didn’t just see this as a plot point, they felt personally betrayed, and honestly, I did too. We watched through season 2 as Nate slid slowly away from who he was. As he started craving credit. Started craving recognition and validation. As Rupert planted the seed at Rebecca’s Fathers funeral. As you watched Nate’s character change as dramatically as his hair color. His abuse towards Colin and towards Will was continually escalating. We hear it gradually with phrases like “Don’t you ever want to be in charge?,” “Ted will take credit for my idea,” etc. What was worse than tearing the sign for me, was the hateful speech he gave Ted in the locker room. He had disdain for Ted, combined with the resentment of his father, and his own self-hatred, but it all erupted on Ted.
He wanted the glory, the status, and the recognition of everything he felt he deserved, and he wanted it right now. This is very similar to the story Jesus told of the prodigal;
“Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.” Luke 15:11-12
A son who was loved and cared for, but wanted his reward early and was willing to walk away from everything and everyone he loved to get it. Nate was much more responsible and wise than the prodigal in Jesus' story. The biblical prodigal wasted everything and found himself destitute.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need.” - Luke 15:13-14.
Nate actually did really at West Ham. They were winning games. He was gaining status. He wasn’t losing his resources, but he was losing more of himself. The first thing we see him do is season 3 is scroll through social media posts looking for approval before verbally accosting the West Ham Higgins. He then proceeds to publicly mock and humiliate a player, only to then join Rupert in mocking Richmond privately and before the press.
Sometimes you can gain success and status and still be completely broken and lost. Rebecca was in the process of her team rising from relegation but still was lost in fear of Rupert and public opinion as she begged for Ted to fight back against Nate. But Ted wouldn’t fight dirty, he ends up brining Nate praise and encouragement. Keely praises Rebecca for letting Ted be Ted, when she wanted Ted to become a villain himself.
Ted knows that’s not how to fight hatefulness.
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” - Proverbs 15:1
We even see Nate feel bested watching Ted’s kindness and the media response to his slurs and slams.
Someone who fails us or betrays us doesn’t have to become your enemy. Someone who is in opposition to you doesn’t mean they are someone you have to destroy. Ted modeled that well, and the Apostle Paul instructed it even better.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” - Romans 12:14-21
You overcome evil with good. When someone is lost, pushing them further away isn’t the answer. Nate wasn’t just a 1 dimensional caricature, the choices he was making were hurting him as well. As Nate is running through his upcoming match against Richmond with mini figures, he knocks Ted’s figure off the table, and we see that first glimpse. That’s not who he wants to be. As he picks Ted back up and says “There you go.” There was the first real spark of a redemption arc. Most villains or bad guys in stories and just people who are lost, or lashing out in pain.
Every Villain is Prodigal In Progress
**Jumping back to my unwanted Nate backpack buddy. It somehow ended up in one of the Faith & Fandom crates, and so I left Nate under all the shelving, and candles. Journey after journey. I would occasionally pull him out when someone bought one of my “Believe” stickers and offer him for free, but literally, I couldn’t give him away. So back he went in with the unwanted, and I think he eventually hung on my t-shirt rack for the next 3 or 4 months. Back to the devotional**
Before Ted and Nate meet again, Nate is commiserating over the press of their reunion when he tells Rupert “I just haven’t seen Ted since I left and… I didn’t leave on the best of terms. I feel like I owe him and apology or something.” Nate was already in the position of being ready to seek reconciliation. The prodigal was already looking for a way home, but he made the mistake of sharing that with Rupert.
Wicked Hearts Won’t Direct You Towards Healing
There’s this passage of things that God is extremely against, and the character Rupert displays covers almost all of them.
“There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.” - Proverbs 6:16-19
He put on enough of a show to make Nate feel supported, but the back and forth between Rupert/Mr. Mannion was a clear display of how fair weather his praise was and how transparent the manipulation is. We need to understand in our lives that who we have pour into us will dramatically effect the direction we go in. In the elevator at West Ham, Nate was just about to make amends when Rupert shows up like the literal devil snatching him away from redemption. When we are guided by darkness, we end up in more darkness.
We see this when Beard and Roy try to use video footage of Nate’s betrayal as motivation for play. As their entire team melts down on the field and the announcers state “Richmond have completely lost the plot,” because they had. We’ve lost the plot when we are moving away from redemption and reconciliation. When we move to attack others, even our opposition and enemies, we fail. As Beard stated, “We overcorrected, and played with hate.”
Even after all of the drama on the field, once Nate realizes he snubbed Ted on the handshake he takes off to make a second attempt to reconcile, again to be circumvented by Rupert’s efforts. Nate kept waiting for the opportunity to be easy to reconcile, but you can’t really wait for it to be easy.
“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” - Matthew 5:23-24
**It was at about this point that I realized my little Nate Backpack Buddy was still hanging on my t-shirt rack in my garage. I started seeing the seeds planted that a redemption arc was coming. I also had some remorse that I was so quick to literally throw someone away (albeit a fictional someone) when they did things less offensive than I had done on a regular basis. I went out to my garage, pulled Nate off the rack and sat him on my desk.**
We have to believe that people are capable of growth. That change is possible. That we are more than our failures. We so often limit people to the thing they’ve done to hurt us most, and if that’s all we see people as, we can’t be surprised when we lose hope in ourselves and in other people. As Ted stated in his speech after they lost Zava and he ripped up the “Believe” sign into small pieces;
“Belief doesn’t just happen because you hang something on a wall. It comes from in here [he points to his heart], and up here [his head] and down here [his gut]. The only problem is, we’ve all got so much junk floatin’ through us, a lot of times we end up gettin’ in our own way. Crap like envy, or fear — shame. I don’t wanna mess around with that …. anymore, know what I mean? Do you? You know what I wanna mess around with? The belief that I matter, regardless of what I do or don’t achieve. Or the belief that we all deserve to be loved, whether we’ve been hurt or hurt somebody else. Or what about the belief of hope? That’s what I want to mess with. Believing that things can get better — that I can get better. That we will get better. You believe in yourself, you believe in one another — that’s fundamental to being alive. If you can do that — if each of you can truly do that — can’t nobody rip that apart.”
We can’t believe in other people and just see them as failures, mistakes, and opposition. We can’t love our enemies if we only see them as enemies and not actually people. Holding on to bitterness does more damage to us than to those who hurt us.
As Mr. Obisanya told Sam after Ola’s was vandalized;
“Anger will only weaken you.... forgive them. My son, listen to me. Don’t fight back, fight forward.”
We need to fight for people, not to bring them down lower.
Nate was clearly longing for restoration. Once things started clicking with Jade, he was trying to build back his life. He created the knock off version of the Diamond Dogs. Seeing Ted and Henry at his game made him feel shame but also put him in the place where he thought hope might be possible, but still decided to side with Rupert when he was antagonistic towards Ted’s presence. Even after a win, Nate couldn’t really celebrate because he was focused on Ted. He had to learn to move beyond the shame, to a place of hope.
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” - 1 John 4:18.
As long as fear and shame are playing a part in how we are moving, we aren’t going to really find love in any direction we go. Shame and fear are things Rupert thrives in, which is why when he sees Nate taking steps towards being in a healthy committed relationship, his first action is to try to steer him to his own level of unfaithfulness. To make sure Nate doesn’t actually become a person moving in the right direction, because the right direction is away from where Rupert resides. But when Nate was truly put to the test, of being like Rupert or being faithful, he finally stood up in his character. He knew it wouldn’t be popular, but when given the chance, he took his exit.
“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” - 1 Corinthians 10:13
Nathan made the better choice, and when Rupert was asked about Nate by Rebecca he stated; “Some people just aren’t ready when they get their shot.” Nate absolutely was ready, not only to make the right choice in that circumstance but to also to start making his journey home, both to his family, and to Richmond.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death!I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’So he got up and went to his father. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” - Luke 15:17-20
In the story Jesus told, the prodigal was so broken that he determined to humble himself to any position he could just to be back as part of his family. For the first step in Nate’s journey home, he went to his parents' house for rest, but ended up finding a reception from his father much differently than he expected.
“You were given opportunities I never had, and so I expected a lot from you...And I'm sorry. I didn't know how to parent a genius... A genius. You're brilliant, Son. You've always seen things other people couldn't, and that's a blessing. Yet I know it must also be a curse too. But you're right. I pushed you to be the best at everything, even at violin. 'Cause I thought that's what I had to do. I thought that's what you wanted. Nathan, be successful, don't be successful. I never cared about any of that. I just want my son to be happy.” - Mr. Shelley.
That’s not killing a fattened calf or putting a robe or ring on him, but that’s a huge reception and step towards reconciliation for Nate.
Nate truly humbled himself in the process. Doing all of Will’s duties and leaving a lavender scented apology card. Joyfully taking a job as a waiter at the Taste of Athens. He had let go of his pride and sense of entitlement. He was just happy to do something he could get behind with a good heart. But when the lads came into Athens to invite him back, he still couldn’t accept it. He still held on to that fear and shame of facing what he had done. While the team had forgiven him, Higgins and Roy were good with him coming back, but Nate still faced opposition.
As Ted posed Nate’s return, it did not go as smoothly.
Ted: You alright if Nate comes--
Beard: If you bring that Judas back, I will burn this place to the …. ground.
Beard was the only one truly adamant not to extend grace to Nate. I think we’ll all find that there are less people against us than there are for us, but those in opposition still hurt. We see similar with the parable Jesus told.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” - Luke 15:25-32
While there weren’t many who opposed him, it’s hard to embrace that grace was truly offered. Jade tried to convince Nate that his time “feeding the pigs” was over and that he needed to return to coaching.
Jade: You’re a coach. They want you back at Richmond. You should go.
Nate: Thing is, it didn’t really end too well for me there. I think a lot of that was my fault. Well, it was all my fault. Look after this season, I'll try and get another coaching job, just not at Richmond, okay?
It’s hard to face our failures. It’s hard to come face to face with the people and circumstances we’ve done damage to. But just like Nate hadn’t exhausted the depths of Ted’s grace, when we are in a similar or even dramatically worse position spiritually, we haven’t exhausted God’s grace either.
“The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” - Romans 5:20-21
Where sin increased, grace increased all the more. I love that some translations say “abound” instead of increase. The important thing to understand is that our failures, our choices, our sin, can’t outnumber and outmatch the grace that God offers us.
Ted is still open and waiting to give Nate a second chance, as he tells Beard, attempting to knock down the last wall in the way of Nate’s return;
“I hope that either all of us or none of us are judged by the actions of our weakest moments, but rather by the strength we show when and if we’re ever given a second chance.”
Beard gives way to the weight of Ted’s grace and ends up sharing his story with Nate and offering him a job back and even choosing to hug him over headbutting him.
Nate returns to Nelson Road, and continues embrace humility going from head coach to assistant to the kit man, but with joy. This all leads to Ted and Nate finally having their reunion/reconciliation. As Nate stares at the spot on the wall where the “Believe” sign used to be, Ted joins him in the moment.
Nate: Listen, Ted--
Ted: I know. It’s okay.
Nate: No. Please, please. Can you just let me say it? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
Ted: (embracing Nate) Oh buddy.
Nate didn’t have to do anything dramatic to be forgiven in Ted’s eyes. Him even starting the conversation found him already accepted and forgiven. As great and graceful as Ted is, he is a deeply flawed and broken human like the rest of us. God’s love and grace for us is great, and He is even more desiring to forgive than Ted.
“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” - 1 John 1:9
As Ted and Nate share a glance while the team repairs the destroyed “Believe” sign, it’s a reminder that there is nothing broken that can’t be repaired, no relationship that can’t be reconciled, and no prodigal that can’t be welcomed back home.
** So now, and until it gets ripped off somewhere in the chaos of my travel, there’s a little Nate Shelley hanging on my backpack. He became a reminder for me to start looking more actively for the hope of redemption in people. That villains may be prodigals in progress. That people do stupid things when they want to be loved, respected, and accepted. And that like Jesus said, we should be quick to forgive because we don’t always know what we’re doing or the pain we’re causing. Here’s to redemption arcs for us all.”**