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MEN of SUNDAYHOW FAITH GUIDES THE PLAYERS, COACHES & WIVES OF THE NFL
By CURTIS EICHELBERGER
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Curtis Eichelberger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTO GLORIFY THE LORD
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. —1 Corinthians 9:24–27
It is a Sunday afternoon in early September and the San Diego Chargers have six minutes before they take the field. Now in full uniform, with their bodies taped and black under their eyes, they are laser focused when defensive end Jacques Cesaire calls out, "Pray It Up." Between twenty-five and thirty players put away their iPods and give pictures of their children a final kiss. Their cleats click-clack as they march into the tiled shower room, their shoulder pads bump as they gather together, the smell of sweat permeates the space. Then team chaplain Shawn Mitchell leads them in prayer.
It is here that some of the greatest athletes of our time will pray to God for protection from injury, for the safety of their adversaries, for the strength and ability to execute and play to the best of their God-given talents, and to do it all in the name of the Lord.
This scene is played out in locker rooms around the National Football League every Sunday outside the view of television cameras, opponents, and critics. It is a rallying moment for the men as they clasp hands and make final preparations, players say.
"They have been preparing all week and there is this sense that, 'OK, here it comes,'" says Mitchell. "Prayer is not a rabbit's foot or a superstition. We are talking to a God who cares for every facet of our lives. If it is important to them, it is important to God."
The adrenaline is running high. The players are emotional. It's difficult to discipline themselves to quiet down for Pray-Up.
"What I like to tell the guys is, 'Pray like everything depends on God because it does, and then perform like everything depends on you," says Mitchell.
While the players continue shuffling into the confined space of the shower, network television analysts sit in a small room at the top of the stadium updating viewers on injuries, weather conditions, and key matchups. The singer who will perform the national anthem is pacing near the end zone, sipping water and whispering the song. Field crews are checking the sidelines to make sure medical kits and water bottles are in place. And fans at home are making their final runs to the refrigerator, stacking an extra hot dog on their paper plates, opening a beer, teasing their brother-in-law about his fantasy league picks.
And in that moment when the outside world is enjoying the company of family and friends, enraptured by the pageantry of what has become a rite of fall, thirty men dressed in armor like modernday gladiators stand together, holding hands in the bowels of the stadium, awaiting a final moment with the Lord before the game. Then, silence.
"Father, we thank You for this opportunity where we can come together as one ...," Mitchell prays.
"We bow our heads together for what is before us and, Lord, You have made it clear that apart from You we can do nothing, but with You all things are possible ...
"Lord, we expect big things from You, so today we go out to attempt great things for You ...
"Our desire is to lift You up to glorify You ...
"We ask that You keep both teams free of injury ...
"And we ask, Lord, that we can go out there and perform to the greatest of our God-given ability ...
"We pray for the strength of Samson, the speed of Jehu, and give us awareness and instinct ...
"We go forth from here in Your name, use us now, we thank You in advance, in Jesus' name. Amen."
For all that the National Football League represents to the millions of fans who watch the games around the world, the role faith plays in the lives of the players has been largely overlooked by media outlets that don't want to offend nonbelievers, see faith as a personal choice, or don't want to be used by false Christians looking to shine up their public image.
When Mitchell concludes Pray-Up with "Amen," the players march back out of the shower to the locker room, though some stay behind for an additional minute to get a word or a personal prayer with Mitchell. Sometimes players recite lines of Scripture to reaffirm their faith and calm themselves before entering the stadium. Other times, they just speak to God straight from the heart.
Some of the sport's biggest stars are also some of its most faithful. Players like Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, Tennessee Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, to name just a few.
Each player prepares for the game in his own way.
In San Diego, as Mitchell's prayer concludes, Chargers offensive tackle Jeromey Clary keeps his head bowed and prays, "Allow me to glorify You in all that You've done. Protect me and allow me to play with strength and confidence, yet stay humble. The glory is Yours."
In St. Louis, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford has prepared spiritually for games dating back to his college years at the University of Oklahoma by reading the story of David and Goliath about a young boy who slays a battle-tested warrior with a slingshot. In 1 Samuel 17:45–46, David declares, "You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I'll strike you down and cut off your head."
In Tennessee, Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck gathers with the team's other passers in the stadium tunnel minutes before they take the field for what they call the Quarterbacks Prayer.
It started when he played in Seattle alongside fellow Christians Trent Dilfer and quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn. The prayer isn't scripted, Hasselbeck says, but it goes something like this:
God, there are so many people counting on us today: our teammates, our coaches, our families, the people in the stands. I pray that we wouldn't look for their approval. I pray that we look for Your approval; that we play for an audience of one today. And knowing that we've worked hard and prepared, I pray that You'd slow things down and give us a peace that can only come from You, and take that pressure and burden off us so we can go out and play knowing that at the end of the day, win, lose, or draw, You did that. We pray that we make the most of our God-given abilities. God, I need Your help. Please walk with me today. In Your name. Amen.
Prayer isn't the domain of offensive players. Some of the nastiest hitters in the NFL stop to worship God before taking the field.
In East Rutherford, New Jersey, New York Giants Pro Bowl defensive end Justin Tuck takes a knee at the end of the bench before kickoff to ask God to protect him from injury.
In Washington, safety Oshiomogho Atogwe reads passages from the Twenty-third Psalm and prays: "God, I thank You for allowing me the week of preparation. Let me be confident in what I'm doing. Let me lead my teammates and encourage them. But more than that, let me glorify You with the way I play, with my attitude, with my energy, and let me give You my all."
And in Baltimore, Ray Lewis's mother, Buffy Jenkins, has been sending a line of Scripture for her son to read before games since he entered the league in 1996. It usually has something to do with the moment, Lewis says. One example comes from Psalm 16:1–2: "Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, 'You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.'"
Back in the Chargers locker room, players now have a few minutes to adjust their equipment before strength coach Jeff Hurd enters the room and shouts, "Two minutes!" It's coming now. Now! The intensity in the locker room ramps up. This is it. Coach Norv Turner barks out: "OK, men, let's gather around." The players take a knee, everyone grabs a teammate's hand, and Turner leads the group in the Lord's Prayer:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For
thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.
Amen. (Matthew 6:9–13 KJV)
There is a pause afterward, and then Turner gives a short pregame speech meant to inspire the players and send them onto the field focused on key strategies. Much is at risk, and the players know it. For some, it's about keeping their place on the team. For others, it's about accomplishing some personal or team goal, maintaining their income, making their families proud, or using their skills to glorify God. No matter their motivation, one thing is certain: time is running out. The average NFL career lasts 3.5 years, according to the NFL union, and if the players are going to make it in this game, they'll have to do something big in the next few moments.
BUILDING BETTER TEAMS
No doubt, there is a lot riding on what happens Sunday afternoons. But game day only highlights a small part of an NFL player's or coach's religious life. Faith plays a role in everything from the draft to retirement, from single living to marriage, and from the time they are injured through their recovery.
For NFL teams, the chapel services, Bible studies, and religious instruction are both supportive and self-serving. The teams are providing a way for men of faith to attend chapel and continue their religious education year-round. But it's also an inexpensive social service that provides the sort of counseling and therapy that keeps players mentally and emotionally at the top of their game and ready to compete.
"I think that having a chapel service or an organized way of worshiping is a good thing," says Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "Your chaplain or pastor associates with players throughout the year, providing a very significant service in times of need and with other private issues. I don't think there's any question it's an asset to have a program in place, as long as everybody knows they are going of their own volition and the team isn't requiring they attend a particular service. I'm very sensitive about that."
Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who has one of the most involved chaplains in the league in Pastor Brett Fuller, agrees with Jones. While the decision to worship rests with each individual player, Snyder sees it as his responsibility as an owner to ensure religious guidance is available for those who desire it. It's part of team building, he says.
"My philosophy as an NFL owner has always been to provide support to the coaches and players both on and off of the field," Snyder says. "Having strong spiritual advisers is a key aid in the success of our team."
Religious services vary from one team to the next, usually depending on the coach. Cleveland Browns chaplain Tom Petersburg says Sam Rutigliano, who coached the team to two play-off appearances between 1978 and 1984, was so happy his players were meeting for Bible study that he would send them pizzas.
Other coaches, though, even those who were devout Christians, were afraid religion would divide the locker room, and they would limit Petersburg's access to the players. Each team's religious practices are a reflection of the coach, chaplains say, and because eight to ten clubs fire their head coach each year, faith-based offerings vary from one season to the next.
To fully understand the impact religion has on NFL teams, one has to understand how coaches and chaplains view the role of religion and why it is so important to the clubs.
Former coach Tony Dungy, who led the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl championship after the 2006 season and now works as an analyst for NBC Sports, never hid his strong religious beliefs from his players, his owner, or the public. In fact, he said that he could no more separate his beliefs in God from his job coaching a football team than separate his head from his body. His faith dictated how he led his life and how he built his roster.
That included choosing players who were a "good fit" for the franchise. Sometimes, those were "character guys" rather than the most talented players on the training camp roster, he says.
"I had to do what in my heart was the right thing to do, and my Christian beliefs were going to guide those decisions," Dungy says. "The Bible clearly says you are living in the world, so you can't expect to have an all-Christian team and staff. You have to do what's best for the team and draft the best players. But because of my beliefs, that's not always about taking the most physically talented guy. We took a lot of guys off the draft board because we didn't think they would fit in with what we were trying to do," he says. "I told the team, 'We are not going to sit here and pray about everything, and I don't expect you all to believe exactly what I believe, but here is how I'm going to make decisions, and what I am going to do with my life.'"
Coaches point out that faith is a steadying influence in a league where careers, marriages, friendships, and self-identity can be shattered by one wrong twist of a knee or one bad season. The newly rich, self-confident, and celebrated NFL players posing for pictures with their adoring fans are far more insecure and vulnerable behind closed locker room doors than they appear in public, coaches and team chaplains say. Many turn to their religious upbringing for greater balance in their lives. Others like the way it brings them closer to their fellow teammates and builds camaraderie.
"I thought it was interesting when I got into the league that we started and finished every game with the Lord's Prayer," says Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "Growing up in the evangelical Christian church, it's not something that you really learn as a kid, so I kind of learned the Lord's Prayer on the fly as a rookie.
"I enjoy the intertwine of sports and religion," he says. "A lot of guys come from religious backgrounds, so there's that familiarity there, and it is fun to be able to pray with your teammates before and after games."
Current and former NFL coaches, including Dungy, former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, Philadelphia Eagles coach Andy Reid, and Minnesota Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, agree that team ministries can play a crucial role in building a winning franchise. Most teams offer chapel services, Bible studies, couples Bible studies for players and their wives or girlfriends, and one-on-one counseling sessions for anyone in the organization who needs help with a personal problem.
Team chaplains often come to teams through their relationships with nonprofit groups like Athletes in Action or Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Some chaplains are provided with an office and midweek locker room access, while others appear only on game days. It differs from one coach to the next, with some wanting a chaplain to provide religious guidance, while others see faith as a personal issue to be dealt with on a player's own time. Though team chaplains are usually Christian, most clubs offer to contact a rabbi, cleric, or other religious leader if a player requests one. The help these chaplains provide goes way beyond the on-field product fans see on Sundays.
"One of the greatest impacts our chaplains have on the NFL is when we help players understand how to be solid husbands and fathers, and how to protect their families," says Corwin Anthony, national director of pro ministry for Athletes in Action. "When you have stability at home and are at peace with the way you are living your life, it really makes a big difference."
Many coaches, like the Buffalo Bills' Chan Gailey, remark that a chaplain might not get drafted number one, but his function within the team can be just as important.
"I think they do a good job of keeping guys down to earth," says Gailey. "When things get bad, they are able to regulate that by reminding them there are other things in life to be positive about. And when things are going good, it keeps them level-headed."
According to Cleveland Browns chaplain Tom Petersburg, off-the-field troubles can ruin a player's career as much as a torn knee ligament or broken ankle. "I [Petersburg] had a player come to me once and say, 'My marriage is a mess, and I'm a mess. I cannot perform on Sunday unless I get straightened out here. What do I do?'" Burdens occupying the players' minds can include money, women, pressure to perform, family demands, friends wanting to borrow money, or injuries they don't want to reveal to the team out of fear their coach will replace them in the lineup.
Excerpted from MEN of SUNDAY by CURTIS EICHELBERGER Copyright © 2012 by Curtis Eichelberger. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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