PHILADELPHIA — It's no secret that a growing number of players in the NFL have given new meaning to the terms Hail Mary pass and "on a wing and a prayer." As many as one-third of players are openly devout, say observers.
Post-game prayer huddles, end-zone devotions, and praising the Lord in interviews with broadcasters only hint at the depth of belief off the field.
Religious fervor, which existed quietly in the National Football League until the 1980s, began to catch fire with the public Christianity of defensive great Reggie White, who died in December. He was an ordained minister who played for the Philadelphia Eagles and later the Green Bay Packers.
The Rev. Herb Lusk, who played three seasons for the Eagles before leaving to start a church in Philadelphia, is believed to have been the first player to kneel in prayer on the field after a touchdown, in 1977.
He says that Bible studies and fellowship groupsamong playersare three to four times as popular now as they were in his day, and credits the superstar stature of White for allowing other players to embrace religion openly.
"Reggie was the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, and the best. And if the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, and the best could be a Christian, they could be a Christian," says Mr. Lusk. "He made it easier for them to come out of the closet, so to speak."
Lusk estimates that the number of openly devout players has grown from a handful in the mid-1980s to at least 33 percent of the league now. Most of them are Protestants. "About 80 percent of NFL players are African-American," he says, "and a lot of these boys were raised in church, got out of it in college, and went back in, in the NFL," as they observed team veterans who prayed openly.
One such player is Eagles cornerback Ike Reese. Eager and focused, he won a Pro Bowl slot this year from an unlikely spot on special teams. "I became a born-again Christian [at a players' Bible-study group] a little over three years ago," he says.
Teammates Brian Dawkins and Troy Vincent (now with Buffalo) invited him to attend, he recalls. "I was fond of the way Brian and Troy carried themselves on and off the field, and I wanted to emulate them - they were modest, not boastful."
Though Reese's father was an ordained minister, he died when Reese was a toddler, and the family strayed from its Christian underpinnings.
Reese himself fell into some bad habits. "You pick up a lot of misconceptions of what a man should be like," he says simply. He tries to clear them up for his own sons, ages 13 and 1-1/2. "It's not about how fast I can run or how hard I can hit. It's about praising God" for the opportunity to excel. "Being a Christian is not a sign of being soft."
Today, Reese taps a variety of spiritual resources. Some, like Sunday chapel services and weekly Bible studies, are connected with the team. Others are run by his home church. A wealth of such activities exists in the NFL, players say, a boon to those who want to live lives of integrity in the face of temptation and who seek greater meaning amid the trappings of fame.
"It's very easy to be caught up in the fast life the NFL provides," Reese says. "It's me, me, me - me first."
Plenty of others agree. "There are far more players who are believers and who are involved in Bible studies and chapel services than when I started," says the Rev. J. David Hoke, the Eagles' Protestant chaplain for the past 12 years. "There's far more [spirituality] happening on teams and among players than most people realize."
In addition to informal mentoring and fellowship groups, there are nondenominational chapel services in the team hotel prior to games. There are also Bible study groups not only for players, but, on many teams, for wives, coaches, and staff, too. And there is pastoral care.
Although team chaplains tend to be Christian, the chaplains serve all, and will locate non- Christian clergy to help when there's a need, Mr. Hoke says.
On Sunday mornings, the Rev. Thomas Barcellona hears confessions and then says mass for a Catholic congregation that tends to include more coaches and referees than players.
Regardless of job title, stress and travel take their toll in the NFL, says the priest, and spiritual sustenance matters to those who can't get to their home churches.
The NFL neither encourages nor discourages prayer and religion on its teams, according to spokesman Greg Aiello. Team chaplains are not staff members, and are not paid by a team. Father Barcellona's primary job, for example, is retreat house director, and Mr. Hoke is paid by the church he pastors. He estimates that there are 32 Protestant NFL chaplains, half of them supported by Athletes in Action, a Christian group with a ministry to professional athletes.
The fact that chaplains are not affiliated with the players' employer is crucial for pastors, says Hoke. "We don't want to compromise our integrity. We want to be seen as free from any accountability to the team."
Not everyone is a fan of the open religiosity in the NFL. Some believe that bringing faith to the playing field, and to a blatantly commercial venture, risks trivializing God and alienating nonbelievers. Some think asking God to help a team win is inappropriate and silly. Others feel that when only some players share a strong belief in Christianity, they may alienate nonparticipating team members.
Players see things differently. They pray, they say, not for wins but for things like healthy competition and safe travel for visiting teams. They tend to see football as a gift given to them by God and meant to be used to spread the word that faith counts, not materialism and celebrity.
"Are we separate [from nonbelieving team members]?" asks Reese. "Well, yes and no. Yes, because if you are a nonbeliever, there are going to be things you are attracted to that I don't want to be associated with. But no, because I, as a man of God, I still love [them] regardless of whether they are believers or not."
He also notes that the openly Christian contingent, while highly visible, still constitutes a minority of team members.
Some fans question the sincerity of the players' praise-giving in the end zone, and wonder whether openly devout players aren't just setting themselves - and their beliefs - up for ridicule should they fall.
For young fans, pros are role models whether the professional players like it or not, says Ed Hastings, professor at Neumann College in Aston, Pa., and director of the school's Center for Sport, Spirituality, and Character Development. He works extensively with young athletes and believes the potential good an openly religious athlete can do outweighs the risk of his falling short.
"It's going to happen," he says. "But from a Christian perspective, we're not called to be perfect. When we do [fall], we ask for mercy and forgiveness. And just because they fall down doesn't mean they can't get up again."
Corey Simon, the soft-spoken defensive tackle of the Eagles and a Pro Bowler, agrees. When he was a college student, he found teammates who helped him see beyond the glitz of big-time sports.
In the process, the religion of his childhood was transformed into a relationship with God that today is as real to him as a friendship with a fellow player, he says. His morning drive to work, gospel music in the background, is a litany of thanksgiving, and the conversation with God continues throughout the day, he adds. "Sometimes I'm thinking about other things, but when all is said and done, I know that God is my Father, and He knows my life."
"Give God His just due," was the advice of Simon's college chaplain. Now, should Simon point skyward on-field, "it says that for me to be there, God should get the glory - that it's none of me, it's all of Him," he says.
"In our jobs - whether as salesman, athletes, or what have you - there's nothing wrong with asking God to help us," says the Most Rev. Michael Burbidge, a Roman Catholic bishop and Eagles season-ticket holder. "This is a good teaching moment."
NFL players are not much different from other believers, says Hoke. "They're just seeking to be the best man, husband, football player, father that God created them to be. They see that the relationship with God is what pulls it all together, what gives life purpose and meaning."
No matter what the outcome of contests like this Sunday's Super Bowl, game-related prayer is about thanksgiving, says Simon. "God gets the glory," win or lose.
"I've been on both sides," he adds, "and in both instances, I look around and see the friendships I have here and the [feeling of being a] family, and I just give thanks for the opportunity to play at this level. It's a blessing to play in the NFL."