It was the biggest game of the season for the Denver Broncos. They were a wild-card team, underdogs, playing on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Yet for 15 hulking Broncos, the chalk-talk on Monday before the game wasn't about containing Steeler quarterback Kordell Stewart. It was about Jonah and the Whale.
A weekly Bible-study group, led by team chaplain William Rader, centered on what it means to have a second chance and to pray with one's entire being, as if in the belly of a great fish. But "no one felt God owed us a victory nor did we assume we would win," says Mr. Rader, whose team beat Pittsburgh and now faces Green Bay in the Super bowl. "Instead, we talked about qualities of humility and regeneration."
Faith keeps growing in the NFL. Visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, and the teachings of Jesus and Jonathan Edwards, are finding their way into tape-strewn locker rooms and onto chalky sidelines. In a sport where faith used to be ignored and "piety" might stand as a synonym for "wimp," more players are openly religious. More coaches, too, are looking at the relationship between faith, team spirit, and athletic performance.
Religion has long been linked to professional sports, including pro football - which in America can be a religion unto itself. But these days faith is so visible on the Sunday gridiron that some NFL events seem to be taking place alongside a Promise Keepers meeting.
The post-game clusters of Christian behemoths on bended knee at the 50-yard line used to be small. Now they've turned into large prayer gatherings. Touchdowns, field goals, extra points, goal-line stands - all witness helmets bowed or fingers pointed upward. Tampa Bay quarterback Trent Dilfer says he prays before every third down. While only half the NFL teams had a chaplin in the 1980s, today every team but the "bad-boy" Oakland Raiders does.
Superstars confess to spiritual conversions. Jim Harbaugh of Indianapolis, Minnesota's Cris Carter (an ordained minister), Philadelphia's Irving Fryar (ditto), and Curtis Martin of New England tell of overcoming adversity, "the street," or pain through Jesus. Entire teams, like the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Carolina Panthers, and Super Bowl-bound Green Bay, have a "feel" that borders on the evangelical.
Green Bay fans sing "Amazing Grace" at playoff games. One scoreboard sequence shows Packer all-pro defensive lineman Reggie White, a minister, in the pulpit, then fades to a graphic reading: "Green Bay Packers football: It's a religious experience."
"There is definitely a push on both the athletes' and the coaches' part to make their faith more visible," says Steve Hubbard, a veteran Pittsburgh sportswriter and author of the forthcoming "Faith in Sports." "It's partly an answer to all the money they are coming into, and the problems of being celebrities."
Piety around the pigskin reflects larger cultural trends, including a growing tolerance in society about spirituality. In the say-what-you-want 1990s, players are up front about their views on everything, including God's role on the gridiron. At the same time, sophisticated Christian athletic groups, usually with an evangelical bent, help pros hone media skills and remind them of their influence as role models.
'Family friendly' values
For their part, NFL owners and officials consider a certain amount of religious display good for the game. It creates a more friendly "family values" image and puts a better face on a business that has long been crowded with pampered young multimillionaire athletes, some of whom have drug and spouse-abuse problems. "Just as you see a growing acceptance of 'spirituality' in the public, so you see it on the field," says Norm Evans, a tackle for the famed 1972 Miami Dolphins team, who remembers the NFL when "you had to be pretty tight-lipped about your faith."
Surprisingly, a majority of NFL players express some kind of religious interest. Many are evangelical; many are undeclared. Teams have different dynamics, with the tone often set by the head coach. Thirty of the 53 players on Jacksonville are "born again," says Mr. Hubbard. But the San Francisco 49er Bible-study group includes Mormons, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, adherents of Assemblies of God, and independent church members.
"A lot of religious players don't go to Bible study and aren't open about it," says one NFL player, who desired anonymity. "In a sport where the demands are so great, many people turn to a source higher than themselves, something outside the self, though not everyone calls it God."
Faith, in fact, has become faddish on many NFL teams, something that worries many believers. Praying publicly becomes simply a way to say "I'm different." It may be done as a political move to ingratiate a player with coaches or team leaders. Or it may be indulging a wish that God will bring a victory on the field.
Of course, the expression is often genuine. A dramatic example occurred in a final regular season game between the Jets and Lions, when Detroit linebacker Reggie Brown lay motionless on the field after a tackle. When word spread to players that Reggie was getting mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, Lions coach Bobby Ross led a prayer. Jets players stood, helmets off and teary eyed, or knelt together. Even Jets coach Bill Parcells - equal parts curmudgeon and brilliant field general - said later he was praying. (Brown is recovering from a spinal injury.)
Sometimes, notably with Packer star Reggie White, players attribute physical healings to the power of prayer or divine intervention. When Green Bay's "minister of defense," as the lineman is known, tore his hamstring just before Christmas 1995 and was told he needed surgery, he prayed. He was told he would be out for the season. White practiced the next day. Four days later he played in the National Football Conference championship game.
"Look, I'm not going to argue with the guy," says Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre in a new autobiography. Favre, who respects White's faith while not sharing it, adds: "All I know is, he was injured and he was healed .... Reggie played and there was no way he should have been able to .... The miracle thing has happened to him several times. I say whatever works, stay with it."
Evolution of faith on the field
Until the mid-1980s, most NFL players didn't make an issue of their faith. Then a new breed of superstar emerged.
"In the '60s you had the stand-up guys, the exception to the rule, the clean-living examples like [Dallas Cowboys quarterback] Roger Staubach," says Pat Richey, the San Francisco 49er's chaplin since 1981. "You then had Steve Largent, who was called too slow and too small but was the best receiver ever. But not until Mike Singletary [Chicago Bears linebacker] and then Reggie White come along did things change. Here were tough guys talking about their faith. They cracked the old myth that Christian players were a little less tough."
NFL scouts and coaches are upping the value of athletes who bring faith to their play. "There's a thrust toward getting guys that are consistent, unselfish, who seek the good of the team," says Tommy Vardell, a Detroit Lions fullback. "Not that only Christians have those qualities. But it can be a factor."
"In the past, some coaches might be reluctant to take a Christian player," adds Hubbard. "Now the qualities are being looked at as performance-enhancing."
Some fans and sportswriters deplore the increasing use of faith on the field. They see it as crass to praise God inside a sport with multimillion-dollar bonuses of mammon. When Dallas star Michael Irvin comes back from cocaine possession charges and kneels in the end zone, it appears insincere. Many Christians think it nonsense to pray to direct the outcome of a game. Still, it happens.
NFL games now often end with prayers at midfield by players from both sides. No formal arrangements are made. The sessions, usually led by one or two men, are spontaneous expressions of gratitude and a reminder that all glory belongs to God, win or lose.
"After a rough game, a lot of guys might not feel like going to the 50 [yard line]," says Jay Wilson, chaplin for the Pittsburgh Steelers. "But they do it as a discipline to remind themselves this is only a game and that there's a program higher than football."
Detroit's Vardell emphasizes the quiet satisfaction that a spiritual bond with teammates can bring: "The players that I've been in Bible study with, and the bond that forms on a team in that way, more even than in training camp, contribute to your everyday success in a season ... almost independently of winning and losing. When you have that bond with God through a guy, it puts a better cast on the season whether you are on a Super Bowl team or not."