While Some Top NFL Stars Are Worshipped, Others Have Chosen To Worship — God
It’s a living book. It’s a book full of joy, peace, love, trials and tribulations.” At a 2005 Super Bowl event, St. Louis Rams, tight end Roland Williams put it succinctly, saying, “Football is just something I do. I am definitely focused on a personal relationship with God.”
Those types of spiritually inspired remarks are made frequently in post-game interviews as well as newspaper and magazine articles. While there aren’t any exact figures on how many “men of faith” there are in the NFL, nowadays more players are open about their faith and have become increasingly comfortable sharing their beliefs when given the opportunity. That trend has developed increasingly within the last two decades, and many observers say it is due to the influence of the late defensive great Reggie White.
The “Minister of Defense,” who died in December of 2004, was a two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and he left a lasting impact in both the sports and the church worlds. He was passionate about his career, but equally, if not more, passionate about his faith, say many observers. An ordained minister since the age of 17, White was one of the first successful NFL stars who unhesitatingly professed his beliefs, and he was an unapologetic Christian–mentoring and evangelizing to other players and fans.
Pregame chapel services, weekly Bible studies, on-field gestures of thanks to God after a big play and prayer circles after games are almost commonplace in today’s NFL. Of the 32 NFL teams, nearly a dozen have a chaplain, according to NFL officials. The chaplains are not NFL employees and are not paid by the teams. Churches that they may pastor, or one of the three Christian organizations that minister to sports professionals–Athletes in Action, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Champions for Christ–supports them. The NFL does not mandate or ban clubs from having a chaplain, or any other religious services. Instead, it is the decision of each individual club if it wants to offer those types of services to its players, according to NFL officials.
The explosion of Christianity in the NFL can also be seen within the Super Bowl festivities. The Super Bowl Gospel Celebration has been held every year since 2000 and features top gospel artists, as well as current and former Christian NFL players. The idea for the event evolved as Christian NFL players desired to have “a clean, inspirational and family-oriented event during the Super Bowl Weekend.” The event is a part of the NFL concert series and attracts thousands of fans each year. During the Gospel Celebration, NFL players share their testimonies and encouraging messages with the audience. At the 2005 Super Bowl Gospel Celebration during Super Bowl XXXIX Weekend, Antwaan Randle El, wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, hosted the event. During the celebration, he told the crowd, “You are in town for the Super Bowl, but you are here because of God.”
Many Christian NFL athletes use their celebrity status as a vehicle to witness the gospel of Jesus Christ and to win souls. While they are vocal about their walk with Christ, they try to make sure their lifestyles clearly demonstrate that a spiritual transformation has taken place. In 1997, cornerback and former baseball outfielder Deion Sanders announced, shocking many fans, that he was a born-again Christian. Most fans knew him as the flashy, arrogant “Prime Time” and “Neon Deion,” but after some life-changing experiences, he says he gave his life to the Lord. “My dream is to be an evangelist,” he said after revealing his conversion. “That’s my calling. I am Deion Sanders. I am ‘Prime Time.’ The words I speak go a long way; they go places pastors and bishops can’t go.”
Sanders and other NFL stars constantly remind onlookers that while they have experienced a divine spiritual change, they are still human and far from perfect. Two-time All-American, Lombardi Award winner and Chicago Bears star Tommie Harris puts it all into perspective, saying, “I don’t live a perfect life, but I strive to be a man of God. It’s not easy. A lot of people are hard on guys in the NFL, or guys in the limelight. But they’re facing the same things you [everyday people] are faced with, the same things that any other man [or woman] is faced with.”