Prayer key for Lions, Pistons, Tigers
The scene is repeated at NFL stadiums every week. Moments after the game ends, players from both teams form a circle at midfield, join hands and kneel in prayer.
“Being a Christian is who I am, just as much as I am a football player, a father and a husband,” said Lions quarterback Jon Kitna, who has drawn national attention for his faith. “I don’t turn that off and on when it’s convenient. In fact, being a believer in Christ is going to be there long after I am a football player.
“This part of my life (quarterbacking) will end someday. I’m going to believe in Christ for the rest of my life.”
More and more, athletes and coaches are comfortable expressing their spiritual side, from informal religious meetings with teammates to publicly testifying their faith in the media.
The display is not as public, but many Pistons attend a prayer service before games, and Tigers gather regularly as part of the Baseball Chapel program.
Two of the Tigers’ most visible players make very visible professions of faith.
Pitcher Todd Jones has “JN 20:29” tattooed on his left hand, a reference to the Bible verse John 20:29.
“Because I sign left-handed,” Jones explained. “I’m always signing and people ask me, ‘What’s that?’ and I get a chance to tell them. ‘Blessed are those who do not see but still believe.’ ”
Catcher Pudge Rodriguez continually makes a sign of the cross.
“I do the cross of Jesus Christ every single pitch,” he said. “It’s not a superstitious thing. It’s for Him to protect me for every pitch. I pray before every game, for everybody, for the whole team, even for their team, so nobody can get hurt.”
All teams take part
Teams from every major pro sport, except the NHL, have some sort of Christian-based ministry working with players. Independent chaplains, and representatives of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) or Athletes in Action (AIA), regularly host Bible studies, prayer meetings and chapel services.
Some chaplains develop particularly strong relationships, enabling them to counsel players and coaches through tragedies, relationship issues or how to deal with stressful athletic situations.
Bishop Robert Joyce, who ministers to the Pistons and Shock, said he tailors his discussions to players’ and coaches’ lives.
“I want to be in tune where they are,” Joyce said. “If they’re having a tough time as a team, we talk about how God can help them. If there is divisiveness, we talk about the unity of God. If they’re worried about being traded, we talk about how God assigns me and releases me. We talk about accepting the grace of God.
“It’s learning about what Paul said, on how there is a season for all things, and I need to be content where I am and glorify God, too.”
Bringing religion into the team setting seems to be an asset, according to Pistons and Lions players and coaches.
“It’s just who I am, being a Christian, so it’s nice to be able to share it with my teammates and have them be with me,” Pistons guard Lindsey Hunter said. “It brings a real unity, that you know these guys are with you in so many ways, they’re on your team in life and in basketball. It adds another dimension to your relationship with your teammates.”
Christianity predominates the ministries, reflecting the faith of the majority of the players and coaches.
Most Americans identify themselves as Christian, according to a 2001 survey conducted by the City University of New York. Around 76.5 percent of respondents said they were Christian in some form.
Only 1.3 percent said they were Jewish, and less than 1 percent identified themselves as Muslim.
A balm for the violence
Dave Wilson, one of the leaders of the Kensington Community Church, has been the Lions chaplain for 23 seasons. He’s given some thought to why football seems to embrace religion, particularly Christianity, so strongly.
“I think because it’s the most warlike, there can be fear because these guys put a lot on the line,” Wilson said. “Having something bigger than game and sports enables you to hold onto something real when things are violent or stressful. I’ve been there when Reggie Brown and Mike Utley went down. It’s very real. Very scary.
“It makes you search for something solid in your life — and for us, that’s Jesus Christ.”
Lions kicker Jason Hanson sees his faith as a steadying influence, on and off the field. Hanson freely professes his faith, but not as publicly as Kitna.
“Having a relationship with Jesus Christ is something you can always rely on,” Hanson said. “I’m going to make mistakes, maybe miss a kick or whatever, but I know no matter what, I have my relationship with Christ. And that’s the most important thing of all.”
Lions coach Rod Marinelli said his faith steadies him through the ups and downs of his job. He coached in Tampa Bay with Tony Dungy, one of the most outspoken Christians in sports. Marinelli said he shares Dungy’s philosophy of spirituality mixing with football.
“The word humble is so special to me, and you can lose sight of that so quickly in this business,” Marinelli said. “You have to have faith, even if you can’t touch it, feel it, or put a saw or hammer to it. I always talk about faith and humility; they mean everything in football and life.
“There are two ways to look at things: those who are humble and those who are about to be. Being humbled is sometimes good, if you can come out of it. And that’s where your faith comes in. What are you about? What are you made of?”
“You have all kinds of guys from all walks of life on a team. We all come together and form a team,” coach Flip Saunders said. “I’ve always let the players do what they want; they’re free to worship and pray whenever and however.”I think it’s good for them, if they want it, to have that dimension.”
Inclusion, or exclusion?
Some wonder if the Christian — sometimes evangelical — bent to the sports ministries could be potentially harmful to team chemistry.
A player or coach who is Jewish, Muslim, from another religion, or even non-spiritual, could feel like an outsider, since the services are not geared toward them.
Services are optional, and teams don’t officially sanction or organize them.
Christian organizations, such as FCA, AIA, and local chaplains Wilson and Joyce, say they aim to make their ministries as inclusive as possible. Services always are listed as non-denominational.
“We’re here for everybody. We want to be a support for all people in the game,” said Les Steckel, president of the FCA and a former NFL and college coach. “I’ve seen the impact, over the last 32 years, that having faith can have. I’ve felt the intensity, so I never think it can be a bad thing. God is taking us where he wants us to be.”
“I’ve learned when to talk about what I believe, and when to keep things to myself. I’m not here to ram my faith down people’s throats. But I’m not afraid to stand up and be a Christian.”