Green Bay Packers players believe in prayer’s power
Come Saturday morning, thousands of card-carrying members of the Green & Gold Brigade will take a moment to pray.
Pray for victory.
At precisely 11 a.m. on Saturday, exactly 4½ hours before the Packers host Seattle in an NFC divisional playoff game, several members of the Green Bay Packers will gather either at Lambeau Field or the Radisson Hotel, and they will pray as well.
Their prayers will likely be far different than yours.
“My prayers are that God will bless my hands, increase my territory and allow me to be a blessing to my team,” Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila said. “I pray for protection for me and my teammates, but ultimately I wrap it up by saying that, ‘God, I just pray you’re glorified through this whole thing. And ultimately, let your will be done. If that means us losing a game, so be it. If it means winning a game, so be it. If it means being hurt, so be it.”’
The Packers are made up of men from various cultural and religious backgrounds, but in its simplest form they are a parish just like any other in the Valley, made up of parishioners with the same wants, desires and concerns as their fan base.
But, while religion and sports mix, they’ve often been strange bedfellows. You will see athletes thank God following a great play or significant win, and praise him for blessing them and enabling them to experience such success.
It’s not a stretch, then, to wonder about the team in the other locker room and logically ask, why isn’t God a fan of their team?
“I do believe that God is sovereign and he does orchestrate or know what’s going on, yes,” said Packers defensive end Aaron Kampman, the acknowledged spiritual leader of the team. “Do I think that God cheers more for one team than the other? No.
“I think that our ways are on his ways. So the outcome of a game, while very, very important, could be part of his plan to achieve something. But a loss could do that. It’s a lot bigger than trying to put God in a box for the NFL playoffs. It’s the other way around. Everything filters down from God.”
Rev. James Baraniak, the Roman Catholic priest who has served as the team’s chaplain for the past 11 years, said his job with the Packers isn’t substantially different than any other group of parishioners to whom a priest or pastor might minister.
“In addition to me having mass, I do hear confessions, I take them through sacramental prep,” he said. “We’re like a very small parish. I deal at times with their children and their issues, if they’re having a crisis with their girlfriend or boyfriend or other adolescent issues. I’ve done home blessings and marriage and baptismal prep.”
Baraniak said players rely on him just as the students do at St. Norbert College, where he serves as campus minister, or as the inmates do at the Green Bay Correctional Institute, where he serves as a sacramental minister.
“Just the one-on-one counsel,” Baraniak said. “I guess I was very surprised these guys seek out their priests. I was really moved by that. They may be from different congregations, have different hues and colors, but I serve basically all the same human issues.”
Kampman leads a Bible study group on Thursdays in the team’s defensive meeting room. On the eve of the game, a half-hour interdenominational chapel service will be held in the team hotel — usually led by someone associated with Athletes in Action — and then a full Catholic mass. That the mass begins 4½ hours before kickoff is a tradition handed down through the years.
The two services used to coincide but Baraniak said since Mike McCarthy, an Irish Catholic, has become head coach, the two are separated so he can attend both.
“He wants to hear what the team is hearing,” said Baraniak, adding McCarthy uses bits and pieces from both services and weaves them into his address to the team each week.
“He pulls it all together so beautifully.”
McCarthy has also expanded Baraniak’s role in the offseason, making sure he’s present when the new draft choices arrive and also during training camp. The first is to help young adults deal with their newfound wealth, the second to offer support during the time when livelihoods are at stake.
So how does fostering a spiritual culture aid in a business known for its cold-heartedness?
“It’s a small, intimate crowd,” said Baraniak, who said home games bring about 20 participants (as some players attend mass at their home parishes) and road games bring about 40 to 45.
“These guys get to know each other through mass in such a way, when you are there and only 20 people are at mass, it’s a pretty intimate moment and there is bonding there. There is brotherhood there, and Christ at the center.”
The experiences translate to the locker room and the field.
“In the end life is about relationships,” Kampman said. “So whenever relationships are healthy or whenever they’re at least worked on there’s a genuine and authentic care for one another, and there are going to be opportunities for positive things to happen.”
No one knows what will transpire at Lambeau on Saturday, but Kampman is sure of one thing: If you’re looking for assistance from above at this point, you’re either too late or just don’t understand.
“This is my opinion, but I think if a person turns it up more, maybe they didn’t understand the principles from the beginning,” he said. “I go back to a verse in Colossians (3:23) that says ‘Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as though you were working for the Lord and not for men.’
“To me what that means is applying that to all aspects of your life, my marriage, this job here, my parenting. Work at it with all your heart. Not for the external outcomes that men will give you but for your internal gratitude for what you’ve been given.”