Top 12 Evangelicals in Sports
You can stay home on Sunday to watch football, skip Tuesday night prayer meeting for the baseball game of the week, and miss Saturday’s church retreat in favor of a pro golf tournament–chances are, you’ll still hear about Jesus. Evangelical athletes populate the major sports, and many of them enjoy the chance to be outspoken about their faith–thanking God for that winning field goal, late-inning homerun, or 18-foot putt.
We’ve scanned the sporting world to come up with a gallery of some of the most dominant athletes and coaches working today. Each of these men and women work hard, as their Bibles tell them, “to win the prize,” both in their sports and in their faith.
The owner of champion NASCAR team, Joe Gibbs Racing, was also, until January 8, 2008, the head coach and team president of the Washington Redskins (he resigned). Gibbs’s Christian faith not only comes through in interviews and in football games–where he would often be seen praying on the sidelines–but is also displayed very prominently on his personal website where he offers a “weekly spiritual game plan”or devotionals–and even offers his readers free Bibles. He documents his faith journey and the biblical foundations he uses in his life and career in his 2003 book, “Racing to Win,” which also offers a companion book, “Racing to Win Bible Study.”
The popular Panamanian relief pitcher for the New York Yankees has helped the team win four World Series titles throughout his career. The devoutly Christian Rivera–who is often seen reading the Bible before and after games–finds inspiration in the verse Philippians 4:13 “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He even has it inscribed on his pitching glove. He is deeply involved in philanthropy and financed the building of a school and church in Panama City. Rivera has also gone public with his intention of becoming an evangelical minister at the end of his baseball career and is devoted to a variety of charities that focus on children, such as Casita Maria and former Yankees manager Joe Torre’s Safe At Home Foundation.
Derek Fisher plays for a former powerhouse basketball team that is having something of a Cinderella season. The Los Angeles Lakers are better than anyone expected this year, but just good enough to have to scrape for every single victory.
It’s fitting drama for Fisher, a player whose career has been one intense moment after another, from his game-winning shot with .04 second left in the 2004 playoffs, to last July when his daughter Tatum was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. Fisher was playing for the Utah Jazz at the time, and because Salt Lake City didn’t have a specialist who could treat Tatum, Fisher asked permission to leave the team so he could move to another city. The Fishers landed in L.A., where the Lakers offered Fisher a contract (at a loss of nearly $8 million).
Fisher has never been an outspoken player nor a very outspoken Christian. But throughout his career, his faithfulness has been cited by others. And if one of the tenets of the modern evangelical movement is commitment to family, Fisher is a resounding testimony to the depth of that value and the sacrifice it requires.
According to his 2006 memoir, “Touchdown Alexander” the born-again running back for the Seattle Seahawks and 2005 NFL MVP and his wife, Valerie, were both virgins when they married. The couple now has three daughters–Heaven, Trinity, and Eden. In the book Alexander–who points towards the sky every time he scores a touchdown–also acknowledges that God is the key to his success: “Everyone has been given gifts that can be used to bring glory to God,” he writes. “And when we bring glory to God through the gifts He has given us, we are blessed. For me, the gift was athletic ability.” He is the co-founder of the Shaun Alexander foundation along with his brother, Durran, which they created before he went pro, and supports a variety of organizations, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Allyson Felix is very, very fast. She might be the fastest woman alive-in 2007, she won three gold medals at the Outdoor World Championships in Japan, matching a world record for victories. She also ran the 200 meters faster than anyone else in the world-the top three runs last year were all by Felix. Felix won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens when she was 18 years old, and is favored to climb the medalists’ stage again this summer in Beijing.
Felix’s father is a New Testament professor, and she has touted his Bible classes and her own seminary training on her website. Like a lot of evangelical athletes, Felix uses her platform as a runner to testify about her faith. “My speed is a gift from God, and I run for his glory,” she told Christianity Today. “Whatever I do, it all comes from him.”
The NFL has a potential rock star on its roster. The punter for the Indianapolis Colts has just began a career as a Christian rock artist with his band, Connorsvine, which includes his friend Chris Wilson, whom he met when they were leading worship together for a young-adult ministry at their church. The band has opened up for big-name Christian acts Toby Mac and Mercy Me. He has said, “I feel just as strong of a call to worship leading and ministering through music as I do in football.” Smith is certainly not the only sports figure to turn a hobby into a second career. Denver Broncos kicker Jason Elam co-wrote a just-released Christian novel “Monday Night Jihad,” which involves a pro football player who returns to his former profession as a member of a special ops team designed to stop terrorist attacks. And no, it’s not about Pat Tillman.
One year ago this month, San Diego Padres pitcher Jake Peavy made a phone call no husband wants to make: He called his wife to come get him out of jail. Peavy had been en route to the Dominican Republic, where he intended to teach a group of kids about Jesus and baseball. While unloading his truck at the airport, a security guard told Peavy to move his truck. Peavy resisted-with a curt remark. He was soon ticketed and jailed, and sat behind bars until his wife bailed him out and sent him off to complete his missionary journey.
Peavy says the situation caused a media frenzy in the D.R., which allowed him to proclaim his purpose for being there. So it was, at worst, a slight detour for a guy who has long been as dedicated to his faith–he volunteers for ministries and churches as much as possibleas he is to his job. Peavy is the all-time strikeout leader for the Padres, and he had a 2007 season to rememberhe was the lead leader in strikeouts, wins, and Earned Run Average.
The coach of the 2007 Super Bowl-winning Indianapolis Colts is known throughout the NFL for putting his faith and family above football. At one point in his career–after his stint as the head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers–he considered leaving football to work with a prison ministry, which he documents in his 2007 best-selling memoir “Quiet Strength.” Although he eventually chose to continue his career in sports, he writes that football is “an opportunity for ministry” and continues to be active in a variety of Christian organizations, including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the National Day of Prayer, and Athletes in Action.
It would have been sacrilege for Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling to suggest that he was some kind of Jesus figure after his heroic effort on the mound in the fall of 2004, where he played through the pain of a sutured ankle wound and led the Red Sox to World Series victory. But in the press conference following his performance in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Schilling said, “Tonight was God’s work on the mound,” and there was something messiah-like about his performance: he literally bled for Red Sox Nation, and the fans worshipped Schilling as their savior from 86 years of championship-less suffering.
Schilling, who says he was led to the Christian faith when his wife, Shonda, fought skin cancer, has a preacher-like persona. He has an evangelical outspokenness, whether critiquing his performance after a game, taking down Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens in the media (and in the case of Bonds, apologizing profusely afterwards), or stumping for his favored presidential candidate, John McCain.
College football fans in Alabama usually want nothing to do with college football fans in Florida, aside from the occasional bar brawl or shouting match. But Florida’s current football hero is the University of Florida’s Tim Tebow, quarterback for the Florida Gators, who was raised by missionary parents and educated at home. Tebow’s story has inspired lobbyists in Alabama who want a resolution allowing homeschoolers to compete in public school athletics. The bill’s name: The Tim Tebow Bill.
Tebow has also inspired athletic homeschoolers nationwide, becoming the first homeschooled athlete to win the coveted Heisman Trophy. He was also the first sophomore Heisman winner, and is poised to be a force in college and professional football for years to come.
The NASCAR community–both fans and drivers–is comprised of a large number of Christians. And Waltrip, driver and owner of Michael Waltrip Racing, is known as one of the organization’s most outspoken people of faith. In an “Ask the White House” interactive forum, Waltrip said, “I talk to God and I talk to Jesus when I’m racing and before I race.” Waltrip is also active in his support of Motor Racing Outreach, a Christian ministry that aims to introduce NASCAR drivers, crews, and their families “to a personal faith in Christ, to growth in Christ-likeness, and to active involvement in the church through relationships that provide care in times of stress, knowledge of God’s word, and assistance in the development of leadership skills.”
Because golf tournaments extend into Sundays for those who make the final cut, a good weekend for golfer Zach Johnson means skipping church. But in true evangelical fashion, Johnson believes he is never far from Jesus even when walking the greens. When he won the Masters, one of golf’s biggest tournaments, on Easter Sunday last year, he said that Jesus had been walking with him every step of the way.
No matter how one feels about athletes saying such things, Johnson’s faith is clearly authentic. There were tears in his eyes as he spoke, and his performance did seem miraculous. He is the only player in golf history to win the Masters while being ranked outside the top 50 players.
Johnson has not spent much time on the leader boards since last spring, but he makes our list because the Masters aura doesn’t wear off for a year. Until someone else storms the back nine at Augusta this spring, Johnson is the owner of golf’s only green blazer.