When the Carolina Panthers face the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl next Sunday, two of the most reliable finger-pointers in pro football will be on display.
Place kicker John Kasay can be seen extending a forefinger skyward after his field goals and extra points. Teammate Mike Minter, a defensive back, is quick to raise a finger after interceptions and fumble recoveries.
These Panthers, according to North Carolinians who follow them closely, are among a growing number of athletes who make the gesture a reflection of their Christian faith. If the TV cameras were to focus closely on the gloves Minter wears in games, they'd see Bible verses written on them.
"What you're seeing are players feeling so blessed, so taken by the rush, so exuberant, that this is their way of sharing the experience with everyone," said Carey Casey, president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
Punctuating those moments with an upraised arm, forefinger aiming skyward, gets overshadowed by the more controversial and choreographed celebrations (such as cell phone calls from the end zone), but the finger-pointing phenomenon has never been more visible in sports.
In beating Philadelphia for the right to go to the SuperBowl, Carolina eliminated two active practitioners in Eagles running back Duce Staley and receiver James Thrash. Staley jabs a forefinger skyward after his touchdowns, sometimes flipping the football aside and doing it with both hands.
Thrash does it with almost every catch. Fans get so excited by him that thousands have been known to raise their index fingers in response, turning the moment into something resembling a revival.
Kevin Harlan, longtime NFL and NBA announcer, says he first started noticing athletes holding an index finger aloft in 1990, when the University of Colorado football team did it on the sidelines as a tribute to former teammate Sal Aunese, who had died the year before of cancer.
While basketball generally moves too fast for much celebrating, Harlan also noted that Doug Christie of the Sacramento Kings goes through a complex, finger-pointing ritual after his baskets that includes acknowledging heaven above and his wife in the stands. Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd does it almost every time he sinks a 3-point shot.
The Cubs' Sammy Sosa gets more attention for his series of hand and finger gestures after home runs, but, if you look more closely, he points a single finger to the sky every time he first steps up to the plate.
"Does God care what's going on in a football game, or whatever the contest?" Casey asked. "I think not. But he does care what happens to all people and he can't stop them from acknowledging him. The players are just saying they can't take all the credit."
All this religious-oriented pointing to the sky appears to fall into two categories.
The gesture can be a specific dedication to someone who has died. Mark McGwire greatly popularized this concept in 1998, when he hit his historic 62nd home run, crossed the plate, hugged his son and pointed skyward with a forefinger -- acknowledging Roger Maris, whose record he had just broken.
In late December, the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre drew similar attention in a game a day after his father, Irvin, died at age 58 of a heart attack. His preferred celebratory gesture had always been two upraised fists, but on this night he pointed skyward with a single finger.
The major category of finger-pointing, though, is the general acknowledgment of religious faith. That seems to be the case with quarterbacks Kurt Warner of St. Louis, Jon Kitna of Cincinnati and Aaron Brooks of New Orleans. The same goes for Baltimore Ravens placekicker Matt Stover, and a host of baseball players.
The Eagles' Thrash left little doubt about his beliefs -- and reasons for pointing -- in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News this year.
"It is just a reminder to everyone that I'm in it for the Lord," said the wide receiver. "And what greater platform to thank God than in front of millions of people who might be watching?"
The star receiver said he's confident his teammates know his convictions are pure when he points to heaven after receptions. "If someone came up to me and said there's not a place for God in football, I'd probably ask them: Where is the place for God?"
Casey says athletes who pray are doing so for the mere strength to meet the challenge of the outcome, but religious expression during sports events is a nettlesome proposition for those questioning its place in public arenas.
Gestures and prayers are the most obvious examples, but some athletes show religious faith with apparel. Many baseball players, for instance, wear highly visible Christian crosses on chains around their necks.
Earlier this football season, Bengals quarterback Kitna, an avid Bible reader, was fined $5,000 by the league for wearing a baseball cap with a marked cross to a post-game interview.
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