Mind, Body And Soul

From mental illness to sleep disorders to religious views, NFL players cope with more than game plans.

Referring to faith is hardly unusual

Soul

February 04, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens, out of action the past seven weeks with a broken bone and severe sprain in his right ankle, had plenty of people telling him this week that he shouldn't play in Sunday's Super Bowl.

But as far as Owens was concerned, even the opinion of his doctor, Baltimore surgeon Mark Myerson, didn't matter more than the opinion of a higher power.

"I respect Dr. Myerson and his decision to not medically clear me," Owens told reporters in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday. "But prior to going down to see him for that last visit, I can honestly say God had already cleared me. It really doesn't matter what a doctor says. I've got the best doctor of all, and that's God."

Owens' comments were neither groundbreaking nor revolutionary, and most media outlets treated them as little more than a one-day story.

The reason? Hearing an NFL player invoke God or reference his faith has become almost a daily occurrence in recent years. Though religion remains a prickly subject in most other major professional sports, it is often front and center in the NFL. Each team has a chaplain, and many organizations hold Bible studies throughout the week. Post-game prayers at midfield have become more common, and the Christian Science Monitor reported this week that as many as one-third of all NFL players are considered "openly devout."

Even fans who would prefer to keep religion and sports separate find themselves face to face with the issue. When the St. Louis Rams won the Super Bowl in January 2000, quarterback Kurt Warner accepted game Most Valuable Player honors, but not before shouting out the words "Thank you, Jesus!" in front of a worldwide television audience of nearly a billion people.

After Ravens games this season, All-Pro safety Ed Reed proudly wore a T-shirt around the locker room with the words, "THE STORM IS OVER" printed across the front of his chest. If you find God, Reed would explain to anyone curious about the shirt's meaning, your life will suddenly feel like the calm after the storm.

"I think a lot of football players see sport as an opportunity to impact the world for Christ," said Carey Casey, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Foundation president, who also spent several years as the Dallas Cowboys' team chaplain. "On Sunday, the day of a game, a guy can't go to church. He has to play. And he's going to be in an arena where everyone is watching.

"They know they can't do it on their own. They know they need prayer. That's why they point toward the sky when they score a touchdown. Because in football, at any moment, you can get injured and be out of the game for good. Your career could be over. And players today are so fast and strong, you can literally have your life terminated on field. As great as it is to be out there on that field, they want to know there is something more for them when it's over."

Casey, who speaks every year to NFL head coaches at the Senior Bowl, said former Baltimore Colt Raymond Berry told him recently that during his playing career, you could count the number of players interested in Bible study on one hand.

"Now, I go to these meetings with coaches, and the room is packed," Casey said. "For guys like [Indianapolis Colts coach] Tony Dungy, the coaching profession is a calling. You don't leave God on the sideline. If you do, you'll die on the vine. You won't survive. You'll be stressed, you'll use substances. I think it helps these guys with discipline, with their relationships with other men, and even with money. You know, God speaks more about money in the Bible than he does about heaven."

Casey said much of the movement can be traced to Reggie White, who played for 15 seasons with the Eagles, Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers. White was one of the NFL's most outspoken Christians during his All-Pro career, and his influence was substantial.

"Reggie really saw football as a platform to share his faith," said Casey, who was one of White's closest friends before White died unexpectedly in December at age 43. "Reggie really walked the walk, though. I can remember walking into locker rooms with him and my son, and guys would be cursing. They would see Reggie, and they'd immediately apologize. That's how much they respected him."

Part of the reason football and spirituality make good partners, according to Gilman School football coach Biff Poggi, is the camaraderie that develops when large groups of young men spend so much time together.

"To me, it's the relationship aspect," said Poggi, a former offensive lineman at the University of Pittsburgh. "You have a game that connects so many people together. You eat together, ride together, watch film together. And then when that's over, everyone goes to a different place. Guys start to realize they want something more to connect with than what happens on the gridiron."

Poggi and his best friend, defensive coordinator Joe Ehrmann, a former Baltimore Colt who is now an ordained minister, received national attention this past year for their coaching philosophy, which aims to mold and shape young men's character by building self-esteem and teaching Christian values.

"When you get that many guys looking to maintain that connection with each other, it's almost viral in some respects," Poggi said. "Players find comfort in [religion]. They understand that at any point, their career could be over, and they need something to hold onto that's bigger than them."

SUPER BOWL

Philadelphia (15 - 3) vs. New England (16 - 2)

6:30 p.m. Sunday

Chs. 45, 5

Line: Patriots by 7

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