Where sports, religion meet isn't a place all feel comfortable

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Varsity

February 06, 2007|By MILTON KENT

If there was an underreported angle to the Super Bowl, and it would be hard to imagine such an animal existing, it would be the relationship of religion to football.

Save for Sun reporter Bill Ordine's story in Sunday's editions, very little was made of the faiths of the players and coaches involved in this year's championship, in large part because many members of the media are uncomfortable with the topic, especially at the professional level.

Indeed, Reggie White, the late Hall of Fame defensive tackle, spoke often of the moment in the locker room when, upon his first post-game reference of the power of faith in his life, he could see reporters' notebooks closing and their tape recorders and cameras shutting down.

However, Facing the Giants, a film released last week on DVD, centering on the struggles of a Georgia high school coach, merges the gridiron and the church in an unmistakable way.

The film, produced by the Albany, Ga., Sherwood Baptist Church for a budget of $100,000 with an all-volunteer cast, didn't make it into theaters in many big cities, including Baltimore, on its initial run, but nonetheless earned more than $10 million in small theaters and churches, mostly in the South.

Centered at the fictitious Shiloh Christian Academy, Facing the Giants wastes no time establishing its message, told through the story of besieged coach Grant Taylor, who not only has gone through six straight losing seasons, but also lives in a house that smells, drives a car that aspires to be a jalopy and is dealing with fertility issues with his wife.

In other words, Taylor, as portrayed by writer-director Alex Kendrick, is suffering the modern-day troubles of Job and needs a major change just to hold off a mutiny that threatens his $24,000-a-year coaching job.

As a movie, Facing the Giants won't threaten Citizen Kane, or even Friday Night Lights, the Billy Bob Thornton film based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book that chronicles a year in the life of a West Texas high school football team.

There is absolutely no subtlety in the nearly two-hour film. You know exactly where things are going and how things will turn out, and in case you're unsure, in the climactic game, the opponents not only wear black uniforms, but the majority of the players are black, a dangerous stereotype.

But then, Facing the Giants doesn't aspire to be great cinema. It has a clear intent, to proselytize, to win souls. The film, which has no profanity or nudity, nonetheless earned a PG rating from the Motion Picture Association of America because of its clear religious message.

Indeed, after hitting a low point, Kendrick, as Taylor, addresses his team, saying, "I think football is one of the tools we use to honor Him," meaning Jesus Christ.

To be sure, faith is a recurring theme in sports. There's no shortage of footage of NFL and college teams and coaches praying before and after games. Georgia football coach Mark Richt has an extended cameo in Facing the Giants, and the film has already been used as a motivational device by Coastal Carolina men's basketball coach Buzz Peterson.

The question, however, coming out of Facing the Giants is how well equipped high school players would be to balance such a heavy dose of religion, especially if they were non-Christians or atheists.

Could a public or secular private high school coach show Facing the Giants to his team, even with the underlying theme of trust in a teammate, without overstepping his bounds? There's a giant-sized dilemma for you.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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