— “If God is for us, who can be against us?”
— Romans 8:31
Does God care who wins? Of course He doesn’t.
Unless He does.
After all, who knows what He cares about? Who knows if He is even a He or a She or a Who Am? Or if He even is.
Does God care that Kurt Warner, the quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals, is more likely to be spotted carrying his bible than his playbook? Does God care that Ben Roethlisberger, Warner’s counterpart in Super Bowl XLIII this Sunday, used to adorn his armbands with the letters “PFJ”, an acronym for “Playing For Jesus” (The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback stopped only after the NFL fined him for violating its uniform policy)?
Does God care?
Without God, 'We'd all be nowhere'
Beginning two millennia ago with St. Paul, the author of the quote atop this page, Christian evangelists have traveled the world spreading the gospel of Jesus and courting controversy. They still do so today. It’s just that many of the most famous ones also happen to play quarterback.
Last month, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford became only the second sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy. Less than 10 seconds after taking the podium, Bradford, speaking before a national television audience, declared, “First, I need to thank God. He’s given me so many blessings. ... Without him I’d be nowhere. We’d all be nowhere.”
Colt McCoy, the quarterback who finished second in the Heisman voting, would lead Texas to a Fiesta Bowl win three weeks later. McCoy, who points skyward after every touchdown pass he throws, began his postgame comments by thanking “my lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
Tim Tebow, the Florida quarterback who won the Heisman in 2007 and led the Gators to the national championship earlier this month, uses his eye black to post scripture verses (Phil 4:13 or John 3:16). In the moments before the Heisman was announced in December, Tebow unabashedly reminded Bradford and McCoy whom to credit, no matter who won.
"I just said give credit to God and represent for him," Tebow said. "I really tried to (stress) that the whole time. I talked to them two or three times about it."
What if a player thanked another deity?
“Faith means making a virtue out of not thinking. It's nothing to brag about. And those who preach faith and enable and elevate it are intellectual slave holders, keeping mankind in a bondage to fantasy and nonsense.”
— Bill Maher, “Religulous”
Gregg Doyel of CBSSports.com recently wrote, “Tebow's religion is seen as good because it is the religion of the majority. But it's not the religion of everybody. It's exclusionary, and just because you share Tebow's faith, that doesn't mean you're right.”
And Doyel, by the way, is both a Christian and a Gator alum. His objectivity is not in question.
“Exclusionary?” says Herb Lusk. “That’s a pretty foolish statement. Does the guy that does the Funky Chicken after scoring, does he exclude me?”
Lusk’s reference may be somewhat dated, but he is uniquely situated to engage in this debate. The pastor of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Lusk is also the team chaplain for the Philadelphia Eagles. Thirty-two years ago, as a running back for the Eagles, Lusk took a pitchout from Ron Jaworski at Giants Stadium and ran 70 yards, untouched, to the end zone. Arriving there, Lusk took a knee and forged his legacy: He was the first NFL player to kneel in prayer after scoring a touchdown.
“I thanked God,” said Lusk, who had actually begun the practice while at Long Beach State. “I said a prayer of thanks that I was able to use my talents to the best of my abilities. The referee looked at me, like, ‘Give me the ball.’”
And yet, what if some Cardinal or Steeler were to be named Most Valuable Player come Sunday and lead off his interview in front of the entire world, by saying, “I’d just like to thank L. Ron Hubbard and the church of Scientology?” Or, “I’d just like to express gratitude to my dark lord Beelzebub?”
That might give NBC’s sideline reporter a moment’s pause, no?
Would such a sentiment be blasphemous? To whom? To proponents of Christianity, perhaps, but certainly not to proponents of the First Amendment.
David, sport's first trash-talker
Separation of church and sport? Since when? The ancient Olympic Games in Greece were chiefly a religious festival held in honor of Zeus, the father of the gods and goddesses.
Before Jesus there was the Old Testament, and before sport there was war. Did not the Israelite youth David slay the Philistine giant Goliath invoking God’s name?
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of Yahweh, the God of the armies of Israel that you have dared to insult. Today Yahweh will deliver you into my hand and I shall kill you.”
— I Samuel 17: 45-46
Was David sport’s first trash-talker? It ain’t braggin’ if you can back it up.
In fact, the tribes of Israel spent much of the Old Testament believing that success in battle hinged on them having the Ark of the Covenant, in which were contained the tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments. The Ark is history’s most renowned good luck charm — it was the basis of the plot of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Separation of church and sport? The game of basketball was invented at a YMCA ... a Young Man’s Christian Association (where, incidentally, it’s fun to play at). Does religion belong anywhere near the field of play? When has it not been?
There is an irony here, one so blatantly conspicuous that it is nearly invisible. It was Karl Marx who famously referred to religion as “the opiate of the masses.” This Sunday, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will tune in, with great interest and fervor, to watch a game with an outcome that has no direct bearing on their lives (unless they took Arizona plus the points). People will hug, they will cry, they will cheer, they will wreak unconscionable havoc on automobiles, based solely on the outcome of this game.
And religion is the opiate of the masses? Or is sport the new religion?
'It's not who wins'
“If you ever really want to do a story about who I am, God’s got to be at the center of it,” said Kurt Warner, who will be making his third Super Bowl start. “Every time I hear a piece or read a story that doesn’t have that, they’re missing the whole lesson of who I am.”
“You don’t have to listen to what I have to say,” Roethlisberger said before his first Super Bowl start three years ago in Detroit, “but I will always have the opportunity to glorify God in all that I do.”
Does God care who wins? There are few things regarding religion that approach consensus, but it’s fair to say that most of us concur with FoxSports.com columnist Mark Kriegel, who recently wrote, “I refuse to believe that God —anyone’s God — has a rooting interest in the outcome of something as secular and perverse as a (football) game.”
Lusk agrees. “That’s a very shallow way of looking at it, that God would care who wins,” says Lusk. “It’s not who wins. It’s, do you serve God by displaying your talents to the best of your abilities?”
Two seasons ago, Brigham Young trailed archrival Utah — in a game denizens refer to as the “Holy War” — by a score of 10-9 with just over a minute remaining. At stake was the Mountain West Conference title. Facing fourth-and-18, Cougars quarterback Max Hall connected with wideout Austin Collie for a 49-yard completion.
BYU won 17-10, and afterward, Collie, a devout Mormon, told a radio reporter, “When you’re doing what’s right on and off the field, I think the Lord steps in and plays a part. Magic happens.”
Collie was widely excoriated in print for his comment, but did not back down. “I believe the Lord has truly blessed me,” Collie said. “It’s the reason why I’m playing football, and if you don’t believe that, the next time you receive an award, then don’t say you want to thank God first for your success. That is the same exact thing. For people to make an issue out of saying that the Lord helps me out is ludicrous.”
This past season Collie led the nation in receiving yards per game.
There’s a common thread that links Warner and Roethlisberger and Bradford and McCoy and Tebow and even Collie. Besides their football success, that is. All of them play glamour positions, playing relatively non-violent roles in a highly violent game.
What if Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, who laid out Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee with a vicious fourth quarter hit in the AFC Championship Game, had pointed heavenward after delivering that blow? McGahee lay motionless on the field, but then again, Clark had caused a Super Bowl-clinching fumble.
If Clark had publicly thanked God for that moment, would that have been in any poorer taste than McCoy pointing skyward after tossing a touchdown pass? And, of course, as has been pointed out numerous times before, why don’t quarterbacks exhort God after throwing a pick six?
Some find reasons to believe or dismiss
Is spirituality real or is it simply life’s greatest psychological performance-enhancing drug? Does the answer matter?
Lusk played three NFL seasons. Uncommonly close with his coach, Dick Vermeil, Lusk spent one day at training camp in 1979 and then left to begin his ministry. When he began at his church in run-down North Philadelphia, he had 17 members and two mortgages.
Today? “We have more than 200 employees,” says Lusk. “We give out 8,000 food baskets at Christmas. Mentor 1,000 children of inmates. We train about 3,000 welfare recipients per year on how to enter the work force. The same bank building that used to turn us down for loans? Now we own that bank.”
Kurt Warner was not drafted out of college. Today, every time his family dines at a restaurant, he buys dinner for another table. Anonymously. His children choose the family.
Ben Roethlisberger did not start at quarterback until his senior year of high school. Five years later, in his 2004 rookie season, he donated his first playoff game check — $18,000 — for tsunami relief.
“We serve people who are Christian, who are Muslim, who are atheist,” says Lusk, who considers all these public pigskin proselytizers his sons. “My obligation is to humanity. Why would you take that away from me, that which motivates me to help people?”
You can’t know. You can only have faith. Still, at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe. Those are not my words. Those are the words of one of the world’s greatest living evangelists, a man who preaches rock-and-roll salvation. A man who on Sunday night, for nearly half an hour, will preach his gospel at halftime of the most viewed television event of the year. Bruce Springsteen.
People find some reason to believe. And as long as they do, other people will find some reason to dismiss it.
After the Eagles lost the NFC Championship Game in Arizona, Lusk sent an email to the Philadelphia coaching staff. “‘It is not the critic who counts,’” says Lusk. “‘The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.’”
“There’s more to it,” says Lusk, “but that’s the focus. Isn’t that a great quote?”
Old or New Testament?
“That’s from Teddy Roosevelt.”