Hall of Famers gotta have a friend in Jesus

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Aug 08, 2009



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts tackler of taboos
 
Never discuss religion and politics in pleasant company.     
           
It's a saying we all know – and most of us try to practice at the office, at parties or in many public places.
           
NFL players don't seem to have that filter or even want that filter, at least when it comes to religion. In fact it seems, much like the 1960's tricked out Christian-singing hippie Jew Norman Greenbaum, that Pro Football Hall of Famers got a friend in Jesus.
 
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The subject of God in NFL locker rooms – almost always Christian God – is a well-documented topic in both sports and spiritual circles. Many players and coaches don't welcome the prevalence of Jesus Christ, so it creates tension in some circumstances. But in a sport in which pregame prayers have long been part of the culture, and in a league that historically represents traditional American values, and in a league that's manned disproportionately by Bible Belters from Florida through Texas, it's obvious that Jesus plays a dominant role in the culture of the pro football locker room.
           
Simply look at the deeply personal Hall of Fame acceptance speeches that we watch unfold on the NFL Network each August. The openly religious tenor of the speeches leaps off the screen in a society of profound religious diversity and profound faith compared with most other nations – and yet one in which millions are taught from day one to keep their faith under wraps.  
 
Year after year in Canton, one honoree after another steps to the podium and religiously thanks the long list of people who helped them reach this pinnacle of professional achievement: old coaches, wives, children, teammates and, more often than not, Jesus Christ.
           
The 2009 Hall of Fame acceptance speeches Saturday night were no exception. Here are a handful of snippets:
 
Rod Woodson: "First I want to thank my Lord, Jesus Christ. He's my savior. He died for my sins and my salvation, and really without him I would not be here. He believed in me when I didn't believe in myself ... without his mercy, without his love, and without his compassion for me as a person, as a human being, as one of his children, I wouldn't be here. So I say, thank you Jesus."  
 
Woodson concluded by quoting Matthew 22:14 – "Many are called, few are chosen" – and then with the words: "Choose Jesus Christ over the world."
 
Ted Cottrell (who introduced Bruce Smith) picked up where Woodson left off: "Let me say one thing. I'm like Rod Woodson. Our heavenly father is awesome. He is awesome. He can take a young man from 911 Flower Street, Chester, Pennsylvania, and allow him to grace this stage tonight. Through our heavenly father, all things are possible."
 
And then Bruce Smith: "By the grace of God, I stand before you today, humble and honored ... My father, George, was a God-fearing man, who believed in family and education ... (My mother) was never too tired to nurture and encourage or guide us with her down-home Christian values. Keep your heads head high, and above all, trust in God. Because all things are possible to those who believe. 
 
(Carl Peterson honored the deceased Derrick Thomas. He didn't discuss God or Jesus, but he did deliver a red-meat All-American message: "Derrick always had a special feeling for our troops, the military personnel who protect and defend this country ... He never, ever turned down a request to visit the troops ... Derrick was always generous with his time to meet and greet our finest, the United States military." Thomas's father, it turns out, was a B-52 pilot.)
 
Interestingly, the preaching at the pigskin pulpit here in 2009 was mild compared with 2008, when Fred Dean, Darrell Green, Art Monk and Emmitt Thomas each made public tributes to Jesus Christ. Past years have been substantially similar in tenor.
 
The crowd reaction each time these messages are delivered is also insightful: Maybe some in the crowd are uncomfortable, but generally speaking the references to Jesus Christ are met with applause ranging from polite to enthusiastic.
 
The Christian message spilled over into the post-ceremony wrap-up Saturday night on NFL Network, as Woodson discussed his faith with Michael Irvin and Steve Mariucci. They asked him about an inside joke he shared during his speech with his agent of 17 years, Eugene Parker, about "answering the phone call." Woodson (who works for NFL Network) admitted to his colleagues that he was referencing a spiritual call from Jesus and that he was, essentially, a born-again Christian.  
 
Woodson in his speech had credited his religious evolution to three men: to Parker, to Rodney Harrison, the chaplain of the Baltimore Ravens – who knew? – not the former Patriots defender, and to his friend and former NFL player Napoleon Kaufman, now the pastor at Woodson's family church in California.
 
The list offers some additional insight into how deeply Christianity is embedded in the culture of the NFL – from agents, to team chaplains to former players turned preachers, it seems players are surrounded by a Christian message. Good for some. Not so welcomed by others.
 
It's an interesting observation from a cultural point of view, and in a society that seems increasingly divided between  Christian believers and secularists.
 
Millions of American Christians, for example, are disturbed by what they see as an effort to secularize every aspect of American society, to strip their God out of the fabric of the nation. Secularists, meanwhile, are disturbed by what they see as too much religious dogma in the national debate.
 
But if the NFL is any indication, if the league truly is a reflection of the state of American society, Jesus ain't going anywhere anytime soon.
 
Of course, whether you think that's a positive development or a negative one is a matter of faith – your own.

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