In the celebratory pandemonium that broke out among the Denver
Broncos after they won the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 11, a
group of players dropped to their knees on the artificial turf
at Three Rivers Stadium. Some raised their eyes and helmets to
the bright-blue heavens. Others voiced their thanks to God. "It
was the Lord's will that we win, and we won," Denver guard Mark
Schlereth said later in the locker room. "I'm just thankful. It
must have been the Lord's will."
Moments earlier the Broncos had squeaked by the Pittsburgh
Steelers 24-21 to earn a trip to Super Bowl XXXII. Schlereth was
not the only Broncos player who saw the hand of God at work in
the victory. In one of the game's crucial plays, with 1:47 left
in the first half and the Steelers leading 14-10, Denver
fullback Howard Griffith made a one-handed grab of a John Elway
pass and bolted into the end zone. "I attribute everything to
Him," Griffith said after the game. "The Lord allowed me to make
Other teammates saw God's handiwork even in the two
interceptions that Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw
into double coverage in the Broncos' end zone. "God could have
caused that," said tight end Dwayne Carswell. "He's in
everybody's corner, but I guess He decided that we deserved [to
Yet other Denver players went further than Carswell and flatly
stated that their team had been anointed by God to do battle in
the Super Bowl. "He's been looking out for us the whole season,"
said tackle Tony Jones. "We've been through some tough storms,
but He brought us through. Now we are on our way to San Diego,
and we know He is with us."
January 26, 1998
Nor were His intentions viewed much differently four hours later
in San Francisco, where the defending NFL champions, the Green
Bay Packers, won the NFC title by whipping the 49ers 23-10.
Immediately after that game about 20 Packers and a few Niners
gathered near midfield and knelt in the rain and mud to praise
and thank God and to ask for his protection on their journeys
home. Green Bay safety Eugene Robinson, his voice rising in the
gloom, intoned, "And finally, we thank you for two marvelous
Like their counterparts on the Broncos, the devout Christians on
the Packers saw more at work in their triumph than their own
hard sinew and surpassing skills. In a crowded locker room after
the midfield prayer, Green Bay's vocal man of the cloth, Reggie
White, was delivering a familiar sermon. Ever since he helped
lead the Pack to last year's title, White has been preaching
that God sent him to Green Bay to win a Super Bowl and use it as
a pulpit to glorify Him. Here White was, back again: "God had a
lot to do with this, and I praise God that I had a chance to win
one Super Bowl last year and now another."
The Broncos and the Packers each have 15 or so evangelical
Christians (or God Squadders, as they are sometimes derogatorily
called) on their rosters. That's the NFL average. Of course, the
presence of such Christians in NFL locker rooms isn't a new
phenomenon--they have been studying the Bible together for
years--but their numbers and visibility have increased
dramatically over the last decade.
This growth has paralleled increases in many Christian
congregations, not just fundamentalist ones. In 1994 and '95,
for example, Southern Baptist church membership increased by
almost 50,000 and Roman Catholic membership by nearly 90,000,
according to the National Council of Churches. The uncertainty
of life in the NFL--with its skyrocketing salaries and myriad
temptations of the flesh on the one hand and the danger of being
cut or suffering a career-ending injury on the other--may be one
reason players are turning to religion. "This is a way of
seeking stability in their lives," says Randall Balmer, who
teaches religion in American culture at Columbia. "It has to be
a dizzying world. For the more sane among them, faith is the
The evangelicals' assertion that they're mere instruments of
God's will raises some fundamental theological questions: Does
God take an active interest in the outcome of athletic matches?
Did He favor Denver over Pittsburgh or Green Bay over San
Francisco? Does a believer on one side of the ball have an
advantage over a nonbeliever on the other side of it? Does God
even know there is a Super Bowl?
"It doesn't seem to me odd that God would know in detail what
happens in football games," says Richard J. Wood, a Methodist
and Quaker minister who is dean of the Yale Divinity School.
"What seems to me odd is that God would care."
The idea that God intervenes in sports is one that most
Christian theologians reject as absurd at best and blasphemous
at worst. "The notion that God cares whether the Packers or the
Broncos win the Super Bowl suggests that God is in detailed
control of what human beings do, which is dubious," says Wood.
"We have a terrible war going on in Bosnia and the persecution
of Christians in Indonesia and the genocide in Rwanda, and to
suggest, in that light, that God has a direct involvement in
athletic contests trivializes the whole notion of God's
involvement with the world. It is a heresy."
"It makes God look immoral and arbitrary," says Joseph C. Hough,
a minister in the United Church of Christ and the dean of the
Vanderbilt Divinity School. "I find that religiously offensive.
From my perspective, the Christian message is that God will help
you bear up under anything. You will not escape tribulation or
suffering or defeat, but God will give you the grace to bear it
with dignity and courage."
The players see no heresy in what they think. "It's not that
we're trivializing anything," says the Broncos' Griffith. "The
question was posed to us, Does He control wins and losses? Yes,
On the eve of the conference title games, a number of players
from all four teams admitted that they prayed to win, most of
them explaining that they sought victory only as a way to bring
glory to God. "I ask him to keep us from injuries," said Green
Bay guard Adam Timmerman, sounding a common theme. "And I ask
for victories: 'God, I want to win so I have an even bigger
platform to use for you.' People listen to winners more than
they do to losers."
Yet even most evangelical theologians, who view the Bible as the
authoritative guide to life, see trouble in beseeching God for
personal triumphs. "I don't believe that God is aloof from it
all," says Richard Mouw, an evangelical Protestant who is
president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, "but I
think it's very dangerous for us to identify the will of God
with a specific win. There may be all kinds of ways in which the
outcome of a game could serve God's purpose, but God isn't a
Michigan or Notre Dame fan. Football can be a way of serving
God, and I think God cares about how people play the game. But I
think we have to avoid identifying God with any partisan cause."
Prayers summoning God to intervene on one's own behalf "are
grounded in a very primitive urge to manipulate life," says
Hough, "and they get latched onto Christianity because of the
literal interpretation of certain verses in the New Testament:
'Ask what you will in my name and I will do it,' and 'Faith can
move mountains.' I don't think God intervenes to make anybody
win over anybody else, just like I don't think God makes people
win wars over anybody else. This kind of ritual enactment to
manipulate God is really anti-Christian at its core."
"That's ridiculous," says Griffith. "It's not anti-Christian to
pray for wins."
"You've got to do justice to the possibility that prayer makes a
difference," concedes Wood. "Then you say, 'What's wrong with
praying for victory in a war or a ball game?' Most who pray
thoughtfully, like chaplains in a war, like to add, 'if it be
White bristles at the theologians' suggestion that God takes no
part in the outcome of games. "How do they know?" he says.
"They're not God. They can't find anything in the Scriptures
that proves it." White says the Bible is filled with evidence of
God's decisive role in human conflicts. "God intervened in
David's fight with Goliath," he says. "When Jesus died, [God]
intervened in Jesus's victory over death."
The theologians also say there is no reason to conclude that a
higher being is partisan toward the believer over the
nonbeliever. "The Bible says that the rain falls on the just and
the unjust alike," says Wood. While many football players
contend that the virtuous ultimately will triumph, not a few
warn that this is often not the way to bet. "I have seen some of
the dirtiest, filthiest guys have great success on the field,"
says Broncos fullback and devout Christian Anthony Lynn.
In the theology of the locker room, however, the course of every
game and season has been scripted by God to serve his purposes.
So it wasn't human error that led Stewart to throw those
interceptions. God orchestrated them. "God directs everything,"
says Griffith. "He already knows the outcome. Kordell didn't go
out there to throw those interceptions. The game was already
decided before we walked out there. All we can do is go out and
play as hard as we can for His glorification, knowing it is for
So how do the losers view not having been favored by God? "It's
never his will for us to lose," says 49ers cornerback Darnell
Walker, a devout Christian. "He wants us all to prosper."
Walker's teammate Daryl Price, a defensive end and an ordained
Baptist minister, says simply, "All things work together for the
love of God."
James Kok, a former college basketball player who is executive
pastor of the care ministry at Robert Schuller's famed Crystal
Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., says that most
player-proselytizers are earnest believers whose religious lives
involve "the most simple expression of faith. They take the
Bible very literally. They think of God in an almost physical
way. He's their friend, their force, their power."
They certainly need Him on the field, given the brutal nature of
their game and the unnatural contours of the ball. "The physics
of the way a football bounces is just endlessly complicated,"
says Wood. "It's so complicated, in fact, that it's
unpredictable. God does not control that."
Come Super Bowl Sunday, says Kok, the Lord will not be out there
throwing or deflecting passes. Nor opening holes in the line.
Nor kicking field goals. "The outcome is dependent on human
beings, not on God," Kok says. "He'll inspire players to do
their best, but the outcome is up to them. They should ask for
guidance, wisdom, courage. Hopefully, He will be giving the
players what they need to deal with adversity. Ask God to use
your talent to the utmost. Be the best person out there. And,
no, don't pray to win."