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Reaching For The Stars
Frank Deford
May 03, 1976
The preachers to the pros, like the Rev. Billy Zeoli (right), often are modish and flamboyant, but the slick sermons they deliver in locker rooms before games psych up the players
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May 03, 1976

Reaching For The Stars

The preachers to the pros, like the Rev. Billy Zeoli (right), often are modish and flamboyant, but the slick sermons they deliver in locker rooms before games psych up the players

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Some guys who preach to teams are awed by the athletes," the Rev. Billy Zeoli says. "Some are even in it for money, for free tickets, and that doesn't do us any good. Professional athletes are the fastest guys in the world to spot a phony."

Now that religion in sport—call it Sportianity—is booming, all major league baseball and football teams have Sunday chapel services, home and away, and by any standard Zeoli is the Most Valuable Preacher. (Trivia question: Who is the only man in history to be the first outsider embraced by both a winning Super Bowl coach and a winning World Series manager? Answer: the Rev. Billy Zeoli—by Tom Landry, Dallas, 1972, and by Sparky Anderson, Cincinnati, 1975.) Zeoli is also President Ford's personal pastor, and spends a lot of his time protesting that people make too much of a fuss about his being the President's pastor. Zeoli has good anticipation and if a fuss is not made, he sees one coming and protests in advance.

One of the reasons that "Z"—as many players call him—gets along so well with the athletes is that he has many of the same ego problems they do. He is a celebrity at the height of his powers, and, like a ballplayer on top, is threatened by hotshot kids on the way up. Explaining the operation of his company, Gospel Films, Z suddenly declares, "At any moment I can reach more people around the world than any other minister alive." For emphasis, he glances at his watch. "Well, except maybe Graham. I don't know what he's doing right now." This particular Sunday morning, Z is personally going to reach only the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets.

Many in religion do not cotton to Zeoli; some are simply jealous of his success. Players who do not attend chapel services sometimes snicker and call him Elmer Gantry behind his back. Z understands all this and accepts it. "I'm not trying to compete with anybody," he says. "I have enough problems with my personality, my chutzpah. But I pray to reach people that others aren't reaching. When I got into this, when I realized what I could do, I told God, 'Give me the chance to communicate with important people like athletes and I will promise You two things: that I will present the Gospel and that I will give You the credit. As a matter of fact, knowing me, I will give You the credit now, in advance.' "

Even though Z seems to enjoy the limelight and to relish being more controversial than humble clergy are supposed to be, his self-perspective and good humor are saving graces. Some of the most subdued, thoughtful types in Sportianity, people who should be his natural enemies, go out of their way to praise Zeoli. His methods seem to work, they say, so we must accept him at face value; everybody seems to have a favorite story of Z's converting a hard-nosed linebacker, transforming him into a veritable St. Francis of Assisi with a few well-aimed verses of Scripture. For all Zeoli's contradictions and insecurities, nobody who knows him doubts his earnestness.

Jim Hiskey, who formerly played on the golf tour along with his better-known brother Babe, helped start PGA chapel services and still organizes them, but he devotes most of his lay ministry to something called Cornerstone, near the University of Maryland campus. It is just a house where he, his wife and children and some visitors live. Young people can come for lunch or for a few weeks, to chat, to be counseled, for Bible studies or training in discipleship. Like many people in Sportianity, Hiskey sometimes seems concerned with box-office religion ("We drew 150 on the tour once when Graham spoke; we even got Palmer and Nicklaus to that service"), but he is kind and understated, and Cornerstone is a warm place, soulful, embracing—even, in the best sense, holy. Nobody is adding up names and numbers, giving out free Bibles or sign-up cards, dressing God in shoulder pads. In the summer and on winter weekends, to make some back-to-school money for his family, Hiskey works as a pro at the Hawk Valley Golf Club in Bowmansville, Pa.

"This is a decade of searching, of looking inward," Hiskey says. "In fact, there might be too much introspection. But in sport, people are less introspective. Stars especially have a high self-image. While a star's image may be distorted, he almost must feel this way about himself to have gotten where he is. I think Billy Zeoli has the kind of message that reaches those people better than most of the rest of us. He is a Christian entrepreneur, and flamboyant, that's for sure, but he has a big heart. There's no question Billy Zeoli has had an impact on some lives out there."

On the surface, Z is something of a caricature. Half Italian ("My emotional side"), half German ("My brains"), he wears long adolescent bangs that tumble in a sexy Veronica Lake lock over one eye. He dresses in flashy ensembles, the kind that nouveau pro athletes and guys in pick-up bars favor. This day, for the Bills and Jets, he has selected a deep open-necked shirt to go with a rust-colored three-piece suit that matches the Bible he carries (beat that, Graham).

If Zeoli has a prototype, it is not the complete, careful Graham but Dwight Moody, the 19th-century evangelist who broke through barriers to bring the message to America's industrialists. Unschooled and direct, Moody was sort of a businessmen's minister who thrived on being with fat cats, just as Zeoli plays that game with jocks. Moody indulged in food and became obese, while Zeoli, also a man of excess, has a passion for clothing and pop vernacular. Moody ate himself to death; conspicuous style could eventually do in Zeoli, professionally.

This winter morning in New York, Z's two sons are with him. Often when he travels, he takes members of his family; there are also a daughter, and a wife, Marilyn, with whom he is excruciatingly happy. Quickly, he volunteers that his and Mrs. Zeoli's spiritual life together is matched only by the physical delights they find in one another.

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