Les Steckel, a longtime NFL offensive assistant and the coach of the Vikings for one season, was a proponent of cut blocking, the dangerous tactic of aiming at an opponent's knees downfield. When his players balked at cut blocking, he told them to man up. "I'd say, 'Go cut 'em,'" Steckel recalls, "and they'd say, 'But they have a career like me.' And I'd say, 'Well, they're trying to take your career away from you.'"
Since 2005, Steckel has been president and CEO of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the international sports ministry group that organizes Bible studies, "prayer huddles" and Christian summer camps for athletes. Given that role, you might wonder if Steckel has any regrets about the years he spent urging techniques that could maim opponents. He does not. "God loves us just the way we are," says Steckel, 66, "but at the same time He does require excellence. And in the NFL, performance is ultimate."
Steckel's interpretation of the Gospel will not surprise any fan of big-time football. Every weekend during the season thousands of football players on high school fields and in college and pro stadiums point to heaven after the big sack, cross themselves after a touchdown and give thanks to Jesus in the postgame interview. At the Super Bowl in New Orleans this Sunday, players on both teams will pray in small huddles on the sidelines, before every quarter. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis wears a black T-shirt under his uniform that says psalms 91. (You can look it up: "He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.") San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick has the text of psalms and other religious references tattooed on his arms.
It's clear that for a substantial number of athletes and coaches, there is no tension between being a Christian and being an aggressive athlete. On the contrary, many of them argue that football builds character and thereby makes a man more of a Christian—a commingling of faith and football now accepted by fans.
But is that a mistake? Just 50 years ago such coziness between public Christianity and football would have seemed absurd. Athletes were nobody's idea of good ambassadors for religion; they were more likely to be seen as dissolute drinkers and womanizers—more the roguish Joe Namath than the devout Roger Staubach. The aggressive, violent play preached by coaches of an earlier generation was accepted as natural precisely because sport was pagan, not Christian. Christianity was peaceful, charitable and pious. Sport was bloody, ruthless, impious.
In the 1950s and '60s that antagonism began to soften. Campus ministries such as the one Steckel runs began reaching out to athletes to get Jesus into the locker room. The ministries found players to talk to the boys (and soon girls) on the teams. Such men could get a hearing from teenage football players, helping to close the breach between faith and football, and make sports more hospitable to Christianity.
But what if, instead of bringing a Christian culture to sports, these evangelists allowed the coarseness, idolatry and materialism of sports to infect players' faith? Church and pro football both revolve around Sunday, and 50 years into our national experiment of mixing the two, it is not clear that faith has won the day. In fact, some Christian athletes and coaches are starting to recognize that football, at least as it is currently played, may be bad for one's soul.
If all you did was watch football players expressing their faith on television, you might think they're spontaneous, these shout-outs to Jesus after touchdowns, after big sacks, after victories. The way Kaepernick, after a big play, kisses either his tattoo of the words TO GOD THE GLORY or the one that reads faith. And that's true, up to a point. No doubt some players are so overcome that they feel they simply must point up to Heaven or take a knee. But at a deeper level the Christian faith that infuses the NFL is often—like the players' diets, exercise regimens and practice schedules—part of a carefully calibrated routine.
Take the Giants. They meet after practices on Wednesdays for Bible study. The Protestant players gather for worship on Saturday evenings; the Catholics have a team Mass on Sunday. The team has a Protestant chaplain, whose salary is paid by the evangelical organization Athletes in Action, and a Catholic chaplain, both of whom travel with the team. The Giants pray at the end of every practice session and before every quarter of every game.
On a Thursday in December, three days before they were routed 34--0 by the Falcons, I saw small groups of players kneeling all over the practice field at the Meadowlands, beautiful little clutches of men at prayer, circular and evenly spaced, like raindrops on a pond. Close by me, at the field's edge, seven men knelt together, whispering their devotions. I looked at the numbers on their jerseys: 13, 15, 87, 82, 12, 88, 80. The wide receivers—football players praying by position.