Heaven Help Us
Like he does before every start, Rangers pitcher R.A. Dickey attended chapel last Thursday asking for God's guidance on the mound. Presumably praying just as hard, Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez made a quick sign of the cross before digging in to take his third-inning cuts at Dickey's faith-based knuckleball.
Opposing players. Identical prayers.
"I don't think God necessarily cares if I win or lose, but I know he cares about me," Dickey says. "He's given me the ability to throw a baseball, and it's my job to glorify him with my talents. I don't pretend to know why sometimes I get a strikeout and sometimes I give up a homer. I have to enjoy the wins, learn from the losses and remain obedient and faithful."
When not busy crafting apparitions out of pancakes and tree trunks, God watches sports. Or does He/She/It?
God loves sports. You've heard of The Hail Mary, The Miracle on Ice, The Hand of God Goal, The Immaculate Reception, Amen Corner, Touchdown Jesus and The Angels winning a World Series.
God hates sports. You've seen stadiums more crowded than sanctuaries, major championships decided on supposedly Sabbath Sundays, God Shammgod unable to hold a job in the NBA, the hellacious losing experienced by the Methodists up on Mockingbird and the Devils winning a Stanley Cup.
Ambivalent sermons be damned, our obsession with molding sports and religion into compatible teammates has hatched an unwavering belief in divine intervention. Or at least divine attention. (The one about the hole in Texas Stadium's roof so you-know-who can watch his favorite team is sacred scripture, right?)
In observance of Easter, it seemed righteous to pose the quandary to The Big Commish in the ultimate luxury suite. Alas, my dial-up modem's on the fritz; he's busy tinkering with his TiVo; it's always something. With the Almighty unavailable for comment, only players on his exclusive roster could be quizzed, "Does God care about sports?"
"Of course, but he loves everybody equally, so it's ridiculous to think he would favor one team or one player over another," says former Mavericks center and devout Mormon Shawn Bradley. "I've heard people directly praying for victories, and that's just not right. It's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. I think that's God's only rule when it comes to sports."
God's 11th Commandment: Thou shalt ask for prosperity, but not points?
Bible Belt athletes believe in a sovereign God powerful enough to orchestrate any outcome but also that Roger Staubach's shocking bomb in Minnesota, Franco Harris' suspicious catch in Pittsburgh and Maradona's sneaky goal in the World Cup weren't direct calls from God's praybook but merely heroic achievements by players maximizing athletic gifts from above.
For 27 years, John Weber has balanced God's will and athletes' skill via pre-game chapels for the Rangers, Cowboys and Desperados. A religious sounding board/security blanket for the likes of former Rangers manager Johnny Oates and veteran NFL broadcaster Pat Summerall during life-threatening illnesses, the director of the Grapevine-based Athletes in Action has prayed with Jimmy Johnson before Super Bowls and Jerry Jones after heartbreaking losses.
"With sincere Christians on both sides of the field, it's tough to decide if he has a rooting interest," Weber says. "I think he's interested in the outcome but more so in the behavior and the actions of his children. Whether it's winning a Super Bowl or raking leaves in your yard, he wants you to do it with all your heart. I've seen guys without any religion have a whole lot of success, and I've seen guys with unyielding faith like Pat and Johnny go through tough times.
"It can be mysterious."
For every pass-from-the-pulpit Super Bowl hero like Kurt Warner, there is inspirational cycling legend Lance Armstrong, a cancer survivor who openly voices his distrust for organized religion, an uncertainty in God and a belief in training hard over praying hard. And for every rainbow wig-wearing wacko holding up the John 3:16 sign behind the 18th tee, there is NBA All-Star Allen Iverson wearing a WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) wristband.
From Midnight Madness to Christmas morning, the games people play and the fans that watch them are directly affected by, at the very least, a divine influence. Some events, like Mesquite Rodeo and Texas Motor Speedway, commence their sports with prayer. And some athletes, influenced by religion to the point of appearing pious, prompt skeptics to doubt their credibility.
Bradley, who rarely took his children to Mavs home games because he didn't want them to "watch dancers out there doing pelvic thrusts," was roundly criticized during his career for a devotion to Bible over basketball. Former Cowboys quarterback Quincy Carter, who taped Bible verses to his locker and routinely quoted scripture during interviews, was abruptly cut in training camp two summers ago and only last week admitted to a marijuana problem.
In an eerie premonition of his failed passes and past failures, Carter quipped two months before his release, "God invented sports, and he teaches us through them. What happens on and off the field is totally in his hands. Sometimes he teaches through winning and other times through losing."
While God's blueprint can be fuzzy, one thing is perfectly clear: Today's athletes are more expressive, and especially concerning their religion. Mainstream society has recently become snuggle buddies with morality, censoring edgy Super Bowl halftimes and green-lighting FCC fines aimed at muzzling Howard Stern while amplifying David Stern. So too, at least outwardly, are our sports stars finding the end zone of religion, evidenced by demonstrative gestures skyward and post-game, midfield prayer circles.
"I'm not sure today's athletes are more religious," says Summerall, the longtime voice of the NFL who dubbed his Southlake home "Amazin' Grace." "But I'm quite certain they're more vocal about being religious."
Is God a face-painting, pizza-munching patron with no more effect on a game than a rabbit's foot? A hands-on puppeteer writing scripts by rooting for a particular team in a particular game? Or are sports a spiritually suspect quest, too trivial for the universe's reverent referee to rule on?
Legendary University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, a saint in a state where football often dwarfs religion, leaned toward a separation of God and gridiron by rarely leading his team in prayer.
"Because," reasons Royal, "I'm pretty sure the Lord is neutral about things like football."
Despite all our attempts to integrate entities, it seems likely that God is consumed with final judgments, not final scores.
And that, in the end, Rodriguez's third-inning single to right field was probably less answered prayer that elevated sports to a level of cosmic significance, and more man-made achievement that got lost in the Tigers' six-homer shellacking of Dickey.
Joked Summerall, "Let's hope God has better things to do."
In Jesus' name we play, amen.
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