NFL players still turn to religion for solace
By Jerry DiPaola
Published: Sunday, Sept. 19, 2010
Adoring fans carried star safety Troy Polamalu on their shoulders — passing him off, one to another, as though they could live through his efforts.
Such adulation during the parade downtown honoring the Steelers after their victory in Super Bowl XL in 2006 might have given someone else a bloated sense of entitlement.
Polamalu• He flew to Greece, living for four days in a 1,500-year-old monastery with Greek Orthodox monks.
Polamalu, who is Greek Orthodox, had stepped back to wonder what the victory and accompanying fame meant. He was unimpressed.
"Oh, OK, I won a Super Bowl," he said. "So what• I didn't have that fulfillment like what God could provide for me."
Polamalu is one of several Steelers who make religion and prayer a way of life while engaging in a sport that rewards brutality. It is such a part of the Steelers' culture that Polamalu and other defensive backs pray in a huddle between each series. Back in the locker room, a small carton of scripture books, entitled "Our Daily Bread," sits on a shelf next to a box of footballs.
"Nowhere in the Bible does it say that followers of Christ are soft," safety Ryan Clark said. "If you think of some of the stories in the Bible, some of the strongest, hardest and most sacrificial men were men of Christ."
The church's role
Catholic and nondenominational church services are offered to Steelers players in the hotel the night before every game. Team chaplain Kevin Jordan, a Christian minister, conducts the nondenominational service, which attracts as many as 30 players, he said. He also leads players, their wives and girlfriends in Bible study during the week.
Nose tackle Chris Hoke, a Mormon who taught the religion to students in Belgium and France in 1995 and 1996, doesn't attend the services, but he said he prays often.
"I do everything I can to stay close to my faith," he said.
Rev. David Bonnar, pastor of St. Bernard Parish in Mt. Lebanon, presided over the Steelers' Catholic service for 12 years and said attendance "was like the harvest. Every year is different. It depends on how many Catholics were on the team."
He said one of his most fulfilling experiences was when tight end Mark Bruener accompanied him to Catholic high schools where Bonnar was attempting to recruit for the priesthood. Bruener, now a scout for the Steelers, spoke to the students about his relationship with God, Bonnar said.
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, a Christian, said between seven and 10 players attended the first Bible study this season, but he expects more to follow when word spreads through the locker room.
Randle El, a nine-year veteran who is now married, said his faith is important to him. In fact, he doesn't believe he would have survived the NFL without it.
"I would have been messed up," he said. "When I got to college (at Indiana), I was doing my own thing, the partying, the women. At the end of my senior year in football, I said, 'That was it.'
"God had put me flat on my back, basically. I had my first child, out of wedlock (in May 2002), and for me that was a wakeup call. I realized you don't have to get to that point. You don't want God to put you flat on your back. Sometimes he does, though, so you don't turn to the left or to the right, but you turn to him. I picked up in January (2002) and never looked back."
One of the Steelers' believers appears to be quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who said he turned to the church after he was accused of sexual assault twice in an eight-month period. He was never charged with a crime, but he is serving a four-game NFL suspension for violating personal conduct rules.
"It's a calming feeling when the Lord runs your life," Roethlisberger told the Tribune-Review last month. "And it's something I've always known as a church person, but I've never really believed it."
Roethlisberger said he goes to church every Sunday.
"I think it's coming home — being gone for a while and coming home," he said.
Is he sincere• Wide receiver Hines Ward thinks so.
"Why wouldn't he (be sincere)?" he said. "I wouldn't say it just to say it. You don't want to mess around with the Lord like that."
Watch your language
NFL fields and locker rooms are often breeding grounds for foul language, but that doesn't make it right, former Indianapolis Colts Tony Dungy said.
Dungy, who has professed his Christian faith for years, was so offended by New York Jets coach Rex Ryan's use of profanity on the HBO series "Hard Knocks" that he criticized Ryan on "The Dan Patrick Show."
"I'm disappointed with all the profanity," Dungy said. "I think Rex can make his points without all that.
"I personally don't want my players to be around that," he said, adding he wouldn't hire a coach who uses such language. "I don't think that has to be part of your every-minute vocabulary to get your point across."
Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, the Denver Broncos' famously religious rookie quarterback, was perhaps as tough as any player in college football when he played at Florida. He isn't afraid to show a softer side.
"He wouldn't even cuss," said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, who blocked for Tebow.
Pouncey remembers sitting on the bus going to a game against Miami when Tebow stood up and shouted: "We have to be the best freakin' offense in the nation today."
Tebow couldn't bring himself to use stronger language, but the message was clear.
In March, ProFootballTalk.com reported that Tebow was shouted down when he asked prospects at the NFL scouting combine to pray before an intelligence test.
"I didn't hear that," Pouncey said, "but I'm down for that. Pray for me to get a good score. Mine didn't turn out too good. I should have been there with him."
When his father died suddenly and his wife was diagnosed with cancer in 2004, quarterback Brett Favre looked to the church, said Bishop David Zubik, head of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.
Zubik had been recently installed as the bishop of Green Bay. He knew Favre and his wife, Deanna, as members of a local parish.
"Faith was an important element of his life there," said Zubik, who had several conversations with Favre. "It doesn't matter if you are superstar or a man on the street. When you experience sudden death or the cancer of a loved one, the superstar status goes out the window. You have to have something that will ground you and get you through that."
In Pittsburgh, Zubik said he has seen Steelers players get involved in a variety of charitable causes.
"They don't just take the money and run," he said.
Prayer: An everyday event
Former Penn State and Colts defensive lineman Leo Wisniewski, director of the men's ministry of the White Fields Foundation, said prayer groups and organized Masses of various denominations have been common in football for years.
"It definitely became very important to a lot of guys," he said. "We would pray for things in each other's lives that are difficult."
Sometimes after games, players from both teams will get together at midfield, clasp hands, kneel and pray.
Although it may be perceived as a form of fraternization, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "It doesn't do anything to ruin the spirit of competition."
Defensive end Aaron Smith agrees.
"The Rooneys are devout Catholics," Smith said. "I can't imagine them having a problem with you praying."
Smith, whose wife will give birth to the couple's fifth child in November, said prayer is a big part of his life.
"I pray every morning, throughout the day, before I go to sleep, whenever the moment arises, or when I feel something is on my heart," Smith said. "Without it, I have nothing."
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