When the Denver Broncos put together a string of impressive victories at the end of the 2011 season, it was quarterback Tim Tebow who openly praised God in his postgame interviews.
This year, the outspoken player is Ray Lewis, Baltimore’s emotional linebacker, who has not been shy about quoting scripture on national TV.
But there are many less-conspicuous examples of devoutly religious players in the NFL who make up a strong Christian subculture extending well beyond high-profile players like Tebow and Lewis. They are not as prominent in the headlines, but they work hard at their craft, say their prayers, study the Bible and serve in their communities. They show that it’s possible to live and share their faith without being in the spotlight.
San Diego's Corey Lynch credits God with the dramatic opportunity he had to help save a woman's life. Matthew Slater of New England says a personal miracle was the reason he reached the NFL. And for Miami's R.J. Stanford, it was a spiritual awakening during the NFL lockout that changed his life.
Such players are sharing their faith in a positive, engaging way, said Nathan Whitaker, who has authored best-selling Christian-themed books with Tebow and former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy.
“They are hard-nosed, physical players, not meek, not wallflowers, but they do things and play the game the right way,” Whitaker said. “At the end of the day, they discuss their faith and things that are important to them, always keeping the game in perspective and reminding folks there is a bigger picture, and their faith is part of that bigger picture.”
Lynch was raised in a God-fearing Fort Myers, Fla., home in which he always saw his father reading the Bible. One of his favorite stories is that of David and Goliath, which he felt he experienced firsthand when he helped his Division I-AA Appalachian State team upset traditional power Michigan in the 2007 season opener.
Lynch said his life changed for the better when he decided not to follow some friends in “doing some crazy things.”
“That was a decision early on in my life — am I going to follow the world or God’s word?” Lynch said. “I said, 'Let me try God’s word first.' I found freedom in that and never looked back.”
Lynch went on to play football at Appalachian State, marry Cissie Graham, the granddaughter of evangelist Billy Graham, and be drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the 2008 NFL draft.
In June 2009, Lynch and his wife were driving on a Kentucky interstate when they witnessed a van drive off the road and plummet nearly 300 feet down an embankment, flipping several times and landing on its roof. Lynch, the son of a firefighter, told his wife to call 911 before racing down the hillside in sandals to the van, which contained four injured people.
The most seriously injured was a woman named Cynthia Brennan, who suffered a broken neck and back in the accident. Lynch crawled through the broken glass to free her from the wreckage and help sustain her until emergency crews arrived. Doctors were later able to fuse her vertebrae and she recovered. Lynch was largely credited with saving her life.
The experience taught Lynch about the brevity of life.
“Life is short and it was a blessing to be able to help that woman out. … I was able to share Christ with her,” said Lynch, who played strong safety for Tampa Bay for three seasons before going to San Diego in 2012. “Live life like it’s your last day. Share Christ with whoever you are able.”
Slater, the son of Hall of Fame offensive lineman Jackie Slater, grew up attending church with his family in Orange County, Calif. He sang in the choir, participated in the Christmas play and was a counselor at Bible camp.
“Those experiences helped me develop my own faith,” Slater said. “They helped me put perspective on things, realize what’s important in life, and that it’s possible to touch lives and impact people in a positive way. They taught me to live for something and someone greater than yourself … and hope for things to come.”
As a 6-foot, 200-pound special teams standout, Slater occasionally made big plays during his career at UCLA, but he never started a game on offense as a wide receiver, and many thought his career would end with college. Then the New England Patriots selected Slater in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. It was a life-changing moment, he said.
“Now, some people will have different explanations for that, but mine is that God is alive and well and he is performing miracles, whether they be big or small, every day,” Slater said. “For me, that was my own personal miracle. … I’ll never question the fact that God exists or if he is working in people’s lives because that was a moment that sent chills up my spine and brought me to tears.”
In addition to becoming a two-time Pro Bowl selection as a special teams player, Slater finds joy serving in Children Ministries, a youth program sponsored by his church back in California. He wants to help youths avoid associating with gangs.
He also appreciates a feeling of Christian brotherhood among his Patriot teammates, including running back Danny Woodhead and linebacker Jerod Mayo. He said as many as 15 players have engaged in Bible study and gospel-related conversations in the team chapel.
“I’ve been fortunate to have some good people of strong faith in my circle,” Slater said. “They have encouraged me and help me have a positive perspective.”
Stanford, a former University of Utah safety, was raised in a religious family, but he didn’t gain his testimony of Christ until the 2011 NFL lockout.
After playing his rookie year on the Carolina Panthers’ practice squad, Stanford’s NFL future — everything he had worked so hard to achieve — appeared shaky while league officials and the NFL Players Association spent five months negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.
With his future in doubt, materialistic things like money, fame, dream homes or fancy cars were not as important to Stanford as spiritual peace of mind.
“My life around me was upside down. … I had a selfish mentality. … I was missing the most important piece of my life — Christ,” Stanford said. “When I put him first in my life, everything else was restored.”
With the support of the Panthers’ team chaplain, Stanford reorganized his priorities, married his girlfriend and strengthened his faith. He found a new inner confidence, made Carolina’s active roster and started playing in games.
“The week after I dedicated myself to the Lord, I got my first interception against (New Orleans quarterback) Drew Brees,” Stanford said. “I was taking advantage of opportunities, putting my all in, and I had peace of mind.”
Stanford joined the Miami Dolphins in 2012. Whether he is playing football or living his religion, Stanford strives to be “an impact player.”
“I want to be an impact player in my life and in other people’s lives,” he said.
Similar religious devotion can be found on many NFL teams. Chicago Bears’ running back Matt Forte has been known to tweet scripture. His teammates Devin Hester and Israel Idonije have also discussed their beliefs in interviews with the media, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Houston linebacker Bradie James shared how the Lord transformed his life in a video on a religious website.
Former all-pro Indianapolis linebacker Gary Brackett recently talked with the Indianapolis Recorder about how his faith in God helped him endure the losses of his mother, father and brother in a 17-month span.
They are strong voices that are speaking out, Whitaker said.
“I think they are doing a nice job of that right now."
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