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Meet Herb Lusk, the first NFL player to pray after scoring

Lusk left the NFL after three seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and became a pastor.

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Michelle Budge, Deseret News

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

I recently listened to (and then wrote about) a podcast interview in which Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr discussed nearly giving up his NFL dreams to enter the ministry. Although I’m typically a pretty trusting person, I figured Carr was exaggerating, since I couldn’t imagine someone trading the glitz and glamour of professional football for the quiet life of a church leader.

But then I met the Rev. Herb Lusk.

The Rev. Lusk, a former Philadelphia Eagles running back, actually did give up his NFL career to pursue full-time ministry. And he did so after making history by being the first player to kneel in the end zone and pray after scoring a touchdown during a game in October 1977.

Last week, the Rev. Lusk, now 69 and the pastor of Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia and CEO of the People for People foundation, which works to address poverty in the city, was kind enough to talk to me about that prayer and about how he knew it was time to walk away from football after three years in the NFL.

The Rev. Lusk, who is currently battling cancer, told me that glitz and glamour are great, but that serving God is better. He loved football, but he’s loved his career in ministry even more.

Kelsey Dallas: That first prayer after a touchdown — Did you plan it or was it spontaneous?

The Rev. Herb Lusk: It was planned. I made a habit of praying after I scored during my senior year at Long Beach State. When I got to the NFL, I wanted to continue my witness and keep sharing my gratitude.

KD: Do you remember what you prayed about?

HL: My prayers were always the same. It was always, “Thank you, Jesus, and help me to be a better witness.”

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Former Philadelphia Eagle and current pastor Herb Lusk speaks during the World Meeting of Families festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Matt Rourke, Associated Press

KD: How did your team react to that first prayer?

HL: My teammates were very understanding, for the most part. Obviously, you don’t get 100% approval, but my teammates were as understanding as I could have ever imagined.

My coaches were just worried about how long I held onto the football. You can get a penalty for delay of game.

The head coach, Dick Vermeil, is probably one of the best men I ever met in my life other than my father.

KD: What about the media? Was there any kind of pushback?

HL: Some people pointed out that, if I was praying to win, so were my opponents. Which one of us was God going to hear?

They didn’t realize that, for me, it wasn’t about praying to win. I was always praying to do my best and be a witness when the opportunity presented itself.

KD: After three seasons, you gave up football to focus on ministry. How did you know it was time to make that change?

HL: I actually called a press conference when I first got to Philadelphia and told them I would play three years and quit. Why three years? I just don’t know. But looking back at my career, I feel like the timing was very important.

So I played three years and, going into my fourth, I went to training camp. I was tempted to stay, but I knew football was the kind of game you have to love to play. My love for football was waning and my love for the teaching and preaching of the gospel just took me over. There was nothing else that I wanted to do.

After I quit football, I had to go back to school to finish my undergrad degree and do my masters. The calling was real. It was something that I couldn’t control.

KD: This year, you’re celebrating 40 years at your church. What are the highlights from your long ministry career?

HL: What sticks out to me are the multiple types of ministries that I’ve been involved in. We’ve created educational opportunities and provided housing here in Philadelphia and led ministries in Africa, all while bringing people to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s hard to talk to a person about Jesus when they’re hungry or when they’re depressed or when they don’t have a job, so we’ve developed a holistic ministry. Obviously, the main focus is Jesus, but we’re concerned about the whole man, not the soul man.

KD: You’ve also counseled presidents and met Pope Francis, so I’m impressed that you bring up quieter moments of ministry when asked to reflect on your career.

HL: To be with the pope or counsel the president, those things, for me, were like football. They were opportunities to tell more people about my relationship with Jesus.

I’m glad I played football, and it was fun. But now that I’ve been working with the Eagles as a chaplain now for about 25 years, what I really like is talking to the guys about life after football and how wonderful it can be.

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President George W. Bush, left, gestures to the audience as Pastor Herb Lusk, of the Greater Exodus Baptist Church, laughs after he introduced Bush before he spoke about AIDS in Philadelphia Wednesday, June 23, 2004.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

KD: Tell me more about being a chaplain for the Eagles. What else do you talk to players about?

HL: You want to make sure the guys are levelheaded. When you play football, you really can’t think about anything else. People in the world are getting murdered or going hungry, but you’re so focused on football and getting ready for the next game.

I’m always trying to make sure they understand there’s a world out there with lots of things going on that they should get involved in.

Also, I tell them that preparation for life after football isn’t just about how much money you have. You also have to figure out what you plan on doing. I have friends who still haven’t figured it out and it’s been over 40 years.

I like to say that football can be a blessing or it can be a curse. Let it bless you, not curse you.

KD: What was it like when the Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018?

HL: Oh that was wonderful. I have a Super Bowl ring now, and I didn’t get it playing. I got it praying.

Coach Doug (Pederson) was and is a very good man, and I wish him the best down in Florida with his new team. And I’m also really pulling for Carson Wentz. Hopefully, in Washington, he’ll find a home.

KD: We talked earlier about people wrongly assuming you were praying to win. What else do you think people misunderstand about the role of religion in sports?

HL: I think people have a misconception that religion doesn’t belong in sports. There are people who have said, ‘Wait a minute now, are we playing football or are we in church?’

My answer to that is we do nothing without Christ. We do nothing without our faith. We take it everywhere with us.

Note: If you’re a University of Utah football fan, the Rev. Lusk’s name might sound familiar. His brothers, Henry and Harold, played for the University of Utah.


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Term of the week: Hinduphobia

In the context of discussions on anti-religious violence, it’s common to hear terms like Islamophobia (prejudice against Muslims) or antisemitism (prejudice against Jews.) But it wasn’t until this week that I saw the term “Hinduphobia,” which, as you might have guessed, refers to anti-Hindu discrimination.

The term appeared in a story from Religion News Service about recent attacks on the Hindu community in the United States. “The internet has provided a fertile ground for the large-scale organization and weaponization of Hinduphobia by extremist communities, state actors and hateful players in the online space,” said hate researcher Joel Finkelstein to Religion News Service.


What I’m reading...

Two months after the Supreme Court ruled in favor of religious schools in Maine, The Associated Press followed up on how the decision affected the new school year. They found that the ruling, which said that the state could not exclude faith-based institutions from receiving education funding, hasn’t shifted the status quo by much, since most religious schools are choosing not to take public money. “Only one of the religious high schools that stood to benefit has signed up to participate this fall, after Maine’s attorney general warned that the schools would have to abide by state anti-discrimination laws, including those that protect LGBTQ students and faculty,” The Associated Press reported.

Leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are among those calling for the state of Florida to do better at reducing conflict between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom. “LGBTQ rights and religious rights do not have to be in conflict. In fact, many LGBTQ people are themselves people of deep faith. Now is the time to set aside political motives, malice and misrepresentations and commit to respectful dialogue and good-faith engagement,” community leaders wrote in an open letter published by the Tampa Bay Times last week.

Don’t miss The Washington Post’s lovely look at a grandson who is on a mission to visit every U.S. National Park with his “Grandma Joy” at his side.


Odds and ends

Columbia’s Law, Rights and Religion Project recently published a memo exploring the relationship between religious freedom and abortion rights. As I reported earlier this summer, some more liberal faith leaders are using free exercise protections to challenge abortion bans.