Lions and Christians

Article excerpt

FOOTBALL HAS BEEN CALLED `AMERICAN RELIGION'; NEVER BEFORE HAS IT SEEMED SO TRUE.

In professional football, worlds collide. Brutality meets ballet. Swagger meets stealth. Wealth meets weakness. "We" meets "me." Pain meets pleasure. Violence meets virtue.

Nowhere was this last better illustrated than on December 21, 1997, when the helmet of Detroit linebacker Reggie Brown slammed into a New York Jets lineman, Lamont Burns. The collision drove Brown's head into his shoulders. He slumped unconscious, stopped breathing, and players from both teams gathered to cry and pray for the motionless Brown. The Lions medical staff saved Brown from death. Spinal cord surgery saved him from paralysis. He won't play football again, but he's back on his feet, studying at Texas A&M.

Brown said he owed his recovery to the team trainer, the doctors and God, who "turned my head just right so I wouldn't die." Such belief is common enough, and every sport has its own candid Christian: boxing's Evander Holyfield; horse racing's Pat Day; basketball's David Robinson; baseball's Darryl Strawberry. But football is different. Although some high-profile players testify to being saved (Reggie White, Deion Sanders, lately Coach Mike Ditka), and some to being opportunistically served (defensive end Sean Gilbert says "a revelation from God" told him to hold out for $4.5 million a year), in locker rooms throughout the NFL prayer has become nearly as prevalent as pads.

Before games, teams organize chapel services. After games, they gather, uniforms sagging from four quarters of aggression and perspiration, in a huddle at the fifty-yard line as fans exit the stadium. At training camp, they file out to the field for an afternoon of pushing and pummeling. They leave behind a stand of chairs from a prayer circle that recalls those cryptic crop rings.

What's going on here?

In every sport, religion brings an element of redemption, the promise of delivery from a loss one day to a win the next. But perhaps in foot ball it also serves to justify week after week of oddly satisfying, bone-crushing play.

A few years ago, talking with myself and other sportswriters, Reggie White, who recently said God told him to quit retirement and rejoin the Packers, was asked to reconcile football's violence with religion. "What makes you think it is violent?" he asked. "Football is not violent. When a kid puts a gun up to another guy's head and blows it off, that's violence.... Our game is aggression. We don't go out to kill each other. We go out to win."

But the game has its share of guys who've abused women off field. It's also thick with stories of players who confess pleasure at punishing an opponent. Jimmy Williams, a former Lions linebacker, once told sportswriter Rick Telander, "I like to hit a man and hear that...that little moan." Williams doubles as a Baptist Sunday school teacher, and America's view of virility has shifted in such a way that admitting both things raises few eyebrows--though subjecting oneself to football's aggression seems an odd way of turning the other cheek. …