First Published on the National Football League Player Engagement Website. Throughout the NFL, zealous fans approach NFL players, hands shaking and voices cracking in excitement to be near them. For as long as sports have been around, fans have always worshipped athletes. For me, growing up, it was The Minnesota Twins who were my heroes. I remember the thrill I felt when my favorite players signed the baseball that I proudly displayed in my room.
When Craig and I started dating, I began to think about sports heroes in a new way. I knew him as the cute boy from college with only a dream of playing in the NFL. I knew that I liked him, but I wasn’t sure if I was up for spending time with a man who, if he made it to the NFL, might be worshipped by strangers. I feared the hero worship might change him. I worried that the boy I knew in college would grow into a man ruined by money, status, and fame.
During the time when we dated, and eventually married, I worked on my Ph.D. studying Love in the NFL. For the seven seasons that he played in the NFL, I studied not only my own relationship, but those of the couples on his team. What I found in my studies astounded me. The money, status, and fame that NFL players experienced, often as young 20-somethings, indeed affected them. That was no surprise. They have everything that most people spend a lifetime working toward: bulging bank accounts, huge houses, and fans shouting their name. But having it all did not lead to entitlement for most of the players who I studied. Instead, most quickly realized that despite having it all -- there was still something missing. When they had it all and knew they needed something more, many NFL players turned to faith.
My husband and I recently returned from a weekend at The Pro Athletes Outreach Conference (PAO), a Christian conference for professional athletes that began over forty years ago. There, we spent three days with nearly 200 other NFL couples from around the league, learning about Jesus Christ and how following His teachings affect not only our faith, but everything in our lives from our marriages and parenting to our finances.
Not every NFL player who turns to faith is a Christian. There are a number of other religions represented in any given NFL locker room. But at the PAO Conference, we watched as more than two hundred NFL couples voluntarily got on their knees, praying to God in thanks, in hope, and in repentance. Cries were heard throughout the large banquet room from players who finally found what it was they felt was missing in their lives. There was no amount of money, no amount of fame, not a single Super Bowl ring or city parade that fulfilled their longing for something more. Reminiscent of how fans chant their names on game days, players and their wives shouted “Jes-us!” in unison, giving all of the glory to Him.
Hands shook and voices cracked as dozens of NFL players waded into the hotel pool to be baptized as Christians. As sports stars, along with actors and musicians in America, these players have more influence and a farther reach today than anyone ever has - at any point in history. These are real men, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that they are not heroes to be worshipped. They are instead on their knees, worshipping the only one who has been able to fill them with a lasting sense of purpose and belonging. Football is fleeting. So is life. But what these players have found in their faith has the promise to last forever.