Faith & character on fields in football playoffs

by Will Hall |

(REUTERS/Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)Jan 1, 2015; New Orleans, LA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer and Alabama Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban greet each other after the 2015 Sugar Bowl at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ohio State defeated Alabama 42-35.

PASADENA, Calif. (Christian Examiner) – As millions of football fans watched dazzling feats of athleticism and brilliant game calling while Oregon stunned Florida State 59 to 20, and Ohio State out-punched Alabama, 42 to 35, they were seeing some remarkable men of character and faith in key roles on both fields.

Even a freshman role player, Taylor Alie, a holder for extra points for the Ducks, has stated his desire to live for Christ. Last night he threw a two-point conversion after the Ducks' first touchdown in the Rose Bowl.

Nick Saban at Alabama and his counterpart, Urban Meyer, at Ohio State are known as devout Catholics, and Florida State's Jimbo Fisher is a faithful Methodist.

Saban includes Mass and the Lord's Prayer as part of his team's pre-game preps and his pastor at St. Francis of Assisi University Parish, Gerald Holloway, serves as team chaplain. Fisher is active in Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Meyer even came under fire in 2012 from the anti-Christian Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin because he holds voluntary chapel and prayer services with his Buckeyes.

All three men, along with Oregon's Mark Helfrich, are known for caring for their players and for trying to shape the character as well as the athletic ability of young men. But perhaps no one impacts teams and influences students on campus and fans more than players who set an example of living for Christ daily.

Although not much is known about the spirituality of Oregon's Mark Helfrich, his top signal caller, 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota has been transparent in sharing his desire to be "all in" for Jesus and that "being a football player, faith plays a huge role" in his play on the field."

"When things start to get rough you find comfort in your faith. Knowing that no matter what, you can dust yourself off and be okay. And you know you do it for [God's] glory. You do it for your teammates, your family, but also for His glory and to represent His name," he told Fellowship of Christian Athletes Magazine.

Alie told FCA that a Christian has to have that "all in" focus "all of the time" and that it's about "having faith in Him and doing everything you can for Him because He paid the ultimate sacrifice for us."

Players in both games sent similar notes to FCA's question about what "all in" for Jesus meant to them:

-- "We're faced with decisions of what's right and wrong each day. Going all in for Christ is doing what's right. With the guidance of Jesus, it's easy to make the right decisions. Without Christ, nothing I've done would be possible." Roberto Aguayo, FSU's placekicker who holds the national record for points in a season by a kicker (157 points in 2013). He made two key field goals in the first half last night, and a 54-yard attempt hit the left upright.

-- "It means knowing Who you're playing and living for. Whether I'm on the field or off, I go all out for Christ because of what He's done for me." Christian Green, a fifth year senior wide receiver for the Seminoles.

-- "To be All In for Christ, is doing everything to glorify Him and spread His word." Junior Denzel Devall, an All-American as a freshman and a two-year letterman, is described as a dangerous 'Bama pass rusher, but did not play due to a foot injury.

-- Brian Vogler, who made two key receptions in the red zone for the Tide during its touchdown drive in the second quarter, said "Going All In for Christ is fully submitting yourself to Him and living to be like Him. Trusting in His plan and living in His perfect image help me to overcome all obstacles I may face."

The stress of big time athletics and the challenges of being away from home combined with temptations on college campuses make it even more important to have support from fellow Believers and mentors. That's where programs like Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action make a by reaching out to encourage coaches and players in their personal walks with Christ.

All four teams also have active chaplains who offer to minister to everyone, regardless of their religious affiliation—or even a lack of faith.

Tony Overstake, a five-year wrestler for Oregon, started Cross Training as a ministry his senior year and continued working with it after he graduated in 2003. He is now a fulltime chaplain with all Ducks athletes, and he is careful to caution that athletes are like everyone else and face daily challenges to their faith.

"My heart is just to support them and help them to be successful as athletes, as students, but more so just that wholeness that comes in the spiritual life as well—off the field as well as on it," he told Sarah Leavers at blogs.uoregon.edu. And he said he tries through counseling to help them understand how to approach their athletic life in context of their faith, especially the struggles—which sometimes are very high profile struggles because of the high visibility of big time sports.

"I think there's a lot of misconceptions in our faith in that it's very behaviorally based," Overstake shared, and he offered a caution against drifting into that way of thinking.

When we see ourselves and others in terms of individual actions, he said, "we lose the heart of what we call the Gospel, the message of Christ."

Oregon and Ohio State will play in the championship game on Jan. 12 at ATT Stadium in Arlington, Texas.