After tearing cartilage in his knee on the last play of practice one afternoon last fall, professional football player Trent Dilfer wrote in his prayer journal, "Lord, my knee is giving me lots of trouble since surgery a week ago. The more it hurts, the more I feel I must trust you."
His career already at a standstill nearly a year after a rising young star replaced him as quarterback, Dilfer prayed the injury would draw him closer to God and make him more sensitive to divine purposes. "I also pray that your Spirit would allow me an attitude of great joy and peace in the midst of this setback," he wrote. "Lord, I trust that you would use this attitude to encourage somebody else on my team who is experiencing a setback of their own."
In an age when athletes flush with victory give thanks to Jesus on national TV, Dilfer personifies the quiet, unseen side of the faith of Christians in the National Football League (NFL). Like any other believer at work, Dilfer exercises his faith not so much in stardom's glory but in the crucible of everyday aches and frustrations.
After finishing below. 500 in 1998, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers replaced Dilfer during the 1999 campaign and went on to win a division championship. High expectations—he was the sixth player selected in the first round of the 1994 NFL draft and led the Buccaneers to a playoff victory in 1997—died down when the Buccaneers traded Dilfer to the Baltimore Ravens after six seasons. He went from backing up rookie sensation Shaun King in Tampa Bay to backing up highly touted Tony Banks in Baltimore.
"I couldn't be more thankful that in the past couple of years God has allowed me to deal with a great deal of change, adversity, and unknowing, because my greatest growth usually comes in times of despair," Dilfer says.
"As I've gone through great adversity professionally," he adds, "God is beginning to paint a very clear picture for me of how he's drawing me closer to him—where my heart is, what are my true deep thoughts and motives when the lights are off and nobody's around, and what that has to do with football. Are my motives to become faithful so that I'll be rewarded in football, or are my motives to be faithful so I'll just continue to trust him?"
Dilfer, whose career has since reignited in Baltimore, doubts he would have gained this spiritual perspective had he not suffered the professional struggles that led him "to be still and wait on him."
The gospel of success
In an industry in which the very air one breathes is laden with self-importance, the 6'4", 229-pound quarterback makes genuine humility one of his top spiritual quests.
"Thank you, God, that you are using football as the means to break me so that I may know you better," Dilfer wrote in his prayer journal on September 29.
The 28-year-old native of Santa Cruz, California, with the close-cropped beard does not expect faith to necessarily produce success on the football field. "I tend to differ from some athletes in the NFL who have been very outspoken in their faith," Dilfer says. "I don't think that our success level dictates the amount we can glorify God."
He thinks a false assumption is spreading throughout the increasingly Christianized league that "the more successful I can be, the more I can glorify God, because now I can show the world that I serve a powerful God who can give me victory and great circumstances and blessing where he's not giving it to others. But as I search God's Word, I don't see him saying that."
Rather, he says, Scripture indicates that God calls believers first to be faithful, and secondarily to develop 100 percent of what he has given them—whether they are athletes, business owners, spouses, parents, or any other vocation.
"It's the process more than the product that brings him glory," he says, "because when people are truly searching and looking into people's lives to find answers, where they'll see God is in a consistent life and in the process, not necessarily the end result or the product."
The dramatic success—and widely broadcast Christian testimony—of St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner has fed the notion that God glorifies himself by granting success to his talented children. But Dilfer has no quarrel with Warner, whose testimony has become so celebrated that before the first Monday Night Football kickoff last fall, rookie commentator Dennis Miller felt free to make a prime-time reference to Warner's "faith in his higher power—and I don't mean [NFL Commissioner] Paul Tagliabue."
Warner has excelled in conducting post-game interviews in a way that leaves no room for the common implication that the Creator of the universe takes sides in a football game, Dilfer says. Furthermore, he says, Warner has been as consistent in defeat as in victory; on the rare occasions when he has been criticized, the Rams quarterback has asserted his trust in God to test and develop him through the difficulties.
Dilfer has considered the issue of faith and mundane victory deeply enough, however, to arrive at a nuanced correlation: "I nowhere feel that because I'm striving to be faithful that the flip side will be great reward in football," he says. "But I believe that I am more motivated professionally than I've ever been because God has given me a certain amount of ability, leadership, and other areas that I am called to develop through his strength. This will naturally help me progress in a successful way."
Controversial prayer circles
It is just such nuance that is difficult to convey in the victorious glow of a superficial postgame interview. Dismissing the faith that resides behind public comments, both Christian and secular pundits have criticized NFL Christians for invoking the name of the Lord on national TV. Clergy have objected that such declarations suggest God takes sides, and mainstream critics perceive exploitation of the media.
Motives are key, says Dilfer: Talking of God simply to impose one's faith on the public amounts to an essentially worldly method of evangelism.
"I don't think that's the intention or the motive that he calls us to have," he says. "It should be an overwhelming of the heart of what God has accomplished in our lives through our occupation—that is the motive of sharing with people, 'Thank you, Jesus,' or 'I want to give God the credit.'"
The now common scene of opposing players kneeling in prayer after games has unsettled, and sometimes rankled, even more critics. The prayer circles generated objections almost as soon as Christians on the San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants formed the first one after a Monday- night game in 1990. After the Super Bowl that year, Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly wrote that the prayers were offensive to persons of other faiths, were a form of religious promotion, and should occur in private. The NFL considered banning the prayers but eventually backed off, especially when players said they were willing to be fined to continue the circles.
Given the recent rash of criminal wrongdoing and a long history of drug abuse in the NFL, some critics smell hypocrisy in the prayer circles. Though not necessarily involving Christians, these high-publicity misdoings inform public perception:
Mark Chmura was released by the Green Bay Packers after being charged with third-degree rape of a 17-year-old girl. (He has pleaded innocent.)
Rae Carruth was released from the Carolina Panthers after being charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend.
Rod Smith of the Denver Broncos was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor verbal abuse.
For every Kurt Warner, fans may wonder, how many Eugene Robinsons are there? (Robinson is an evangelical on the Carolina Panthers who, while playing for the Atlanta Falcons, was charged with soliciting an undercover police officer for sex.)
With sex, drugs, and violence at one extreme and faith on the other, the NFL appears to be a microcosm of the United States—increasingly polarized by both the sacred and the profane. At the sacred end, the postgame prayer enables Christian players to consecrate their jobs to the Lord, Dilfer says. They do, after all, play on Sunday.
"Football, or anything we do in our day-to-day lives, should be an act of worship to him," Dilfer says. "So that should be our logical response—to kneel on the field and pray in thanksgiving or need, or giving up ourselves in a time of great stress. In a time when the world's looking at us to be superstars, we're simply saying, 'God, this isn't about me. This is about you.'"
As a form of spirituality in the workplace (the stadium), postgame prayers among opposing players help bring the larger perspective to the all-consuming demands of what is in essence war, Dilfer says.
"Every Sunday it's an absolute, hand-to-hand-combat battle, and you spend so much of your physical and emotional strength in those three hours that you come to the end of it, and the prayer is a time of perspective," Dilfer says. "It's a time where God has pulled a group of men together to say, 'Okay, after all that's just been said and done, what is our purpose and what is our perspective on life?'"
In the criticisms of public postgame prayer, Danny Wuerffel of the Green Bay Packers [see "Seeing the Whole Field," p. 64] notes an attempt to compartmentalize various aspects of life, rather than integrate them.
"When most people think that religion is something you do like any other hobby, I can see why they might be offended that you bring something else you do into a public place where they didn't ask for it," Wuerffel says. "But I'm not a football player who happens to do Christianity. I'm a Christian who happens to play football."
Praying with other believers, then, comes as a natural expression of his core identity, Wuerffel says. "It's kind of like gender," he says. "I can't go out on the field and not be a male."
What is actually said in these postgame prayers? For about 90 seconds, the sweaty, oversized, and armored men might go to their knees to say, "God, thank you that, first of all, you've allowed us to do this," Dilfer says. "God, we want to pray for the people who have been injured and ask that you would heal them, and as well ask that you would work in their lives through their injuries, and that you would provide safe travel for the team that traveled to get there."
The player leading prayers, Dilfer adds, then usually tries to draw the group together with a word about what God can accomplish through men who are committed to serving him first and playing football second.
"Lord, I trust you to renew my strength in my times of weakness so that you will be honored in everything I do," Dilfer wrote in his prayer journal on September 30.
He was still sitting on the bench behind Tony Banks, who had just led the Ravens to a 37-0 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals for a 3-1 record; when Banks came out of the fray late in the game for a rest, Dilfer's injury kept him from what normally would have been a playing opportunity.
But in the next few games, Banks struggled at quarterback, and a month later Dilfer replaced him as the starter and has again enjoyed the fruits of success. While still an injured backup on the morning of an October 1 game against the Cleveland Browns, however, Dilfer had written in his prayer journal:
"Lord, game day is always the same prayer—all of you, none of me. I need your Spirit to be in total control of my thoughts, actions, emotions, and words. God, I know you have given me a platform with Tony, and I pray that you will give me the wisdom and words to encourage him as a quarterback, but more importantly, I pray that you use me in his life to encourage him toward growth and maturity with you."
Jeff M. Sellers is a CT associate editor.
Be sure to read Christianity Today's related story about the Green Bay Packers' Danny Wuerffel.
This article from E-sports.com from July 1999 will remind you of some of the pressures Dilfer faced with sportswriters reporting that, "outside of the Chargers' Ryan Leaf, there may not be a quarterback in the NFL that has less respect from his teammates than Dilfer."
Previous Christianity Today stories about the NFL include:
God on the Gridiron | Should there be a wall of separation between the church and football? (Dec. 11, 1999)
Who Is on the Lord's Team? | (Oct. 4, 1999)
Champions for Christ Pulled into NFL Convert Controversy | (Oct. 5, 1998)
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