The annals of football are filled with “God squads,” teams with widely publicized reputations for Christian faith. As far back as the 1890s, Yale football enthusiasts attributed the team’s success to the number of “praying men” on the squad. The undefeated 1954 UCLA team, with over half the starting lineup involved with Campus Crusade for Christ, was nicknamed the “Eleven from Heaven.”
And professional football has had plenty of teams with strong Christian contingents, too: the Baltimore Colts of the late 1960s, the Miami Dolphins of the early 1970s, the Washington Redskins of the 1980s and early 1990s, the St. Louis Rams circa 1999, and the Seattle Seahawks circa 2013, to name just a few. It would probably be more newsworthy if a successful football team did not have a handful of outspoken Christians than if it had a team full of them.
Still, despite the ubiquity of Christianity within football, in recent years the Philadelphia Eagles have stood out, especially after a viral 2016 video of five Eagles players getting baptized in the team’s cold tub. The video spurred ESPN to cover the strong presence of evangelical religiosity on the team. And the following year the Eagles’ reputation for conspicuous evangelical Christianity grew alongside their win totals, culminating with a Super Bowl victory and a slew of shout-outs to God in the post-game interviews.
With Eagles’ testimonies already blanketing television, social media, newspapers, magazines, websites, and even Bible apps, it is only fitting that the team receives the evangelical book treatment. Rob Maaddi’s Birds of Pray: The Story of the Philadelphia Eagles’ Faith, Brotherhood, and Super Bowl Victory gives readers an inside glimpse of the latest and greatest of the God squads—and also, although unintentionally, a sense of the troubling way evangelical Christianity and sports have been intertwined in American culture.
The ‘Core Group’
An Associated Press sportswriter based in Philadelphia, Maaddi has spent two decades in sports media. While his main job involves the essential reporting and writing tasks shared by most sports journalists, a conversion experience in 2010 led Maaddi to want more; he began to look for ways to use his media platform to promote Christian faith. With two books and a radio show that cover Christian athletes already on his résumé, Birds of Pray is Maaddi’s latest effort in this vein.
Spread out over 22 short chapters, Birds of Pray takes readers from the 2016 convergence of the Eagles’ key leaders—Howie Roseman (general manager), Doug Pederson (head coach), and Carson Wentz (quarterback)—through the aftermath of their February 2018 Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. His journalism chops are apparent throughout. This is not simply a collection of testimonies. It has a basic narrative flow and moments of drama as Maaddi moves back and forth from describing on-field action and front-office strategies to detailing the religious backgrounds and perspectives of Eagles players.
Or, I should say, some Eagles players. There are 53 players on an in-season NFL roster, but only about 10 of those players receive substantial attention—Wentz, Nick Foles, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, Jordan Hicks, Stefen Wisniewski, and Chris Maragos are especially prominent, with Malcolm Jenkins, Torrey Smith, and Marcus Johnson showing up with regularity as well. This is an important detail to remember. Despite the Eagles’ Christian reputation, the majority do not attend the Bible studies and worship services that Maaddi writes about, nor do they have a desire to publicly discuss their faith. Birds of Pray, then, is really about one subset on the team, the “core group of Christians,” as Maaddi puts it.
As for what this “core group” believes, Maaddi often uses extended quotations, letting the players speak for themselves. Four basic themes seem to take center stage for the evangelical Eagles, who clearly think deeply and often about how to live out their faith as athletes. First, there’s the contrast between being religious and having a relationship with Jesus; second, the desire to find one’s identity in Christ rather than in the ups and downs of football life; third, an emphasis on spreading the gospel by making disciples and serving others; and fourth, the importance of faith to family life.
Maaddi’s access to the Eagles and his strong relationship with the team’s evangelical players allows him to provide a handful of fascinating and previously unreported perspectives. One of the most illuminating comes in a chapter devoted to the Eagles’ involvement in the movement sparked by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to use the national anthem as a time for peaceful protest. Although no Eagles players kneeled during the national anthem, some did raise a fist or offer vocal support for the need to address racial inequalities. Maaddi writes with a sympathetic view of the protesting players, carefully explaining the motivations behind their actions. Maaddi also gets Malcolm Jenkins, one of the players who raised his fist, to explain the way that Christianity influenced his activism.
Papering over Tension
Vignettes like these, emerging from Maaddi’s skill as a reporter, help Birds of Pray stand out compared to other books in the faith-and-football genre. Yet the book does not exactly soar beyond the bounds of its competitors; like so many in its field, it is too often shallow and short on analysis, aiming for positive-minded platitudes rather than thoughtful reflection.
Consider, for example, Maaddi’s conclusion to his chapter on the anthem controversy. While he writes with fairness when describing the issue, he concludes that the Eagles’ conspicuous Christianity was important not because it caused people to consider the grievances of the protesting players, but rather because it provided a safe talking point away from those controversial conversations, a “much-needed diversion for those who wanted to discuss something else.”
The impulse to quickly paper over tension and the inability to dwell on messy and complicated subjects is a hallmark of evangelical sports literature.
And then there are these two questions: Are the Eagles truly a Christian team? And do they owe their on-field success to being more Christian than other teams? Throughout the book, the implied answer to both questions is “yes.”
Maaddi writes that “the seeds for Philadelphia’s championship run in 2017 were planted because many players were united by their Christian faith, and they formed a strong brotherhood that helped them overcome adversity and tremendous odds.”
In another section, the 2017 Eagles are contrasted with the 2004 Eagles, a team that went to the Super Bowl but lost by a field goal. The key difference between the two teams, according to Maaddi and longtime Eagles chaplain Ted Winsley, came down to the faith of the quarterbacks. While the quarterback of the 2004 Eagles, Donovan McNabb, attended weekly Bible studies, he “appeared to have a tough time applying those lessons to his everyday life,” Maaddi explains, in contrast with Wentz and Foles, who were “genuinely humble.” As a result, the 2004 Eagles, despite having a “large number of believers,” are described as lacking a truly Christian culture.
Compare Birds of Pray’s treatment of McNabb with its approach to 2017 Eagles center Jason Kelce. During the team’s Super Bowl parade, Kelce gave an expletive-laden rant in which he made no mention of God but did credit the team’s success to its underdog mentality. Nevertheless, Kelce’s speech is depicted as just another mark of the Eagles’ Christian identity, a sign, as Ted Winsley explains, of a man “moved to believe by the faith of the believers.” In other words, the quarterback who in 2004 attended weekly Bible studies is depicted as failing to apply the Bible to his life, while the man who apparently makes no claim to Christian faith is depicted as just one more piece of evidence for the Christian culture of the 2017 Eagles.
Faith and ‘Success’
This utilitarian approach to Christianity pervades sports-related evangelical books, where it is almost impossible to resist the allure of linking Christianity with athletic success, using the latter to confirm the truth of the former. The default assumption is not that God will supernaturally intervene to help Christians; far more common is the idea that Christianity leads to team unity or individual peace of mind, which eventually results in team or player success—with “success” defined by the scoreboard or stat sheet.
But anyone who has been involved with the church—or who pays attention to current events—should be well aware of the folly of this view. Perhaps Donovan McNabb did not practice what his Bible study preached. What could be more Christian than that? If Christians are truly a people aware of their brokenness and need for a Savior—if the church, as the popular saying goes, really is a hospital for sinners and not a hotel for saints—then there should not be an irrepressible urge to link the faith with worldly standards of success and happiness.
But then again, what else could Maaddi do besides playing the role of booster? In many ways, he is limited by the very thing that provides this book with moments of insight: access. It could hardly be expected that Maaddi would risk alienating his friends and sources by offering a word of caution.
Instead, Maaddi has written exactly the sort of book you would expect in this genre: a feel-good story for evangelical football fans, especially those in Philadelphia. After reading, one comes away with the vague sense of having read this before somewhere. When the next “God squad” comes along, we’ll probably read it again.
Paul Putz is a lecturer in US history at Messiah College. He received his PhD in history from Baylor University and is currently working on a book about the blending of sports and Christianity in 20th-century America.