Clergymen hovering along the sidelines; athletes proselytizing like revival preachers; and “Jocks for Jesus” steadily colonizing locker rooms nationwide.

This was the brave new sports world that journalist Frank Deford described in a 1976 three-part series for Sports Illustrated on religion and sports. “It is almost as if a new denomination had been created,” Deford posited. “Sportianity.”

Deford was writing at a unique historical moment. Newsweek had proclaimed 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical,” as presidential candidate Jimmy Carter identified as a “born again” Christian. Evangelicals, it seemed, were everywhere—even in the games that people played and loved.

More than simply documenting this trend, though, Deford channeled his inner-most H. L. Mencken and produced a whimsical and astute lament of the burgeoning Sportian movement. “They endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver,” he quipped.

In the 40 years since Deford’s profile, Sportians have become increasingly ubiquitous. Indeed, the mere fact of their presence is no longer noteworthy. It takes a more conspicuous act or angle to get attention: think of A. C. Green’s celibacy, Orel Hershiser’s singing of the doxology, or Tim Tebow’s sideline gesticulations.

But while the “Christian athlete” phenomenon may have intensified in recent decades, a look back at our past reveals a lengthy history of evangelical Protestant involvement in sports. Long before Deford deployed his now-infamous neologism, Christian athletes made playing and praying part of their athletic identity.

Here, then, is a list of ten noteworthy “proto-Sportians" ...

Subscriber Access OnlyYou have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Already a CT subscriber? for full digital access.