“Winning and doing well was always important to me,” former UVA tailback Cedric Peerman said. “It still is but glorifying God has been impressed on me. Now I want to represent Jesus Christ on the football field. My identity is not found in my performance. My identity is found in Christ.” (Photo by Jason O. Watson)
One sunny but chilly Saturday afternoon in mid-February, UVA Head Football Coach Mike London stood behind a wooden podium inside Chestnut Grove Baptist Church in Esmont, Virginia.
“Thank you very much. Amen,” he told the African-American congregation who assembled to hear him speak in commemoration of Black History Month. “This is truly a blessing and an honor to be here.”
About to begin his third year as UVA’s head coach, London had sat patiently through more than an hour of invocations, scripture readings, prayers, hymns, and an offering to get to his part of the program.
“There’s a lot of love and excitement here,” he told the packed church. “I wish y’all could run out of Scott Stadium with me.”
For the next 15 minutes, London addressed the small crowd with remarks that were part sermon, part locker room speech, effectively combining his role as UVA’s football coach with his status as a believer in Jesus.
“The reverend says it’s O.K. if I act like y’all are my football team,” he continued, before moving on to his stated topic of serving with commitment. “Coaching is like serving with commitment,” he said. “Teaching is like serving with commitment. Being a brother or sister or friend is like serving with commitment.”
Heads nodded and murmurs of amen punctuated his message. Commitment requires teamwork, the 2011 ACC Coach of the Year reminded the audience, and a selfless attitude.
“I don’t care if the quarterback gets the credit,” he said, using the game of football as an example. “The center has to get the ball to the quarterback, the wide receivers have to run the right route, and the offensive line has to block. A touchdown means everybody scores. It requires giving without expecting something in return. That’s hard to do.”
In 2011, London’s second season leading the team, UVA posted an 8-4 record and went to its first bowl game since the 2007 season. He’s been credited with reviving the school’s recruiting profile in the 757 area code and restoring order in the locker room. And he’s done it unapologetically following the mantra of “faith, family, and football.”
“I’ll try and take us this way before we go and play our bowl game right now in church, getting ready to get going here before we run out of that tunnel,” London preached, getting to the meat of his address (which I’ve condensed). “Be careful what you think, because your thoughts can become your words. Be careful of your words because your words become your actions. Be careful of your actions because your actions become your character. Be careful of your character because your character becomes your destiny—who you are, what you are, what you want to be, who you say you want to be. All those things are wrapped up.”
Sitting in a back pew of this small church on the southern fringes of Albemarle County, it was hard not to get caught up in the spirit of his speech, and I could see how London would inspire his players before a game to run out on the field and destroy an opponent. Yet, I was not one of his players, nor a member of this church, just a reporter who’d come to hear him preach after learning that he was selected by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to receive its 2011 Coach of the Year Award. According to its press release, the award is given to “a football coach who exemplifies Christian principles and who is involved in FCA. The award is also based on the success/performance of the coach’s team that season.”
My curiosity had been stoked. So much was made of former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow and his Christianity last fall that I wondered to what degree we had an equal merging of faith and football here in Charlottesville, at a public university created by Thomas Jefferson, the man credited with the phrase “the wall of separation of church and state.” More importantly, what effect did it have on the student athletes who play the game?
I decided to do a little digging, starting with the chief source, London himself, but when I requested an interview, the athletic department’s media relations department told me the coach wouldn’t be available. He was too busy recruiting players for the next season, plus, while London felt very strongly about his faith, I was told, he also liked to keep it private.
I tried again a month later, but was told that London was too busy concentrating on spring football. Perhaps he would talk to me in the summer.
UVA senior punter Jimmy Howell dedicated his life to Christ during a team Bible study session led by football team chaplain, George Morris. (Photo by Jason O. Watson)
Undeterred, I asked to speak with UVA offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. On a website called Catholic Athletes for Christ, a bio for him states that he “loves his Catholic faith and especially loves reading and sharing Sacred Scripture.” Yet, when I inquired into his availability, I was informed that he liked to talk about football but was reserved when it came to his faith. Plus, he was recuperating from shoulder surgery.
UVA’s football chaplain George Morris also balked. “I don’t want any recognition for the work I do,” he said when I reached him by phone. Although he is also chaplain for the basketball team, he is actually a full time employee, not of the University, but of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Morris suggested I speak with someone higher up at the FCA if I wanted to discuss the relationship between faith and football.
The establishment clause
I was starting to get the feeling that while London’s program openly embraces Christian teachings and principles, his athletic department has a less comfortable relationship with the line that prevents a public university from professing a particular faith.
“They have to be careful about what they say,” Covenant School Head Football Coach Dave Rocco lamented. “It’s a business and that’s the sad thing about it.”
His nephew, Mike, plays quarterback for UVA, and Rocco said Christianity has made him the player he has become.
“When I was in college, if I accepted God as much as he does now, I would’ve gone even further,” Rocco said. “I wish I could live the way he lives. I look up to him for that.”
“God is good, isn’t he?” London had asked the churchgoers as he wrapped up his remarks that February day. “I don’t mind telling you that the way the program is being run in Charlottesville is of a personal nature to me, because faith, family, and football are the priorities.”
Afterwards, as I drove the winding roads back to Charlottesville, I thought about the marriage of Christianity and football. Last fall, when Tebow reeled off victory after victory on the way to a last second playoff win over the Steelers, about half of the discussion of the former Heisman winner was devoted to his unorthodox throwing motion. But just as much of it focused on his outspoken Christian faith, though, complemented by his habit of kneeling to pray —called “Tebowing”—on the sidelines.
The values that make good Christians make good football players, and good football players win games. That’s the message I was getting. But professional athletes are paid and they can do what they like. College athletes at public universities can’t so easily walk away from a program if they’re uncomfortable with the level of religion espoused in the locker room.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those words underly the “wall of separation between church and state,” a term Thomas Jefferson coined in a letter in 1802. But the Establishment Clause, as its known, has never created any clear borders, rather it’s always been a legal battleground with a virtual DMZ where conservative and liberal scholars define the terms of engagement.
The ACLU has been involved in many of these cases, and Rebecca Glenberg, legal director of its Virginia branch, unsurprisingly called what I described to her—the chapel services, or coach London’s recitation of the Lord’s Prayer before each game (a common practice throughout college football) —troubling. “A school official—particularly one with a great deal of power over students, like a coach—leading or organizing the prayer raises First Amendment concerns,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Such activities send the message to students that the school wants them to participate in religious activities, and that they are not full members of the team if they do not.”
Glenberg also found the locker room Lord’s Prayer problematic since it is an explicitly Christian prayer. “Even in those rare contexts in which courts have allowed government-sponsored prayers—such as in legislative bodies—those prayers must be nonsectarian,” she said.
Both Glenberg and Douglas Laycock, a UVA law professor and First Amendment scholar, expressed concern over the voluntary nature of the football team’s religious acts. “Every member of the team should feel entirely free to participate or not to participate in the chapel and in the locker room prayer,” said Laycock. “I hope that is true here.”
If you are a player and your coaches are organizing or even leading a religious event or act it seems like that individual would feel a certain peer pressure to join in. “In a college football team, being ‘a member of the team’ is strongly emphasized,” Glenberg added. “Players may therefore feel pressured to join in prayers even when they are nominally optional.”
UVA football players take a knee to share a group prayer during a spring football practice last week. (Photo by Jack Looney)
God and football
Unlike many NFL players, Tim Tebow has been advertising his faith in the mainstream for years, whether by having Phil 4:13 or John 3:16 inscribed on his eye-black for games in college or appearing in an anti-abortion ad during the 2011 Super Bowl. According to William J. Baker’s 2010 book Playing with God, the relationship between faith and football was not always cozy, particularly below the Mason-Dixon Line.
In 1897—20 years after Washington and Lee took on VMI in the first football game in the South—a statewide gathering of Virginia Baptists denounced what they called “the growing evil of the modern sport of football.” The denomination’s periodical described the game as “that dirtily clad, bare and frowsy headed, rough-and-tumble, shoving, pushing, crushing, pounding, kicking, ground-wallowing, mixed up mass of players any of whom might come out with broken limbs, or be left on the ground writhing with ruptured vitals.”
At the Baptist-run Richmond College, however, the sport was enthusiastically supported by an administration that paid a former UVA player $50 a season to coach its team. To appease its denomination’s concerns, the faculty occasionally urged “such changes in the game of football as will reduce to a minimum the danger to life and limbs.”
As the sport evolved, the evangelical South was slowly won over, particularly when Alabama upset the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl. Their gradual acceptance was trumped by the rapid rise of Notre Dame’s football program. In the 1930s, the Indiana Catholic school created the blueprint for the successful combination of football and religion. “Never in history was there such a mystic blending of religion and sport,” Baker writes.
The team’s chaplain, Father John O’Hara, conducted communion services on the eve of games and regularly distributed medallions of church saints to players before games. Their coach Knute Rockne reveled in the merger: “Outside the church, the best thing we’ve got going is good, clean football.”
UVA Head Football Coach Mike London was named ACC Coach of the Year and Fellowship of Christian Athletes Coach of the Year after leading his team to an 8-4 record and its first bowl bid since 2007. (Photo by Jack Looney)
Although Protestant denominations were slower to gravitate to this co-mingling of religion and sports, by the time the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) was formed in the early 1950s, football had taken over the South. Its popularity matched the rise of evangelism and its chief proponent Billy Graham, who used football terminology and held his rallies in sports stadiums. In the ’60s, coaches like Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry openly advocated for the role of faith in their sport, offering the game’s clean-cut heroes as an alternative to the counter-culture.
Whether this was actually the case—it obviously wasn’t with a team like the Oakland Raiders in the next decade—the perception became reality, and led to today’s current state, where football and faith are inseparable.
“I’ve been a member of and have coached a lot of teams and worked for a lot of coaches—Steve Spurrier, UVA’s Al Groh, Sonny Randle—and been with a number of assistant coaches who are now head coaches,” said Bob Pruett, UVA’s defensive coordinator in 2009 and head football coach at Marshall University from 1996 to 2004. “I don’t remember many, if any, that religion wasn’t a big part of their makeup.”
Some other coaches who have publicly embraced and espoused Christianity are Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Georgia’s Mark Richt, Florida State’s recently retired Bobby Bowden, and Ohio State’s newly hired Urban Meyer (Tebow’s former coach at Florida).
“My brother [Danny] at Richmond is very faith-based,” Dave Rocco said of his older brother who recently took over the head coaching position at the University of Richmond, London’s alma mater.
Both older Roccos played at Penn State under legendary coach Joe Paterno. “Paterno was very much into faith, family, and football,” said Rocco, who was a linebacker for the Nittany Lions. “A lot of coaches nowadays preach that and that’s how they want you to run your life.”
The FCA is responsible—at least in part—for this evolution, created as it was to be “the merger of faith in Christ and sport,” according to Jimmy Page, its vice president of field ministry for the mid-Atlantic region.
Today, 60 years after its formation, FCA is the largest Christian campus ministry in the world, and claims to have “reached more than 350,000 people on over 7,100 campuses and worked with more than 46,000 coaches and athletes at camps across the globe” in the last year alone. While the organization also provides a chaplain to Virginia Tech’s football team and various other universities, it is not confined to college campuses. It has active chapters—called “huddles”—in most of our area high schools and middle schools.
Once labeled by Tom Landry as “America’s best-kept secret,” FCA has been outed, at least in one sense, as an “anti-gay organization” by the media and communications initiative Equality Matters. For instance, it highlights one FCA webpage where a coach writes that she was “delivered from homosexuality.” It also targets the FCA’s Student and Ministry Leader applications, which require applicants to agree to a sexual purity statement that says in part: “The Bible is clear in teaching on sexual sin including sex outside of marriage and homosexual acts. Neither heterosexual sex outside of marriage nor any homosexual act constitute an alternate lifestyle acceptable to God.”
When I asked Nancy Hedrick, FCA’s executive vice-president of communications and events, about this, she deflected my question but did not deny any bias towards sexual orientation. “FCA strongly believes that every person should be treated with love, dignity and respect,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Those desiring a student leadership role in FCA ministries are required to fill out a Student Leader Application and agree to certain guidelines. Also, those who desire to be employees or volunteer leaders in any form of FCA’s ministry are also required to agree upon and sign our Ministry Leader Application. These are to ensure unity with FCA’s vision, mission, and values.”
Covenant School Head Football Coach Dave Rocco (above) is part of a football family that sees the value in connecting football and religion. His nephew, Mike Rocco (below), is UVA’s starting quarterback. (Photo by John Robinson)
Winning with Christ
Since I was having trouble reaching anyone who currently plays or coaches at UVA, I looked elsewhere, which is why I ended up talking with Pruett. And Brandon Streeter. A former starting quarterback for the Clemson Tigers in the late 1990s, Streeter is also the newly appointed offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach for the Richmond Spiders under head coach Danny Rocco. He occupied the same position at Liberty University, a Southern Baptist college started by televangelist Jerry Falwell in the early 1970s, for the last six years.
Rocco and Streeter led Liberty to four Big South conference championships and a 47-20 record. I wanted to know how coaching at an outwardly religious school like Liberty was different from coaching at Clemson or Richmond.
While he said coaches could definitely be more open with their beliefs in Lynchburg—one of Liberty’s coaches had a Bible devotional with his players before every team meeting—there were many similarities to his other stops. For instance, Liberty had chapel during the week as well as a pre-game prayer, but so did Clemson and so will Richmond likely. “I can’t tell you that it was a ton different than anywhere else I’ve been,” he said.
Now that he is at a secular school, Streeter said he is feeling his way around.
“I’m still trying to figure out what I’m allowed and what I’m not allowed to say as far as faith is concerned,” he said. “I talk about it in a general aspect as much as I can because I truly believe in Christianity and I think it’s helped me in a variety of ways as a player and as a coach, but I’ve got to get a feel for what I’m allowed to say. There is definitely a difference.”
If he’s searching for examples, Streeter might want to look some 60 miles to the west where Christian coaches are firmly entrenched. While I focused on football for a variety of reasons, I could have easily chosen UVA’s basketball program, where the FCA’s George Morris is also chaplain. In November 2010, the Daily Progress ran an entire article on head coach Tony Bennett’s Christian faith and how it relates to his basketball team. “Coach Bennett loves the Lord,” K.T. Harrell, one of his players, told the Progress. “His relationship with God was a big reason why I came here.”
“[I]t’s nice having a coach who shares the same beliefs as you,” said another player, James Johnson. “If you have something you want to talk to him about, you know, walk with the Lord, you can go to him and he’ll give you his honest opinion about it. It kind of helps out.”
According to the article, both players could be found at church with Bennett and his assistant Ritchie McKay, former head coach at Liberty University, on Sundays. Oddly, both Harrell and Johnson have since transferred out of that church and the University.
As I neared the deadline for this story, UVA granted me access to Jimmy Howell, the team’s punter for the last four years and a genuine NFL prospect. I was excited to speak with him. Not only has Howell played under Al Groh and Mike London, he also experienced a Christian conversion as a member of the football team.
“In a sense you can become superhuman in that you run further and faster and jump higher,” said Howell. “You do all those things because you know that no matter how hard it is or what pain you may go through that Jesus went through infinitely more than we could ever imagine.”
Mike Rocco (Photo by Jack Looney)
Although Howell was raised a Presbyterian and attended chapel and FCA meetings in his first year-and-half, he said that like many college students he was always searching for a temporary high. “Then I’d be miserable. It was taking a toll on me mentally physically and spiritually.”
During spring practice two years ago, Howell attended a bible study hosted by the new team chaplain, George Morris. Near the end of the meeting, Morris asked everyone to close their eyes. “Tonight, you can decide that Jesus is your Lord and Savior,” he told the room. “And if you want to make that change right now, then open your eyes, stand up, and come to the front of the room.”
Howell decided to give his life to Christ right then and there, joining an ever-growing constituency of Christians on the UVA football team. “Ever since Coach London and [chaplain] Morris got here people are more vocal and more out about being Christians and believers,” Howell said. “It’s readily talked about every day around the locker room. You see a Bible everywhere you go.”
The same day I spoke with Howell, I also talked with Cedric Peerman, a UVA tailback from 2004 to 2007 who is currently a member of the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals, and for the next few weeks, a pastoral intern at Jefferson Park Baptist Church in Charlottesville.
Like Howell, Peerman converted to Christianity while on the team (after a fellow player gave him a sermon to listen to on his iPod). Both said that religion dramatically altered their approach to football.
“Winning and doing well was always important to me,” Peerman said. “It still is, but glorifying God has been impressed on me. Now I want to represent Jesus Christ on the football field. My identity is not found in my performance. My identity is found in Christ.”
Neither Howell nor Peerman could say definitively whether Groh and his staff had been believers, but they had no such problem when it came to London. Not only was he vocal about it, but the coach also made decisive changes in the program that reflect an overall belief in God. For instance, where there was once only a Friday night chapel, London opened up the locker room on Thursday nights for Bible study—sometimes led by Morris, other times by players—and instituted a Sunday morning devotional.
The level of locker room religion put me in mind of UVA’s baseball team. Before every home game, a majority of the players march out beyond third base where they kneel in a circle with their arms clasped around each other and pray. Before the last game I attended, the team bowed their heads for two or three minutes in a very public display. Only four or five players remained in the dugout, including the team’s lone Jewish player Scott Silverstein.
Does the fervent belief lead to a missionary attitude towards players who don’t participate?
“Of course, believers advise and like to talk to nonbelievers and try to lead them to Christ but it’s ultimately their decision,” said Howell of his fellow teammates.
As I ran out of questions to ask Peerman, I thanked him for speaking with me and then intended to hang up when he spoke, “Jayson, let me ask you a question: Have you ever understood the gospel of Jesus Christ?” I paused, concerned where this might be heading, but then answered. “Oh yeah,” I said, and explained to him that I was raised in a very religious Christian household.
“God calls for us to cast all our cares on him,” Peerman told me, to repent from our sins, to serve and honor Him. “He is worthy of all our attention and affection.”
Nearly every player and coach I spoke to for this story was adamant that their belief in Jesus had not only given them a new perspective on life, but had also helped them be better athletes.
“No matter who you are or what you believe in you have to have something to give you inner strength in tough times,” Bon Pruett said. “If you don’t have that, then what’s your crutch?”
“A belief in God gives you more discipline, and puts you in the right direction and the right frame of mind to play to the best of your abilities,” said Dave Rocco.
“If you really truly believe that God gave you that gift and that He wants you to use it to the best of your ability, then that gives you that extra gear or extra button to push even harder,” said Brandon Streeter. “And then you glorify God with the successes you have.”
It made me think of something London had said back in February as he closed his sermon at Chestnut Grove Baptist Church. “Y’all continue to keep praying for me because in the world we live in today, professing your faith and standing up for what you believe in is hard,” London told the congregation. “It’s hard folks, it’s hard.”
I think it can be just as difficult to be outspoken if you don’t believe, maybe not in the broader culture, but certainly within the context of a locker room full of Christians, like at UVA.
Howell assured me there was nothing to worry about. “I haven’t seen too many people that felt uncomfortable and if they do they voice it,” he said. “It’s a very open atmosphere. If people believe they’re open about it, and if they don’t they’re open about it. Nobody pressures anybody to do anything.”
(Editor’s Note: The Marquette Sports Law Review published a paper on the subject of prayer in locker rooms at public universities that outlines the relevant First Amendment legal arguments.)