When the Game Stops … For Prayer
Sports chaplains are always on call, offering spiritual support to athletes in high-pressure and often lonely situations
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When Buffalo Bills football player Damar Hamlin collapsed in a game against the Cincinnati Bengals on January 2, the whole National Football League came to a halt and the team’s medical staff jumped into emergency service. So did another little-known member of each team’s entourage: the chaplain.
Nearly all NFL teams have chaplains, many of them affiliated with Athletes in Action®, the sports ministry of Cru®. However, Bengals chaplain Vinny Rey is unusual in one respect: He was a Bengals player for nine years.
Rey, watching in the stands, contacted the Bengals’ director of player engagement and proceeded to the tunnel that connects the locker rooms to the playing field to support the players.
“I had a chance to pray with [Bills chaplain] Len Vanden Bos,” Rey recalls. “We got on a knee right there. You can only imagine, at that time everybody’s looking to us.
“From there I went into the locker room and I did pray with a few guys, but mostly I was just there. I didn’t ask people if they were okay because I knew that a significant amount of guys probably weren’t. I gave out a couple dozen hugs just to let them know ‘I’m here.’”
Players praying together after NFL games rarely gets televised, so the “Pray for Damar” response on the night of January 2 and the subsequent days was quite different. Even ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky acknowledged the outpouring of prayer — and he even prayed himself on camera.
If physicians hadn’t been ready to treat Damar Hamlin after his cardiac arrest, he wouldn’t be alive today. And if chaplains weren’t serving teams, what would happen to the players’ spiritual and emotional health? Interviews with professional sports chaplains reveal a unique ministry to athletes whose careers, even when well compensated financially, often bring significant pressure, public criticism and isolation.
A source of comfort amidst a tough life
Bill Alexson, president and founder of SportsPower International, was chaplain for the National Basketball Association’s Boston Celtics for 20 years. “Everybody thinks NBA players have it made because they’re rich and famous,” Alexson says. “People love them for what they do, not who they are. Their careers are temporary, and when it’s all done, they’re kind of left high and dry.”
The image of athletes as recipients of widespread adulation doesn’t square with reality, says Reza Zadeh, chaplain for the NFL Denver Broncos. “Athletes are viewed as a commodity, not as a person,” Zadeh explains. “They don’t know whom to trust because everyone’s out to get something from them. If it’s not asking for money, people want their influence. People want them to endorse a product.”
Andrew Eppes, one of the US Soccer senior men’s team chaplains, recalled an occasion when he visited a player in Scotland. The player’s wife asked Eppes, “What are you doing here?” He replied, “I’m here because I care about your marriage.” After overcoming her initial disbelief, the wife explained, “Everybody comes to take from us. People want tickets, people want a place to stay. People want a tour guide for the city, they want access to my husband, they want a jersey after the game.”
Zadeh stated that especially when a team is not performing well, critical fans overlook the emotional and physical demands the players face. When athletes have to endure harsh public criticism, “that’s a really sad place to be for a lot of the players. I think a lot of guys, once they get into the NFL, realize, ‘Oh man, this is not at all what I thought it was going to be when I got here.’”
In this context, chaplains find that to gain athletes’ trust, they need to emphasize that a person’s value does not depend on performance. And they don’t ask athletes for anything.
Eppes explains, “I tell them right off the bat that I’m not there for a picture with them. I’m there because I just want to hear about their life, how they’re doing. And most importantly, I want to know how their heart is doing, because the heart is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23).
Damon Gunn, chaplain for the NBA Houston Rockets, describes the main purpose of his ministry as “helping guys realize that basketball isn’t their sole purpose or plan for their life, that God has something so much deeper.”
Mike Tatlock, who serves the NBA Portland Trail Blazers, said the league has actually encouraged the chaplains’ role because “the number one thing that the athletes wrestle with is anxiety. And the league admitted that they weren’t equipped to deal with that.
“The one thing we do more than anything,” Tatlock continues, “is to help them with their emotions, their mental and spiritual well-being. We bring to the table the peace of Christ that passes all understanding. That is the remedy for the things that these guys struggle with.”
Alexson adds that chaplains must be sensitive to the fact that athletes face enormous pressure to perform well. “When they do something wrong, it’s in the newspaper the next day,” he notes. “At chapel, they come in and give their burden to the Lord, and they hear an inspirational message that they can take on the court with them and help them deal with all the craziness in their life. A lot of these guys find peace for the first time.”
The pressure can be even greater in individual sports such as track and field. Dr. Madeline Manning Mims, who won gold in the 800 meters at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, has served as a chaplain at every Olympic Games since 1984.
”The chaplain’s role is so vital,” Mims says. “You may have one wedding for every 10 funerals” — that is, for every athlete pleased with his or her performance, there are about 10 disappointments. “People you love are seeing their dreams die after years of training. To be there with them as they experience [grief from a disappointing performance] is one thing. It is another thing for them to experience it alone.”
Key ministry principles
The strategy and lifestyle of successful sports chaplains embodies the application of familiar biblical principles in an unusual context — one in which travel and game schedules prevent most athletes from regular involvement in a church.
- Be present. “You’re representing God by your presence,” says Mims.
Steve Newman, former chaplain of the Green Bay Packers, says making hospital visits and helping a player pack after he’s been traded or cut are key opportunities. Players’ typical response to such actions is “you were there when no one else cared.”
Christian Taylor, Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, prioritizes attending chapel when he’s competing away from home. “Being in foreign lands and having a chaplain to come in and say, ‘Hey, I’ll meet you where you are,’ it’s a perfect illustration of what God does. He’s the perfect gentleman. ‘I will meet you where you are, and I want to do this walk with you.’’’
- Be available. Mims says that at the Olympics, “Chaplaincy is almost 24 hours a day. But we are there for the athletes. We realize that even though we are dead tired at the end of the day, this too shall pass, and we need to give all we have. It’s as if we are Olympians too, running on our own track. We have come to empower the athletes, and we can’t just wait in the chapel for people to come to us.”
- Value them unconditionally as people, not as performers. “It’s not my role to talk about football,” says Zadeh. “I talk about how their soul, their heart and their marriage are, or what they are dreaming about. I want to show them that I’m interested in their life.” Zadeh conducts Bible studies for coaches and players on their day off from practice.
Similarly, Robert Brooks, the NFL Cleveland Browns’ chaplain since 2012, says spending time with players outside the team facility is valuable “because now they’re not really thinking football. They’re thinking, ‘Man, you’re doing life with me.’ And life is so much more than football.”
- Show no favoritism. George McGovern, director of pro football ministry for Athletes in Action, emphasizes, “Don’t make any distinction between the kid on the practice squad and the highest-paid player in the locker room. That practice squad kid is just as valuable to God.”
Jodi Hasbrouck, who ministers to elite female track and field athletes, agrees: “You have to be as willing to minister to the no-name athlete as to the well-known one. If you’re not willing to do that, you shouldn’t be in this line of work.”
Tatlock takes that principle a step further: “It’s not just the players who are impacted by the chaplain — it’s everybody on the team, from the staff assistants to security at the door.”
- Allow yourself to be invested in spiritually. Chaplains work hard to build relationships with members of the organization they serve, but they need support too. Colin Pinkney of the NBA Charlotte Hornets found it refreshing to interact with other team chaplains at the NBA’s All-Star Game weekend in 2022. “We’re all part of the same team, serving the same God with the same mission, though in different cities,” Pinkney says. “I’m grateful that we got to connect, because now we can go back into that lonely world of chaplaincy with the strength of knowing that we’re not alone.”
- Mourn with those who mourn. Zadeh, who learned from 12 years as a pastor that “funerals are the best opportunity to share the gospel,” had such an opportunity in December 2021. His Friday morning Bible study at the team facility turned into a ministry time for the entire Broncos team and staff after retired star Demaryius Thomas died the previous day of a seizure disorder.
For Vinny Rey of the Bengals, Damar Hamlin’s collapse provided a similar opening. “I had a chance to give a message to some people within the organization and management and even some of the coaches. [Head coach] Zach Taylor said, ‘There are other people here you could speak to. We have a director of player development, two team psychologists, and a chaplain.’ Some players really took advantage of that. Even though it was a hard thing to get through, I think the Lord used it to get glory throughout our nation.”
- Always be ready to share. Because of the intense challenges they face, athletes can become unexpectedly open to faith. “One of my favorite experiences as an NBA chaplain,” Tatlock says, “is seeing guys come in who have no relationship with Christ and no idea what’s even available with chapels. And then all of a sudden, out of curiosity, they check things out. Relationships start and guys come to know Christ, get discipled, and then go out and start leading others to Christ.”
- Don’t forget the family. Many chaplains emphasized the loneliness and isolation experienced by players’ spouses, especially when the player first joins a new team. Many chaplains’ wives minister to the players’ and coaches’ wives by befriending them, showing hospitality and doing Bible study. In this way, the whole family is being ministered to. Zadeh says multiple teams use the same women’s Bible study material, so sometimes when a player changes teams, the wife can continue the same study in a new city.
"I think a lot of guys, once they get into the NFL, realize, ‘Oh man, this is not at all what I thought it was going to be.’"
Remember that celebrities are people
Most Christians will never serve as chaplains in any capacity, let alone for professional sports teams. But many Christians display their attitudes toward celebrities quite openly — and it isn’t always pretty.
Hasbrouck and Rey’s exhortation for Christians who encounter athletes is to treat them as regular people. “I know an athlete who started going to a new church,” Hasbrouck says. “When the pastor found out who she was, he thought he could use her for his agenda. It’s an easy trap to fall into, but athletes don’t want to be used.
“The thing that matters most is not their platform, it’s their heart. And when we try to use athletes to accomplish our own agendas, their own spiritual growth becomes secondary.”
Chaplains constantly remind athletes that their spiritual life is more important than the game, but sometimes Christian fans undermine that message. Zadeh is particularly outspoken on this point. In 2022, the Broncos were expected to end six years of losing after they traded for star quarterback and vocal Christian Russell Wilson. Instead, Wilson had his worst year as a professional, the Broncos won just five of 17 games, and fans — even Christians — were merciless in their derision. “I watched pastors and ministry leaders in Colorado trash the Broncos on their Facebook pages,” Zadeh says.
Zadeh mentioned one player’s wife who wears noise-canceling headphones while attending games so that she won’t hear nearby fans say crude things about her husband.
In the soul of every athlete, coach and team employee are spiritual needs, and chaplains are serving God by meeting those needs. Christians need to remember that behind the highly paid entertainer is a person whom God created. As you follow your favorite team, consider praying for the members of the team and the chaplain serving that team.