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Eyes on the prize

Athletes have become increasingly bold about sharing their faith

Patrick Mahomes Joe Robbins / AP

Eyes on the prize
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With the fans on their feet and the stadium rocking, Patrick Mahomes took the snap and rolled right for a run-pass option. A record 124 million people, more Americans than saw the first moon landing, had watched the Kansas City quarterback lead the Chiefs back from a deficit to tie the San Francisco 49ers. Now, trailing by 3 in overtime, it all came down to this. Mahomes ran outside the end, read the defense, and rifled the ball to Mecole Hardman for the touchdown. The crowd erupted and confetti exploded as Kansas City celebrated its second consecutive Super Bowl victory.

Mahomes was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, but in a post-game interview he gave the credit for the win to someone else. “I gotta give God the glory,” Mahomes said. “He challenged us, and He made us better.”

Team owner Clark Hunt echoed the sentiment. “It’s been an amazing run,” he said as confetti drifted down around him. “I want to thank the Lord for giving us this opportunity.”

The sideline evangelism stood out, but it wasn’t an outlier. Increasingly, Christian athletes and coaches are making public professions of faith. It’s become so pronounced, some are calling it a revival. Christians immersed in the sporting world attribute this faith emphasis to two things: the prevalence of personal online platforms and the life-altering influence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, they’ve created a culture of boldness among young athletes.

Since the dawn of televised sports, athletes have praised the Lord for their victories. Terry Bradshaw did it after the Steelers’ wins in the 1970s. Kurt Warner gave a near full-blown testimony after he was named Super Bowl XXXIV MVP.

And who can forget Tim Tebow kneeling to pray after games? His on-field supplication became so common it earned its own verb: Tebowing.

But the events surrounding this year’s Super Bowl took postgame shoutouts to a whole new level.

Pro football’s ultimate event has become a week-long spectacle of banquets, awards ceremonies, press conferences, parties, and concerts covered by more media than a G8 summit. This year in Las Vegas, one athlete after another used what may be the world’s biggest stage to deliver an even bigger message.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson received the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award at a banquet several nights before the big game. “First and foremost, I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” he said as soon as he stepped up to the microphone. “Without Him, none of this is possible.”

The streak continued with Houston Texans quarterback C.J. Stroud, named Offensive Rookie of the Year by the Associated Press; Will Anderson Jr., the AP’s Defensive Player of the Year; Chiefs offensive lineman Trey Smith; Pittsburgh Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who won the Bart Starr Award; and 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey.

Brock Purdy (praying after a game)

Brock Purdy (praying after a game) Josie Lepe/AP

49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, perhaps this season’s most outspoken Christian, never missed an opportunity to proclaim Christ. “Whether I do good or not, I’m rooted in my faith in God,” Purdy said, going on to quote Psalm 23. “That passage is saying I already have what I need. I have a Good Shepherd … and it’s what I go back to every single day.”

David Pollack is a former NFL player who worked for years as an analyst for ESPN. He attributes the new boldness to the constant questions players face about where they stand on a variety of issues. In an increasingly polarized culture, he says, it’s no longer possible for players to remain on the sidelines. And with so many media outlets and online platforms covering sports, players will eventually have to answer questions about where they stand.

“I’m just really encouraged by the number of people who stand with Jesus,” he said.

Lamar Jackson

Lamar Jackson Todd Rosenberg/Getty Images

THE FAITH-FORWARD TREND isn’t limited to the NFL. After winning the 2023 Women’s College World Series, stars of the Oklahoma Sooners softball team sat on a makeshift stage behind a draped banquet table dotted with microphones. The reporters sitting near the front of the room might as well have come to church.

“The only way you can have a joy that doesn’t go away is by putting your trust in the Lord,” said Grace Lyons, the team’s shortstop. “Any other kind of joy is actually happiness that comes from circumstances and outcomes. Coach [Patty Gasso] has said this before, but joy from the Lord is really the only thing that can keep you motivated and in a good mindset no matter the outcomes.”

Utility infielder Alyssa Brito jumped in to explain one of the team’s trademark moves—pointing to their eyes and then at the sky. It’s a reminder, she said, that they need to fix their eyes on Christ.

“That’s why we’re so steady in what we do, in our love for each other and in our love for the game, because we know that this game is giving us the opportunity to glorify God,” she said. Brito went on to talk about her hope for an eternity with God and her excitement to meet her King.

Alyssia Brito

Alyssia Brito Screen grab

The reporters sat stunned. And a softball press conference that would normally reach about a thousand people went viral, racking up more than 4 million impressions on social media and almost a million streaming views. Many cable news programs and podcasts aired clips.

Last season was big for another college sports team, and not just because it went undefeated. Michigan Wolverines chaplain Robby Emery baptized 70 of the 139 players on the national champion football team’s roster. Team chaplains often lead young athletes to Christ, but the typical season might see five to 10 players moved to faith.

“There’s a spiritual mission to our team,” Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh told reporter Jon Root at the March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. That was after the Wolverines captured the national title but before Harbaugh accepted the head coaching job with the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers. “I’m inspired by them. The young players on our team are incredible examples.”

Among them was running back Donovan Edwards, who told WolverinesWire during the national title run, “I just thank God that he’s allowed me to play football.”

Edwards talked about growing up with his grandmother, who read the Bible with him and encouraged his faith. At key moments, he said, he’s felt God’s presence, and it helped him stay grounded.

“My ultimate goal in life is not about the riches or the possessions,” he concluded. “My ultimate goal in life is to get the ‘Well done my loyal servant’ from the Most High.”

Donovan Edwards

Donovan Edwards Luke Hales/Getty Images

David Pollack says the material blessings that come with a career in professional sports can sometimes lead athletes on a quest for the source of true contentment.

Former PGA Tour golfer and NBC analyst Paul Azinger agreed. “Professional athletes recognize the out-of-proportion amount of money that they earn, and because of that they want to be of service to others,” said Azinger, who battled cancer at the height of his career and was one of the players who helped fund the ministry staff that travels with the PGA Tour. “That’s what separates a lot of athletes. They’ve never surrendered to anything in competition, but they realize that surrendering to Jesus Christ is where they get their peace.”

In January, golfer Grayson Murray won the PGA Tour’s Sony Open in Hawaii, his first victory since 2017. In his post-round press conference and in every interview he gave afterward, he admitted to being a recovering alcoholic. And he gave credit to Christ for giving him a platform to “write a new story.”

“[The win] is a lot for my career,” Murray said of his tour victory. “But it was not going to change my life. Jesus Christ changed my life.”

Grayson Murray

Grayson Murray Tracy Wilcox/PGA Tour via Getty Images

PAUL AZINGER played on the PGA Tour from 1981 to 2010 and was the lead television golf analyst for three major networks. He often shared his faith, and he wasn’t alone. Bernhard Langer, Scott Simpson, Larry Nelson, and Larry Mize were just a few of golf’s major champions who were open about their beliefs. But today’s athletes, Azinger says, have a heightened sense of what’s really important.

“COVID showed them how much can be taken away in this life,” he said. “They had everything put on hold. They didn’t know if their lives and their dreams were over. That changed a lot of young people. In the case of young believers, it turned them into evangelists.”

Betsy Nagelsen McCormack, a former Australian Open doubles tennis champion and commentator for ABC and ESPN, agreed. “COVID woke everybody up,” she said.

McCormack rejoiced as she watched U.S. Open singles champion Coco Gauff take a knee and pray at center court immediately after winning her first major title: “Nothing like that happened in our day.”

Coco Gauff prays after winning last year’s U.S. Open.

Coco Gauff prays after winning last year’s U.S. Open. Mary Altaffer/AP

McCormack and Sue Barker, the 1976 French Open champion and British tennis icon, started a Bible study for other women tennis players in the late 1970s. They met in quiet corners of arenas, hotels, and locker rooms. But they didn’t issue open invitations. They asked other players whom they knew were Christians to join them. McCormack said they didn’t want to make enemies or push anyone away by coming on too strong.

“I wasn’t the most eloquent evangelist, but if the opportunity arose, I would certainly share the gospel,” McCormack said. “But it was a different time. Everybody had their labels back then, so I was a ‘Bible beater,’ even though we never browbeat anybody. More than anything, back then, I think we believed that we had plenty of time. There wasn’t a sense of urgency. That’s not true now.”

McCormack sees an immediacy among today’s Christian athletes. Everyone sees that the world is different—darker. From social media to advertising to cultural influences, today’s generation understands the seriousness of bringing someone to Christ, McCormack said.

“People are looking at the world now and saying, whoa, this is not just disagreements or labels anymore. This is good versus evil ... This is spiritual warfare. We have to put on the armor of God and prepare for that warfare; otherwise we’re going to be eaten up.”

Today’s athletes realize excuses won’t cut it anymore, McCormack said. It’s all about taking a stand.

IN 2021, basketball coach Hubert Davis took over one of the most storied programs in college sports history: the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. “This is where I felt like Christ wanted me and my family to go,” he said in a news conference shortly after taking the job. “Wherever He wants us to go, I’m following Him. I’m not going any other direction. … This is not a job, it feels like a mission field, a ministry opportunity. … I’m here to serve and shed light on and be an example for Christ.”

Davis often cites Proverbs 4:25 in the locker room: “Let your eyes look straight ahead; fix your eyes before you.” It’s his way of reminding his players to “ignore the sideshow distractions.”

Many prominent coaches have been known as men of faith: Dean Smith and Roy Williams, Hall of Fame coaches who preceded Davis at North Carolina. Retired NFL coach Tony Dungy and Major League Baseball player and manager Dusty Baker. These men opened up about Christianity when asked, but they didn’t open their press conferences with Scripture and prayer. That’s what’s new.

Until recently, Jim Harbaugh and his staff also kept their ministry to players private. It’s their players who have led the public charge.

Blake Corum

Blake Corum Todd Rosenberg/AP

Blake Corum entered the NFL draft as a running back this year and received a Collegiate Social Service Award early in 2024. “God has blessed me not only with athletic abilities but the ability to give, the ability to put smiles on people’s faces, the ability to make people laugh,” he said in his acceptance speech. “That’s what it’s all about. Life is about the small things—the smiles, the laughs, the get-togethers. Serving is what I believe God put me on this earth to do. I will continue to serve and bring communities together as long as I’m on this earth.”

Azinger, now 64, spent four decades in the sports world. He says today’s young athletes may be on fire for Christ in part because they had good role models. “Those of us who came before, those believers who paved the way, I guess it means we did a pretty good job.”

—Steve Eubanks is a sports journalist whose work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and Golf Digest. He’s also a New York Times bestselling author who has written 36 books, including collaborations with Arnold Palmer, Lou Holtz, and Ty Murray.


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