Religion uncovered on the gridiron

nfl995 lowerAnyone watching the aftermath of Sunday night's amazing AFC Championship game between the Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots couldn't help but be struck by the religious overtones in the language. Everyone, that is, except for the media, which seem to have so far ignored the religious elements of the story. I know that every other athlete credits God for their victories and accomplishments, but in this case, the story runs deeper and is genuinely more significant. First Colts owner Jim Irsay, upon receiving the conference championship trophy, said, "There's a lot of glory up here with this trophy. As the humble leader of this organization, we're giving all the glory to God."

Now, a person anointing himself with the characteristic of humility is hardly humble, as one of my roommates noted last night (Disclosure: I was born and raised in Indianapolis and am a huge Colts fan of 10-plus years). But the Irsays are hardly the NFL's favorite owners, and since the horseshoe of Irsay's father is a horseshoe (I've seen it with my own eyes), it is striking that Irsay would be so quick to give credit to the Lord.

There has to be a bigger story here, because the religious references did not stop there. Anyone who has followed this blog for more than a year knows that we have been quick to note the media's coverage of Colts head coach Tony Dungy, especially in the wake of his son's untimely death.

But if you read The Washington Post Monday morning, the "special" time for Dungy and Lovie Smith, head coach of the Chicago Bears, the Colts' opponent in this year's Super Bowl, has little to do with religion (note that Post columnist Michael Wilbon, who has been weak covering Dungy's faith in the past, contributed to the story).

In an attempt to set the record straight, presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in a news conference Monday that the real story is that both coaches are "men of God." Obama apparently gets religion:

"It's a wonderful story," Obama said at a news conference where he endorsed Mayor Richard Daley for reelection. "Obviously, to see two African-American coaches go to the Super Bowl when it has been historically difficult for black coaches to break into the NFL is terrific.

"But you know what makes it even better is that they are both men of humility, they are both men of God," Obama said. "They never trash talk. They are not yellers and screamers on the sidelines. They are just a couple of class individuals.

"You can tell the loyalty and affection that their players have for them," he said. "It is a wonderful story, not just for African-Americans but for all Americans to see men like that who are good fathers, who are good leaders, who do things the right way, succeed."

We will see in the next two media-saturated weeks whether the football world decides to explore the faith issue in any depth. The story line between Smith and Dungy will likely be the lede, and it will be interesting to see what level of play their shared faith receives. For starters, here is Baptist Press:

MIAMI (BP) -- Super Bowl XLI will feature two teams making their first super game appearance in two-plus decades, two Midwestern teams separated by only a couple hundred miles, but most importantly two coaches who are strong believers in Jesus Christ.

Head coaches Tony Dungy of Indianapolis and close friend and fellow Christian Lovie Smith of Chicago gave credit to God following their respective teams' victories in the conference championships Jan. 21.

"The Lord set this up in a way that no one would believe it," Dungy said following the Colts' win over New England. "The Lord tested us a lot this year, but He set this up to get all the glory."

There's also the story of Peyton Manning. As nicely reported by ESPN.com's Len Pasquarelli and seen by all of America in the final minutes of the game, Manning was either feeling sick or doing some heartfelt praying as his team's future hung in the balance:

So how did Manning begin the game-winning drive in the Colts' improbable 38-34 win over the New England Patriots here on Sunday night?

By seeking help from above.

"I said a little prayer there on that last drive," Manning acknowledged of a possession that culminated in the winning 3-yard touchdown run by rookie tailback Joseph Addai with just one minute remaining. "I don't know if you're supposed to pray or not in those kinds of situations, but I did."

Prayer answered, right? Well, kind of.

If you saw the game, you saw Manning bent over on the bench as the Patriots attempted a drive that could have ended Manning's season. And in Sunday's Indianapolis Star we're told that Manning prays before every game. It's part of his routine.

So as a Colts fan, I'd like to know how often Manning prays, particularly during games. And who does he pray to? While we've noted in the past that it's not exactly conventional for people to pray for their teams to win, this is Manning's job. I pray about my job. I'd like to venture that most Christians do as well. Why would Manning question whether it was right for him to pray about his job performance?

I don't believe I have ever seen a word written on Manning's personal faith, though he's noted for his friendliness with themedia. Not that it's any of our business if Manning wanted to keep it private, but his praying Sunday night gives a reporter a nice hook that should be explored.

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