The sports mission at Messiah

messiahfalconThis time of year, it's common to see stories about God and the gridiron. Many miss the mark. But every now and then, as tmatt found in an interview with Troy Polamalu, a reporter will hit paydirt with a story that gets both faith and football. In USA Today, though, we get a bit of the latter but divert from football to, well, football. Call it piety on the pitch:

The Messiah College women's soccer team marches across campus, two by two, in its home whites, singing and clapping rhythmically an hour before kickoff.

Glory, glory to the Lamb

You will take us into the land.

We will conquer in Your name

And proclaim that Jesus reigns.

Conquer, they do. The Messiah women's soccer team is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Division III. The one-loss men's team is No. 3. Both won NCAA titles last season, as did Messiah's softball team. Oh, and the field hockey team is No. 1 this fall as well.

How did a little-known Christian college of 2,801 near Harrisburg in south-central Pennsylvania become a national powerhouse?

"It's a great question, probably hard to put into words," says senior Amanda Naeher, last season's Division III player of the year in women's soccer. "But it's just the general idea that we're playing for something more."

Not bad for an athletic department with a $507,000 annual budget.

And here the secret of their success is plain to see: Each wears a game face with joy on it.

There are a lot of things I liked about this story from Erik Brady of USA Today. I appreciated the the sincere approach the reporter took, demonstrated by the sprinkling of Bible verses and worship songs. And I was relieved that the story wasn't full of quotes about whether or not God helped the players at Messiah win national championships. Brady got that for these student athletes that wasn't the point: It truly isn't whether they win but how they play the game.

Brady's article exhibits neither anthropology (like the Los Angeles Times piece on megachurches) nor hagiography; it's a story about young evangelicals with barely a mention of politics; it's about doing that thing Christians learn when they are kids but seem to forget: giving your best for the glory of God.

Another thing -- and this is a lesson every young journalist needs to learn but doesn't -- is that Brady just lets his subjects talk and tries to stay out of the way.

"As Christians, we are asked to believe some pretty strange things that just defy logic, like Jesus was born to a virgin," athletics director Jerry Chaplin says. "If we can believe those things, how hard is it to believe we can win a national championship?"

That's not a perspective you often read on the sports page. It's not even something you expect to see mentioned even when a sports story is focusing on an athlete's spirituality; typically when sport stars want to talk about God, reporters want to talk about big plays and bad calls. But Messiah College, the mission is the message, and Brady reported it with a sensitive stroke.

However, these types of stories don't have to be reserved for coverage of Christian schools.

Click here for the full story and a cool audio slideshow.

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