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In the jaw-dropping story of an NFL coach's search for his family, glimpses of faith emerge

In the jaw-dropping story of an NFL coach's search for his family, glimpses of faith emerge

Even without a religion angle, this would be an incredible story.

I'm talking about ESPN's in-depth narrative on an NFL coach's long search for his birth parents.

"Absolutely amazing." "Unbelievable." "Just astounding." That's how various readers have described the piece.

Others have seen God at work in the outcome.

"Wow Just, wow," said one reader. "This story has all the feels. The God of Heaven watches over us all. No, that doesnt mean life is all roses & picnics. But His hand can be seen...for those who have 'eyes that they might see..'" 

"This ESPN story about @coachdmc finding his birth parents is absolutely worth the read," said another. "Someone recently said to me that God is doing more behind your back than in front of your face. This story says yes and amen to that."

Intrigued yet?

I'm doing my best not to give away any spoilers, in case you haven't read the story yet and would like to check it out before I offer a few hints.

Basic storyline: A young mother gives up her baby for adoption. The baby grows up to become a football player and later a coach. All the while, although he loves his adoptive mother, he searches for his birth parents. He eventually finds them — and it turns out he had known his birth father almost his entire life. 

But yes, faith makes various cameo appearances as the ESPN writer, Sarah Spain, allows the spiritual angle to unfold naturally.

Early in the story, the adoptive mother references God:

By March of that year, Jon Kenneth Briggs had been renamed Deland Scott McCullough, and he was living at home with his new parents, Adelle and A.C.

"We were still in love, a good couple," Comer says. "We went to church, partied, went to cookouts. We were working together and doing this together and wanting to make a home for our children. We knew that God's hand was in it. Deland came so fast to us. We knew that it was meant to be. Both of us."

But things changed quickly. Comer's father had a stroke, and though A.C. wanted to put him in a nursing home, Comer brought her dad to live with the family in Youngstown. Their marriage deteriorated, and when Deland was just 2 years old, A.C. moved out.

"They went through a lot of hurt and disappointment, but they took it," Comer says of her sons. "I said, 'God gives you an example of what to be and what not to be. You have to make the choice.' And that's all I had to say, and they got it."

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Love for people drives major-league catcher to help, but what role does his faith play?

Love for people drives major-league catcher to help, but what role does his faith play?

Was it a good movie?

Did you enjoy it?

Those tend to be my main two questions in assessing the latest flick at the theater.

I don't pay a lot of attention to film critics because they tend — from my perspective — to nitpick various details that don't matter much to me. They're paid to find fault.

What does that have to do with GetReligion? Well, as a media critic for this journalism-focused website, my job calls upon me to spot holy ghosts in mainstream press stories and point them out for readers. But occasionally, I fear that I'm demanding a level of religious specificity that is no concern to ordinary readers.

Thus, when I read a story like a recent Dallas Morning News feature on good works by Texas Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos, I'm unsure whether to (1) just be thankful for a nice piece that goes behind the scenes of a charitable player or (2) complain that the paper fails to offer any concrete details on the subject's obvious faith.

I mean, given the circumstances, it's not difficult for most readers to assume that Chirinos must be a Christian (something that the "Servant of Christ" mention on his Twitter profile quicks confirms):

ARLINGTON -- He had just signed his first professional contract. The scouts who signed him had just left his home. He was 16. His father, Roberto, told Robinson Chirinos to pull up a chair at the family's kitchen table.

"Never forget about people," Roberto Chirinos told him.

He never has.

Robinson Chirinos was telling the story again Saturday afternoon after spending the morning, along with more than half of the Rangers' roster, handing out backpacks as part of a Back To School Block party at the Refuge Church in Fort Worth.

The event taking place at a church is a pretty obvious clue, as is the additional context offered in the next few paragraphs:

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Political speeches? Hey AP! NFL This Hall of Fame class stopped just short of giving an altar call

Political speeches? Hey AP! NFL This Hall of Fame class stopped just short of giving an altar call

GetReligion readers know that I am a big sports fan, even during these days of NFL confusion. I lived in greater Baltimore for 12 years and followed the Ravens quite closely.

So, yes, I watched the NFL Hall of Fame speeches the other day, in part because Ray "God's linebacker" Lewis was a first-ballot pick and he spoke at the end of the program.

Now, you knew that Lewis was going to go into full-tilt preacher mode when given this kind of platform. Right? 

So imagine my rather cynical surprise when I picked up my Knoxville News Sentinel the next day and saw this headline on the Associated Press story covering this event: "Hall of Fame speeches get political." That was a shorter version of the AP's own headline: "Hall of Fame speeches get political in Canton, Chattanooga."

Ah come on. Yes, there was obvious political implications to many of the remarks. I get that.

But several of the speakers packed their speeches with so much Godtalk that I thought the NFL police were going to have to rush in to prevent them from ending with an altar call. Many of the most striking remarks, in terms of politics, were mixed with religious content. I mean, Lewis -- in a plea for safer schools -- even talked about prayer in American schools.

This was a classic example of one of GetReligion's major themes: "Politics is real. Religion? Not so much." Here is the AP overture, which is long -- but essential. You have to see how hard AP worked to stress the political over the spiritual.

CANTON, Ohio (AP) -- Just as the demonstrations of players during the national anthem have become a means of expression for NFL players, the stage at the Hall of Fame inductions often turns into a political platform. It certainly did Saturday night.

Ray Lewis did so with his words, and Randy Moss with his tie.

There even were political tones with a different target 600 miles away during Terrell Owens’ speech at his personal celebration of entering the pro football shrine.

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Holy ghosts haunt Houston Chronicle's front-page profile of former Astros pitching great J.R. Richard

Holy ghosts haunt Houston Chronicle's front-page profile of former Astros pitching great J.R. Richard

Far too many journalists are "tone deaf to the music of religion," as commentator Bill Moyers once told GetReligion's own Terry Mattingly.

I get that sense about an in-depth Houston Chronicle profile of former Astros pitching great J.R. Richard that appeared on Sunday's front page.

At repeated junctures in this otherwise excellent and nuanced piece, facts and details appear that seem to scream, "There's a religion angle here! Please ask Richard about his faith journey and what he believes about God!"

Instead, it's as if the Chronicle can't hear that voice and instead moves forward with unrelated material, leaving obvious questions unanswered.

The first clue of a religion angle comes right up top.

See where Richard is speaking:

The most terrifying pitcher ever to have called the Astrodome home slowly pushes himself up from a couch and lumbers, at 68 years old, into a small room overcrowded with 100 of Houston’s homeless and neediest people.

They have come off the searing hot pavement to Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal Church and clinic on Fannin Street, for the free lunch, but first they must fill rows of foldout chairs and listen to uplifting testimonials from others like them.

Many in the audience do not know there is a guest speaker until the 6-foot-8 J.R. Richard wades through the aisle toward the pulpit.

“I don’t have no psychology degree,” he says during a private aside, “but sometimes it don’t take that.”

A church? A pulpit? Might there be a specific reason for Richard speaking at this location?

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Friday Five: RNS council, execution witness, McCarrick scandal, gamer pastor and more

Friday Five: RNS council, execution witness, McCarrick scandal, gamer pastor and more

GetReligion has covered the various happenings at Religion News Service since the firing of former editor in chief Jerome Socolovsky (now with NPR) and the resignations of other key staff and columnists.

This week brought another development for RNS — the appointment of a 19-person advisory council for the news service.

See the full list of members here.

Tell us what you think!

(Full disclosure: I do freelance reporting for RNS in addition to my full-time work with The Christian Chronicle.)

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: While working for The Oklahoman nearly two decades ago, I witnessed four executions. Still, I can't even imagine what Associated Press writer Michael Graczyk has done — serving as a media witness for 429 inmate deaths. 

If you missed it, news coverage of the retirement of Graczyk, a practicing Catholic, is worth your time.

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First Amendment question from tmatt: What happens if Dallas Cowboys offer visible prayers?

First Amendment question from tmatt: What happens if Dallas Cowboys offer visible prayers?

We will open this religion-beat NFL update with a confession, a comment and then a question.

The confession: I grew up in Texas in the 1960s and '70s as a loyal Dallas Cowboys fan, in the era of Coach Tom Landry and the great Roger Staubach. I now cheer against the Cowboys and consider the current owner to be the younger brother of the Antichrist. So there.

A comment: I understand that NFL owners consider their stadiums to be professional "workplace" environments. Thus, they argue that they have the right to create rules governing the behavior of their employees. However, some of us First Amendment liberals would like to note that significant chunks of the funds used to build many, maybe most, of these structures came from local and state governments. Are we talking about public or private buildings?

The question: I realize that many NFL big shots, and the journalists who cover them, have a problem with demonstrations of religious faith. However, shouldn't reporters be including the word "pray" in their reports about the national anthem wars, as well as the word "protest"?

What happens if, during the upcoming season, one or more players: (a) Kneel and bow their heads in prayer? (b) Prostrate, face down, assuming a prayer position common in many Eastern faiths? (c) Stand, but raise their hands in a "charismatic" prayer gesture, with their lips moving in silent speech? (d) What if players make the sign of the cross and combine this with (a), (b) or (c)?

Protest or prayer? Maybe reporters need to ask if the correct answer is "both"?

The spark for this GetReligion meditation is, of course, the back-and-forth shots by Donald Trump and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. Here is the top of the latest report from The New York Times.

The Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, no stranger to speaking his mind and creating controversy, on Wednesday added fuel to an already confusing and rancorous debate about how the N.F.L. plans to handle players who demonstrate during the playing of the national anthem this season.

At the opening of the Cowboys’ training camp in Oxnard, Calif., Jones said that all his team’s players would be required to stand on the field for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They would not be able to stay in the team’s locker room, something allowed under the league’s revised policy on the anthem.

“Our policy is you stand during the anthem, toe the line,” Jones told reporters.

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ESPN writer explains what made Dale Murphy special, on and off field, and sort of avoids a ghost

ESPN writer explains what made Dale Murphy special, on and off field, and sort of avoids a ghost

For any baseball fan who remembers Dale Murphy, this is a fantastic read from ESPN the Magazine.

The in-depth piece by Wright Thompson — titled "Where Have You Gone, Dale Murphy?" — makes the case that the former two-time National League Most Valuable Player should be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

That induction would emphasize the fact that the retired Atlanta Braves star did not use performance-enhancing drugs, even though he ended his career in the steroids era.

Thompson writes:

If baseball wants to wash itself clean from steroids, the best way to do it isn't to keep [Barry] Bonds out of the Hall but to let Murphy in. Induct cheaters but also celebrate Dale Murphy for his 398 home runs and for the dozens he did not hit.

While the article is pegged on the Hall of Fame argument — noting that Murphy will be eligible again next year — it's the personal story that makes this such a captivating read.

That story revolves around what a good guy Murphy is. A moral guy. A family guy. Dare I say a religious guy?

ESPN hints that faith might be at play in Murphy's character, as the writer emotionally describes how a generation of boys who grew up within reach of the TBS cable station idolized the Braves' star:

Our letters arrived at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, 50 or more a day for a decade, as Murphy perennially battled Mike Schmidt for the NL home run title and won back-to-back MVP awards, one of four outfielders in baseball history to accomplish that. We read the stories about Murphy's kindness and charity, how he didn't drink or smoke or curse and how he signed every autograph. We imagined meeting him over big glasses of milk and talking about his moonshot home runs. 

A few paragraphs later, readers learn more about the Murphy of present day:

Generation Murph has grown into middle age. We are 35 years removed from his peak as a player. He lives mostly anonymously in Utah with his wife and eight grown children. 

Utah, huh?

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This is not clickbait about Tim Tebow's sex life! No, really! Honest! Click here for more

This is not clickbait about Tim Tebow's sex life! No, really! Honest! Click here for more

Stop and think about this for a moment: How wild are things going to get -- in terms of tabloid news coverage -- if the New York Mets call up Tim Tebow?

This is not a pipe dream, even though there are elements of PR and marketing that cannot be denied. You see, Tebow has been making real progress at the plate in recent weeks, while marching through the minor leagues. And the Mets are horrible. Why not give Tebow a shot and see that happens (including ticket sales)?

But Tebow in New York City? With that media circus in mind, check out the oh-so-cheeky overture to this celebrity news story at AOL (and lots of other publications as well). What is the religion-news issue hidden in the lede?

Good things come to those who wait!

Tim Tebow, who's long expressed his wish to find the right girl for him, has struck up a romance with Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, who was crowned 2017's Miss Universe.

"She is a really special girl and I am very lucky and blessed for her coming into my life," Tebow told ESPN in a new interview. "I am usually very private with these things but I am very thankful." 

Nel-Peters, 23, hails from South Africa, while 30-year-old Tebow is Florida-born and raised.

Wink, wink. Hold that thought.

Later on in this short story, there is this bite of background information, which does absolutely noting to explain the image in the lede.

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God, man and FIFA: The ongoing struggle to keep soccer as 'secular' as possible

God, man and FIFA: The ongoing struggle to keep soccer as 'secular' as possible

Before we dive into this week's "Crossroads" podcast -- which is about faith and football (soccer here in America) -- please click here and take a look at the map that ran atop a Washington Post feature story in 2015. (To tune in the new podcast, just click here.)

Basically, if you are looking for lots and lots of unbelievers, your best bet is to head to China, Europe and other highly industrialized and educated nations.

Where things get really complex is in Europe -- a continent in which belief and unbelief bump into one another on a regular basis. North America is quickly moving in that direction as well (you may have seen a few headlines about that). 

Now, look at the same map and think about the teams that made it into this year's FIFA World Cup (click here for a list).

Quite a mix of faith-intensive and rather faith-free nations, right? And what about the championship game, with powerful France taking on the cinderella squad from Croatia?

The Catholic News Agency offered this interesting feature about Croatia and its coach, under this striking headline: "Croatia's World Cup soccer coach clings to the rosary as he finds success."

How would this kind of symbolism play in modern France? Here is a key chunk of this story:

Here’s one reason Catholics in the US might be rooting for the small Central European country: Croatia is a deeply Catholic country, and the coach of its national team, Zlatko Dalic, is a man of sincere faith.

Dalic said recently that his current success is due to his faith in God, and that he always carries a rosary to hold onto in difficult times. Dalic spoke about his faith on Croatian Catholic radio when the World Cup began.

“Everything I have done in my life and in my professional career I owe to my faith, and I am grateful to my Lord,” Dalic said. ... "When a man loses any hope, then he must depend on our merciful God and on our faith," he said.

In that sense, Dalic explained that "I always carry a rosary with me" and "when I feel that I am going through a difficult time I put my hand in my pocket, I cling to it and then everything is easier.”

Now, why is the rosary hidden in his pocket? Why not just wear it around his wrist?

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