Crown of victory in the arena?

troy-polamaluA football fanatic friend of mine whose very name screams predestination -- Calvin -- noticed something interesting in the prayers last night during vespers. It was one of the prayers marking the name day of St. Tryphon:

Disdaining earthly things here below, O venerable and all-blessed Tryphon, thou didst hasten bravely to the arena; by wrestling unto blood, thou didst skillfully cast the haughty one to the ground, O Martyr, and didst win the crown of victory. Cease not to entreat Christ our God in our behalf, O prizewinner, that our souls be saved.

Bold words. Throwing people down in an arena?

Now, at this point, would it interest you to know that this is the patron saint of one Troy Polamalu, the star safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the gridiron warrior who has confused some sportwriters by constantly making the sign of the cross from right to left?

It's Super Bowl Sunday so you had to know that your GetReligionistas would be looking for the religion angles in the rites of the day.

Some sportswriters struggle with the faith-based language that many players deploy during these kinds of events. However, Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun offered an interesting column the other day in which he working his way through his feelings about this issue, and Kurt Warner in particular, and concluded that he has seen worse things happen in sports. Read it all, but here's a crucial passage:

You'll have to forgive sportswriters a tad. Most have seen too many athletes espouse their spiritual side yet indulge their criminal. When an athlete mentions God, eyes roll and tape recorders shut off. When thanking Jesus is considered cliche, you know we have problems.

I was engrossed, though. I'm not sure whether it was the message or the messenger, but as I age and as the world around me becomes increasingly unreliable and unpredictable, it's refreshing to see someone who has every reason to get caught up in a peripheral storm of money, ego, celebrity and excess remain so grounded.

"My faith helps me with everything," Warner says. "The biggest thing about my faith is it helps keep everything in perspective. You understand the highs and lows. You understand what's going on sometimes with the highs and lows when other people don't see them."

I'm no trend spotter, and there's no way to quantify this, but from David Tyree to Tony Dungy to Tim Tebow, it seems as if faith has been enjoying an increasingly prominent role in football in America. If it really helps control temperament, I dare say God might be the best performance enhancer you can use legally.

So Warner believes his faith is the most important thing in his life. How does a sportswriter ignore that? Warner says his faith is way, way, way more important than football? That's an outrageous thing to say during Super Bowl Week, so it might be an an interesting idea to explore with honest coverage, isn't it?

Which brings us back to Polamalu, whose un-orthodox Eastern Orthodox faith has been getting a bit more coverage in recent years.

This week, for better or for wose, it seems like he has arrived as one of the faith-driven NFL warriors. Of course that "please photograph me" mane of hair sure doesn't hurt.

In Pittsburgh, veteran religion writer Ann Rodgers of the Post-Gazette jumped right past the football and wrote a news feature about the details of the football star's pilgrimage and its impact on the Orthodox communities that he loves. I mean, this is a sports story that opens with a quote from an Eastern orthodox bishop.

st-tryfon1Here's the heart of the report:

... (For) the Orthodox, he's something special, said Damian George, the youth director at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. When teens attend national Orthodox conferences, "the kids from Pittsburgh kind of brag about Troy, not only that he's a Steeler, but that he's Orthodox. And even the kids from Philly and New York get excited about it. He gives them a good role model because he's able to play at a high level and keep his faith at an equally high level," he said.

Orthodoxy has no tradition of celebrities who testify to their faith, said the Rev. Thomas Soroka, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, McKees Rocks. There are lists of celebrities who have belonged to the church, including Tina Fey and Tom Hanks. But none are considered exemplars of Orthodox spirituality. Current online discussions of an Orthodox celebrity that don't involve Mr. Polamalu tend to bewail the conduct of Rod Blagojevich, who was removed as Illinois governor last week after a four-day impeachment trial.

"A lot of times when people are Orthodox, it's more of an ethnic or cultural thing. Troy stands above that by being a practicing, committed Orthodox Christian," Father Soroka said. "Orthodoxy is quite sober. It's not flashy or attractive to those who are looking for stardom. It's much more introspective, and I think Troy embodies that."

Note this: What makes this man interesting is that he actually practices his faith and, in this case, it's a faith that many people find unusual, demanding and even exotic. Hey, I'll ask the obvious question: Great Lent is not that far off, so what are some of his favorite non-meat and non-dairy recipes for use during the great fast?

Rodgers' report also ends with what I think should be the thought for the day. Are you ready?

The Rev. Patrick Carpenter, pastor of St. Mary's Orthodox Church, South Side, joined a Troy Polamalu fan group on Facebook and took part in its "Steelers prayer wave." But he won't pray for a Steelers win.

"We don't pray for victories. We don't pray for defeats. We pray for the safety of the team."

And all the people said, "Amen."

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