I realize that the Baltimore Ravens lost to Tom Brady last night in the National Football League playoffs. Nevertheless, I want to salute The Baltimore Sun for its A1 pregame profile of Justin Forsett, the who-is-that-guy tailback whose Pro Bowl-level season was one of the best feel-good stories in football this year. Period.
Salute? Yes, because there is some history to the praise in this post.
Back in October, I jumped on the Sun team when it cranked out a generic feature on Forsett, a 5-foot-8, 195-pound (maybe) journeyman running back who had never really been a starter in pro football, let alone a star. Then he turned around this year and ran for 1,266 yards -- twice his career best -- and became a leader for the Ravens in the painful weeks in which the Ray Rice domestic-abuse soap opera unfolded.
That earlier Forsett feature included all kinds of hints that Christian faith is a key element of this man's life and work. There were hints, but no real reporting. You had to read between the lines in the quotes from coaches and friends on the squad. As I wrote at that time:
So we have "great faith" and "tremendous character," resulting in the team being "very blessed" to have him around. The Raven's head coach -- a Super Bowl winner year before last -- is a frequent user of God talk, which has never been explored to any meaningful degree by the local newspaper.
So what happened this time around?
For one thing, Sun editors handed the story to a non-sportswriter -- a general-assignment reporter who has some experience with religion-news coverage. It's rare to see a newspaper do two features about the same man in the same season, but this time the story ran in the regular news pages and the headline proclaimed "Keeping The Faith."
Let me stress that reporter Jonathan Pitts led with football, as he should, rather than jamming Godtalk into the top section of the story. But when it came time to discuss Forsett's life and background, one of the first details mentioned was that he grew up as a preacher's kid and was a star at a school with this name -- Grace Preparatory Academy -- before he ended up at the University of California. As always, people kept underestimating the short, quick running back.
Thus, this crucial transition passage:
Forsett has always had a secondary challenge: staying patient while knowing he has done everything asked of him. It hasn't hurt that, to him, life is about more than the sport he loves.
When he was in the seventh grade, he says, he asked himself a question: Why not try embracing this God my father preaches about?
He had a scare in high school when he was diagnosed with a heart murmur. He "prayed with my whole heart" for a chance to keep playing. When he was tested again days later, the problem was gone.
When Notre Dame turned him down, Forsett says, he ran to the basement, burst into tears and opened the Bible to a random page for inspiration. His eyes fell on Proverbs 3.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding," it read, "and he will make your paths straight." Cal soon called with its offer.
"Since then, I've reminded myself that wherever I happen to be, I'm there for a reason," he says. "I may not see it at the time."
What is missing from the report?
As always, I wish that more reporters -- when dealing with faith and sports -- pushed for basic, factual information about the player's daily life. My favorite questions to ask about a person: How does he spend his time? How does he spend his money? How does he deal with big decisions, crises, etc.?
This Sun story does some of that. Still, I would have welcomed quotes from people who share a pew with the guy or work with him in some social ministry. Still there is this:
He reads the Bible daily and posts what he has read to his Twitter account. He also writes a blog for The Sporting News, recording his thoughts on family and faith as they relate to his game. Among other things, he has covered the good works of fellow players and the importance of fatherhood.
Being a Christian, Forsett has written, doesn't mean being soft. And yes, he believes God cares about his game -- not because he favors one side or the other but because it's a human endeavor.
"While I'm on the field, I want to be relentless," he wrote earlier this year. "I want to play at a level my competitor is unwilling to match. I want to give all I have, not for man's approval, but for a higher purpose. ... [Football] can be used as a vessel for his glory."
I was glad to see this replay by the folks at the newspaper that lands in my front yard. This time around, they captured a key piece of this man, rather than merely skimming the surface of the football player.