Taking a knee: Professional football and its mysterious postgame prayer
On Dec. 3, 1990, the NFL "Monday Night Football" game lived up to its billing — a low-scoring nail-biter between two of the league's top teams.
The tension exploded into a fist-fight at midfield after the San Francisco 49ers defeated the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, 7-3. But lost in the coverage of the game and the brawl was a smaller gathering of players from both teams.
They took a knee and began what is now a common practice after many professional and even some college football games — a postgame prayer.
The ritual is likely a mystery to many of the millions of fans either filing out of stadiums or watching on-field television interviews with a background of 20-30 players joined in prayer. And yet postgame prayers offer a unique glimpse into a religious undercurrent of the NFL that can appear incongruous with the violent nature of the game and publicized moral missteps of its players.
Well aware of public perceptions, the men familiar with the postgame prayer ritual describe it as a genuine celebration of religious belief and not a public show of penitence.
"(The prayer) is not really about who won and who lost. It's about honoring God and guys who really look at their talents and their abilities and the privilege to play in the NFL as a gift from God," said Buffalo Bills chaplain Fred Raines. "It's a chance just to give thanks."
First Quarter: A history lesson
Weeks before the big game Dec. 3, 49ers chaplain Pat Richie recognized that the match-up could be more than just an opportunity to improve his team's playoff possibilities.
"It was clear that there would be a lot of media coverage. I asked myself, 'Is there anything we can do to be honoring to God and the Christians on these teams?'" he said.
By the 1990 season, religion had moved beyond its relative obscurity during the NFL's early years. Players like All-Pros Mike Singletary and Reggie White had shown teammates and opponents that there was nothing weak about believing in God.
Richie hoped to capitalize on faith's growing popularity among players under the bright lights of the season's biggest "Monday Night Football" game. He called Giants chaplain Dave Bratton to brainstorm ideas.
After talking with their players and getting permission from their respective front offices, the two men settled on a plan. At the end of the game, Christians from each team would meet on the field to pray together.
Watching from his seat in the stands, Richie was amazed by the size of the crowd gathered at the 50-yard line at the end of the game. However, he soon realized that the featured event was a fist-fight, not prayer.
From his team's coaching booth above the field, Bratton looked down on the unfolding chaos. He saw his Christian players standing around, unsure of where to go.
Eventually, a small group formed away from the fray and the players shared a short prayer. Twenty-four seasons later, there is still a note of disbelief in the chaplains' voices when they tell the story.
"It's pretty phenomenal that this thing that goes back now over 20 years almost didn't happen because of a fight between two football players," Richie said.
The first postgame prayer received little attention from the press. However, at least for team chaplains, the event marked the beginning of a new era for religious expression in the NFL.
"It just caught on," Bratton said. "For the rest of the season, we prayed with every team except one."
Bratton's Giants brought the postgame prayer all the way to Super Bowl XXV, circling up with Buffalo Bills players after winning 20-19.
Second Quarter: Inside the circle
The Bills and the Giants have met once already this season in the Aug. 3 preseason Hall of Fame Game.
That night, Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara was nervous, but it wasn't the opposing team's receivers who worried him. It was the postgame prayer, and the fact that he'd agreed to lead it for the very first time.
Amukamara, who attends Hillsong Church in New York City and Citylight Church in Omaha, Nebraska, where he played in college, was encouraged to speak up by one of his Christian teammates. Faithful players often form a tight-knit group on each team, gathering several times a week for Bible studies and chapel services.
Team chaplains facilitate these meetings. The Giants are now served by George McGovern, who said encouraging players to take part in the postgame prayer is one of the easiest parts of his job.
"I wish I could take credit for keeping it going, but it's so ingrained in the culture of the NFL now," McGovern said. "Guys just know (to head to the 50-yard line) and the rookies learn."
McGovern, Bills chaplain Fred Raines and Amukamara agree that there's a natural order to the prayer circle. Just as there are players renowned across the league for their stand-out skills on the field, there are men known for their beliefs, filling the role as informal spiritual leaders on each team.
The standard practice is for a religious leader on the home team to lead the prayer, thanking God for the game of football and each players' health: "There's (also) a degree of thankfulness that the violence of the game is over, and that, hopefully, there were no serious injuries," McGovern said.
Although neither Raines nor Amukamara knows of Muslim or Jewish players who participate in the prayer, they insist that all players are welcome.
Raines participates in the prayer circles during Buffalo home games, and he has extended invitations to the team's management and coaching staff. Some groups seem to exclude themselves.
"I haven't seen any referees," Raines said. "They usually get off the field pretty quick."
Experiencing unity through faith can be just as valuable as winning, Raines noted. In a league built on pitting athletes against one another in a bruising physical contest, the prayer can refocus them on ultimate concerns like praising God.
"For a lot of these guys, (the prayer) puts the game in perspective. They've just used every ounce of strength they've got. Their adrenaline is flowing," Raines said. "The prayer is the time and place for believers to come together as one."
Through prayer, Amukamara explained, he sustains a connection with his other brothers in Christ: "Sometimes you can't even hear (the player praying), but we know what we're there for," he said.
Although Amukamara can't remember exactly what he said to the group of Bills and Giants gathered to pray together, he thought it was something like, "God, thank you for these guys. For this game called football. For this platform we have to share your word."
Third Quarter: Potential pitfalls
For Amukamara, the NFL is not only his employer, it's also an evangelical tool. He can share his faith with the fans who want to see him break up pass plays and tackle ball carriers.
But that viewpoint is an unpopular one in a league increasingly known for the crimes and substance-abuse violations committed by players off the field. This summer, multiple players were suspended for drug use and the league's domestic-violence policy was widely condemned.
Beyond the obvious incongruities, there is also the criticism of whether players overstep their roles by turning the field into a worship space where a religious practice could be seen as a publicity stunt.
Concerns like these surrounded the postgame prayer from its very first season.
In a February 1991 post-Super Bowl column titled "Save your prayers, please," Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly eviscerated the prayer trend.
"I don't think your average fan goes to football games to be touched. I don't think that when he loads up the Thermos and pays $10 to park, he's looking to get proselytized," he wrote. "The only conversions he cares about are extra points. I hope that the NFL will have the good sense to curtail these huddles."
The chaplains tried to ignore Reilly's outcry, but leaders in the NFL seemed to be listening. Richie remembers that attendees of the 1991 NFL owners meeting discussed the enforcement of the league's non-fraternization clause, a move that would put the prayer circle in jeopardy. The clause sets a time limit for how long players can remain on the field after a game ended.
"Never once was anything done about that rule until after the 1990 season," Bratton explained. "At that point, they announced that they would begin to enforce (the ban), that players had two minutes to be in the locker room or they'd be fined."
Concerned but not yet ready to comply, Richie was amazed when he saw the 1991 season schedule. On Sept. 2, the first Monday night game of the year, the 49ers and Giants would meet again in a rematch where the fate of the postgame prayer could be at stake.
In the end, a Giants-heavy circle gathered that night for a prayer, and when the fines didn't come, the chaplains knew the ritual was safe.
"Within a matter of weeks, (the postgame prayer) spread throughout the entire NFL," Richie said. "Within a matter of a year or so, it was happening in college football."
Even after 24 seasons, some critics still question the participants' sincerity when so much of a player's career depends on his public image, noted Eric Carter, an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown College and author of "Boys Gone Wild: Fame, Fortune and Deviance Among Professional Football Players."
"For the guys who have gotten themselves in trouble, (the prayer) is a good way to shift perception," Carter explained.
Additionally, it's plausible how the ritual might become part of a player's superstitions. During the research phase of writing his book, Carter said he talked to players who thought bad things would happen if they didn't participate in the postgame prayer.
"They felt like it was something that had to be done at the end of the game," he said. "It was about support but it was also about the superstitious element."
Fourth Quarter: A lasting legacy
Amukamara said there are definitely players who come to the prayer circle for nonreligious reasons, but that doesn't detract from his own experience: "Regardless of whether my team wins or my team loses, I still want to give thanks to God," he said.
Similarly, Richie urges fans to not forget about the many professional athletes whose faith in God guides them throughout their NFL careers.
"Imagine you're a 24- or 25-year-old kid built like a Greek god, earning $10 million a year, with women throwing themselves at you. Do you think that's an easy Christian life to live?" he said. "The level of sincerity of these guys is amazingly high."
Richie and Bratton are aware of the variety of motivations at play in contemporary prayer circles, but they say their initial vision is still being realized.
"I was always looking for ways to have conversations with people. I'd ask questions like, 'Did you see those guys praying after the game? What did you think about that?' I had no idea what God was going to do with this," Bratton said.
Both men are now retired from chaplaincy work, catching a glimpse of a prayer on television a few times each year.
"I don't think any of us would ever want to take the credit" for the postgame prayer's success, Bratton explained. "God gets the credit. That's what I say."
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