TAMPA, Fla. - Arizona running back Tim Hightower had just finished a thoughtful explanation of his religious beliefs when one of the media types who found their way into the Super Bowl stadium Tuesday decided he needed more proof.
“Can you pray right now?” he asked.
“I can pray that whatever is going on in your life right now that you find God,” Hightower said.
Hightower handled the question with the same ease he handled would-be tacklers to score the winning touchdown that got his team into the Super Bowl, which by itself was somewhat surprising since he is a rookie on the biggest stage of his young life.
Even more surprising at this Super Bowl, though, is how so many players on both teams aren’t hesitating to invoke the name of God as they prepare to play a violent game where there will be no mercy shown on either side.
Usually that has writers setting down their pens and cameramen hitting the pause button until talk returns to the game itself.
But the depth of convictions from evangelical Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner to the Steelers who will do their best to plant him face-first into the ground on Sunday has put religion squarely in play this week. All of a sudden the G-word is in vogue.
“You just have to embrace it, whatever God does in your life and wherever he puts you,” Warner said in one of his many religious references since landing in Tampa. “If it means being a role model in this game, I’m happy to do that. You are excited about that opportunity because you get the chance to speak to millions of people and, hopefully, we’ll get an opportunity to impact some lives this week.”
Warner is the most vocal — and visible — Christian on the Cardinals, proclaiming his faith at every opportunity and underscoring it by carrying a Bible with him almost everywhere he goes. He had it with him at the postgame press conference after Arizona upset Philadelphia to reach the Super Bowl, and took time to credit his faith in God for the win before answering any other questions.
The 37-year-old Warner’s public display of faith has left an impression on his younger teammates, about 20 of whom join him in Bible studies after practice every Wednesday during the season.
“Our quarterback is a definite leader and devout Christian,” cornerback Roderick Hood said. “I think that has spearheaded our growth. Also, guys see the peace we have on the field and want to find that themselves.”
Hood says he prays before every game, after every game and during the game itself. Lest Pittsburgh fans get the wrong idea, though, he says he prays for everyone to be safe and not for any particular team to win.
The Steelers aren’t as public about their religious beliefs, but many consider themselves devout Christians and can sometimes be seen in locker rooms or on airplanes reading their Bibles. Safety Troy Polamalu brings teammates to services at his Eastern Orthodox Christian church, while running back Willie Parker leaned on his faith to come back from injuries this season, praying that he would be 100 percent physically and able to produce.
“It’s really through the Lord’s strength that I’ve been able to cope with this,” Smith said.
Compared to that, crediting God for helping on the field seems almost trite, though that doesn’t stop athletes from doing it all the time. Football players tend to do it more often than others, perhaps because they could be permanently injured on almost any play. But there are baseball players who point to the sky every time they touch home plate and golfers who believe that God gave them the peace within to win major championships.
A poll last summer by the Pew Research Center Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that 92 percent of Americans believe in some form of God, while 78 percent identify themselves as Christians. And although they express some concern about the mixing of politics and religion, there has never been much outcry about players from both teams gathering after a football game to kneel together in prayer.
And don’t expect to hear him shout right away that he’s going to Disneyland if the Cardinals win.
Because he’s going to thank God first.
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