Does God play favorites on the gridiron?

January 31, 2011

(RNS) When the Auburn Tigers won the BCS college football championship
against the Oregon Ducks, Auburn coach Gene Chizik thanked God. The
team's star quarterback, Cam Newton, said he felt his performance showed
what God can do.

Thanking God has now become almost commonplace among athletes. With
the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers about to face off in Super
Bowl XLV, does God play favorites in sports? These 12 are among the most
notable God-thankers in sports.

12. Muhammad Ali

Any list has to include the boxing legend who both praises the
Almighty and talks about himself with a self-aware knockout dose of
hubris.

"Almighty God was with me. I want everyone to bear witness, I am the
greatest! I'm the greatest thing that ever lived. ... I must be the
greatest. I showed the world. I talk to God every day. I know the real
God. I shook up the world, I'm the king of the world," Ali said after
defeating Sonny Liston for the first time on Feb. 25, 1964.

11. Pat Day

A little man with big faith, Pat Day won many races as a jockey, but
he only won the Kentucky Derby once, in 1992. And when he did, he didn't
even dismount before praising God.

"Immediately after the Kentucky Derby, I lifted my hands up, and I
was praising God for again allowing me the thrill of being in the
winner's circle ... " Day recalled in an interview with the Christian
Broadcasting Network. "It's a joyous occasion, and I couldn't help
myself. I lifted my hands to the heavens and was praising God."

10. Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez

You wouldn't think religion and mixed martial arts -- a sport in
which the combatants seem intent on killing each other -- would be a
natural fit, but don't tell that to Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez, who
before and after every fight, can be heard giving all the glory to God.
"I give him the victory. I do not consider the victory as mine. It is
his. I envision being one of his warriors and giving him the glory,"
Sanchez once told radio host Penny Buffington.

9. Michael Adams (and teammates)

Arizona Cardinals cornerback Adams kneeling down and praying with
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie before taking on the Steelers in 2009's
Super Bowl XLIII has become an iconic image in the annals of sports
faith.

Adams, who isn't the biggest of defensive backs, has had his share
of troubles, but uses his faith as a guiding light. And he gets lots of
help in that direction from his Cardinals' teammates. "I believed. I had
faith," Adams said, recalling how he never gave up during a 2010 NFC
wild card game. "It's easy when you have teammates like we've got around
here, who believe in God and each other."

8. Jim Caldwell

The Indianapolis Colts coach took over from Tony Dungy, a man also
known for his faith. "Obviously, it is no secret that I am a Christian
and I don't hide from that fact at all," Caldwell said. "I do believe
that because of faith, often times it will keep you a bit calmer in
certain situations. Overall, I think it has certainly taught me a lot
about discipline, a lot about commitment in my life and it's helping me
today as well."

7. Jay Barker

Jay Barker led the Alabama Crimson Tide to a perfect 13-0 season in
1992, beating Miami in the 1993 Sugar Bowl to win the national
championship.

Barker, who played for fellow man of faith Gene Stallings, has never
been afraid to share his Christian beliefs. After his college and pro
careers, he's turned to talk radio as a medium to reach others.

"I just tried to use the God-given talents I had to help my team
win," Barker said when asked about not being the flashiest player on the
field. "After all, we had a great defensive team. Sometimes, the things
that people said did hurt, but it also made me grow stronger in my
faith."

6. Pedro Martinez

Phillies pitcher Pedro Martinez is one of the God Squad players
whose ritual has become iconic. After an important throw, Martinez would
do his patented chest-touch and double-index-finger-point to God.

"I started praying about it a little bit," he said of his early
baseball aspirations. "At night I would never express it to anybody but
I would say, 'Oh God, help me. If I can't be a doctor, let me be a
baseball player."'

5. Drew Brees

"God is great," Drew Brees said after being named MVP in last year's
Super Bowl XLIV after leading the New Orleans Saints to an upset victory
over the Indianapolis Colts and their faith-filled coach, Jim Caldwell.
Saints fans became so enamored of Brees' seeming inability to do wrong
on the field that they even made T-shirts that said: WWBD? (What Would
Breesus Do?), and doctored photos to show Brees walking on the
Mississippi River.

4. Anthony Mason

The power forward for the Charlotte Hornets put the focus on God,
not himself, after scoring 21 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter to
eliminate the host Atlanta Hawks in the first round of playoffs at the
end of the 1997/98 season. After thanking "God" for making all things
possible, Mason said he had been "allowed" to perform well.

3. Tim Tebow

Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow doesn't just thank God after a big
win; he wears Bible verses on his face (or at least he used to).

When Tebow led the University of Florida to beat Oklahoma to win the
college football national championship in 2009, written in white on the
black strip under Tebow's eyes was the Scripture reference to John 3:16.
As the TV announcer congratulated him on being named the game's MVP, the
first thing Tebow did was thank his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

After Tebow graduated to the Denver Broncos, the NCAA banned the use
of eye black to display messages, biblical or otherwise. Now in the NFL,
Tebow writes the verses on a wrist band.

2. Herb Lusk

Some credit Herb Lusk as the man who started the whole athlete/God
thing, though it no doubt started well before him. He started another
signature move: kneeling in the end zone after a touchdown.

It was in 1977, following a 70-yard touchdown run, that Lusk, as a
Philadelphia Eagles running back, first took a knee for God. Lusk became
an evangelical Christian minister and now serves as the Eagles' team
chaplain.

1. Reggie White

They called Reggie White the "Minister of Defense." White played 15
years in the NFL, retiring as the league's all-time sack leader. An
ordained minister, he wrote three books that centered on his faith.

"I always believed, since I was a kid, that God was going to allow
me to play professional football to use it as a platform to proclaim and
to live out the name of Jesus, and that is the most exciting part about
my life," White said.

White died in 2004 at age 43 of cardiac arrhythmia. He said in
retirement that he had reinterpreted -- but never lost -- his faith.