God and Football: The NFL's Chaplains Give Advice

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Morry Gash / AP

The Green Bay Packers' chaplain, Father James Baraniak, in his green vestment inside St. Norbert College Church

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But the chaplains believe their real value is more long term than game-day ministering. Through teaching Scripture and individual counseling, they attempt to bolster the players' values, so that their priorities, especially when they leave the regulated world of football, do not lead them down the path of self-destruction. At the same time, the chaplains help the players understand the acceptability of being forceful on the field, even as good Christians.

"The popular perception of Christianity in America, prior to the last 10 to 15 years, has been that being a Christian meant you were soft — you were considered weak, kind of a pushover," says Pastor Trapp. "You're the guy who was going to turn the other cheek. But you read in the Bible that some of those guys were brash and bold and forceful but still had a heart and a desire for God."

In small group-study sessions, chaplains offer guidance for the challenges that come with the players' new money and fame. Carey Casey, chaplain for the Kansas City Chiefs, uses the Book of Proverbs (Chapter 7: 6-27) to warn the players about crafty women they might meet in downtown clubs. When crises hit, a chaplain can provide paths to repentance; however, most prefer not to help anyone play Monday-morning Christian. Faith, they say, should be cultivated, not used as a fallback position. When a player gets into trouble, the coaches and management might be tempted to trot out his Christian faith to help with public opinion, but that makes the chaplains nervous. One's religiosity should assist the players to find direction, not serve as misdirection from what they did wrong.

"The question is: Are you using Jesus for monetary gain or eternal gain?" says Trapp. "Monetary gain says, 'We have an issue with a guy; let's now throw the Christian hat on. Let's get the media to play that. We don't want to lose money — that's our star player!' But if you're really trying to use Jesus for eternal gain, it's going to show up in the NFL and in our society. That's my encouragement. Stop trying to pimp Jesus."

Because the highs can be so electrifying and the defeats so crushing, players often want help contextualizing the season. Their professions depend on victory, but the Vince Lombardi Trophy can signify something greater than a big win. When asked if a Super Bowl ring serves as an idol for the players, Trapp puts his spin on football's Holy Grail: "Every time I think about the Super Bowl, I think about the season. Every time I think about the season, I think about the relationships. And the Super Bowl doesn't even compare to the season and the relationships — because the Super Bowl is long gone, but the relationships are still here and still solid and still growing." The playoffs mean more time to do unto your teammates as you would have your teammates do unto you.

After the 7:30 a.m. Mass for the Packers on game day, Father Baraniak heads over to St. Norbert College, four miles from Lambeau, and officiates at Mass for the students. (Some of them, he admits, come to his service because they know he'll finish in time to get to the game.) By kickoff, Baraniak can be seen on the sidelines in his clerical collar and black garments (his team-color vestment left at the rectory), ready for whatever might get thrown his way.

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