As a culture, we are still in the midst of the great secular holy season called the NFL playoffs. That means GetReligion readers will have to put up with a few more reports about faith and football, as opposed to the civil religion built around faith IN football.
I know that some readers are especially tired of mega-rich superstar athletes praying all the time for God’s blessings or giving thanks for for the power to trample opposing players into the turf. Of course, few players actually say that. Most simply pray for the ability to do their best or give thanks after a game is over.
But the Washington Post recently ran a story that took some of these issues up several notches, all the way to life-and-death status. It focuses on the inspirational role that former NFL special-teams star O.J. Brigance is playing in the lives of players with the underdog Baltimore Ravens. The team’s director of player development is working while in a specially constructed wheelchair as he fights amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
He can no longer walk. He cannot stand freely. His arms do not move. His hands lie twisted and helpless on his lap. Speaking is a chore that requires him to thrust his body forward and thrust the words from his mouth. A great voice that boomed across rooms is now hoarse and shallow. His disease destroys the motor neurons that run between the brain and the rest of the body. Eventually it will kill him. It has no cure.
To those who see Brigance every day it is clear he is dying.
Only he believes he will be the first to survive.
“They say I have two to five years,” Brigance, 39, said as he sat at his desk this week. “Everyone is expecting me to die. I do not answer to that plan. God has given me so much more. I’m going to believe Him now rather than what a doctor is saying. We as individuals believe [doctors] and because we believe them we limit ourselves. With God all things are possible. God, I believe, will cure me.”
People with terminal diseases say things like this, of course, and there are cases — often cancer cases — in which miracles happen, cures that leave doctors puzzled. But in this case, it seems that Brigance is bravely charging ahead in a way that is both sad and inspiring, at the same time.
But this is not the passage that caught my eye.
When you are dealing with Godtalk in sports, it is often hard to separate the faithful believers from people who know how to point toward the heavens, but that’s about it. One thing that reporters and then readers can look for is hard evidence that an athlete has been consistently involved in a religious community, especially if that includes consistent leadership in worship or public service. Think Tony Dungy.
However, there is another trait for which one can look. It’s a matter of theology. Look for signs of repentance. It is one thing to profess faith that one will be healed. It is another thing to look for the hand of God in the suffering itself, to say that one has learned about strength through the experience of weakness.
Thus, read this passage about Brigance and his trials:
There is an arrogance many athletes have when it comes to their fitness. Sitting in his office, Brigance chuckled slightly as he considered this, nodding in agreement. Perhaps more than even facing a prognosis of death, this is the hardest adjustment: Suddenly, he is without the thing that once made him invulnerable.
“Who are you?” he asked. “When your physical prowess is taken away, who are you? We build our lives on things that are temporary and when these things are taken away who are you inside? That’s one of the great blessings I’ve had. I can see I’m more than an athlete.”
Wait, there is more.
“One of my favorite quotes came during 9/11: Adversity introduces us to ourselves. You are going to find out what’s inside when you go through adversity. I’ve found some things in myself that I’m not proud of. I’ve been given the opportunity to go through it and become a better man.”
He was asked what those things were. His eyes smiled.
“Do not ask about that,” he said.
“We all put on our masks,” he continued. “And we’re trying to make ourselves a certain way. When all that is taken away, who are you? I’m humbled a lot more. I’m a man who will serve God to the best of my abilities. I control nothing.”
Amen. That is not your usual message from a football story. Read it all.
Photo: From the Baltimore Ravens home page.