Search Results for: Ravens

There’s that Baltimore Ravens faith ghost — again

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The Baltimore Ravens have been playing some really, really wild football games in recent weeks, a few with endings that several commentators have been tempted to call “miraculous.”

Sort of like that playoff game last year in frozen Mile-High Stadium in Denver (sorry, about that M.Z. Hemingway).

Anyway, head coach John Harbaugh was asked, in a recent press conference, to name the X factor behind his team. Here’s how ESPN.com reported the response:

“The thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith,” coach John Harbaugh said. “We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end. That’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”

There are times when special moments define special teams, just like the times when the Ravens converted the fourth-and-29 in San Diego and delivered the Mile High Miracle last season. These Ravens are building quite a portfolio of “never say never” moments.

Two weeks ago, the Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 22-20, by stopping a two-point conversion with 1:03 remaining. Last week, the Ravens outlasted the Minnesota Vikings, 29-26, by scoring three touchdowns in the final 2:05, including the winning 9-yard touchdown pass to Marlon Brown with 4 seconds left.

OK, you probably didn’t need all of those gridiron details, but I thought they were relevant.

Here in Charm City, the newspaper that lands in my front yard eventually printed that quotation, like this:

“We’re playing our best football right now and we’re going to have to continue to improve with what we have in front of us down the stretch,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “You look at our football team and the thing I love about our football team is that we are a team of faith. We believe. We trust. Because of that, we’ll fight. We will run the race right down to the end, that’s something that our football team does. I’m very proud of them for that.”

Now, that faith language is rather generic sports talk, methinks. What struck me was a football coach using that interesting language connecting this faith factor to finishing a “race,” as opposed to a football game.

That sounded rather familiar, coming from the organizer (or endorser) of the weekly Ravens Bible studies.

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Another haunted story about Ravens locker room faith

At this point, fans who pay close attention to the Baltimore Ravens are contemplating a deep moral and religious question. No, I am not referring to the sins being committed on a weekly basis by the offensive linemen who are allegedly blocking for quarterback Joe Flacco.

No, the bigger question is this: Who dominates the locker room, the party players associated with the recent “party bus” incident, with that strong supporting role played by a stripper named Sweet Pea, or the inner core of religious believers who are clearly being pulled into the organization or retained as leaders by head coach John “give me some mighty men” Harbaugh?

As the defending Super Bowl champions attempt to get their act together on the field, it’s clear that there are questions that need to be answered in the locker room.

Do the reporters and editors of The Baltimore Sun see what is going on?

I honestly do not know. I do know that, in story after story, the folks that operate the newspaper that lands in my front yard demonstrate that they are tone deaf when it comes to writing about the lives of the many religious believers who are playing key roles in the Ravens locker room. Tone deaf? What other explanation is there for this trend in which the religious role in players’ personal lives is either ignored or downplayed in story after story? Want to see a few examples, just from the past 12 months? Then click here, here, here, here and here.

The latest story in this haunted series focuses on safety James Ihedigbo, who — against strong odds — has emerged as a leader on the Ravens defense. It’s important to know that his family is from Nigeria.

Thus, this crucial transition in the story:

After bouncing around the NFL for a couple of years and surviving another training camp competition, Ihedigbo is thriving as a starter for the Ravens. The 29-year-old is providing sound coverage, reliable tackling and leadership for a younger group of defensive backs that lost a pair of veteran mentors in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard this past offseason.

“James has been kind of the glue back there,” coach John Harbaugh said.

Fighting to keep a dream alive is nothing new for him or for the Ihedigbo family. Decades before, Ihedigbo learned about perseverance and the power of faith from his parents.

The Ihedigbos, Apollos and Rose, left Nigeria and came to the United States in 1979, settling in Amherst, Mass. Two of their five children were born there, including their youngest son, James.

OK, there’s the faith word. Now what’s the story, in terms of the journalistic facts?

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Cutting ‘the Rev.’ out of a key Ravens executive’s work

If you number yourself among the millions and millions of Americans who follow the National Football League, then you know that this coming week is one of the most interesting, important and traumatic times of the year. It’s the time when “The Turk” walks the hallways at NFL camps, delivering the horrible news to players that they have been cut from the final rosters that teams take into the new season.

For many players, it represents the quick end of a dream or, at the very least, a severe setback. For journeyman players, it can mean the end a career or, at best, a time of radical life changes that can involve quick moves to a new location for their families or separation from loved ones they leave temporarily leave behind, because there’s no time to sell homes, change schools, etc.

What can NFL teams do to help men deal with all of this trauma? Or how about the flip side: What can be done to help young men handle the fact that they are now millionaires, with all of the attention and temptations that come with that amazing life change?

At the center of that maelstrom is a professional who is usually referred to as the “director of player development,” a job that is only growing in importance in the days when everything NFL players do in public or in private is subject to mass-media and social-media dissection to an unprecedented degree.

The Baltimore Sun recently ran a massive profile of Harry Swayne, the former NFL great who fills that role for the world-champion Ravens. The article argues that Swayne — simply stated — is a nationally known superstar in this crucial role, with a four-tiered player development program that is a model for others. Here’s some key background material:

Swayne is 48 years old and 55 pounds lighter than he was during a playing career that included a stint at starting right tackle on the Ravens’ Super Bowl XXXV team. These days, he is in his fourth year as the Ravens’ director of player development, a role that calls for Swayne to build relationships not only with players, coaches, team executives and their families, but also with corporate sponsors and business and community leaders.

It’s a tireless, yet rewarding job that has come under scrutiny recently with the slew of offseason arrests of NFL players, most notably the murder charge against former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. The arrests, including one involving linebacker Rolando McClain, who retired less than a month after joining the Ravens, have spurred questions about the level of responsibility NFL teams have in recognizing and preventing destructive off-the-field behavior.

Swayne didn’t comment on individual cases, but he was more than willing to address what he feels is the biggest misconception about player development directors.

“If there is a problem off the field with players — and there always is and always has been — [people say] what’s going on with player development?” Swayne said. “One thing we are not is behaviorists. In my line of work and this is for all 32 player engagement directors, we don’t babysit 20-something-year-olds. They are going to do what 20-something-year-olds do across all cultural groups, across this whole country. Their parents can’t keep them from going out and doing some stupid stuff. Certainly, the player development director isn’t going to be able to either.

“But in that same respect, what we are is proactive individuals who like to approach things where it puts us out in front of some cloudy decisions before they even get an opportunity to make a bad choice. All 32 player engagement directors kind of have that approach.”

And what does the NFL think of this man, who strives to help the Ravens find the right kinds of players for the climate in the team’s locker room?

“People ask if I can give them information, what should the structure look like, how much involvement should this individual have, who should they report to. I just tell them, ‘I’d like for you to speak to Harry Swayne, who is in Baltimore.’ That’s the winning model,” said Troy Vincent, the 15-year NFL cornerback who runs the NFL Player Engagement Organization. “He has it all. He’s the benchmark.”

Now, what I am suggesting is that this is story is about ethics, morality, sin, wisdom, life changes, patience and a whole lot of other subjects — as opposed to being just another sports story. And what makes it GetReligion material?

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Dang it, that Ravens executive keeps spouting Godtalk

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I get the feeling that many of The Baltimore Sun folks are starting to get tired of the Baltimore Ravens talking about God.

The other day, one of my favorite Sun writers wrote a story about executive O.J. Brigance, a former linebacker who continues to work for the team despite being ravaged by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. His story has often been told, but in a Super Bowl week it is being told again.

Why? Here’s the symbolic detail lede:

He was a mighty presence when the Baltimore Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV, a warrior who busted a wedge to make the first tackle that day and went on to make four more. If current coach John Harbaugh is to be believed, even then he was the toughest man in football.

Today O.J. Brigance has limbs that hang limp, his muscles withered. He can move only his lips and eyes and must use a computer to speak. The team’s director of player engagement is in his fifth year of battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a lethal and incurable illness.

Yet as his second Super Bowl looms, Brigance, 43, appears stronger than ever, and that lifts the title contenders.

“There aren’t enough words to describe what that man means to me and to this team,” punter Sam Koch said. “Just seeing ‘Juice’ here with a smile on his face is inspiring. If I have to choose a word for him, it would be ‘powerful.’”

Now, I am not sure that I have much to say — in terms of negatives — about the content of this story.

Nevertheless, there was a phrase in this piece that kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, it’s linked to Godtalk about the essential faith element that must be included in this story, along with the strength of his marriage.

Why “must” the faith element be included?

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Faith and that grieving Ravens wide receiver

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The Baltimore Ravens won a grudge match with the New England Patriots the other night because star wide receiver Torrey Smith made the decision to take the field hours after he learned about the death of his 19-year-old younger brother. The two were especially close, since Torrey had served as a father figure after his father abandoned the family.

This was one of those sports stories in which the God card was played early and often, but — of course — in as vague a manner as possible. Here’s a sample or two of the language used in the Baltimore Sun second-day story on this angle of the game:

Smith was intent on honoring his 19-year-old brother, Tevin Jones, pointing to the sky after a 25-yard touchdown in the second quarter, and finishing with a team-high six receptions for 127 yards.

Kneeling in the end zone, Smith said a prayer during the fourth quarter.

“It was tough emotionally,” said Smith, who was excused from practice Monday to be with his family and is expected to return Tuesday. “I didn’t know how I would hold up. This is new territory for me personally. I never really had to deal with a death in the family, let alone my brother.”

To add depth to this story, the Sun team sought out — long distance — a sports psychologist to discuss how athletes hold up under this kind of stress. Let me emphasize that this interview yielded some interesting, and valid, material.

Life and death transcend sports, but athletes often decide to be with their teammates, a second family of sorts, when tragedy strikes. How Smith excelled after his brother died in a single-vehicle accident when his motorcycle struck a utility pole, is remarkable, according to Dr. Joel Fish of The Center for Sports Psychology in Philadelphia.

“It clearly takes a tremendous level of will and motivation and character to dedicate your performance to a loved one to honor their loss,” Fish said in a telephone interview. “The tribute can allow someone to harness those emotions and channel them. Not everyone can do it.

“The stress is amazing, and it’s not about strength and toughness. It’s important to recognize that everybody responds differently to these kinds of tragedies. This is a tribute to dedicating our moments to someone, connecting and elevating our focus.”

Strength. Toughness. Character. Focus.

How about faith?

I was left wondering if, in the crucial moments before the game, Smith had taken part in some kind of worship service that allowed his teammates to surround and support him. Most, if not all, NFL teams allow a chaplain to lead voluntary services of this kind. Did the Ravens hold such a service before this game? It so, that’s a crucial detail in this story.

Oh, by the way, who is the Ravens chaplain? Did he talk to Smith? At one point, the Rev. Rod Hairston filled that role. Would the chaplain have consented to an interview?

It is clear that some members of the Ravens team approached Smith and discussed this crisis in terms of faith and prayer. We know that because the Sun included this short reference:

Two years ago, Ravens free safety Ed Reed boarded a private jet to return home to his family when his younger brother Brian Reed was reported missing after jumping into the Mississippi River after being chased by police. …

“When I went through losing my brother, being around these guys really helped,” Reed said. “Everybody is mourning and trying to figure out what happens. I gave [Smith] a psalm. We don’t know our time, none of us. …”

The reference to the psalm is interesting. As it turns out, Reed did address that issue with the press. CNN reported:

Smith received words of encouragement from everyone inside the club and around the globe. … Inside the clubhouse, safety Ed Reed, who lost his brother in 2011, gave Smith a psalm that he hoped would help him through the tough time.

“God’s in control, and God has a plan bigger than ours. We don’t know our time, none of us. We all experience the same things, so I just told him that we’re here for him; I’m here for him,” Reed said, recalling his conversation with Smith to reporters after the game. “I can relate to him. I told him we get so caught up, like our pastor said today, in the physical and what we see. I still talk to my (late) brother to this day because I know there’s much more to us than just being here. I told him that he could still have those conversations. Just know that he’s in a much better place.”

There was a pastor involved in this story? Really? Who knew?

Ravens believer speaks — uncensored

It’s a National Football League Sunday, so that usually means that it’s time for another Godtalk in sports segment.

This particular sports-and-faith feature is a bit different, however, for several reasons.

First of all, Baltimore Ravens executive O.J. Brigance is not the kind of guy who is given to brash religious statements about heroic victories. His confidence is quieter and more humble. It also helps to know that, a decade after leaving the National Football League, his opponent is a disease that remains undefeated.

Brigance is fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), most commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The charity that he helps lead — called the “Brigance Brigade” — has raised more than $500,000 for research seeking a cure, with the help of leaders at the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The second unique factor in this lengthy question-and-answer feature is that Brigance, at this point, can no longer move or talk. Thus, the Baltimore Sun notes that he “converses via a high-tech device called a DynaVox, which allows him to ‘talk’ by focusing on a computer screen, and blinking, to form words and sentences.”

Keep that image in mind as you read this former NFL Linebacker’s detailed and nuanced responses to a solid and well-thought-out set of questions from reporter Mike Klingaman.

By the way, the Sun editors ran this entire interview in the dead-tree-pulp edition, not just online. I say, “bravo.”

Your GetReligionistas tend to praise verbatim interviews for the simple reason that they allow people to address complicated and very personal issues in their own words. This is a form of interview that, on the religion beat, works just as well for unapologetic, articulate atheists as it does for traditional believers, like Brigance. All you need is a reporter willing to ask solid, even pushy, questions and a public figure who is willing to give frank, honest answers.

In this case, what does that sound like?

Do people who’ve been diagnosed with ALS come to you for support and, if so, what advice do you give them?

I have had the opportunity to speak with other ALS patients. My encouragement to them is: Don’t stop living in spite of people and circumstances telling you to accept your condition and go peacefully. I find when I speak to others that I am encouraged. Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Our trials come to mold us, and encourage those going through similar trials. …

What is still on your bucket list to do, both personally and professionally?

I have not written my bucket list, but as I think about it, I would like to go to Africa on safari, see Mount Rushmore, and write a book. …

Ravens’ head coach John Harbaugh calls you “the strongest man in the building.” Is he right?

Coach Harbaugh may claim that, and I appreciate the compliment, but I would have to defer to the men and women I see at the facility who, despite their apprehensions about seeing me fight this battle before their eyes, still treat me the same. Many people struggle with how to approach or deal with a person with a disability. I had the same uneasiness before I was diagnosed.

OK, you need to read it all. Just one more slice of this interview.

How would you describe to the rest of us what it has been like to live these last few years?

I would describe living the last few years as challenging, yet insightful. My wife and I have seen great acts of kindness and disappointments. However. I am most proud that we haven’t given up on God, or each other. We have used our trials to try and encourage others.

Do you ever compare life as it is now, to how it might have been?

I do believe that God will help me win this battle, and that I will be made whole. I am winning every day my feet touch the ground. We all need to appreciate the small victories in life, starting with the ability to open our eyes in the morning. It isn’t a matter of who is right, but who will I believe. In Proverbs, it says, “So as a man thinks, so is he.” In the end, whatever opinion we accept as truth for our lives will become our reality.

Read it all. This is NOT your normal God-and-sports chat.

Instead, it’s a solid, journalistic example of what a verbatim question-and-answer interview can do.

IMAGE: A publicity still from the Baltimore Ravens organization.

Ghost in Ravens’ pre-game rites

Now I KNOW how much GetReligion readers care about the often strange role that religious faith plays in American sports, including at the highest levels — such as the National Football League.

In this case, I really don’t care. I’m writing this post in honor of the late, great Cowboy coach Tom Landry, who was a Hall of Fame coach and a very complex man.

In a number of interviews through the years, including one with me, Landry used to talk a lot about God and he talked a lot about sports. He was convinced that far too many people approached sports AS a religion. He thought that was tragic.

Landry also got tired of reporters failing to understand that the most devout superstars — think Roger Staubach, in that Cowboys era — were the last people who would think that they should pray to win football games. They might pray for a safe game or for both teams to do their best. But pray for victory? Get real. Literally.

Now, I bring this up because The Baltimore Sun just ran a very interesting story about how the Raven’s players get ready on game day. That may sound like a simple subject, but it really isn’t. Some players need to calm down. Some need to get fired up. Some crank up their favorite music to stun level. One pro-bowl player likes to relax with a good book. Look for that detail in the story. And, it seems, many players spend a chunk of their Sunday morning in prayer.

Faith is a major part of this story. Check out this major chunk of this lengthy Sunday A1 report, focusing on secular and sacred rites at the team hotel:

In the hotel, there is a chapel set up in a conference room where the players hold a Bible study. It’s somewhat informal, according to Ray Lewis, one of the team’s most outspoken Christians. But because their jobs make it impossible to attend church on Sundays, it’s extremely important. Lewis still gets nervous before every game, and there is a calming effect to chapel he has a hard time putting into words. For years, he has been reading the same Bible verse before every game, Psalm 91:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty; I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.”

The Rev. Rod Hairston, the Ravens’ team chaplain, typically leads a discussion with a theme that ties into that day’s game, and players can take turns offering their thoughts about specific passages. “Most of us are trying to put things in perspective,” said Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff. “It’s a chance to get away from madness and recognize what’s important.”

Often, players will simply share stories from their own lives — their hopes, their fears, their questions about faith.

“Sometimes the guys will just get in there and we’ll have discussions ourselves,” Lewis said. “It really opens it up to a totally different thought process when you see how we actually interact with each other.”

There’s more faith content later on, so much so that I’m convinced that the Sun team needed to recognize what was happening and dare to do a religion sidebar for the story. I came away with the impression that the main thing these men are praying about is safety (and I don’t mean “safety” as in a two-point sack in the opponent’s end zone).

Read this report for yourself, please.

But here is what hit me. Did you notice that sentence in which we are told that the team chaplain’s message usually focuses on “a theme that ties into that day’s game.” Now what does that make you think? God’s plan for the running game? What the scripture for the day has to say about passing plays that work against a two-deep zone defense? Here’s what we find out. Nothing.

When the players tell personal faith stories, what is that all about? When players talk about their favorite scriptures, would it help to know a few examples? What are their spiritual questions? Here in Baltimore, everyone knows about Lewis’ dance with prison and his road back to the pinnacle of NFL success. But what does that Bible verse have to do with it?

Once you’ve read the story, let me know whether you think that a Sun reporter actually attended one of the Bible studies in question. I would assume that he or she didn’t, with the chaplain citing the need for privacy. But surely it was possible to ask follow-up questions. I predict that the stories and the scriptures are not simplistic and stereotypical.

In other words, I predict that there was surprising content in those moments of study and prayer. It’s hard to know, just by reading the story.

Which is kind of the point.

The Sun team saw the ghost, but wasn’t all that interested in the content. This was a missed opportunity, methinks, in what was an interesting concept for a story.

PICTURE: Ray Lewis, entering the stadium.

Getting faith into SI story of patient D-League hoops star

Once again, I realize that the world of GetReligion readers seems to contain a stunningly low percentage of sports fans, especially in comparison with the American public as a whole. Nevertheless, I follow sports quite closely and I have always been fascinated by the unusually high percentage of sports stories that include faith angles.

Most of the time — take the whole Baltimore Sun ignoring Ravens religion-angles thrend — my GetReligion posts on sports have been rather negative. You know the kind of story I’m talking about. A sports star plays the God card or offers a highly specific comment about the role of faith in his or her life and a journalists never looks into the details or offers any context for these words.

The negative tone is so common, in fact, that people drop me notes from time to time wanting to know if anyone covering sports ever gets one of these stories right. Well, remember that amazing Sports Illustrated story about the great UCLA hoops patriarch John Wooden and the challenge he faced, and met, learning to embrace the great center Lew Alcindor as he made his pilgrimage into Islam and became Kareem Abdul Jabbar?

Well, now a member of the SI staff — one Lee Jenkins — has provided another wonderful example of getting the faith-angle right. This time around, we’re talking about a back-of-the-book feature about a player who is just as obscure as Jabbar is famous. The man’s name is Ron Howard of the Fort Wayne, Ind., Mad Ants franchise in the NBA’s Development League and he recently broke the career scoring record for a player in this minor-league circuit.

As Jenkins states it (heads of fans up great sports flicks):

On March 29, Howard sank yet another pull-up from the left wing at Allen County War Memorial Coliseum. The game stopped. The crowd of 4,024 stood for three minutes. Fans sobbed. Joyner ran to the parking lot and fetched the carrot cake with cream-cheese icing, cooling in her car. Howard’s 4,254th point set a D-League record, recalling Crash Davis’s 247th home run. “A dubious kind of honor,” Crash says in the bush league classic Bull Durham. “I think it’d be great,” Annie Savoy replies. “The Sporting News should know.”

Like Crash Davis, Howard has been to the Show, if only for a sip of coffee. After his first year in Fort Wayne he signed with the Bucks and played in the preseason. When they released him, coach Scott Skiles said, “You’re good enough for the NBA.” Since then the D-League has reported 235 call-ups, but none for Howard.

Now, as it turns out, that carrot cake and the fan named Cindy Joyner are in the story’s short, lovely lede — which offers the first hint at the religion angle in this piece:

The night he made history, Mr. Mad Ant drove back to the seminary and ate carrot cake.

The dessert was a gift from Cindy Joyner, who bought season tickets seven years ago, when the NBA’s Development League awarded an expansion franchise to her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind. The team was dubbed the Mad Ants after the city’s namesake, Gen. Mad Anthony Wayne, and there were open tryouts to fill the roster. More than 120 hoop dreamers showed up at Indiana Tech in October 2007, paying $150 a head. Ron Howard, an unemployed 24-year-old living in a Chicago apartment with his wife and daughter, was an hour late.

“Who arrives an hour late?” recalls Howard, confused by the time change between Chicago and Fort Wayne. “I was too embarrassed to go in.”

Back to the seminary?

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