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Polamalu’s faith, religion, spirituality, whatever

It’s NFL playoffs time again and, of course, the hated Pittsburgh Steelers are once again poised to knock the Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs. If this horrific reality comes to pass (again), there is a very good chance that the deed will be done by the Steelers’ mane man, superstar safety Troy Polamalu. Personally, I think Polamalu is the best player in professional football and, yes, that includes the quarterback up in New England.

But this is not a football post. It’s a post about the improving — but still rather strange — coverage of Polamalu’s Orthodox Christian faith.

Things have improved a bit since that 2007 Yahoo Sports piece in which reporter Jason Cole observed that the Polamalu had a “carefully arranged series of religious items in his locker at Heinz Field.” How do icons of Jesus, Mary and patron saints turn into vague “religious items”?

There was a time when many stories referred to Polamalu as a Catholic, presumably because of his use of the sign of the cross during frequent prayers — on and off the field. Of course, from a Catholic point of view — at least the Western rites — he was making the sign of the cross backwards, but never mind.

In this week’s obligatory Baltimore Sun feature about the superstar safety and Raven’s nemesis, we had this religious reference, including in the context of Polamalu being a quiet, low-key kind of competitor:

There is no topic he’s particularly eager to discuss, even though he’s the organizer of several charities and is a devoted follower of the Greek Orthodox religion. Putting a tape recorder or a microphone in his face is akin to asking a shy sixth grader to stand in front of the classroom and compete in the spelling bee. He’ll do it, and he’ll probably perform well, but only because he’s too polite to say no.

A few comments. First, Polamalu is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity and he attends a Greek Orthodox parish and often, because of his Sunday travels, his family attends the intense, four-hour services at a nearby Orthodox monastery. But it is awkward, to say the least, to say that he follows the “Greek Orthodox religion.” Is Orthodoxy a separate religion from, oh, Christianity?

Judaism is a religion. Islam is a religion. Hinduism is a religion. But “Baptist” is not a religion. “Methodist” is not a religion. Polamalu is a Christian who practices the Orthodox Christian faith.

Meanwhile, over at the New York Times, Polamalu is Greek Orthodox, period, and is following a “spiritual path.” The word “Christian” is nowhere to be found, unless I missed it somehow. Yes, toward the end of the piece, he is described as kissing the “three-inch framed photos of the Virgin Mary and Jesus” before making the sign of the cross several times. Photographs? More likely, we’re talking about icons.

However, there is this detailed description of this believer’s journey into Orthodoxy and a reference to the “spiritual doctor” — most Orthodox would say “spiritual father” — and prayers that have helped to guide him on this journey.

“How many millions of people woke up in the morning, never to see the evening?” Polamalu read. And then: “The life of a man is a dream. In a dream, one sees things that do not exist; he might see that he is crowned a king, but when he wakes up, he sees that in reality he is just a pauper.”

The book in Polamalu’s hands, “Counsels From the Holy Mountain,” guides him in football and in life. It contains the letters and homilies of a Greek Orthodox monk, Elder Ephraim, whom Polamalu described as his spiritual doctor.

Polamalu, 29, sought out the octogenarian monk, who resides in a monastery in southern Arizona, a few years ago, a meeting that led Polamalu to the place he described as “heaven on earth.” It is a summit of sorts. But not the Super Bowl, though Polamalu won two championship rings in his first seven seasons with the Steelers. Neither of those journeys shaped him as profoundly as the pilgrimage he made to Mount Athos, a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece.

While there, Polamalu said he witnessed humility and sacrifice in its deepest, purest forms and realized that for all their obvious differences, the spiritual path shared much with a Super Bowl journey.

This is where you really begin to sense that the journalists do not realize that Orthodoxy is larger than Greece. Saying that Mount Athos is “a Greek Orthodox spiritual center in Greece” is like saying that the World Cup is a soccer tournament. On top of that, the holy mountain contains monasteries from every corner of the Orthodox world, not just Greece.

Try telling millions of Russians that Athos is a center for Greek Orthodoxy — alone. This reference is simply inaccurate and deserves a correction.

So, reporters, would you like to know how to handle these kinds of complex issues in a way that is simple, smooth and accurate? You need to read Godbeat veteran Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, of course. Observe the following, in a story about Orthodox Christmas rites, including Nativity Lent:

“We all celebrate Easter on the same day,” said Mr. Polamalu, 29. Orthodoxy is the Eastern wing of the earliest Christian church, which split into the Orthodox and Catholic churches in 1054. He and Theodora converted to Orthodoxy about five years ago. His background was Catholic and Protestant, hers Muslim and Protestant. They were Christians in search of a deeper, more consistent experience of God.

“Orthodoxy is like an abyss of beauty that’s just endless,” he said. “I have read the Bible many times. But after fasting, and being baptized Orthodox, it’s like reading a whole new Bible. You see the depth behind the words so much more clearly.”

That fasting is a Christmastime difference between Eastern and Western Christians. While many Americans pile on the food from Thanksgiving to Christmas, Orthodox Christians start fasting Nov. 15 or 28.

And so forth and so on. The Greeks are important, obviously. But Orthodox Christianity — or Eastern Orthodox Christianity — is the wider, more expansive way to talk about this ancient faith.

Come on, people! Just do the background work.

Redemption via Super Bowl?

The week I moved to the Green Bay area, the ushers at church handed us kitchen magnets listing the Packers schedules with a little plug for the men’s ministry. That was when I realized that sports and religion blend quite frequently here in cheese town.

A recent Wall Street Journal article about how Steelers is practically a religion in Pittsburgh could similarly apply to this city. Of course, we will be interested to see if religion angles come out in some of the inevitable profiles of key players.

On the Steelers’ side, we’ve talked before about coach Mike Tomlin’s Christian faith, safety Troy Polamalu’s Orthodox Christian faith, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s attempt to capture the team’s faith as a whole.

And we might see further analysis of Ben Roethlisberger’s “redemption,” perhaps with comparisons to Michael Vick. Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault twice. No criminal charges were filed, and the league suspended him for four games earlier this season. Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Vick served time in prison for his involvement in an illegal dog fighting ring. Back in 2009, Terry asked whether Vick’s redemption was completely faith-free, and I’m curious how the divisive quarterback stories will play out. After all, he said after last night’s victory, “God is good.” It’s definitely worth considering whether a redemption story is a push for good PR, but specific details might help us sort this out.

In this lengthy ESPN article about how Roethlisberger is working to rebuild trust, we learn very little about whether religion has played a serious role.

With his bar-hopping days apparently behind him, Roethlisberger retreats to his parents’ home in his down time. They moved last year from their house in Ohio to a ranch just outside Pittsburgh, and Ben spends a lot of his time outdoors with his dad, Ken.

Roethlisberger was raised in a fairly strict, religious environment, people close to him say, and has turned back to those roots.

“I think his main focus was getting a better connection with the Lord and getting a better connection with his own family,” Colon said.

It might be tough to get specifics from “people close to him,” but “fairly strict, religious environment” tells readers very little about his transformation. We see the same vagueness in a story from the Associated Press.

Roethlisberger began attending [Ann Loomis'] suburban church last summer, and she has watched him emerge as someone she calls “just a regular guy going to church on Sunday.”

“Professionally, I think the cockiness that was typically attributed to him is no longer there. You can see a genuine person who loves what he does. He loves football, first and foremost, but I would venture to say that his newfound faith has become greater than that,” says Loomis, 36, who lives north of Pittsburgh.

“He is becoming a man and finding himself through his mistakes and his restoration as well,” she says. “This past weekend, he could have been partying it up after winning the game and sleep all Sunday. But I will tell you, that man was in church on Sunday morning.”

In a brief interview, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review asked him a little bit about faith earlier this season, generally saying that he “found his religion.”

You said you are more at peace with yourself. Why?
It’s a calming feeling when the Lord runs your life. And it’s something I’ve always known as a church person, but I’ve never really believed it. I think I’ve known it but never believed it. And now I know it, and it’s a great thing.

When athletes talk about finding religion, it produces its share of eye-rolling. Do you expect that reaction from fans?
It’s OK. I’m not going to be going out there and trying to push it on people and make it seem like all of a sudden I am this great person. That’s not who I am. That’s not what religion and faith is all about. You’re not going to see me getting cross tattoos and wearing cross necklaces. That’s not what it’s about. So if they want to roll their eyes, that’s fine. Because I know where I am at and God knows where I’m at, and that’s all that really matters.

The reporter’s skeptical question appropriately challenged the quarterback’s story. Unfortunately, the vague question doesn’t help us get a clearer picture of whether his faith has changed over time. For instance, is it so hard for these outlets to include the name of the church that he has been attending? David Briggs recently wrote about research from sociologist Eric M. Carter of Georgetown College, who interviewed 100 current and former NFL players and looked at the influence of religion in their lives.

Overall, 72 percent of the players who reported that they were happy with life also reported that religion was an important support mechanism in their life.

The religious factor, Carter said, appears to furnish some players “with companionship and a sense of belonging…in essence, the emotional, social psychological, and social supports missing in their lives.”

Or, in the words of one of the players, “If you ain’t got no family, no loving wife, or other things like that, it’s God….He’s the only thing that’s gonna save you.”

There is one kicker: The benefits of religion come with practice. Athletes who publicly proclaim their religious beliefs but do not practice their faith have worse outcomes.

If we could play skeptical and wonder whether Roethlisberger is rebuilding his image for further paychecks, wouldn’t it make sense to dig a little more deeply into his religious habits? If reporters play up the forgiveness and redemption angles, at least they could offer a few details.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Faith of (all) the Steelers

TAMPA, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: Defensive back William Gay  of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates a play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the game at Raymond James Stadium on September 26, 2010 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

Sorry, Tim Tebow.

You’re apparently not the only person of faith in the National Football League, headlines to the contrary notwithstanding.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently published an, um, interesting feature on the faith of the Pittsburgh Steelers with this headline:

NFL players still turn to religion for solace

The top of the story:

Adoring fans carried star safety Troy Polamalu on their shoulders — passing him off, one to another, as though they could live through his efforts.

Such adulation during the parade downtown honoring the Steelers after their victory in Super Bowl XL in 2006 might have given someone else a bloated sense of entitlement.

Polamalu? He flew to Greece, living for four days in a 1,500-year-old monastery with Greek Orthodox monks.

Polamalu, who is Greek Orthodox, had stepped back to wonder what the victory and accompanying fame meant. He was unimpressed.

“Oh, OK, I won a Super Bowl,” he said. “So what? I didn’t have that fulfillment like what God could provide for me.”

Polamalu is one of several Steelers who make religion and prayer a way of life while engaging in a sport that rewards brutality. It is such a part of the Steelers’ culture that Polamalu and other defensive backs pray in a huddle between each series. Back in the locker room, a small carton of scripture books, entitled “Our Daily Bread,” sits on a shelf next to a box of footballs.

Now, that’s a compelling lede. It makes me want to read the rest of the story. Or so I thought at the beginning.

The story loses steam quickly, even as it keeps going for 1,300-plus words. The problem is simple: Too much information, all strung together under the general heading of “Steelers and faith.” Keep reading, and tell me if the constant zigs and zags don’t make for an annoyingly confusing set of X’s and O’s.

After that nice intro with Polamalu, he’s pretty much benched for the rest of the game — er, story — never to be heard from again.

We move from the Greek Orthodox player to a generic, Bible-believing safety to a Mormon nose tackle to a Catholic team scout to a “Christian” wide receiver. // < ![CDATA[

Want a news angle? As the story proceeds, we’ve got bad boy quarterback Ben Roethlisberger going to church “every Sunday” after he was accused of sexual assault twice in an eight-month period. But we get no details on the church, and once again, it’s a drive-by account of a player’s faith — about as deep as the Texas Longhorns’ offense this season. (Sorry, Sooner fan here, and I couldn’t resist that. Oklahoma 42, Texas 7 in the Red River Rivalry in Dallas on Saturday. But I digress …)

And, of course, a story trying to pack in everything imaginable about faith in the NFL must include former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy, who is known for his evangelical Christianity, and oh yeah, that No. 25 draft pick of the Denver Broncos. (Hmmmmm, was there another Heisman-winning, Jesus-loving quarterback picked higher in that draft? But I digress again …)

Back to the story: The Tribune-Review piece even manages a Brett Favre reference, and that’s totally fine since the source is the Catholic bishop of Pittsburgh.

The problem is, this story is like going to an all-you-can-eat cafeteria. You keep piling food on your plate. You stuff it all down your throat. And when you’re done, you have a yucky feeling, wishing you’d been a bit more careful in picking and choosing your meats and veggies.

That’s how I feel about this story. There was a lot of potential for a nice piece of sports/religion writing. But the quarterback tried to do too much and overthrew the receiver in the end zone.

Sorry, Tebow.

The sports mission at Messiah

messiahfalconThis time of year, it’s common to see stories about God and the gridiron. Many miss the mark. But every now and then, as tmatt found in an interview with Troy Polamalu, a reporter will hit paydirt with a story that gets both faith and football.

In USA Today, though, we get a bit of the latter but divert from football to, well, football. Call it piety on the pitch:

The Messiah College women’s soccer team marches across campus, two by two, in its home whites, singing and clapping rhythmically an hour before kickoff.

Glory, glory to the Lamb

You will take us into the land.

We will conquer in Your name

And proclaim that Jesus reigns.

Conquer, they do. The Messiah women’s soccer team is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in Division III. The one-loss men’s team is No. 3. Both won NCAA titles last season, as did Messiah’s softball team. Oh, and the field hockey team is No. 1 this fall as well.

How did a little-known Christian college of 2,801 near Harrisburg in south-central Pennsylvania become a national powerhouse?

“It’s a great question, probably hard to put into words,” says senior Amanda Naeher, last season’s Division III player of the year in women’s soccer. “But it’s just the general idea that we’re playing for something more.”

Not bad for an athletic department with a $507,000 annual budget.

And here the secret of their success is plain to see: Each wears a game face with joy on it.

There are a lot of things I liked about this story from Erik Brady of USA Today. I appreciated the the sincere approach the reporter took, demonstrated by the sprinkling of Bible verses and worship songs. And I was relieved that the story wasn’t full of quotes about whether or not God helped the players at Messiah win national championships. Brady got that for these student athletes that wasn’t the point: It truly isn’t whether they win but how they play the game.

Brady’s article exhibits neither anthropology (like the Los Angeles Times piece on megachurches) nor hagiography; it’s a story about young evangelicals with barely a mention of politics; it’s about doing that thing Christians learn when they are kids but seem to forget: giving your best for the glory of God.

Another thing — and this is a lesson every young journalist needs to learn but doesn’t — is that Brady just lets his subjects talk and tries to stay out of the way.

“As Christians, we are asked to believe some pretty strange things that just defy logic, like Jesus was born to a virgin,” athletics director Jerry Chaplin says. “If we can believe those things, how hard is it to believe we can win a national championship?”

That’s not a perspective you often read on the sports page. It’s not even something you expect to see mentioned even when a sports story is focusing on an athlete’s spirituality; typically when sport stars want to talk about God, reporters want to talk about big plays and bad calls. But Messiah College, the mission is the message, and Brady reported it with a sensitive stroke.

However, these types of stories don’t have to be reserved for coverage of Christian schools.

Click here for the full story and a cool audio slideshow.

Faith & football — to the max

troy with son 2Regular readers may have noticed at some of your GetReligionistas are big sports fans, which includes the National Football League in several cases. This continues to be the case even though young master Daniel Pulliam is inactive, while serving as editor of a law review.

Regular readers may also know that we are big fans of intelligent question-and-answer interviews, especially when this format allows a skilled journalist to let intelligent and colorful people stretch out and tell their own stories and describe their own beliefs in their own words.

Regular readers may also know that I am a convert to Orthodox Christianity and, it goes without saying, I am interested in the views of other Orthofolks.

However, just about the last thing I would expect to see in public media is a long and highly intelligent interview with an NFL superstar, commenting on the role of his Orthodox faith in his life as a parent, husband, churchman and athlete. Can you imagine the odds against that?

So, click here and check out Gina Mazza’s conversation with — you guessed it — the mane man in Pittsburgh, which would be Troy Polamalu, the star safety for the Steelers. I don’t quite know where to start with the interesting material in this one (Can you say, “Mount Athos?”), but let’s start with this part of the introduction:

Fatherhood is new in Polamalu’s life since the birth of his son, Paisios, named after a beloved contemporary Greek Orthodox monastic, Elder Paisios, on Oct. 31, 2008. Has daddy-dom been life-changing? Will he encourage his son to play professional sports? How’s that beautiful new mom doing?

And last but not least: Faith. In order to properly meet Polamalu where he lives, this is the requisite, the grounding force that gives meaning to everything he does, every play he makes. Polamalu’s evident gratitude to the one who made him is marbled throughout our talk — from his training regime to his travels to Mount Athos, a monastic site in Greece, a place he calls “heaven on earth.”

So this interview includes some very unusual questions, in the context of sports. How about, “Would you want your son to be a priest?” But, you see, that isn’t the biggest question.

Here’s a major chunk of the interview:

What is your greatest wish for your child?

Without a question, my greatest wish would be for him to understand the spiritual struggle and to be a pious Orthodox Christian. That’s what I want for myself, as well. Sometimes parents want their children to be what they never were. And that’s one thing that I am gracious for Paisios to have: that he’s able to grow up in the Orthodox church around monastics and priests that I was never able to experience as a kid — to grasp that, not take it for granted and really culture that. …

How would you define the spiritual struggle you referred to earlier?

It’s the struggle of good and evil, and with that comes the struggle with greed, jealousy, materialism, sexual morality, pride, all these types of struggles that we face every day, in every second of the day.

Your faith continues to evolve. In the past few years, you formally
converted to Greek Orthodox. Where do you worship?

My wife and I go often to a Greek Orthodox monastery in Saxonburg [Nativity of the Theotokos], a monastery in Arizona, and several parishes in Pittsburgh. We like the monastery because it’s most serene there and we can talk to the monastics. To see their daily struggles really fascinates me.

What intrigues you about the monastic life?

For me, faith is to be simple in this way. If anybody believes in God and believes in the Holy Bible, how can you be in any grey area? I’m talking about myself here, how can “I” think one way and do another way? To me, Christianity is very black and white. Either you take it serious or you don’t take it serious at all. The monks’ example to me is that they take salvation seriously in every facet of their lives. This is a model for me as a Christian and for my family on how to live our lives.

Read on. This has to be one of the most off-the-wall (in a good way) interviews of the year. Enjoy.

Photo: From the website.

Crown of victory in the arena?

troy-polamaluA football fanatic friend of mine whose very name screams predestination — Calvin — noticed something interesting in the prayers last night during vespers.

It was one of the prayers marking the name day of St. Tryphon:

Disdaining earthly things here below, O venerable and all-blessed Tryphon, thou didst hasten bravely to the arena; by wrestling unto blood, thou didst skillfully cast the haughty one to the ground, O Martyr, and didst win the crown of victory. Cease not to entreat Christ our God in our behalf, O prizewinner, that our souls be saved.

Bold words. Throwing people down in an arena?

Now, at this point, would it interest you to know that this is the patron saint of one Troy Polamalu, the star safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the gridiron warrior who has confused some sportwriters by constantly making the sign of the cross from right to left?

It’s Super Bowl Sunday so you had to know that your GetReligionistas would be looking for the religion angles in the rites of the day.

Some sportswriters struggle with the faith-based language that many players deploy during these kinds of events. However, Rick Maese of the Baltimore Sun offered an interesting column the other day in which he working his way through his feelings about this issue, and Kurt Warner in particular, and concluded that he has seen worse things happen in sports. Read it all, but here’s a crucial passage:

You’ll have to forgive sportswriters a tad. Most have seen too many athletes espouse their spiritual side yet indulge their criminal. When an athlete mentions God, eyes roll and tape recorders shut off. When thanking Jesus is considered cliche, you know we have problems.

I was engrossed, though. I’m not sure whether it was the message or the messenger, but as I age and as the world around me becomes increasingly unreliable and unpredictable, it’s refreshing to see someone who has every reason to get caught up in a peripheral storm of money, ego, celebrity and excess remain so grounded.

“My faith helps me with everything,” Warner says. “The biggest thing about my faith is it helps keep everything in perspective. You understand the highs and lows. You understand what’s going on sometimes with the highs and lows when other people don’t see them.”

I’m no trend spotter, and there’s no way to quantify this, but from David Tyree to Tony Dungy to Tim Tebow, it seems as if faith has been enjoying an increasingly prominent role in football in America. If it really helps control temperament, I dare say God might be the best performance enhancer you can use legally.

So Warner believes his faith is the most important thing in his life. How does a sportswriter ignore that? Warner says his faith is way, way, way more important than football? That’s an outrageous thing to say during Super Bowl Week, so it might be an an interesting idea to explore with honest coverage, isn’t it?

Which brings us back to Polamalu, whose un-orthodox Eastern Orthodox faith has been getting a bit more coverage in recent years.

This week, for better or for wose, it seems like he has arrived as one of the faith-driven NFL warriors. Of course that “please photograph me” mane of hair sure doesn’t hurt.

In Pittsburgh, veteran religion writer Ann Rodgers of the Post-Gazette jumped right past the football and wrote a news feature about the details of the football star’s pilgrimage and its impact on the Orthodox communities that he loves. I mean, this is a sports story that opens with a quote from an Eastern orthodox bishop.

st-tryfon1Here’s the heart of the report:

… (For) the Orthodox, he’s something special, said Damian George, the youth director at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. When teens attend national Orthodox conferences, “the kids from Pittsburgh kind of brag about Troy, not only that he’s a Steeler, but that he’s Orthodox. And even the kids from Philly and New York get excited about it. He gives them a good role model because he’s able to play at a high level and keep his faith at an equally high level,” he said.

Orthodoxy has no tradition of celebrities who testify to their faith, said the Rev. Thomas Soroka, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, McKees Rocks. There are lists of celebrities who have belonged to the church, including Tina Fey and Tom Hanks. But none are considered exemplars of Orthodox spirituality. Current online discussions of an Orthodox celebrity that don’t involve Mr. Polamalu tend to bewail the conduct of Rod Blagojevich, who was removed as Illinois governor last week after a four-day impeachment trial.

“A lot of times when people are Orthodox, it’s more of an ethnic or cultural thing. Troy stands above that by being a practicing, committed Orthodox Christian,” Father Soroka said. “Orthodoxy is quite sober. It’s not flashy or attractive to those who are looking for stardom. It’s much more introspective, and I think Troy embodies that.”

Note this: What makes this man interesting is that he actually practices his faith and, in this case, it’s a faith that many people find unusual, demanding and even exotic. Hey, I’ll ask the obvious question: Great Lent is not that far off, so what are some of his favorite non-meat and non-dairy recipes for use during the great fast?

Rodgers’ report also ends with what I think should be the thought for the day. Are you ready?

The Rev. Patrick Carpenter, pastor of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, South Side, joined a Troy Polamalu fan group on Facebook and took part in its “Steelers prayer wave.” But he won’t pray for a Steelers win.

“We don’t pray for victories. We don’t pray for defeats. We pray for the safety of the team.”

And all the people said, “Amen.”

Religious ‘items’ in a locker

polamalu si coverAnother football weekend, yet another chance to venture into the arena of faith and sports.

For starters, The Washington Post had an interesting story about former Philadelphia Eagle running back Herb Lusk, who is better known for what happened after one of his touchdown runs than for the actual events of his short but sweet National Football League career. Here’s the top of the story:

The play was 48 Toss, and 30 years later, Dick Vermeil remembers it as if he called it last Sunday. Herb Lusk took a pitch from Ron Jaworski, headed around left end, and breezed unscathed 70 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Four steps over the goal line at Giants Stadium, the Philadelphia Eagles’ running back rewrote the playbook. Alone in the end zone, with a crowd of 48,824 looking on, he celebrated with a gesture in what has since become a watershed moment in American sports.

With little ceremony and no advance warning, Lusk kept his eyes straight, dropped to his left knee, and bowed his head in prayer. A few seconds later, he stood back up and returned to the sideline, his legacy sealed.

It was, according to the experts at NFL Films, the first end-zone prayer, and it opened up an arena of public speech and symbolic actions that remains alive and well and controversial to this day.

But the story that fascinated me, for obvious reasons, came early in the week — care of Jasan Cole at Yahoo! Sports. This was a simple Q&A about Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu, who is, perhaps, best known for the awesome mane of hair that flows out from under his Steelers helmet.

But it seems that Polamalu is also a Christian believer, and Cole not only allows this subject some space in his interview, but gets into some interesting details. Cole just keeps asking questions and printing the details of the answers.

Still, I had to smile at the reporter’s reference to Polamalu having a “carefully arranged series of religious items in his locker at Heinz Field.”

Religious items? What might those be?

See if you can fill in the gaps based on this section of the interview proper, which centers on the fact that Tuesday is on the only day in the week when Polamalu and his wife have the time to go to church.

300px FedorovskayaWhy is that? Does their church have extra long services, or what?

Polamalu: … Tuesday is also our only opportunity to go to church together, so we do that.

Cole: When and where do you go?

Polamalu: It starts at 8:30 (a.m.). … It’s the Nativity of the Theotokos monastery (in Saxonburg, Pa.).

Cole: I know you’re devoutly Christian … but exactly which denomination?

Polamalu: Greek Orthodox. Theotokos literally means the Mother of God.

Cole: How long are you in services?

Polamalu: They usually go to about 12:30.

Cole: That’s a four-hour service. Is that a normal service?

Polamalu: Pretty much, especially at a monastery.

Cole: Can you describe it?

Polamalu: What’s really neat about the Orthodox church is that it’s like walking back in time 2,000 years to the time of the Apostles, when they created these services. You walk into that and it’s really like … living it. They have maintained the truth ever since the beginning.

And so forth and so on.

So, since he is an Eastern Orthodox believer, what do you think those “items” were in his locker? Might they have been icons? You think?