I like to think that God is watching every game and that he has a hand in every play. But I can’t make this case theologically. My football journey has always been part of my faith journey.
Before every game, players and chaplains pray with the players for a good game and no serious injuries for either team. These days, these prayers take on a new significance.
Yesterday, Damar Hamlin spoke as part of the lead up to Sunday’s Super Bowl and the NFL players union doctor says Hamlin will play again. Yet, it was only a month ago, during a Monday night game, when the whole country saw him go into cardiac arrest after a tackle, a tackle not unlike what fans have witnessed thousands of times. But, this time, we watched Hamlin stand up and then collapse. The seriousness of his situation was revealed as the medical personnel rushed onto the field and began performing CPR.
Seldom have players from both teams prayed together during a game. The Bengals and Bills, despite their unbridled competitiveness and different colors, were joined in their humanity asking for divine intervention. Many of us watching, religious or not, joined them. We asked God to heal someone we didn’t know.
Atheists were not given a microphone.
I have nothing against atheists or those who choose to not acknowledge faith in God. But this was not their moment.
We waited — and prayed — for days, until we got some good news from the hospital and team. Hamlin’s full recovery has been miraculous. But, also very importantly, he was used by God to bring a nation together. We turned to God in desperate prayer for a football player. We felt united.
I’ve been involved in the game for more than 50 years; prayer has always been a part of football. As a kid we would pray before every game. When I played in college, we had team prayers. As a professional player, we had voluntary chapel services before the games. All those prayers were drawing us closer to God.
Faith in football makes a violent game just a game. Football is a collision sport where grown men run into each other at full speed and then stop when the ref blows a whistle. There are rules for the game. They are wonderful illustrations and teaching points for life. We are drawn to prayer and faith and it feels good. Everyone is welcome to ask for God’s intervention, or not.
Faith is so important because we can’t control the uncontrollable or unexpected. But we can trust God and comfort one another in some of life’s most difficult situations. Faith helps us keep perspective when the unexpected happens. When Hamlin’s heart stopped, he and we needed God’s help.
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God gave us Damar Hamlin. He’s a man of faith who repeatedly defied the odds. He was not supposed to make it. As a young Black man, he was statistically far more likely to get caught up in drugs or gang violence than to become a professional football player. As the son of two teen parents, he was not supposed to be drafted. But he was.
Hamlin reminds me of Dr. Archie “Moonlight” Graham in the movie “Field of Dreams.” Dr. Graham had his chance, but had to sacrifice it for a higher purpose. Hamlin is proof that God answers prayers. He is answering prayers now for himself, his team and his family. God is drawing us closer to him and his love through the good news that’s come from this tragic situation.
Transcendent moments in time like this are pivotal, when we stop and think about faith and God. But not always. Other catastrophic incidents during games don’t always result in the same prayerful response. During a pre-season NFL game in 1978, Darryl Stingley suffered a spinal cord injury that rendered him a quadriplegic. The game wasn’t halted; we didn’t see players praying. The prayer for Damar Hamlin was collective, almost global.
We all face moments that test and impact us differently. God doesn’t cause these pivotal moments, but will use them to remind us of his love. Most of the important lessons I’ve learned were through faith and football.
“Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” wrote C.S. Lewis in “The Problem of Pain.”
God, we are listening.
Faulkner played for the New York Jets and ran for comptroller of New York City. He is the outreach pastor at Victory Church in Philadelphia and chaplain for the Upper Merion, Pa. high school football team.