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Faith and Football

The saying “there are no atheists in foxholes” might well be amended to “or on football fields.”

On Jan. 2, millions of people watched in horror as Buffalo Bills safety Damar Hamlin, 24, suffered a cardiac arrest and collapsed on the field during a game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

His heart stopped. He had no pulse. Medical personnel used a defibrillator and CPR to resuscitate him.

Players and staff from both teams knelt on the field united in prayer. Strangers in the crowded stands cried and prayed together and many of us watching the game at home did the same.

Instantly, the hashtag #PrayerforDamar began trending on Twitter. All 32 NFL teams changed their Twitter profile pictures to a message reading “PRAY FOR DAMAR.”

The following day, in a moment that quickly went viral on social media, ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky prayed for Hamlin on air during an edition of “NFL Live.”

“God, we come to you in these moments that we don’t understand, that are hard, because we believe that you’re God, and coming to you and praying to you has impact,” Orlovsky said.

If this surprises you, then you probably aren’t a football fan, because even to a casual observer, football and faith seem inextricably linked.

After all, since 1990, at the end of every NFL game players from both teams kneel in prayer on the 50-yard line. And prayer at high school football games put Washington state in the national spotlight with a recent Supreme Court ruling.

Bremerton High School coach Joseph Kennedy had been fired for his insistence on praying on the field after games. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor and he is to be reinstated to his coaching position on or before March 15.

I’m confident no one watches the game to see the players pray, yet to my knowledge no other professional sport has such overt examples of spirituality. I don’t watch much basketball or baseball, but I know I’ve never seen players gather at center court or midfield to pray.

My affection for football goes back to my childhood when I rooted for the Dallas Cowboys with my dad when Tom Landry coached. We switched our allegiance when Chuck Knox took over for the Seahawks.

The juxtaposition of faith and football makes sense when you watch grown men violently colliding with each other. There’s nothing subtle about tackling or blocking. No matter how well-padded and protected every hit has to hurt and the risk of severe injury is ever present.

And now, on national television, we’ve witnessed an apparently healthy young man drop to the ground in cardiac arrest.

Not all of social media was faith-fueled during those first dramatic hours. Plenty of detractors posted “What about praying for ___?” Or “How come no one publicly prays for ___?” And those who think the sport should be banned weighed in as well.

But for the most part, it seems when confronted by tragedy and our powerlessness to help, there’s an instinctive, almost universal response to cry out for something bigger than our humanity to intervene.

So we prayed.

Even skeptics.

Even unbelievers.

Perhaps in all of us resides a quiet longing to believe.

Nine days after his cardiac arrest, Damar Hamlin was released from the hospital to rehabilitate at home. Did all those heartfelt prayers affect his amazing recovery? Who can tell?

The quick lifesaving response of the Bills’ medical team and the skilled physicians caring for him at the hospital can’t be discounted.

But if we’re going to talk about prayer and miracles, to me the most miraculous thing was watching the social media response to the incident.

For a few hours in the often toxic Twitter environment, civility and compassion ruled. Dividing lines blurred, team loyalties abated, political issues muted, and we were just people hoping and praying for a young man to see another day.

I just wish it didn’t take witnessing near tragedy to bring us to this place.

Cindy Hval can be reached at dchval@juno.com. Hval is the author of “War Bonds: Love Stories from the Greatest Generation” (Casemate Publishers, 2015) available at Auntie’s Bookstore and bookstores nationwide.

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