Columnist: Pre-game prayer in the locker room

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 24, 2016

This being football season, you are going to hear many references about religion in the locker room. I’m not an opponent or naysayer with respect to prayer and spiritual musings, but the notion here is there has to be something more urgent on God’s agenda than who wins a football game.

When the subject comes up, I often hark back to the quote from Chuck Mills who once was the head coach of the Wake Forest Deacons.

“We pray before our games, too,” Mills said in reference to the praying tradition of college teams. Then he added, “What I have learned is that God seems to be on the side of the teams with the biggest and fastest players.”

There once was a tradition of players finishing pre-game warm-ups and then huddling informally on the sideline in front of their bench and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. In my mind’s eye, I often revisit that scene in the fall.

You are familiar with the final line which ends, “…forever and ever, Amen!” A segment of the players would include an addendum to the recitation, shouting, “Let’s go kill the (insert Boatswain’s mate language.)”

Joel Eaves, the former Georgia athletic director, who was never one to wear religion of any description on his sleeve, always felt that a pre-game prayer “added to the dignity of a sporting event.” Good point. However, I am happy that there are no more pre-game prayers in Jackson, Mississippi, when the temperatures are in the 90s and a Baptist preacher spends six minutes, or more, delivering the invocation.

Post game prayers can put the day’s event in perspective. Time to be humble, time to show respect, time to offer thanks for a hard fought encounter. Having said that, you know the subject on most players’ minds: Find the cooler of beer ASAP.

There has always been an interesting pattern with locker room prayers. If your team wins, the player given the responsibility for leading his teammates in prayer usually will offer thanks for victory.

More often than not, when losing the game has to be addressed there is a message than basically asks for forgiveness for letting God and the team down.

The colorful Frank Howard at Clemson had a player who became a minister. One fall, the reverend returned for a campus visit and met with a coffee club at a local motel in Clemson where Coach Howard and buddies convened each day. The player turned minister obviously had a sense of humor when he told Coach Howard that he heard God’s name mentioned on the practice field more than at seminary.

A good story, no matter the subject, travels well and often has an enduring shelf life. Someone sent along a knee-slapping vignette which came from the one-time chaplain of the Chicago Bears, a popular after dinner speaker named John Cassis.

Seems that Mike Ditka, the Bears coach in the ’80s, had some remarks for the team. During a chapel session, he advised the colorful former Clemson player, the 338 pound Refrigerator Perry, that he wanted the “Fridge” to lead the team in the Lord’s Prayer when he (Ditka) finished.

As the scene takes place, quarterback Jim McMahon sidles up to the chaplain and whispered, “I bet he doesn’t know the Lord’s Prayer.” The chaplain noticed that Refrigerator was sweating profusely.

To confirm his confidence that Perry did not know the prayer, McMahon tells the chaplain, “I bet you 50 bucks that he does not know the Lord’s Prayer.”

The chaplain can’t believe the ridiculousness of the scene — convening for a chapel service and making such a bet. When Ditka finished his remarks, he followed through, as planned, by calling on the “Fridge” to lead the team in the Lord’s Prayer.

Refrigerator cleared his voice and began, “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord, my soul to keep.”

Suddenly there was a tap on the chaplain’s shoulder, he turned around to see McMahon handing over $50 and saying, “I had no idea the ‘Fridge’ knew the Lord’s Prayer.”

Loran Smith

Syndicated columnist

Loran Smith is an athletic administrator at the University of Georgia.