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Winning (and losing) by faith

Patriots wide receiver Matthew Slater speaks to the media on Thursday. (Anthony Behar/Sipa USA via AP)

Sports

Winning (and losing) by faith

From Matthew Slater to Cody Parkey, NFL players testify to Christian conviction amid career successes and setbacks

There will be no surprise when Matthew Slater, special teams captain for the New England Patriots, calls “Heads” in the pregame coin flip for Super Bowl LIII on Sunday. 

Slater said at a recent press conference, “I remember as a child watching my father play in LA and him going out and doing the coin toss for the Rams, and he always called heads, so … I asked him one time, ‘Hey, why do you do that? What’s the story behind that?’ … I think anyone who knows my family knows faith is important to us, and for him he was always like, ‘You know, God’s the head of my life, so I call heads.’ That was something he came up with and I’ve kind of just embraced it, but I’m glad it’s worked out for us here the last couple of times when we needed it.”

Those “last couple of times” that Slater has in mind were Super Bowl LI two years ago, and this year’s AFC championship game. Both games were tied at the end of regulation, and the Patriots, as the visiting team, got to call the coin flip. Each toss came up heads, and in each game, New England’s celebrated quarterback, Tom Brady, led the offense to a game-winning touchdown. 

The AFC champion is officially the “visiting team” at the Super Bowl in odd years like 2019, so Slater has another opportunity to shine. At a Super Bowl week media event he said his father, Jackie, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, taught him about more than coin flips: “The best advice he’s given me has nothing to do with football. The best advice he ever gave me was to investigate who the person of Jesus Christ was and find out what He wanted to do in my life.”

Slater has multiple Christ-followers as teammates, including running back Rex Burkhead, a Fellowship of Christian Athletes spokesman, and Devin McCourty, who is joined on the Patriots this season by his twin, Jason.

New England is the franchise fans across the country love to hate, both for its dominance on the field and for accusations it has sought unfair advantage (think Spygate, Deflategate). Still, the team has made notable investments in the spiritual life and character development of its players. In 2013 the Patriots hired Jack Easterby, former team chaplain of the Kansas City Chiefs, as a “character coach.” He also serves as chaplain, leading team Bible studies.

Easterby’s Twitter account bears the headline “Just some dirt God has been good to!” and a banner photo of three crosses silhouetted in sunlight. In an interview posted to the team’s website last fall, he described how he connects with players: “My best ability is my availability—2 o’clock in the morning, 3 in the afternoon. When I do that, I show a little glimpse of who God is. Because God doesn’t sleep. God doesn’t turn away when your problem’s too big. My goal in a small way is to mirror that the best I can.”

Across the field on Super Bowl Sunday, Easterby and the Patriots will see a former teammate, Brandin Cooks, playing for the Los Angeles Rams. Cooks seeds his Twitter account daily with Scripture allusions. A Jan. 30 tweet: “Do everything as for working for the Lord.” He also made headlines in the week leading up to the Super Bowl for arranging Super Bowl tickets and a trip to the game for the Rams’ day porter, who keeps the team’s home stadium locker room in order.

At a pregame media appearance, Cooks stated: “It goes to show that everyone is a part of this success, even the people that you may not think of. … To be able to have him at the game is going to be awesome.”

Not all Christian players, of course, have reached the pinnacle game, and some faced especially painful playoff exits.

Benjamin Watson, tight end for the New Orleans Saints, announced in December that he was retiring after 15 years in the league. Watson has spoken and written about his Christian faith in books on fatherhood and racial justice. During the NFC championship game, he was on the sideline in street clothes, having suffered a bout of appendicitis that week. A Saints victory would have given him the potential to play in one last Super Bowl.

Instead, Watson watched his team endure an excruciating defeat: The Saints were tied with the Rams in the final minutes when an apparent pass interference violation on a Saints receiver went uncalled. The Saints would have had a first down deep in Rams territory, with the chance to run remaining time off the clock before a possible game-winning field goal or touchdown. Instead, they kicked a field goal with time for the Rams to retie the game, and lost in overtime.

Outrage from New Orleans fans after the game was vehement. Watson posted to social media: “As horrible as this feels now, we must congratulate the victors and enter into next season with expectation, excitement and renewed hope and resolve. It’s not fair. I’m angry for a number of reasons. And we are all incredibly disappointed. But we will not be shaken!"

Placekicker Cody Parkey was not on the sidelines when his Chicago Bears lost their first-round home playoff game to the Philadelphia Eagles. His attempt at a game-winning field goal bounced off not one but two portions of the goal post while time expired. Replays later showed an Eagles player got a fingertip on the ball, affecting its flight, but fans only saw the miss, and booed Parkey with gusto.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Cody Parkey reacts after missing the field goal against the Eagles. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)

In the immediate aftermath, television cameras caught his reaction: With a shocked expression, Parkey raised fingers pointing to the heavens, a familiar gesture from athletes after home runs and touchdown passes, but not after missed field goals. Moments later he was shown kneeling with other players in a postgame prayer.

In the locker room, Parkey didn’t hide from the media: “I feel terrible, I let the team down, and that’s on me. I have to own it, I have to be a man, unfortunately that’s the way it went today … I a hundred percent take that loss on me.”

He made similar comments a few days later on NBC’s Today show: “I’m disappointed that I let the fans, my teammates, and the whole organization down, but I’ll continue to keep my head held high, because football’s what I do, it’s not who I am.” Questioned by hosts about his upward gesture, Parkey said, “Something I’ve always tried to do is, through good or bad, give praise to the Higher Power, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.”

Though most praised Parkey’s initial postgame reaction, Chicago media and fans criticized his Today appearance. Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times questioned Parkey’s comment that football is “not who I am.” It seemed inconsistent, he tweeted, with Bears coach Matt Nagy’s organizational mantra to “Be Obsessed” with the game.

At a subsequent press conference, Nagy termed Parkey’s appearance out of line with a team focus: “We always talk about, you know, a ‘we’ and not a ‘me’ thing … we win as a team, we lose as a team. And, you know, I just, I didn’t necessarily think that that was too much of a ‘we’ thing.” The team’s general manager affirmed there would “definitely be competition” for the kicker’s spot next year.

Accepting responsibility initially, in other words, made Parkey a team player, but asserting there was more to his life than the game did not. 

—Laura Singleton is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate

Comments

  • Laneygirl's picture
    Laneygirl
    Posted: Sat, 02/02/2019 11:58 am

    It sounds like the only real man in that Chicago Bears story was Cody Parkey.

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Sat, 02/02/2019 02:55 pm

    "Football’s what I do, it’s not who I am."

    That is a very wise statement.  How you define your identity is one of the key questions in life to answer well.  If your identity is in temporal things, then when they fail, you fail.  If your identity is in Christ, then you won't be shaken by tremors in work and life.