Nothing incompatible about faith and football

Athletes say spirituality helps during tough times

Published: Saturday, Aug. 27 2011 1:00 p.m. MDT

Utah's Lucky Radley prays after every play "to thank the Lord for helping me get through that play."

Mike Terry, Deseret News

On the surface, football and faith would seem to be incompatible.

Football is about domination, intimidation and blowing up the guy on the other side of the line of scrimmage. People of faith preach kindness, compassion and "turn the other cheek."

Try turning the other cheek on a blitzing 260-pound linebacker. You'll be cheek-less.

"I don't find any inconsistency between living my religion and playing football," said Weber State University's all-conference linebacker Nick Webb. "I believe my Heavenly Father wants me to do the best I can with the gifts he has given me. He wants me to work hard. He wants me to be loyal to my teammates and my coaches. So when I'm out here on the field, he wants me to play hard, play fair and do my best."

BYU running back JJ Di Luigi agrees. "I try to take Christ with me onto the football field," said the Cougar senior, who is a life-long Catholic. "I try to play like he's right there with me, cheering for me. I try to play like he would play if he played football."

Di Luigi paused, then added with a smile: "If he was a football player, he'd be a great one!"

University of Utah tight end Dallin Rogers, a returned LDS missionary, drew upon a Book of Mormon hero for his on-the-field inspiration. "I look at Captain Moroni," he said. "He was a great man of faith. But he was also a fierce warrior — so intense. I think you can be a good Christian person and 'fight the good fight' on the football field."

"Christian ideals help you get through the game," added Rogers' teammate, Luke Matthews, a wide receiver and a Christian from Phoenix, Ariz. "Sure, we're competitive out there. We play hard, and we want to win. But as a Christian I don't hate my opponents. I never try to hurt anyone. I just play hard, and when the game is over, we're brothers."

"I don't cheap shot," said Utah State's Nate Needham, another returned LDS missionary. "But then, I'm a deep-snapper — I don't get a lot of opportunities to cheap shot people. But I like Coach [Gary] Anderson's philosophy: hit them as hard as you can to knock them down, then reach down with your hand to pick them up."

For Jeremiah Tofaeono, an offensive lineman at the U. of U. and the son of a Las Vegas pastor, Christianity is not something that he can slip in and out of during the course of a football game or practice. "My faith is everything to me," he said. "It gets me through everything. It's part of everything I do — part of who I am. So I don't really think about what I should or shouldn't do as a Christian. I AM a Christian. It's part of everything I do."

Kamaal Ahmad, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Weber State, has a slightly different take on the subject. He is Muslim, and has lived according to the laws and rules of Islam his entire life.

"I'm not going to lie," he said. "When I played I was extremely aggressive, extremely physical. But I always played within the rules, and I never took that aggression off the field. I never tried to hurt anyone — my goal was to defeat them on every play, and that is completely consistent with Islam. It's a very open religion, especially when it comes to sports.

"Yes, football is violent," Ahmad continued. "But staying within the rules, being aggressive and sportsmanlike is all very consistent with Islam."

In addition to living according to their faith on the field of play, college athletes also face the challenge of living according to their faith off the field, as well.

"There's always temptation out there, things that are appealing to the flesh," said Utah State defensive lineman Levi Koskan, who was raised a Catholic but who now identifies himself as a non-denominational Christian. "But ever since I was saved, and came to know Jesus, I understand that I have a responsibility to a higher power, and it's a lot easier to say 'no'."

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