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'."
"It's just the opposite for me," said Koskan's teammate, wide receiver Xavier Martin, an Evangelical Christian. "It was harder to resist temptation after I was saved. I have come to realize that the Devil is alive. He is real. You have to be careful. You have to protect yourself. I pray every day for God to send his angels to build a fortress around me to keep me safe from temptation and sin."
And that's something believing football players share, regardless of their belief background or the university they attend: trust in the power of prayer.
"There are so many ups and downs during a football season," said Mike Alisa, a BYU running back and another returned LDS missionary. "I always find myself turning to the Lord, offering little prayers in my heart to help me make it through a tough practice, or to be humble and accept a coaching decision. It's like I'm constantly praying, and I definitely feel the strength that comes from prayer."
"I pray for my teammates," Martin said. "And I pray for the opposing team. I pray that we'll all be safe, that we'll all do our best, and that we'll all play with good sportsmanship."
Utah freshman running back Lucky Radley, who is also Catholic (although he attends a Christian church as well), said he prays after every play "to thank the Lord for helping me get through that play."
"I pray before every game and every practice and ask the Lord to help me do my best and be safe," he said. "Then I pray after every game and every practice to thank the Lord for his blessings. It isn't something I have chosen to do — it's just something I do, part of my faith as a Christian to pray."
Tofaeono agreed. "Prayer isn't something you think about," he said. "If you're a Christian, it's just something you do — without thinking. You pray about everything."
Everything, that is, but winning.
"To be honest, I used to struggle with this a little," said BYU offensive line coach Mark Weber, another devout Christian. "I admit that I used to pray for victory. But I've learned and grown and mellowed a little through the years, as a person and as a Christian. Now I pray to do the best job I can do. I pray for our players to do their best. I pray for their safety. And I pray that Christ may be glorified by the way I work and conduct myself."12 comments on this story
"I don't think you can pray to win," Koskan said. "I don't think God cares about winning and losing football games. All he cares about is if we do our best."
"Besides," Di Luigi said, "if you have God in your heart and in your soul, you never really lose, no matter what it says on the scoreboard. What's that scripture? If God be for us, who can be against us?
"So really," he said as he trotted off the practice field, "you can't lose!"