Religious devotion prevalent in NFL

By Vaughn McClure

Chicago Tribune

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15 2011 4:00 p.m. MST

Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow (15) prays in the end zone before the start of an NFL football game against the Chicago Bears, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011, in Denver. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Associated Press

Devin Hester looks to God before thousands of fans every game, yet his ritual hasn't sparked a Hesteria over his spirituality.

Before receiving a kick, the NFL's most dangerous return man dips his head forward, touches both shoes, then raises his arms toward the sky as he utters a simple phrase.

"I just tell God to watch over me from the toes on my feet to the head of my crown," Hester said.

A professed devout Christian whose mother, Juanita Brown, is a pastor, Hester grew up in a church back home in Miami, attending services three times a week. Marriage and fatherhood helped refocus Hester in Chicago after a college career amid the temptations of South Florida.

Hester never declared himself a saint, but he matured through the years while maintaining his faith.

"My mom taught me, No. 1, to have respect for God," the Bears returner-receiver said, "and to know that you can do all things through Christ."

Hester can relate to Tim Tebow's crusade. The Broncos' quarterback freely expresses his Christian beliefs, and some question why he is so outspoken. Some have suggested he tone it down.

"I don't have a problem with it," Hester said. "It's just like being a captain on a team: There are guys who are vocal; there are guys who aren't."

Hall of Famer Deion Sanders, Hester's mentor, is perplexed by the debate regarding Tebow's ongoing testimony.

"Tebow is taking a lot of criticism not just because of his faith. He's taking criticism because he's abnormal," said Sanders, now an analyst for the NFL Network. "The things he's doing and the success he's having is not normal, and people have a hard time buying into what they haven't seen. Then to top it all off, he exercises his faith.

"To me, a young, successful guy or woman, regardless of their ethnicity, who exercises what they believe in and what they truly stand for, no matter what it is, it shouldn't be a problem."

Television cameras are certain to follow Tebow whenever he kneels in prayer, a practice that led to "Tebowing" becoming a part of the nation's vocabulary. Tebow has no regrets about giving voice to or being demonstrative in his faith.

"When people are talking about it, it's still, hopefully, having an impact on people," Tebow said. "One, what my faith is about and how I carry myself. But more than me saying it or thanking my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, it's important to show your faith."

His play on the field would make some believe he has divine intervention on his side. Tebow is 7-1 as a starter this season despite his unorthodox throwing style and reliance on his legs. Seven of his 10 career victories have come by way of fourth-quarter comebacks, a testament to his resilience.

"His play is evident of someone who follows God," said Bears quarterback Josh McCown, also an ardent Christian. "He plays wholeheartedly, with passion. That's a misnomer about Christian players; that they should be soft or they should be weak. That's not the case at all."

After the Cardinals drafted McCown in 2002, he spent a season alongside one of the most highly publicized Christian athletes in recent years: Kurt Warner.

"Seeing him from afar and then getting to meet him and seeing his life up close, he walked the walk," McCown said. "That's kind of my outlook and my focus on how I want to be looked at."

McCown, like Hester, grew up in a church, so he always has tried to follow the principles instilled in him. He is on the board of directors for Pro Athletes Outreach. While McCown always admired players who professed their Christianity, he also learned a valuable lesson through his NFL experiences.

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