Taking a knee: Professional football and its mysterious postgame prayer
Bratton's Giants brought the postgame prayer all the way to Super Bowl XXV, circling up with Buffalo Bills players after winning 20-19.
Second Quarter: Inside the circle
The Bills and the Giants have met once already this season in the Aug. 3 preseason Hall of Fame Game.
That night, Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara was nervous, but it wasn't the opposing team's receivers who worried him. It was the postgame prayer, and the fact that he'd agreed to lead it for the very first time.
Amukamara, who attends Hillsong Church in New York City and Citylight Church in Omaha, Nebraska, where he played in college, was encouraged to speak up by one of his Christian teammates. Faithful players often form a tight-knit group on each team, gathering several times a week for Bible studies and chapel services.
Team chaplains facilitate these meetings. The Giants are now served by George McGovern, who said encouraging players to take part in the postgame prayer is one of the easiest parts of his job.
"I wish I could take credit for keeping it going, but it's so ingrained in the culture of the NFL now," McGovern said. "Guys just know (to head to the 50-yard line) and the rookies learn."
McGovern, Bills chaplain Fred Raines and Amukamara agree that there's a natural order to the prayer circle. Just as there are players renowned across the league for their stand-out skills on the field, there are men known for their beliefs, filling the role as informal spiritual leaders on each team.
The standard practice is for a religious leader on the home team to lead the prayer, thanking God for the game of football and each players' health: "There's (also) a degree of thankfulness that the violence of the game is over, and that, hopefully, there were no serious injuries," McGovern said.
Although neither Raines nor Amukamara knows of Muslim or Jewish players who participate in the prayer, they insist that all players are welcome.
Raines participates in the prayer circles during Buffalo home games, and he has extended invitations to the team's management and coaching staff. Some groups seem to exclude themselves.
"I haven't seen any referees," Raines said. "They usually get off the field pretty quick."
Experiencing unity through faith can be just as valuable as winning, Raines noted. In a league built on pitting athletes against one another in a bruising physical contest, the prayer can refocus them on ultimate concerns like praising God.
"For a lot of these guys, (the prayer) puts the game in perspective. They've just used every ounce of strength they've got. Their adrenaline is flowing," Raines said. "The prayer is the time and place for believers to come together as one."
Through prayer, Amukamara explained, he sustains a connection with his other brothers in Christ: "Sometimes you can't even hear (the player praying), but we know what we're there for," he said.
Although Amukamara can't remember exactly what he said to the group of Bills and Giants gathered to pray together, he thought it was something like, "God, thank you for these guys. For this game called football. For this platform we have to share your word."
Third Quarter: Potential pitfalls
For Amukamara, the NFL is not only his employer, it's also an evangelical tool. He can share his faith with the fans who want to see him break up pass plays and tackle ball carriers.
But that viewpoint is an unpopular one in a league increasingly known for the crimes and substance-abuse violations committed by players off the field. This summer, multiple players were suspended for drug use and the league's domestic-violence policy was widely condemned.
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