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Taking a knee: Professional football and its mysterious postgame prayer

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 27 2014 1:20 p.m. MDT

Updated: Saturday, Aug. 30 2014 8:17 a.m. MDT

Beyond the obvious incongruities, there is also the criticism of whether players overstep their roles by turning the field into a worship space where a religious practice could be seen as a publicity stunt.

Concerns like these surrounded the postgame prayer from its very first season.

In a February 1991 post-Super Bowl column titled "Save your prayers, please," Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly eviscerated the prayer trend.

"I don't think your average fan goes to football games to be touched. I don't think that when he loads up the Thermos and pays $10 to park, he's looking to get proselytized," he wrote. "The only conversions he cares about are extra points. … I hope that the NFL will have the good sense to curtail these huddles."

The chaplains tried to ignore Reilly's outcry, but leaders in the NFL seemed to be listening. Richie remembers that attendees of the 1991 NFL owners meeting discussed the enforcement of the league's non-fraternization clause, a move that would put the prayer circle in jeopardy. The clause sets a time limit for how long players can remain on the field after a game ended.

"Never once was anything done about that rule until after the 1990 season," Bratton explained. "At that point, they announced that they would begin to enforce (the ban), that players had two minutes to be in the locker room or they'd be fined."

Concerned but not yet ready to comply, Richie was amazed when he saw the 1991 season schedule. On Sept. 2, the first Monday night game of the year, the 49ers and Giants would meet again in a rematch where the fate of the postgame prayer could be at stake.

In the end, a Giants-heavy circle gathered that night for a prayer, and when the fines didn't come, the chaplains knew the ritual was safe.

"Within a matter of weeks, (the postgame prayer) spread throughout the entire NFL," Richie said. "Within a matter of a year or so, it was happening in college football."

Even after 24 seasons, some critics still question the participants' sincerity when so much of a player's career depends on his public image, noted Eric Carter, an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown College and author of "Boys Gone Wild: Fame, Fortune and Deviance Among Professional Football Players."

"For the guys who have gotten themselves in trouble, (the prayer) is a good way to shift perception," Carter explained.

Additionally, it's plausible how the ritual might become part of a player's superstitions. During the research phase of writing his book, Carter said he talked to players who thought bad things would happen if they didn't participate in the postgame prayer.

"They felt like it was something that had to be done at the end of the game," he said. "It was about support but it was also about the superstitious element."

Fourth Quarter: A lasting legacy

Amukamara said there are definitely players who come to the prayer circle for nonreligious reasons, but that doesn't detract from his own experience: "Regardless of whether my team wins or my team loses, I still want to give thanks to God," he said.

Similarly, Richie urges fans to not forget about the many professional athletes whose faith in God guides them throughout their NFL careers.

"Imagine you're a 24- or 25-year-old kid built like a Greek god, earning $10 million a year, with women throwing themselves at you. Do you think that's an easy Christian life to live?" he said. "The level of sincerity of these guys is amazingly high."

Richie and Bratton are aware of the variety of motivations at play in contemporary prayer circles, but they say their initial vision is still being realized.

"I was always looking for ways to have conversations with people. I'd ask questions like, 'Did you see those guys praying after the game? What did you think about that?' I had no idea what God was going to do with this," Bratton said.

Both men are now retired from chaplaincy work, catching a glimpse of a prayer on television a few times each year.

"I don't think any of us would ever want to take the credit" for the postgame prayer's success, Bratton explained. "God gets the credit. That's what I say."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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