I’m less than comfortable with the apparent epidemic of religiosity among our nation’s quarterbacks.
First, Colt McCoy, fresh from a thrilling win over Ohio State, begins his post-game comments by thanking his “lord and savior Jesus Christ.”
Then there’s Tim Tebow, whose game and demeanor I rather like, changing the Bible verse he endorses on his eye-black, from “Philippians 4:13” to “John 3:16.” As if that might make the difference.
Personally, my own taste in quarterbacks runs toward the epic old-school debauchers, guys like Kenny Stabler and Joe Namath. If I go to Hell for that, then so be it. I refuse to believe that God — anyone’s God — has a rooting interest in the outcome of something as secular and perverse as a BCS game.
But now football fans direct their attentions to Arizona, where one of American sports’ most prominent God Squaders — Arizona Cardinal quarterback Kurt Warner — takes on the Philadelphia Eagles for the right to go to the Super Bowl. And I can’t help but think that the religious guys are, well, blessed with an advantage, a big one at that.
Actually, the issue isn’t really religion. It’s faith. I don’t care what or whom a ballplayer believes in: Jesus, Moses, Buddha, L. Ron Hubbard. I don’t care what his position is on stem cell research, abortion, gay rights. But a system of belief — any system, really — that stills the mind and quells doubt is of obvious benefit, particularly if you’re an athlete.
Warner’s case is as instructive as it is well-known. In 1994, after being cut by the Green Bay Packers, he found himself working the nightshift at a Hy-Vee grocery store near his alma mater, that noted football factory known as Northern Iowa. By 1999, he’d won a Super Bowl ring and the first of his two MVP awards.
His appearance as the starter in Sunday’s NFC championship game marks yet another absurdly improbable comeback. Warner had been let go by the Rams and the Giants. His career as anything but a spot starter had been pronounced dead years ago. In his several years in Arizona, he’s been a backup to Josh McCown and Matt Leinart, who was named the starter for the 2008 season. Now, having thrown for more than 5,000 yards this season, Warner has a chance to deliver the Cardinals — the Cardinals! — to the Super Bowl.
On some cognitive level, Warner had to know what the rest of us understood too well. Grocery clerks don’t often make it to the NFL. Iowa Barnstormers don’t go on to become Super Bowl MVPs. Nor do old men beat out Heisman Trophy winners. For Warner to have considered his predicaments in rational terms might well have killed his dream. Statistical analysis frequently inflicts a death by discouragement. But, then, a guy like Warner isn’t playing the odds. He’s working on faith.
“It’s an advantage for any individual, when you have faith and believe in something,” Warner told our Greg Boeck Thursday after the Cardinals broke practice. “In my case, it’s the power of Jesus …
“I walk by faith and not by sight. I walk according to what I believe, and what I believe the power of God is, as opposed to what the world tells us, or what circumstances appear to be.”
Put another way, belief can liberate you. You need not dwell on the long odds. You’re free of the thoughts that crush so many comebacks — the assortment of self-involved, self-inflicted self doubts.
“So much of this business is ‘Me, me me,'” Warner told Boeck. “… My faith has allowed me to step back from that and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t about me.'”
There are too many examples in too many sports to ignore, from 2007 Masters winner, Zach Johnson (who, interestingly enough, went to the same high school as Warner), to the soccer player, Kaka (that a religious name? I wonder), an evangelical Christian who’d been badly injured in a pool accident, to Josh Hamilton, a recovering drug addict who may yet become a perennial major league All-Star. But, as usual, the best examples come from boxing. Muhammad Ali believed he was chosen by Allah, and looking back, who’s to say he wasn’t? Evander Holyfield, born with a cruiserweight’s frame, believed it was a Christian God’s will for him to reign as the heavyweight champ. (It occurs that perhaps it’s time for God to have a heart-to-heart with Evander on the subject of retirement.) Mike Tyson, for his part, believed in nothing. And it showed.
Perhaps you recall Tyson’s sudden and short-lived stint as a Muslim. Of course it didn’t do him any good. Pious proclamations for the sake of PR or damage control don’t do an athlete any good, unless he can con himself along with the sportswriters.
Warner’s not conning anyone, least of all himself. The Cardinals were 9-7 in the dreadful NFC West. The Eagles were 9-6-1 against a much more formidable schedule. The teams met in Philadelphia, not two months ago, and the Eagles won by 28. A change of venue shouldn’t make too much of a difference, though the oddsmakers have Arizona as mere four-point underdogs.
A guy like Warner, though, isn’t working off the betting line. He doesn’t care what circumstances appear to be. He’s got faith. If not for that, he’d still be bagging groceries.