Prayer—at midfield—is as much a part of football as resolutions are to a new year.
For more than a quarter century, immediately following virtually every National Football League game, some players from both teams gather at the 50-yard line to kneel together and pray. On-field prayer is also commonplace among college and high school teams.
The NFL tradition started in 1990 after a Monday Night Football game between the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers and gained momentum with the leadership of Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White.
“For the most part, I think the guys who kneel there believe it highlights what they feel is most important—an opportunity to connect with Almighty God,” said Jacksonville Jaguars chaplain Anthony Johnson, a former running back who played 11 seasons with the Colts, Jets, Bears, Panthers and Jaguars.
It can be difficult for losing players to quickly set aside their sometimes bitter disappointment in order to pray with members of the team that just beat them, but it’s a valuable reality check.
“If you just lost, it can feel like the ground was taken out from under you, so [praying together] has a sense of setting you back on solid ground,” Johnson said. “There’s a peace and a connection that goes beyond wins and losses and what you just experienced, even if the other team just kicked the dog out of you.
“You build a camaraderie that supersedes the jersey and the game.”
Johnson has also witnessed the prevalence of prayer on the high school level in recent years, noting that his son’s teams were intentional about praying together before games.
And prayer’s role in the NFL goes far beyond midfield. Johnson said while some players may view it as “rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot,” many players are sincere believers in Christ or are in the process of seeking Him.
The physical danger that is inherently part of the game, with every play carrying the potential for a season- or career-ending injury, seems to make many football players interested in matters of faith and open to the Gospel.
“The guys are pretty conscious that they are faced with concerns that they really don’t have any control over,” Johnson said. “That lets them know they are dependent on things that are beyond them.”
Those concerns provide many opportunities for Johnson and other chaplains to come alongside players with the hope and love of Christ.
“It’s an honor, but it’s also very humbling and a constant reminder of my own need for God,” Johnson said. “Sometimes when I’m preparing for a chapel service, a Bible study or maybe ministering to a guy one on one, I’ll pray, ‘God, please show up because I don’t know how this going to go.’
“I thank Him because, as He says in His Word, He’s faithful. I experienced that when I was playing, and I’m experiencing it now as a chaplain.”