Faith and football

Charleston Southern players kneel in prayer with coach Jamey Chadwell during practice on the new turf inside CSU Stadium in August.

Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine,

Let every game's end find you still upon the battling line;

For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name,

He writes — not that you won or lost — but how you played the Game.

They aren't verses from the Bible, but Grantland Rice's well-known lines are the perfect parable for the way faith and football intertwine for some local college players who strive to integrate Christian principles into their lives as athletes.

In legendary sports writer Rice's 1908 poem “Alumnus Football,” Bill Jones, “the shining star upon his college team,” runs over the competition on the field but struggles with fictional foes in life: “the massive Guard named Failure,” “Right Tackle Competition,” “Left Guard Envy,” “Big Center Greed.”

Those challenges and others are very real for players and coaches who seek to balance the pride and temptations that are part of college athletics with the humble spirit to which Christians are called.

“Winning is great,” says D.J. Curl, a strong safety on Charleston Southern's 9-1 football team, the champions of the Big South Conference. “But there are things that are so much bigger than a conference championship. That ring will be sitting in a box one day, but your soul is eternal.”

For Curl and other Christian athletes, keeping “the Game,” the one with a capital “G,” in their sights is what helps keep the other game, the one on the field, in perspective.

“It's very difficult to be a Christian and a college athlete. You're a true minority,” Curl says. “How do you implement your faith when you're playing a game where the goal is to go down the field and hit somebody? You just have to believe that you do all things to the glory of God.”

Charleston Southern University is clear about the role faith plays on campus, stating that its mission is “promoting academic excellence in a Christian environment” and its vision is “to be a Christian university nationally recognized for integrating faith in learning, leading and serving.”

But not all of its students are Christian, and not all members of the football team are either.

Jon Davis, CSU's campus pastor, a former football coach at the school and the team chaplain for 10 years, says the school counts atheists, Wiccans, agnostics and Muslims among its students.

Jamey Chadwell, the Buccaneers' head football coach, says, “Not everyone who's on the team and not everyone we recruit is a believer, but they know up front that we're a Christian university and what that means. This is our foundation. Everybody has cracks in his foundation — everybody sins — and we try to smooth out those cracks through Jesus Christ, who is our foundation.”

Chadwell says he tells people the makeup of the team is similar to what you'd find in a typical church.

“About 20 percent are on fire,” he says. “Every time the doors open, every Sunday and Wednesday, all kinds of different events, the kids are going on mission trips, they're here. Then there's about 60 percent that are pretty consistent. They're not necessarily on fire, but they're believers and they understand the relationship. Then there's about 15 or 20 percent who are the Christmas and Easter types.”

Curl, a junior from Atlanta, admits that when he was being recruited, CSU was not his first choice. “I had been to a Christian high school and I was kind of ready to taste the world,” he says. “My freshman and sophomore years, I didn't have my priorities straight. I was doing some partying ... I was filling myself up with everything but the Lord.”

He says Tanner Rogers, an older teammate who had gone to the same high school, was the one who set an example for him. “He was a firm believer (in the Lord) in high school,” Curl says. “On Friday nights after games when a lot of guys would go out partying, he would be opening his Bible, and I never got it. I thought something was weird about him.”

In January of this year, Curl says, “I reached a breaking point. I realized that everything I was using to fill myself up wasn't really satisfying me at all.” That's when he turned his life over to God, including recently changing his major to Christian studies. He now considers it a mission to encourage and support younger players the way Rogers and others have supported him.

Zach Sibrava, a senior from Palm Beach, Fla., who plays left guard on the offensive line, says that when he first got to CSU, “I thought I knew who the Lord was, but I didn't really want to know him.”

A couple of the guys on the team befriended Sibrava, buying him meals and offering encouragement and support. “They tried to show me God's love,” says Sibrava, but he wasn't open to their message; in fact, he says, he was openly rude to them.

For Sibrava, it was a required-attendance Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting that provided the turning point.

“At the meeting, the question was asked, 'If all someone had to do was look at the cross to be saved, how much would you shake them and hold them down and get them to look at the cross?' That's when I realized that's what the guys on the team had been doing for me. They were saying, 'We just want you to look.' I gave my life to Christ at that moment.”

Davis, the CSU team chaplain and former coach, says that for college athletes, temptations abound.

“Athletics can be a very sinful world. Everything is based on competition and beating someone else, and when you do that, it leads to pride. It's easy to become prideful, but you have to own your faith and stay humble.”

Winning, losing and the tendency to focus on individual performances are all challenges for student-athletes, he says. “When you're on the bottom, you might self-medicate with girls or partying. When you're winning, it's much harder to hold on to your faith.”

Winning is definitely what's happening at Charleston Southern this season. With a conference championship in hand and their sights set on doing big things in the postseason, it's difficult as an athlete to stay humble, says Curl.

Sibrava agrees. “Pride is a challenge for any Christian athlete, whether it's on the field, in the weight room, or whether you're first string or second string. Even just sitting around in the cafeteria, guys will say, 'I'm faster than you' or 'I can lift more than you.' ”

Chadwell says athletes tend to get put up on pedestals, and that experience can color their attitudes.

“They want to be humble, but they've been told all their life how great they are,” he says. “As a player, when you're winning, you think, 'It's what I'm doing.'”

And when you're losing? “That's when your faith gets tested,” he says. “But the Lord doesn't care if we win or lose. He does care that we're giving our best and glorifying him in everything we do, so we're blessed in a win or a loss.”

Being humble, he's quick to point out, doesn't mean you're a weak or a pushover.

“Some people still think that being a Christian means you're meek and you can't be competitive,” he says, “but I always tell people about Jesus in the temple, and he wasn't meek when he was turning over those tables (of the moneychangers).”

For Sibrava, injuries and the resulting loss of playing time provided one of his biggest tests as a Christian athlete. He'd been a starter as a freshman, so being on the sideline wasn't easy to take.

“I finally came to where I felt like God was saying, 'I've brought you here for reason,' and it was taking the attention off of myself. It really wasn't about me. It was about seeing the bigger picture and glorifying God.”

Sibrava leads a Bible study and, like Curl, says he feels it's a mission for him to encourage younger players the way he was encouraged a few years ago.

“I try to pour into them the way that other guys poured into me, so they can go out and do even greater things,” he says. Players today sometimes seek him out and ask why they're facing the challenge of being injured or not getting the playing time they want. It comes down, he says, to a question many people ask: “God, can I really trust you in this?”

His response to his teammates is confident: “Even though you're struggling, even though we lost, the Lord's still got our back.”

For Curl, too, there are lessons in the valleys as well as on the mountaintops. “In tough times you really see the revelation of someone's faith,” he says. “I don't know everybody's heart, but I know the fruit they bear, the way they talk, the way they walk, the way they look, the way they speak. We've been blessed to win a lot, and God's definitely working through this team.”

Davis says he tells the athletes, “Jesus is the hub of the wheel. Sports, academics, girlfriends, family, friends — those are the spokes.” If the student-athletes can keep that mind-set, they can weather any storm.

“When you live from the outside in, your spiritual walk is terrible,” he says. “When you live from the inside out, whether you win or lose, whether your girlfriend breaks up with you or wants to marry you, whether you bomb on a test or you ace it, whatever happens, you know that God has a plan. And because of that, you have confidence, security and peace.”

For Tevin Floyd, a junior linebacker on The Citadel's Southern Conference co-champion football team, faith helped him navigate struggles on the field while adapting to the distinctive challenges of life at the military college.

“In high school, as a freshman, I guess I could say I was a better player than most of the guys on the team, and my sophomore year I kind of got the big head because I was starting on the varsity as a sophomore,” says Floyd, a junior linebacker from Tallahassee, Fla.

Then he broke his leg and couldn't play for a year. “I felt like the whole world was going to end,” he says.

Being part of a churchgoing family gave him the foundation and support he needed. His mother worked at their church, sang in the choir and was part of the praise team. Floyd was in a young leaders' group and sang in the choir as well.

When he broke his leg, he spent three months in a wheelchair and had to depend on others for assistance with so many activities that he felt helpless. But faith and family helped see him through.

“My mom stepped in and made sure I understood that even when you go through trials and tribulations, they're still a blessing, and I think I got stronger in my faith for having to go through that,” he says.

Once he got to The Citadel, there was freshman cadet life to adjust to, and before his sophomore year, the football coaching staff changed, creating uncertainty for him as a player.

“I was worried about whether (the new coaches) would like me or not,” he said, and he ended up feeling lost and confused. “I remember plenty of days sitting by myself in the locker room, reading a daily devotional and calling my mom and asking her, 'How does this apply to me?' ”

Floyd says some of his teammates offered him support and guidance, as did the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. “Once I learned about the FCA, I leaned on that, too,” he says.

Kyle Weaver, a senior academically and a redshirt junior left guard for the Bulldogs, also has relied on his faith when times were tough in football.

He grew up in Hilton Head in a Christian home and went to Hilton Head Christian Academy, so he was used to being around coaches and players who were vocal about their faith.

In his first years at the college, in addition to adjusting to Citadel life, he had to deal with not playing as much as he wanted.

“Most of the players came here from great teams and they were the best players on their teams,” he says. “As a sophomore, I didn't make the travel squad. All of my friends except for maybe one or two guys did, so that was a trying time. ... It's times like those that you really lean on your foundation.”

It's not only the players who rely on their faith to get them through the ups and downs of a season.

Head Coach Mike Houston says he does, too.

“For me, when things are going tough, as a coach you have to be careful of not getting down, and to me that's when I see myself relying most on my faith,” he says.

Just a week ago, in fact, such an occasion arose: The Bulldogs, who had won five in a row, lost at Chattanooga and had to settle for a conference co-championship rather than holding the title outright.

“Before last weekend, we were on a pretty hot streak,” he says. In the wake of the disappointment, “I had to be conscious that I thank the good Lord for the opportunities he has given me, for the blessings he's bestowed on me, for the type of young men I get to work with and for the high-character coaches we have.”

Houston came to The Citadel from Lenoir-Rhyne, a private Christian college in North Carolina, so he says he has to be conscientious about “separation of church and state” when it comes to the football team.

“We do have a group of strong Christian young men on the roster,” he says, and the players themselves have taken the initiative to lead a prayer before and after games. “The vast majority (of team members) participate,” he says, and most also voluntarily participate in a weekly chapel service.

FCA involvement is strong on campus, say the players. Weaver estimates that 100-plus athletes from all sports attend FCA meetings. In addition, about 20 to 30 football players take part in a Bible study after practices, he says.

For Weaver and Floyd, their personal growth as Christian athletes means setting a positive example. Floyd cites Tim Tebow, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from the University of Florida who has struggled to realize his dream of success in the NFL but maintains a strong and visible faith, come what may.

“The way he competes is exactly the way I think a Christian athlete should be,” Floyd says.

“As an athlete, there's always someone watching you, and as a Christian athlete, some people might still be searching for a role model, and it's great if you can be that for them.”

Weaver also makes it a priority to set a good example. “Always respect wherever everybody is,” he says. “Just try to do the right thing all the time. You never know who's watching to see how you act or how you handle a certain situation, and that might be the thing that puts in their mind to talk to you (about God), so you've always got to be on your 'A' game.”

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