Religion in sports can be a touchy subject for a number of reasons. Does God, if you even believe there is one, care who wins a sporting event? Does praying extra hard to any particular God keep a player healthy or provide more opportunities that a non-believer doesn’t have access to?
I’ll let you decide on either of those questions. Your faith, or lack thereof, is your decision. However, if you ask Tennessee’s football players, they’ll tell you that faith has played a major role in turning them into a College Football Playoff contender. Divine intervention or not, no one saw that coming.
“I think it’s huge, honestly,” Tennessee center Cooper Mays said during the Vol Report. “If you kind of account for a lot of the things that have been going on here, a lot of it, I think, points to that direction, that a lot of people on our team are people of faith and they have pretty strong faith from the top down, like Hendo.”
Mays was referring to Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, who is often called “Hendo” by his teammates. His Christian faith has been on display ever since he and his family created a comic book based on football and Biblical scriptures.
“Before every game, he’s listening to gospel music and reading through his Bible passages that he wants to look at,” Mays said. “And there’s a lot of people that are working towards getting people to kind of live more in their faith (on the team).
“College football, that’s probably not the hub for a Christian belief system, so just kind of being able to make that possible that your team is kind of following that journey, it is going to lead to congruence throughout the team that they should live the right way out of the facility and in the facility. So I think it helps a lot. It’s been a really special year.”
Mays said much of the Vols’ faith comes from Chris Walker, who played defensive end for Tennessee from 2007 to 2010. He’s now the Fellowship of Christian Athletes team chaplain for the Vols.
“If you look at our FCA and C-Walk, he’s our leader,” Mays said. “He blesses every meal and talks to us before every away game, before every home game, before we go to the hotel. So it’s been a really big thing for our team, more than it was in the past.”
Forget about the win-loss record. Walker, FCA and the entire team’s mentality has had an effect on several players. The Vols recently held a baptism on the practice field in a huge bucket. Several athletes, football and otherwise, took the plunge in front of dozens of fellow students cheering them on.
Tennessee tight end Jacob Warren makes no secret that he’s Christian. He’s often been seen wearing a Christian shirt to proclaim his faith. Such public displays of faith have led to more players attending Tennessee’s FCA meetings.
“I’ve seen a lot more traction on our team and, specifically, a lot more of our guys coming into those meetings, a lot more of our guys asking questions to me or to a couple of other other guys that publicly proclaim that they’re a Christian and that try to live their life the right way,” Warren said. “So I think it’s been great just to kind of see what what the Lord has been able to do, you know, just through us.”
Faith in some form has helped the Vols, whether that’s a particular religious faith or faith in UT’s coaching staff. The Vols certainly weren’t predicted to be one of the elite teams the nation. However, they never doubted it would happen.
“We go into every game and have a true confidence because we understand that regardless of the result or regardless of how we play or whatever it may be, 102,000 in the crowd, it doesn’t matter,” Warren said, “because you’re playing for an audience of one and that’s kind of given us some security and given us the ability to go out there and just perform freely and have fun and enjoy being with each other.
“I think it’s getting to the point where I can look left and I can look right and I can I can have familiar experiences with these guys on a religious level. And I can remember conversations that I’ve had with guys about the struggles that they’re going through or just about faith in general and seeing a lot of new guys come into the faith.
“Man, it’s been a blessing just kind of seeing God work on our team and throughout our athletic program. You know, I think it’s obvious because you see, we’ve got a lot of good stuff going on Rocky Top, right? Like our sports teams, our softball team, our soccer team, our baseball team, basketball, everyone is doing really well and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
“I think we’re truly blessed and truly favored. That’s just a testament to the people here and the commitment that we’re trying to make to to live our life the right way and serve our Lord.
Warren understands that a public proclamation can lead to cynical responses. He’s fine with that. Warren and many others believe that faith has gotten them this far. Now isn’t the time to change course.
“If you don’t believe what we believe, then sure, we’re just really good football players, I guess,” he said. “But yeah, that’s what we’ll hold on to for now.”