In the celebratory pandemonium that broke out among the Denver Broncos after they won the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 11, a group of players dropped to their knees on the artificial turf at Three Rivers Stadium. Some raised their eyes and helmets to the bright-blue heavens. Others voiced their thanks to God. "It was the Lord's will that we win, and we won," Denver guard Mark Schlereth said later in the locker room. "I'm just thankful. It must have been the Lord's will."
Moments earlier the Broncos had squeaked by the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-21 to earn a trip to Super Bowl XXXII. Schlereth was not the only Broncos player who saw the hand of God at work in the victory. In one of the game's crucial plays, with 1:47 left in the first half and the Steelers leading 14-10, Denver fullback Howard Griffith made a one-handed grab of a John Elway pass and bolted into the end zone. "I attribute everything to Him," Griffith said after the game. "The Lord allowed me to make that catch."
Other teammates saw God's handiwork even in the two interceptions that Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart threw into double coverage in the Broncos' end zone. "God could have caused that," said tight end Dwayne Carswell. "He's in everybody's corner, but I guess He decided that we deserved [to win]."
Yet other Denver players went further than Carswell and flatly stated that their team had been anointed by God to do battle in the Super Bowl. "He's been looking out for us the whole season," said tackle Tony Jones. "We've been through some tough storms, but He brought us through. Now we are on our way to San Diego, and we know He is with us."
Nor were His intentions viewed much differently four hours later in San Francisco, where the defending NFL champions, the Green Bay Packers, won the NFC title by whipping the 49ers 23-10. Immediately after that game about 20 Packers and a few Niners gathered near midfield and knelt in the rain and mud to praise and thank God and to ask for his protection on their journeys home. Green Bay safety Eugene Robinson, his voice rising in the gloom, intoned, "And finally, we thank you for two marvelous seasons...."
Like their counterparts on the Broncos, the devout Christians on the Packers saw more at work in their triumph than their own hard sinew and surpassing skills. In a crowded locker room after the midfield prayer, Green Bay's vocal man of the cloth, Reggie White, was delivering a familiar sermon. Ever since he helped lead the Pack to last year's title, White has been preaching that God sent him to Green Bay to win a Super Bowl and use it as a pulpit to glorify Him. Here White was, back again: "God had a lot to do with this, and I praise God that I had a chance to win one Super Bowl last year and now another."
The Broncos and the Packers each have 15 or so evangelical Christians (or God Squadders, as they are sometimes derogatorily called) on their rosters. That's the NFL average. Of course, the presence of such Christians in NFL locker rooms isn't a new phenomenon—they have been studying the Bible together for years but their numbers and visibility have increased dramatically over the last decade.
This growth has paralleled increases in many Christian congregations, not just fundamentalist ones. In 1994 and '95, for example, Southern Baptist church membership increased by almost 50,000 and Roman Catholic membership by nearly 90,000, according to the National Council of Churches. The uncertainty of life in the NFL—with its skyrocketing salaries and myriad temptations of the flesh on the one hand and the danger of being cut or suffering a career-ending injury on the other—may be one reason players are turning to religion. "This is a way of seeking stability in their lives," says Randall Balmer, who teaches religion in American culture at Columbia. "It has to be a dizzying world. For the more sane among them, faith is the refuge."
The evangelicals' assertion that they're mere instruments of God's will raises some fundamental theological questions: Does God take an active interest in the outcome of athletic matches? Did He favor Denver over Pittsburgh or Green Bay over San Francisco? Does a believer on one side of the ball have an advantage over a non-believer on the other side of it? Does God even know there is a Super Bowl?
"It doesn't seem to me odd that God would know in detail what happens in football games," says Richard J. Wood, a Methodist and Quaker minister who is dean of the Yale Divinity School. "What seems to me odd is that God would care."