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Religion in Sport
Frank Deford
April 19, 1976
Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting. They now take faith into locker rooms and put hope in a 'Jocks for Jesus' movement. A three-part series
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April 19, 1976

Religion In Sport

Sunday has become a day of games rather than worship, but churchmen are adapting. They now take faith into locker rooms and put hope in a 'Jocks for Jesus' movement. A three-part series

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The young lions roar after their prey, and seek their meat from God.
—PSALMS 104:21

It seems just like any other college basketball game. The gym is well filled with students and alumni, and a pep band is accompanying some pretty cheerleaders who wear pleated skirts and saddle shoes and wave pompons for the home team. The visitors are not well represented. They have taken the date for a guarantee of only $350, a fifth of what another team would demand. They are accompanied only by a handful of rooters and the word of God. The visitors have come to play and preach.

They are down four at the half. The home team, Loyola Marymount University of Los Angeles, departs for its locker room, there to rest and to drink in new strategies. The visitors, Athletes In Action, do not leave the floor. Instead, they retire to their bench and put on snappy sweat suits of immaculate white, with red and blue trim, the name of the organization embroidered above the numbers, USA below them. Athletes In Action stands for Christ and country alike, and its founder, Dave Hannah, not only desires that the players represent a God-fearing America but that they become the finest amateur team upon the earth. It is Hannah's view, and the prevailing one in these Christian precincts, that infidels will not listen to losers. The AIA wrestling team was the 1975 national champion. The most powerful AIA basketball unit, the one playing Loyola, beat one Top Ten college team last season and played others to the wire. It finished the year 30-7-8, all road games, and won the national AAU title. It hardly matters that God in His wisdom has not seen fit to bless AIA with any good big guards.

In a moment, four of the AIA players arise, and with their coach, Bill Oates, move to a microphone set up at the far end of the gym. Oates explains that his men will tell the crowd about "the most fantastic Individual the world has ever known." Dave Lower, a skinny substitute, leads off. The theme of his two-minute talk is that "God loves and accepts us just as we are." The fans—those who have not already shuffled out for Cokes—listen in grudging silence at first, but quickly grow dubious or bored with the pitch and begin to chatter among themselves. Soon, it is difficult to hear the message. Irv Kiffin, the best Athletes In Action player this evening, speaks next, reminding the listeners of Romans 6:23—"The wages of sin is death."

Tim Hall, a 6'8" forward who played at Colorado State, follows, but over the rising crowd murmurs his words are almost lost, and when the Loyola team comes back onto the floor, the first player dribbles right past the speakers and shoots a practice layup before, embarrassed, he realizes that he is intruding on something. Nonplussed, Hall goes on, informing the crowd that he has seen a goodly number of collegians "turn to alcohol, to hard drugs or simply to a carefree way of life." He says that he found Jesus Christ instead.

John Sears is the clean-up speaker. Each game a different set of AIA players "disciple," the most forceful and articulate being saved for last. Sears is in his third year with Athletes In Action. He is 26, married, and has two small children. On the court he is a front-line reserve of little distinction, but at 6'7", 215, he is lean and rugged, a magnificently handsome man, and at least now the women in the audience pay attention, if for the wrong reasons. Sears sums up and offers a prayer. Politely, heads are lowered, kind of. "Thank you, Jesus, for coming into my life," he says.

When the crowd looks up, Mike Gratzke, the assistant coach, has taken over the microphone. He asks the spectators to fill out comment cards. These are passed out by young volunteers who carry them (and, thoughtfully, pencils) in Kentucky Fried Chicken tubs. On the cards are boxes to check. For example, "I would like more information on how I can grow in my Christian faith." This knowledge is available and will be sent through the mail. Last year 125,000 people used these cards.

The second half begins and, despite having two starters out with ankle sprains, AIA catches Loyola and wins in the final three minutes. Maybe the fans would have listened to the message more attentively at halftime if AIA had been ahead then, too. "We need to win to command respect," John Sears says. But he goes on to emphasize that he could see some people watching him intently when he spoke; a few, he suggested, appeared so interested that he thought they might take Christ into their lives straightaway. He adds that the speakers are paid much better attention in the Midwest and South.

Dave Lower comes into the locker room and, truly excited, says that someone has just informed him that a man who watched AIA play tonight "saw Christ in every one of us." The players are obviously moved by this news. Coach Oates suggests they pray.

The men speak up, one by one; heads are bowed. The thoughts are genuine, spontaneous, even disarming. "Father," each begins. The first player thanks Him for the coach, for his guidance. Next, the coach thanks Him for the team, for its noble character. The manager asks His forgiveness for getting upset at an official's call. Another player prays that the injured ankles be quickly healed. Another prays that their halftime message was accepted. Another says, "And, Father, thank you for the win." It puts AIA at 11-4 for the year.

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