As originally published in The National Post/Holy Post division:
Grey Cup Sunday Special: God and Football
Posted: November 29, 2009, 4:13 PM by Matt Gurney

by Rikki Ratliff/Listen Up TV

Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, was recently quoted in New York Magazine as saying that although he's not a Christian, "God and football seem to go together, for whatever reason." The screen adaptation of his book has become a box office hit in its opening weekend. The powerful true story of what happens when two very different lives intersect at the crossroads of faith and football, resonates with Christians and non-Christians alike. Athletes and non-athletes love to root for the underdog in the film, Michael Oher, as he goes from fatherless and homeless, to surrounded by family. The fact that the larger than life character of Oher, against all obstacles, went on to become the 2009 first round draft pick for the NFL's Baltimore Ravens is just the icing on a delicious and heart-warming cake.

Trophies in shades of Grey

For the first time in Grey Cup history, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Montreal Alouettes go tête-à-tête in the battle for the 2009 CFL championship. We'll probably see the latest dance moves in the end zone, a few short prayers, and maybe a few hands in the "number one" symbol raised to the heavens. You can also imagine the ousted teams in the league watching with pain and regret from the sidelines. None in more pain than the once mighty Toronto Argonauts, who finished dead last in the standings with a record of 3-15. However, it's the plays these guys are making off the field that will count when the trophies have lost their tarnish and the roar of the crowds fade into whispers from the past.

Plays like the Argos Foundation made this year with the introduction of the "Level the Playing Field" program. Four deserving Toronto-area highschools were selected to restore 20 and 30 year dormant football programs. Each highschool received a player ambassador from the Toronto Argonauts. Jordan Younger, CFL all-star corner back and ambassador to the C.W. Jefferys Saints, says he hopes to invest his time, energy, and knowledge of the game into the inexperienced but earnest team. I watched from the Saints' sidelines as animated Younger took over position as coach for the day. Down at half and in the centre of the huddle, he rallied with the words, "it's anybody's game!" Inspirational words for a team that needs to hear them--poignant thoughts for a school trying to make a comeback from its violent past.

On May 23rd, 2007, Jordan Manners, a student at C.W. Jefferys, was shot and killed by a fellow student in his school hallway. Over two years and a football program later, the school and its students are unrecognizable. "We noticed that we don't have a lot of students just wandering the hallways and just fooling around," teacher Eshan Jahangirvand says. "They're more dedicated and more focused on school."

The transformation has even reached once problem student, Jeffrey. "He has developed to become a captain on our team," Jahangirvand beams. "He's developed so much that other teachers have come up and said 'Oh, wow! This change is so exceptional that we don't understand what you have done to him.' Football is a big change in that."

Retired Toronto Argonaut, Chuck Winters, knows first hand the power of football to change lives. Growing up in the projects of Detroit, he lost two family members to violence. Winters says sports was his outlet that kept him safe, but it was his faith that kept him alive. "I wouldn't be here. Period. I wouldn't be walking this earth. Because there were times when I thought about taking my life because of the fact that it was just so difficult and that's all I had to lean on."

Now working in a youth correctional facility in Milton, Ontario, Winters hopes to make interceptions of another kind, hearts and minds. While he admits that most of the draw from the talent pool in football seems to come from the U.S., he believes there's a lot of untapped talent here in Canada. "So I try to get them to understand the value of what sports can do (for them) because I saw what it did for me."

Football is a game ripe with spiritual analogy

Born and raised in the buckle of the Bible belt (Oklahoma) and in the heart of college football country, I understand Lewis' puzzlement. All the prayers offered up to God in the hopes of a win have often turned up futile when the scoreboard reads a disappointing loss. Many of the prayers of protection seem to have gone unanswered as a player limps off with injury to the sidelines. I've watched as the men on the field take a knee in the end zone to thank God for a run scored or a pass caught. Where does God fit between the option play and the buttonhook? Many Christians believe God should be involved in all of the details. So why wouldn't He also be allowed in between the first and second down of a game that makes up so much of a part of their identity?

My brother, recruited to play quarterback for a Division II NCAA football team, once said that God and football are indivisible because of the extraordinary faith it takes to believe in both. "A person is lucky if he even has one person he can truly trust. On the football field, a player is expected to trust not one, two, or even three guys--but 10 guys to do their job in order to be successful."

In a pivotal turning point in
The Blind Side, Leigh Anne Tuohy, played by actress Sandra Bullock, echoes my brother's thoughts. "This team is your family, Michael." Oher, slowly learning a new definition for "family" and what it means to protect those you love, applied that to his position at left tackle. Even the best highlight reel couldn't begin to cover how that moment would change his life forever.

What a game, what a life...At third and inches, it will take more than talent to get you through to that first down. You'll also need pure, driven heart and soul, a good O-line, and possibly, a little prayer.