- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 5, 2018

LYNCHBURG, Va. — Some sports fans may think professional athletes live a charmed life. The money, the fame, the opportunity to play a game for a living.

In reality, many struggle with obstacles in their personal and spiritual life like anyone else, and some seek guidance from an infrequently-discussed member of their organizations: the team chaplain.

Liberty University hosted six current and former chaplains for NFL and MLB teams Wednesday, during the school’s Convocation at the Vines Center, for a half-hour conversation centered on the chaplains’ roles within their organizations and stories of challenges and successes in their ministry.

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“Quite frankly, in some places (chaplains) are just tolerated,” said Corwin Anthony, executive director of pro ministries for Athletes in Action (AIA) and a former chaplain for the Miami Dolphins. “There’s some chaplains that are fully integrated and fully supported and they’re encouraged to be around all the time. They have great ministry. And there are other chaplains who are just lucking it out — (they walk) into the facility and they don’t know who’s for them and who’s against them.”

Around 13,000 Liberty students in attendance heard from four current team chaplains: Johnny Shelton (Baltimore Ravens), LaMorris Crawford (Cincinnati Bengals), Doug Gilcrease (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and George McGovern (New York Yankees). They were joined by Anthony and Phillip Kelley, a full-time AIA missionary and former chaplain for the Kansas City Chiefs.

AIA provides some NFL teams with chaplains, and Anthony, a former college tight end, has become familiar with the varied ways teams approach spiritual ministry. He said about a third of NFL teams give their chaplains an “all-access pass” to the organization, which he feels is important for allowing players and staff to reach out.

“Because you have all-access … you’ll have guys come up and say, ‘Hey, I need to talk,’” Anthony said. “My prayer, my role and all of our desire is to see every team value this role so much that they give their chaplains full access to serve throughout the entire organization.”

David Nasser, Liberty’s senior vice president for spiritual development, moderated the discussion. He said only three NFL team chaplains are paid by their organization, including Shelton by the Ravens. The rest are not on payrolls and usually take on supplementary ministries for support.

The NFL team chaplains were in town for their annual two-day retreat. Kelley, a Liberty alumnus, said the chaplains rely on each other as a “brotherhood,” which can be important when a player who needs ministry changes teams.

“If we have taken a guy from an atheist, let’s say, to kind of he’s accepting a little bit of the truth and then he gets traded, I don’t want him just to get thrown to the wolves,” Kelley said. “So we’ll make a phone call (to the new team’s chaplain) and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got such and such coming your way. I trust you that you’re gonna take the next step in his discipleship process.’”

McGovern, formerly a football chaplain before joining the Yankees, said a common thread in the challenges athletes face is adversity, especially in the form of injury. McGovern was the New York Jets’ chaplain in 1992 when Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd became paralyzed after a collision on the field.

McGovern was in the intensive care unit for Byrd, alongside just Byrd’s pregnant wife and one team trainer, when Byrd first regained consciousness. He asked to pray, and as McGovern tells it, Byrd began weeping as they did.

“He said, ‘Do you want to know why I’m crying?’ We said, ‘Sure, Den, what’s going on?’ He said, ‘I’m crying because I’m remembering that Jesus Christ died for my sins,’” McGovern said.

Because injuries can derail careers, players need to have a stronger foundation and identity than their sports, Gilcrease said.

“Football’s a great career, but it’s a really bad foundation, because it can be taken from you like that,” Gilcrease said. “I just (tell players), ‘In my opinion, the best foundation anyone can have is Jesus Christ.’”

There are other pitfalls besides injury. One player Kelley helped used to pay 13 mortgages due to what Kelley called “leeches” using the player for his money.

The average NFL career lasts just longer than three years, but Shelton’s approach to ministry is predicated on maintaining relationships with certain men that last long after their playing days are over.

“It’s a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ league. But when you build relationships, it’s gonna manifest something that’s gonna last a lifetime,” Shelton said. “It doesn’t matter what team you’re on — we’re all on God’s team.”

Before Convocation, the chaplains met with Liberty’s football team between lifting sessions Tuesday afternoon. Ed Gomes, Liberty football’s director of spiritual development and de facto team chaplain since 2000, said the chaplains had a few core messages for the team: Remember that “your identity is in Christ,” enjoy your college experience and get as much out of it as you can, athletically or otherwise.

“Be teachable. If there are character flaws, if there are areas in your life that are out of control, this is the time to do something about them,” Gomes said.

Gomes said that 42 Liberty players meet with him on a weekly basis to talk about a host of issues. He wants them to live by a motto of “whole person development,” a balance of the athletic, academic, spiritual and social components of their lives.

“Hearing these NFL chaplains talk to our guys, it was an encouragement to me, because some of the same things that they’re talking about on that level are the same things we’re talking about on our level,” Gomes said.

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