Monday, May 17, 2004

In the beginning, there was the word. And the word was … well, louder than Mark Brunell expected.

“Y’all need to go to Bible study,” came the voice, rumbling across the locker room. “Y’all need to go and listen to the Gospel.”

Slipping into a dry shirt, Brunell didn’t know what to think. As a born-again Christian, he was familiar with chapter and verse; as a clipboard-toter for the Green Bay Packers, he figured the clubhouse was for playbooks, not the Good Book.

Again came the booming baritone, subtle as a burning bush.

“Y’all not listening to me,” bellowed defensive end Reggie White. “Because I’m talking about something that you don’t like. Why y’all going to the parties? Why y’all doing these things when you won’t even open your Bible?”

Almost a decade later, Brunell recalls White’s impromptu sermon with a grin. He laughs at the thought of his former teammate, a Hall of Fame pass rusher and ordained minister, channeling Billy Graham by way of Barry White. He laughs at his younger self, no stranger to heartfelt evangelism, but amazed by White’s brio.

Mostly, though, Brunell laughs at the implausible scene: a quarterback-cruncher preaching peace, like a 300-pound Jesus amid the football grit.

“I was in shock,” Brunell says. “But that was Reggie. He was very outspoken. Very bold. He was a great example.”

Of course, Washington’s newest quarterback wouldn’t dream of calling a similar audible, any more than he’d lug two heaven-sent stone tablets into Redskins Park, then castigate Clinton Portis for worshipping the golden calf (hey, $13 million in upfront guarantees can buy a lot of Mammon). Still, deep religious convictions inform every aspect of Brunell’s life. Football included.

When Brunell lost his job to Jacksonville rookie Byron Leftwich last season, he saw it as part of a larger divine plan. When he signed a seven-year, $43 million deal with Washington, he tithed a hefty portion to his church. When magnetic resonance imaging indicated that he might miss the 1997 season with a knee injury, Brunell asked God to heal him — and subsequently posted a career-high 91.2 passing rating.

“I believe God answered my prayer,” Brunell says. “I’m not a football player who happens to be a Christian. I’m a Christian who happens to be a football player. I could be a doctor, a teacher. But this is what God has called me to do.”

• • •

Pray for a knee. God heals it. Pray for a win. God grants it. Score a touchdown, point to the sky and give thanks to your main man — J.C. It all seems a bit sanctimonious, as if the maker is a spiritual ATM and Notre Dame’s victories come courtesy of Touchdown Jesus. But don’t get the wrong idea. The way Brunell tells it, the life of a sports believer isn’t all water into wine.

Faith? That’s the easy part.

“A lot of people are looking just for that moment [of being born again], thinking if they get it, then they go to heaven,” Brunell says. “It’s what comes after that’s tough. A verse in the Bible says you’ve got to produce fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Growing up in Santa Maria, Calif., Brunell knew all about the Bible. And even more about ignoring it.

A gifted high school athlete, he was, in his words, the “worst kind of Christian” — not a bad kid, but simply a typical one, more concerned with fitting in than finding God. At the University of Washington, Brunell joined a fraternity and partied like it was 1989. His grades began to slip, as did his athletic focus.

“I was a mess, living the wrong way,” he says. “I didn’t like myself very much.”

Craving change, Brunell saw a flier for a Christian campus-outreach program. As a former University of Southern California football captain extolled the virtues of Jesus, Brunell felt born again. He embraced his faith, curtailed his carousing and distanced himself from his hard-living friends. On the field, he blossomed into a pro prospect, helping the Huskies to three Rose Bowls; off the field, he met his future wife, Stacy, a cross-country runner.

“I was becoming the person God wanted me to be,” Brunell says.

Some teammates didn’t understand. They mocked Brunell’s newfound piety. Where was the swagger, the toughness? Blessed are the meek. Turn the other cheek. Yeah, right. Godly athletes are soft.

Years later, Brunell heard the same whispers in Jacksonville. It irks him.

Brunell points to White, whose pass-rushing club move packed the punch of a cast-iron skillet. He points to best friend and former Jacksonville teammate, Tony Boselli, a punishing tackle who played on the black-and-blue edge of National Football League rules. He even points to Jesus, who, it should be noted, threw out parables and temple money changers with equal aplomb.

“[If] Jesus [played football], who knows? He’d probably be a linebacker,” Brunell says. “He was much tougher than people give him credit for.”

• • •

Springtime at Redskins Park. Brunell wears a T-shirt and jeans, neatly trimmed hair topping a rugged face that hearkens back to the NFL’s Jurassic period. Species: homo quarterbackus. By nature, he’s an agreeable sort. But squeezably Charmin-like? No way. Not after 2,226 rushing yards and three Pro Bowl berths over 11 seasons. Not after taking more teeth-rattling shots than Mike Tyson against Lennox Lewis.

“I’ve never seen a guy put on that helmet more injured than Mark,” says Byran Schwartz, a former Jaguars linebacker. “I’ve seen him have more courage than anyone, with injuries no one even knew about.”

A pro signal caller is like a gazelle being chased by cheetahs — even at full speed, he’s only one bad game ahead of disaster. And religion can fan the talk-radio flames. In February, Kurt Warner intimated that his devotion to Bible study played a role in his benching. Though the St. Louis quarterback later retracted his remarks, dubbed “incomprehensible” by Rams coach Mike Martz, the implication lingered: Put God before football, and the latter suffers.

“I know Kurt,” Brunell says. “When it comes to being a pro, he gives as much time as necessary. But he’s going to be involved in Bible study. Faith is much more important to him. Honestly, very few guys put football number one. They have wives, family, careers after football.”

Brunell’s philosophy? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Film rooms are for study. Church is for prayer. Home is for his wife and four children. The game’s inherent violence doesn’t trouble him. Nor does football’s Sunday afternoon stranglehold.

In March, Pope John Paul II complained that activities such as sports were causing Sundays to lose their “fundamental meaning.” Recently, Brunell received a letter from a fan pleading that NFL games be moved to another day.

“No way,” he says. “I do agree that there needs to be a Sabbath. But that’s just a day of rest. As a player, mine comes on Tuesday.”

Other subjects are thornier. Brunell could do without the league’s sudsy sponsorships, like the gargantuan Budweiser signs in Jacksonville’s Alltel Stadium. Then there’s the issue of humility. A virtue, according to Jesus. And potentially a vice, at least when there’s two minutes left and 80 yards to go.

“It’s a fine line,” Brunell says. “When those guys look at you in the huddle, you’ve got to have a demeanor and attitude they can be motivated by. But that doesn’t have to compromise who you are as a Christian.”

Before every game, Brunell prays to play his best. He also prays for victory. Some days (‘97 Pro Bowl most valuable player) are better than others (122 yards passing, three sacks in his final full game with the Jaguars).

“Honestly, I don’t know if God cares so much about who wins,” Brunell says. “But I know he cares about the individuals who play the game.”

A sense of the divine has helped Brunell cope with the game’s letdowns. Like four straight losing seasons with the Jaguars. Two near-misses in the AFC title game. Watching Leftwich take his spot, all the while nursing a surgically repaired elbow that wouldn’t stop bleeding. After his demotion to third string at the end of last season, Brunell feared the worst.

O, ye of little faith.

“Then I land [in Washington], in a position to be the starting quarterback,” he says. “Even when I’m down, God allows me to keep going. [He] has a plan for my life.”

• • •

It looks like any other house of worship. But there’s something unique about Jacksonville’s Southpoint Community Church.

“It’s the first church to come out of a pro team,” says Greg Ball, the president and co-founder of Champions for Christ, a national athletic ministry that counts Brunell, A.C Green and former Redskin Darrell Green among its members.

In May of 1996, Brunell and his wife invited a few teammates to their Jacksonville home for a barbecue and Bible study. Mr. Ball gave a sermon; the next morning, Boselli and Schwartz were baptized in Brunell’s swimming pool.

“We all got converted,” Schwartz recalls.

The group continued to meet — once a month, twice a month, every week. Too large for Brunell’s living room, they gathered at a nearby Marriott. Brought in a full-time pastor. Broke ground on a new building. Today, Southpoint boasts nearly 1,200 members.

“At one point, we probably had 20 percent of the guys on the team attending,” Brunell says. “I never expected it.”

Nor did he expect controversy. In 1998, Chicago Bears rookie Curtis Enis experienced a religious conversion after meeting with Mr. Ball. Enis promptly fired his agent and signed with Greg Feste, Mr. Ball’s close friend and Brunell’s financial adviser. The move raised eyebrows around the NFL, in part because Boselli had previously lost $250,000 to John W. Gillette Jr., a religious con artist who swindled more than two dozen professional players out of $11 million. League investigators and the national press descended upon Jacksonville.

“It looked bad,” Brunell says. “Unless you knew what was going on, it looked real bad.”

Though Enis later fired Mr. Feste, no evidence of wrongdoing emerged. Brunell, Mr. Ball and Mr. Feste remain close. In fact, Brunell, Mr. Feste and a handful of other current and former NFL players make up the ownership group of the Austin Wranglers, a new Arena league team in Texas.

“It’s not a faith-based thing at all,” Brunell says. “It’s an investment opportunity that better work.”

Brunell’s other works are largely charitable. His eponymous foundation has raised more than $800,000 for a Jacksonville children’s hospital. In 2002, he was named the NFL’s Humanitarian of the Year. He frequently speaks at Christian and family-oriented events and may follow Boselli and Schwartz into ministry. Mr. Ball envisions him in politics.

“Mark doesn’t like when I say that,” Mr. Ball says. “But he has the grace on him to deal with difficult situations. He handles pressure with a cool spirit.”

Good thing. After all, Brunell has a starting job to win. New teammates to win over. A title to chase. Like White, a marquee newcomer who helped his club reach the promised land of the Super Bowl, the quarterback can’t help but share his convictions. Yet unlike his former teammate, he’ll let his play — and his life — do the talking.

“Mark never preached to me, never whipped the Bible out,” says Schwartz, now a minister in Texas. “It was just his life being lived out before me. When you’re in darkness and you see light, you’re attracted to it.”

Sometimes, actions speak louder than words. The Word, too.

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