PHOENIX – When medical personnel rushed onto the field to save Damar Hamlin’s life after the Buffalo Bills’ defensive back collapsed during a game last month in Cincinnati, many people witnessing the horrifying scene did the only thing they could to help. They prayed.
Players and coaches from both teams took a knee, held hands and through tear-filled eyes called on God to heal their fallen brother.
Fans inside the stadium and millions of viewers watching at home did the same, sharing and posting their prayers on social media. In a moment of fear and desperation, prayer took center stage in the NFL.
Over the next few days, #PrayForDamar was trending. Hamlin’s family and friends requested more prayers while he was hospitalized and after his release. Faith was back at the forefront in the NFL for the first time since praying on the field was referred to as Tebowing.
“They were impacted because they were seeing themselves,” Philadelphia Eagles chaplain Ted Winsley told The Associated Press. “They were smacked in the face with the reality of what this is. Damar was in that situation but that could be me. They were feeling for him but it reminded them that this is life or death. … And then it also causes you to come to grips with the fact that there is someone greater than me I have to trust in."
Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, who has established a Christ-centered culture in the organization, was pleased to see prayer emphasized during a difficult time.
“We're very happy to see Damar doing well and it was very comforting to see a huge outpouring of support for him and people turning to God in what was a very scary time," Hunt told the AP. "One of the things I’ve enjoyed about being associated with the NFL is all the locker rooms I’ve been in, God is always there. Players pray before the game, they pray after the game. So that wasn’t unusual in that regard but I think you saw more fans, more media recognizing the importance of prayer in a situation like that.”
Hamlin believes there was a greater purpose for his pain.
“What happened to me … is a direct example of God using me as a vessel to share my passion and my love directly from my heart with the entire world,” Hamlin said in a video.
Public display of faith is nothing new in football or sports. It started long before Tim Tebow and is part of each game.
The late Herb Lusk is considered the first NFL player to pray on the field. Lusk was a little-used tailback for the Eagles when he ran 70 yards for a touchdown against the New York Giants on Oct. 9, 1977.
Lusk had already scored on a 1-yard run in that game. After his second score, he took a knee in the end zone and prayed.
“I said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’” Lusk recalled years later. “And then I said to myself, ‘It’s about time.’”
Lusk never scored another touchdown and quit playing two years later to pursue ministry. Pastor Lusk led Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia for 40 years until he died last September at age 69. Lusk also served as the chaplain for Eagles coaches for about 17 years. Winsley, who has been the players’ chaplain for over 20 years, now fills both roles.
Hamlin’s recovery inspired a spiritual awakening among his teammates. In Buffalo’s first game after the incident, Nyheim Hines returned two kickoffs for TDs. It had a profound effect on Bills star quarterback Josh Allen.
“I was just going around to my teammates saying, ‘God’s real,’” Allen said about his reaction when Hines scored.
Players understand God doesn't have a rooting interest but they found comfort in feeling his presence in that moment.
Many players struggle with success and failure. It’s difficult for some to deal with temptations away from the field. When it’s over, transitioning to life after football isn’t easy. Team chaplains try to help players better handle whatever comes their way, positive and negative.
“My main message is helping athletes realize that their life is more than their sport,” Denver Broncos chaplain Reza Zadeh told the AP. “Sport is what they do. It’s not who they are. A football player is just simply what their vocation is, but it’s not their identity."
Hall of Fame defensive lineman Reggie White — a former Eagles, Packers and Panthers player known as the “Minister of Defense” — is credited with starting the postgame prayer circle at midfield in the 1980s. Now, it’s common to see players come together, hold hands and pray immediately after spending three hours hitting and tackling each other.
“Regardless of winning or losing, or good or bad, it would be to honor God, that he would get the glory and that it’s about him, not about me,” Tebow told the AP.
Jaguars kicker Riley Patterson made sure he did just that last month after kicking the game-winning field goal to cap Jacksonville’s 31-30 comeback victory over the Chargers in an AFC wild-card game.
Patterson held his cross necklace in front of cameras while teammates lifted him on their shoulders.
“I was making sure that not I, but he gets the glory for any action that I have here,” Patterson said on the AP Pro Football Podcast. “Nothing that I’ve done or my family will do is anything but a gift from God. … I’ve prayed many times that if I ever got in that situation that I would praise God with my actions and my words."
Winsley was part of a unique team that had a strong faith culture in 2017. The Eagles won the first Super Bowl in franchise history that season. The foundation for the team’s success was built by men of faith like Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, Carson Wentz, Zach Ertz, Trey Burton, Jordan Hicks and others.
Winsley and Burton baptized players in the cold tub at the team’s practice facility in 2016. Through weekly Bible studies together, a close-knit group of men bonded over their faith and overcame plenty of adversity on their way to a championship.
These Eagles (16-3) are one win away from another Super Bowl title. They’ll face the Kansas City Chiefs (16-3) on Sunday.
Winsley has watched them grow and develop in their faith journey throughout the year. Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is a steady presence at the weekly sessions for coaches.
“We’re just brothers trying to be better men and it’s creating a culture that I believe will remain,” Winsley said.
Eagles QB Jalen Hurts, a finalist for AP NFL MVP, cited his favorite Bible verse when answering a question about criticism after leading the team to a 31-7 victory in the NFC championship over San Francisco.
“It was a big surprise to many,” Hurts said about the Eagles drafting him in 2020. “My favorite verse, I went through a lot of stuff in college and it kind of stuck with me, John 13:7: ‘You may not know now but later you’ll understand.’ Hopefully people understand.”
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